• Dr. Erin Avery

Should I take the new SAT or the ACT?

A year ago, in March 2016, the College Board debuted its revamped, or as they prefer to call it “redesigned” SAT. Many experts believe that the impetus behind the redesign was to keep it more competitive with the ACT, which has been gaining traction in recent years as the preferred college readiness test among high school students. The ACT was seen as the fairer test, more closely based on what students should be learning in high school while the SAT was criticized for its trick math questions, its confusing structure, and its obscure vocabulary. The College Board responded to these complaints with a new and improved SAT.

Now, students are asking which test should they be taking as part of their college application — the new SAT or the ACT? Keep in mind that the new SAT returned to its original 400-1600 scaled score, so a perfect 1600 on the new SAT is the equivalent of a perfect 36 on the ACT. While experts say that the new SAT is more straightforward and more similar to the ACT in format and subject matter, there are still some important differences to consider before making your decision.

In addition to the returning to its original 400 -1600 point scale, the new SAT is like the ACT in two major respects. First, there is no longer a wrong answer penalty, so intelligent guessing is encouraged. Second, the SAT essay portion is now optional. The does not have a separately designated Science section, but science/graph analysis questions appear in the math and reading sections of the exam.

Here is a brief comparison of the SAT and ACT by section:

Reading Sections. The new SAT Reading section consists of only one long section of 52 questions with an allotted time of 65 minutes. This section includes only longer passages and no longer contains sentence completions (SAT analogy questions had already been eliminated years ago), making it more similar to ACT Reading. Unlike the ACT, its questions follow the same order as information in the paragraph. The ACT reading section is much shorter. The student is given 35 minutes to answer 40 questions. The ACT focuses more on reading comprehension, while the new SAT focuses on analyzing specific concepts and understanding how the authors construct their arguments.

Writing Sections. The new SAT Writing section utilizes the same passage-based format as the ACT English section, and now includes more grammatical concepts ,including punctuation, that was not tested before the redesign. Although both tests give roughly the same amount of time, the ACT asks almost twice as many questions. For SAT Writing, students are asked to answer 44 questions in 35 minutes while ACT English expects 75 questions to be answered in 45 minutes.

Math Sections. The new SAT Math section has been redesigned to be more straightforward and focus on the math that students are taking high school instead of quirky, tricky questions that often had a “backdoor” solution. The new SAT has a heavy emphasis on algebra and data analysis. The ACT Math section includes far more geometry and trigonometry, and, unlike the SAT, does not provide a table of formulas. The new SAT allows more time for the Math section, but the questions are more challenging, and includes both calculator and no-calculator allowed portions. The new SAT Math portion consists of 20 no-calculator questions in 25 minutes and 38 calculator-allowed questions in 55 minutes. The ACT Math portion is one section containing 60 questions to be completed in 60 minutes, and allows the use of a calculator throughout the section, which may favor those students who are calculator-dependent. The ACT Math section is all multiple choice while the new SAT still retains some “grid-in” format questions, 13 of them, to be exact, and they all appear at the end of the two sections (4 in the no calculator section and 8 in the calculator allowed section).

Essay sections. The new SAT and the ACT are similar. They are both given about the same amount of time. To answer one prompt, the new SAT allows 50 minutes while the ACT allows 40 minutes. The essays are both optional, so the decision to take the essay depends of the admission requirements of the colleges to which you are applying. In the new SAT, you’ll be asked to evaluate an argument, and according to the College Board, “you can count on seeing the same prompt no matter when you take the new SAT with Essay, but the passage will be different every time.” On the ACT, you must come up with your own argument and support it.

So, those are the key differences, but which test should you take?

Sorry, it’s not that easy! The question is not which is the better test because both of them have their advantages and disadvantages depending on the student. The real issue is is best for YOU. The better test is the one most aligned to the testing style your prefer, the types of questions, in short, the better test is the one that gives you the strongest competitive edge in the Admissions Office by maximizing your strengths and presenting you in the most favorable light.

Here are some things you should consider:

Factors that favor the SAT:

  1. It is still a critical thinking test, emphasizes creative thinking over memorizing content.

  2. Many students consider it to be the “easier” of the two once you factor in the scaled score (both tests are graded on a curve).

  3. If you are a slower test-taker, the new SAT may be a better option, as it is far less time intensive and allows more time per problem.

Factors that favor the ACT:

  1. If you are able to stay focused for longer periods of time and work at a fast pace, the ACT might be your best bet. 

  2. There is currently much more practice material available for the ACT, and its content is presented in a consistent manner.

To decide which test to take, obtain a copy of both exams. Examine the rules, format, and questions in depth. Often, one testing style will resonate with you over the other. Once you have decided which test would be a better fit, start preparing as early as possible for the exam. There is one steadfast rule that applies equally to both tests: Focused, productive preparation is necessary for you to maximize your score.

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