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Help! Should I Take the ACT or the “New” SAT?

Updated: Mar 9

In recent years, many colleges and universities have decided to make the SAT and ACT optional for applicants. Still, if a student can excel on either test – and colleges and universities are indifferent to which test you take - there are at least two good reasons to submit test scores.

  1. A good score can enhance a college application.

  2. A good score may help make a student eligible for scholarship money.

For students who have decided to include standardized test scores with their college applications, a threshold question is whether to take the ACT or the SAT. There are significant differences between the two tests, and these differences have only increased with the SAT's recent change to fully digital. The College Board, which administers the SAT, says that a digital format will make the test more accessible, more secure, more relatable, and less stressful for students.

The "New" SAT

In addition to making the test digital-only, the College Board has shortened the SAT from 3 hours to 2 hours and 14 minutes. That makes it almost three quarters of an hour shorter than the ACT. Unsurprisingly, given its shorter length, the new SAT has far fewer questions - a total of only 98 questions vs. 215 questions on the ACT. According to the College Board, that gives students about 68% more time per question than on the ACT, which will be especially advantageous for students who struggle with time management or get fatigued easily.

The digital SAT also differs from the previous SAT and the ACT in another important way: It is what the College Board calls an “adaptive” test. By that, the College Board means that the level of difficulty of the 2nd section of Reading and Writing and the 2nd section of Math will adapt to the student’s performance on the first module. If a student answers enough questions correctly on the 1st module of Reading and Writing and Math, the student will be given a more difficult second module. A student who answers fewer questions correctly will move to a less difficult second module. In an effort to ensure fairness, the College Board plans to adjust the scoring so that a student tracked to a more difficult module has the potential for a higher score than a student who is tracked to a less difficult second module.

Certain aspects of the SAT will remain the same. It will still be scored on a 200-800 scale for each section. Accommodations will still be provided to qualifying students. And the subjects and topics tested within each section will remain essentially the same. Nonetheless, the new, digital SAT presents a stronger contrast to the ACT than did the old SAT. That may make it easier for students to decide on one test or the other.

ACT Sections vs. SAT Modules

There are other important differences between the two tests. The ACT consists of 4 sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science. In contrast, while the new SAT technically has 4 sections, it consists of only two types of sections – 2 Reading and Writing modules (the SAT refers to the sections as “modules”) followed by 2 Math modules. The new SAT combines the former English (which tested grammar, writing, and word and sentence usage) and Reading sections into a single module.

Reading and Writing on the ACT vs. SAT

Another key difference between the ACT and SAT concerns the format of the SAT Reading and Writing sections. Whereas the ACT (much like the former SAT) has a series of rather lengthy passages (usually 60-90 lines), each followed by 10 questions, the new SAT Reading and Writing section consists of much shorter passages, each followed by one question. The Reading and Writing module is also a mix of reading, grammar and punctuation questions. Students who don’t like having to remember the details of a long passage, or who do not like lots of grammar and punctuation questions, may prefer the new SAT format.

Math on the ACT vs. SAT

One way in which the ACT and SAT will now be more similar concerns the math section. Previously, the ACT permitted a calculator to be used for the entire math section, whereas the SAT had separate no calculator and calculator sections. Now, the SAT also permits use of a calculator for the entire math section of the test. That certainly will be a “plus” for many students.

I strongly encourage students to spend some time getting familiar with the ACT and the new SAT before making a decision. In my experience, after giving both tests a serious try, most students settle on one or the other. To assist students in their decision, the College Board, and its partner Khan Academy, have made many SAT practice materials and tests available online. And there are plenty of commercial prep materials available for both the ACT and the new SAT.

Struggling to get the test scores you want?

The Whole Kid can help! Our ACT & SAT prep tutoring programs are highly tailored to each student's strengths, goals and schedule. We've been helping students shine —and opening doors to best-fit colleges and to merit scholarships— for more than 20 years.


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