ACT originally stood for American College Testing but shortened its name simply to ACT in the mid nineties to reflect the broader base of services they began to offer.
Here's a question you won't find on the SAT (as printed by Time Magazine at time.com): What does SAT stand for? A) Scholastic Aptitude Test. B) Scholastic Assessment Test. C) Slimy and Atrocious Torture. D) Nothing.
If your answer was A you were correct, but not anymore. Scholastic Aptitude Test was deemed controversial many years ago because critics felt it only measured aptitude for aptitude tests and was not a true measure of college preparedness. If you answered C, well you too may be correct as a matter of opinion, but the correct answer is D. Just like the ACT, the SAT stands for nothing.
At Midwest College Counseling we recommend high school juniors take both tests and then focus on the one they feel most comfortable with. Here's what the Princeton Review has to say about the test differences.
ACT questions tend to be more straight forward. ACT questions are often easier to understand on a first read. On the SAT, you may need to spend time figuring out what you're being asked before you can start solving the problem. For example, here are sample questions from the SAT essay and the ACT writing test (their name of the essay):
SAT: What is your view of the claim that something unsuccessful can still have some value?
ACT: In your view, should high schools become more tolerant of cheating?
The SAT has a stronger emphasis on vocabulary. If you're an ardent wordsmith, you'll love the SAT. If words aren't your thing, you may do better on the ACT.
The ACT has a Science section and SAT does not. You don't need to know anything about amoebas or chemical reactions for the ACT Science section. It is meant to test your reading and reasoning skills based upon a given set of facts. But if you're a true science-phobe, the SAT might be a better fit.
The ACT tests more advanced math concepts. In addition to basic arithmetic, algebra I and II, and geometry, the ACT tests your knowledge of trigonometry, too. That said, the ACT Math section is not necessarily harder, since many students find the questions to be more straightforward than those on the SAT.
The ACT Writing Test is optional on test day, but required by many schools. The 25-minute SAT essay is required and is factored into your writing. The 30 minute ACT writing test is optional. If you choose to take it, it is not included in your composite score - schools will see it listed separately. Many colleges require the writing section of the ACT, so be sure to check with the schools where you are applying before opting out.
The SAT is broken up into more sections. On the ACT, you tackle each content area (English, Math, Reading and Science) in one big chunk, with the optional writing test at the end. On the SAT, the content areas (Critical Reading, Math and Writing) are broken up into 10 sections, with the required essay at the beginning. You do a little math, a little writing, a little critical reading, a little more math, etc. When choosing between the SAT and ACT, ask yourself if moving back and forth between content areas confuses you or keeps you energized.
The ACT is more of a "big picture" exam. College admissions officers care about how you did on each section of the SAT. On the ACT, they're most concerned with your composite score. So if you're weak in one content area but strong in others, you could still end up with a very good ACT score and thus make a strong impression with the admissions committee. (The Princeton Review)
Many schools Superscore, or take the best individual score from each test sitting and combine them to make a brand new score for the SAT. While once uncommon, many schools are now starting to Superscore the ACT as well. With regard to the ACT Writing Test, we recommend you take it if ANY of the schools to which you are applying require it. Your test results without the Writing Test will be no good for those schools and you might be stuck taking the test more times than you planned. Check each school's admission site carefully to find out their policies.
A new version of the SAT is planned to be unveiled in the Spring of 2016. The College Board has announced the revamped test will include fewer arcane vocabulary words that students will likely never see again, a math section that is better aligned with high school curriculum, and an essay section that might be more analytical in nature. Midwest College Counseling will keep you posted on the new SAT.