Last Updated On: March 30th, 2022
Both the SAT and ACT are 3+ hour exams, and both exams take usually 1 to 2 weeks for the individual score report to be released.
Both score reports come with percentile rank and other detailed information and breakdown per section; however, the two exams are different in the manner that the analysis is provided.
SAT is administered by CollegeBoard, whereas ACT is administered by ACT, Inc.
LA Tutors goes over the differences between SAT and ACT, and the inside scoop on how to prepare:
This blog will mostly focus on the score report and how to interpret them.
SAT score report:
The SAT score report is relatively straightforward and brief. It is only 1 to 2 pages long. A sample score report can be seen here.
The total score combines both the English and the Mathematics sections. The score is based on a scale of 400 to 1600, with 1600 being the “perfect” score. (It is possible to score a 1600 while missing one or even a few questions, depending on the difficulty of the exam that was administered.) Most students and parents tend to be fixated on the scaled score itself, when the percentile rank is arguably the more informative of the two. CollegeBoard provides a sample percentile breakdown here.
There are two types of percentiles listed on the SAT. The “Nationally Representative Sample Percentile” takes into account all high school students in the 11th and 12th grades–regardless of whether they take the SAT or not. The “SAT User Percentile” takes into account only the students who have taken the SAT within the academic calendar year.
The “Nationally Representative Sample Percentile” will always be higher than the “SAT User Percentile,” since students who are less academically inclined are more unlikely to take the SAT, ACT, or any other nationally administered standardized exam. On page 7 of the aforementioned percentile breakdown, a score of 1400 has a nationally representative percentile of 97 and a SAT user percentile of 93. A 90+ percentile is competitive for all but the toughest universities, regardless of whether the percentile is based off of all 11th and 12th graders, or for all SAT takers.
Test Scores–Raw Scores:
Unlike the SAT that was administered decades ago, there is no guessing penalty with the current SAT. Each correct response earns a point, and any omitted or missed response simply does not earn a point.
The “Reading” section and the “Writing and Language” sections are combined as the overall “English” score, but each subsection has a raw score of 40 that is scaled based on the percentage of correct answers versus total questions administered. If a student scores a 38 on “Reading” and a 36 on “Writing and Language,” one can assume that that student answered 95% of the “Reading” questions correctly and that the student answered 90% of the “Writing and Language” questions correctly. The Mathematics section is applied in a similar manner.
The question that I frequently get from students is this: “How many questions do I need to answer correctly in order to score X percentile or X score?” Based on my anecdotal experience, for both the SAT and the ACT, if a student answers approximately 80% of the questions correctly, it approximately translates to a 90th percentile for the “SAT User,” or around a 1350. If a student is able to answer approximately 90% of the questions correctly, that usually translates to a 95th percentile or higher, approaching the 1500s. It is crucial to remember this caveat: these are just estimates, and students’ actual scores will be based on their test day performance, along with the difficulty of the administered exam and how it’s scaled.
There are also cross-test scores and subscores listed on the bottom of the score report. Cross-test scores are based on the Reading and Writing/Language sections. As students and parents may know, the English section is an interdisciplinary section that tests students’ critical thinking skills beyond the English language. Like the Reading and Writing/Language sections, the cross-test scores have a raw score of up to 40. Unlike the aforementioned sections, this section is broken down into “Analysis of History/Social Sciences” and “Analysis in Science.”
The cross-test scores are more for the students’ and/or parents’ understanding: Is the student geared more toward the humanities or the sciences? Even if the student achieves his/her target score, this is informative, especially as the student gets ready for college applications and picks a major. Most importantly, in many of the students’ (and parents’) minds, college admissions officers usually do not look into the different cross-test scores, but will most likely take into account percentile rank amongst comparable peers and regions, more than the scaled score itself.
ACT Score Report:
The ACT score report is arguably more informative than the SAT score report. Even though it seems more self-explanatory than the SAT, the details of the score report may seem intimidating at first glance. A sample report by act.org is posted here and the ACT’s score report home page is here.
The ACT is broken down into four sections (English, Math, Reading, and Science), plus an optional writing section. Each required section is scaled from 1 to 36, with 36 being considered a perfect score. The writing score is scaled from 2 to 12, with 12 being considered a perfect score. The composite score is based on the average percentile of the four required sections, and not necessarily the “arithmetic mean” of the four scaled scores, which is why the hypothetical scores of 30 English, 28 Math, 26 Reading, and 24 Science may not equal a composite score of 27.
The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) score is derived from the Math and Science sections of the ACT. The ELA (English and Language Arts) score represents the student’s overall performance in the English, Reading, and Writing sections. Like the SAT, those subcategories are measured via percentile rank.
However, unlike the SAT, the ACT also categorizes those percentiles at the state level. This is one advantage of the ACT score report over the SAT score report, since different states have different levels of educational attainment, along with differences in the states’ curriculum and academic rigor. A 20 to 21 ACT composite score is considered the median (50th) percentile nationally.
For instance, a student scoring a 27 in Massachusetts may be considered slightly above average in that state (with a reported average of 26), while a student in Mississippi scoring a 23 may feel well above average in their home state, without realizing that the same student would only be considered average in California or Colorado, and well-below average of the Northeastern states. (The aforementioned link is for illustrative purposes only, as it is difficult to verify the source of the data; nonetheless, it still serves as an anecdotal example as to why “location matters.”)
The ACT also includes a “readiness range,” which indicates a minimum score required for students to have at least a 50% chance of earning a B or higher in an equivalent college curriculum or a 75% chance of earning a C or higher. Unfortunately, their methodology is opaque; that said, it is supposed to serve as an indicator to see if a student has the potential to keep up with the rigors of university coursework.
Lastly, unlike the SAT, the ACT score report does not give a percentile estimate of non-ACT test takers, so the state or national percentile may be an underestimate of the “actual” hypothetical percentile of all graduating high school students. However, I will demonstrate a way that students can extrapolate what their hypothetical “nationally representative percentile” can be.
How to compare SAT scores vs ACT scores:
Act.org provides data, compiled from 2018, regarding the SAT and ACT comparisons. For example, a student who scores a 33 on ACT Math earns an equivalent score of 740-750 on the SAT Mathematics section. If one refers to the previously-linked “Understanding SAT scores,” a 33 on the SAT is equivalent to a nationally representative 98th percentile and a 95th percentile of all SAT takers. Notice that a 740 and a 750 on the Mathematics section is virtually and statistically equivalent.
Although some universities are doing away with the standardized test requirement for college admissions, the detailed score report for both the SAT and ACT show insight into the student’s strengths and weaknesses, how he or she compares to other peers nationally and regionally, and can also assess the student’s potential for success in college and beyond.
It may be obvious to see that a student with higher ACT scores in Math and Science would fare a lot better as an engineering major than as an English literature major. However, it is almost certainly worth the time and effort for students to go over the respective score reports in greater detail, and to answer self-reflective questions such as “What are my chances of improving on my second retake?” “Is improving from a 1540 to a 1550 statistically significant?” “Even though I scored in the 90th percentile on the ACT in California, will I be academically competitive in an Ivy League school in the high-achieving Northeast, or will I fare better at State University and earn a higher GPA at an “easier” school, so I can increase my chances at a top-notch masters or doctorate program?”
Planning for college and beyond starts now, and the answers to these questions may be found with further analysis and insight into the SAT and ACT score reports.