The College Board released a redesigned SAT that made its debut in March 2016. This newly revamped SAT, which will impact students in the class of 2017 and beyond, has undergone its biggest change in decades.  While there have been modifications to the SAT’s format in the past, none have approached the scope and breadth of these recent changes. Because of this redesign in form and content, there is an important question for students to ask that was not necessarily given much thought prior to March 2016: Which test should I take — the new SAT or the ACT? Unfortunately, no one can definitively say which test is guaranteed to give you a higher score. It’s not that easy! Rather, the two tests are different in how they test college readiness. Depending on your particular strengths as a student and as a test-taker, one test may better reflect your abilities, resulting in a higher score.

Virtually all colleges accept either test as part of their admissions application. Despite what you may have heard, one test is not preferred over the other. In the past, where you happened to live influenced which test you were more likely to take. On the east and west coasts, more students took the SAT, and in the midwest, more students took the ACT. Over the past few years, the ACT has seen an overall increase in popularity. Nationwide, more students are now taking the ACT than the SAT. Some test experts believe that the motivation behind the College Board’s extensive revisions is to be more competitive with the ACT. 

SAT and ACT Overview

The new SAT is similar to the ACT in format and subject matter. However, when comparing the two tests, the consensus among educators and testing experts is that the ACT questions are more straightforward.  The multi-step SAT questions take more time to understand and answer. But that doesn’t mean the ACT is easier. The ACT is considered to have much more time pressure — more questions in less time. The SAT has 61 fewer questions on the test, 154 instead of 215, and allows, on average, an additional 21 seconds per question, 70 seconds instead of 49 seconds. Of course, some questions take more time to complete, and some less, but over the course of the test, this additional time can make a big difference for many students. With test-taking, there is nothing more frustrating than knowing the answers, but not having enough time to finish.

The new SAT has a lower composite maximum score, 1600 instead of 2400, because there is no longer a separately writing/mandatory essay section. Instead, the new SAT has “evidence-based reading and writing” section that includes two tests, a writing and language test and a reading test. The new SAT is a 3 hours and has 3 tests: a reading test (65 minutes); a writing and language test (35 minutes); and a math test (80 minutes). Following these tests, there is an optional 50-minute essay. The new SAT reports multiple scores: one composite score (400-1600 scale); two section scores (200-800 scale); three test scores (10-40 scale),; two cross-test scores (10-40 scale); and a mind-numbing seven subscores (1-15 scale). The two major SAT sections are “evidence-based reading and writing” and math. The three tests are reading, writing and language, and math. The two cross-test scores and seven subscores cluster test questions into even finer categories. It is unclear how college admissions offices will use and interpret these detailed subcategories. The ACT has approximately the same testing time. It is just under 3 hours (by 5 minutes) and consists of 4 separate tests: a reading test (35 minutes); an English test (45 minutes); a math test (60 minutes); and a science test (35 minutes). Following these tests, there is an optional 40-minute essay. The maximum score on the ACT is 36.  Like the ACT, the new SAT no longer has a wrong answer penalty and now has 4-answer multiple choice questions instead of 5-answer.

With the new SAT, there have been numerous changes to the sections themselves, not just with the overall structure of the test. Here’s a quick review and comparison of the individual SAT and ACT tests.

Reading Test

SAT Reading is now similar to ACT Reading. Both reading tests are entirely passage-based. On the SAT, there is no longer testing of vocabulary using sentence completion questions. Instead, vocabulary is tested using words-in-context questions in the passages. The good news for SAT-prepping students is that it is no longer necessary to  attempt to memorize lists of semi-obscure words in order to improve your score. The vocabulary on the new SAT are “high utility” commonly encountered words that you will see in college and in the workplace.  SAT Reading Test allows 65 minutes to answer 52 multiple-choice questions that are spread over five passages. Although it’s a long time to stay focused, there is much less time pressure. In contrast, ACT Reading is only a 35-minute test, a full half-hour shorter than the SAT. In that compressed amount of time, you are still expected to answer 40 questions that are spread over four passages. While ACT Reading focuses more on reading comprehension, SAT Reading focuses on analyzing specific concepts and understanding how the authors construct their arguments. For example, SAT reading includes challenging command of evidence questions that require higher-level reasoning skills.

Writing

SAT Writing uses the same passage-based format as ACT English, and includes more grammatical concepts, such as punctuation. In this section, the ACT asks almost twice as many questions! Even though SAT Writing is ten minutes shorter, 35 minutes instead of 45 minutes, it has 31 less questions, 44 instead of 75. If you are a slower-test taker, the SAT may be to your advantage.

Math

SAT Math test has been redesigned to be more straightforward. The test is now a traditional math test focusing on those math subjects covered in high school. SAT Math contains application-based, multi-step questions with a heavy emphasis on algebra and data analysis. Higher-level math concepts, including complex numbers and trigonometry, are also tested. SAT Math has  a calculator and a no-calculator portion that total 58 questions in 80 minutes. The 25-minute no calculator section has 20 questions. The longer 55-minute calculator allowed section has 38 questions. Except for 13 “grid-in” questions requiring students to enter their own answer, the questions are multiple-choice. ACT Math has 60 questions in 60 minutes, with a much heavier emphasis on geometry and trigonometry.  ACT Math has no calculator restrictions and all questions are multiple choice. Unlike the SAT, ACT Math does not provide a formula table. The SAT allows more time per question for math than the ACT, but the questions are more challenging. Many of the Math SAT questions are “real world” application problems that have supporting text to read and understand.

ACT Science

ACT Science allows only 35 minutes to answer 40 questions that are spread over 7 passages. This test is more accurately a data interpretation test since no specific science knowledge is assumed or tested. Many students have difficulty with ACT Science because of its extreme time pressure. The SAT has no separate science section. However, in SAT math, there are questions that require the interpretation of charts, graphs, and tables, and there are also data interpretation questions in the reading passages.

Essay Section

On the new SAT, like the ACT, the essay is optional and is scored separately from the rest of the test. The essay section is similar on both exams, and you are given about the same amount of time to answer one writing prompt. The new SAT allows 50 minutes; the ACT allows 40 minutes. The SAT Essay asks students to evaluate an argument, while the ACT Essay requires that you come up with your own argument and support it. It is important to find out whether colleges that you will be applying to require the essay portion before taking the test. If you decide to apply to a college that requires the essay and you opted out, you’ll need to retake the entire test, not just the essay.

So which test is best for you?

The SAT is still a challenging critical thinking test. Some feel the test is harder in some respects than the old SAT and is certainly harder to prep for short term to boost your score. For example, there were strategies you could learn to help answer the old SAT “tricky” math questions. When comparing the new SAT to the ACT, many consider the SAT to be the easier of the two, once you factor in the curve that places you in a percentile relative to other test-takers. However, the best advice to decide which test to take is for each individual student to choose the test that will give him or her the strongest competitive edge. If you work at a fast pace, the ACT might be your best bet. If you are a slower test-taker, the new SAT may be a better option. The SAT’s trade-off of less time pressure is that it requires you to stay focused for longer periods of time — the reading test requires that you concentrate for an exhausting 65 minutes. Also, the reading test has more challenging questions emphasize creative thinking over memorizing content, and the math test has longer multi-step problems. One important advantage of the ACT is with test preparation. The test has changed very little over the years, there is more practice material available, and its content is presented in a consistent manner.

To decide which test to take, obtain a copy of both exams and examine the rules, format, and questions in depth.  Take some practice tests and see which one you are more at ease with. Once you have decided which test would be a better fit, start preparing as early as possible. Long term preparation is necessary to maximize your score, and help you can present yourself in the best light to the admissions office. The little bit of sacrifice now is well worth it. As long as your scores are in the range of other admitted students for that college, you are in a great position to impress them with the rest of your application.