Comparing the ACT and new SAT: Which should I choose?
We are frequently asked by our students whether they should take the ACT, the SAT, or both. In light of the launch of the revamped SAT this past spring, we offer the following comparison of the two exams, which can help guide students toward the one that is right for them.
Testing time – overall
The required portions of the new SAT constitute a significantly shorter test than the old version—3 hours on the dot versus 3 hours and 45 minutes. For students electing to take the optional SAT writing section, your total testing time will be bumped to 3 hours and 50 minutes, a touch longer than the previous test. The ACT, sans optional writing, remains a 2 hour and 55 minute exam. With writing, it will take you 3 hours and 35 minutes.
In short, the tests are now pretty much—give or take a few inconsequential minutes—the same length.
Time per question
The ACT offers longer sections and shorter time intervals, so speed and time management are important to scoring high. Test-takers must complete 215 questions or one question every 49 seconds to finish the exam.
The new SAT is just 154 questions in length, translating to 1 minute and 10 seconds per question. However, the revamped test’s questions are quite reading-intensive, even on the math section, meaning that the extra time is less a case of charity and more one of necessity.
To calculate or not to calculate…
Both tests require a strong grasp of arithmetic, algebra, and geometry. However, the ACT also includes more advanced math concepts, such as trigonometry, logarithms, and imaginary numbers. If you haven’t aced your advanced math courses in high school, the SAT Math section may present as the more friendly option.
On the other side, if your calculation skills are weak, the SAT may present as more of a challenge. While the longer math section (38 questions) allows you to use a calculator, there is a shorter section (20 questions) where no calculator is permitted. It’s important to note that the calculation skills required are not particularly advanced. The SAT has shifted its focus toward data analysis skills over pure mathematics.
Obviously, the SAT dropping its mandatory writing section is a big change. Both tests are now on equal footing in that regard. The content of each writing test is also quite similar sporting a primary focus on grammatical mastery and writing skills. The SAT asks students to evaluate an already-composed written work for structure, presentation of logical arguments, and usage of evidence. The ACT revised their writing section as well, which now asks students to analyze three perspectives on a given issue (i.e. the value of the Arts in public education).
Most schools do not require submission of ACT or SAT writing score. A few selective institutions such as Yale, all schools in the University of California system, Duke, Claremont McKenna, and Emory require the writing section on either test. Submission of a writing score is recommended at quite a few institutions of the highly-selective variety, including Amherst, Colby, and Georgia Tech as well as some moderately selective schools like the University of Delaware, the University of Kentucky, and Simmons College in Boston.
Remember, the ACT has a reading and English section. The English section focuses more on the mechanics of writing (grammar, syntax, rhetorical devices) and the reading section covers comprehension. Reading comprehension is essential to success on either standardized test. However, the SAT’s questions are more context-dependent and require a more complex problem-solving process than the ACT’s reading questions—hence the additional time allotted per question.
The College Board has scaled back the SAT’s heavy dose of highly obscure vocabulary words (consider lighting a candle for words like propinquity, lachrymose, and blowsy), making it more comparable to the ACT reading section. The passages presented on the SAT derive from sources you might find in an average high school classroom such as historical documents or a fictional piece by Hawthorne. The ACT relies more on contemporary sources and are more like what you would encounter in today’s newspaper.
Don’t let the Science label scare you away. The ACT Science section assesses graph/chart/research study interpretation and reading comprehension, rather than any specific content knowledge of biology, chemistry or physics. That being said, students who like science are usually less distracted by mentions of metamorphic rocks or RNA than science-avoidant students. Again, you don’t need to be a scientific scholar to excel on this test, but it’s worth taking multiple practice tests in order to get accustomed to wading through the jargon so you can focus on what the question is really assessing.
More similar than different
Make no mistake, the College Board was clearly reacting to the ACT’s exploding popularity with their March, 2016 overhaul. The SAT eliminated their penalty for guessing, dropped mandatory writing, and shelved obscure vocab words—all in an effort to be more competitive in the big-money industry of standardized testing.
As a result, the differences between the two tests are now more subtle and deciding which one to take involves a modified understanding of each, which hopefully you now possess. If you remain unsure which test is most tailored to your skill-set, we recommend taking a sample ACT and SAT under timed-conditions to see which one plays more to your strengths.
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent educational consultant. He is a co-author of the books The Enlightened College Applicant (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) and Colleges Worth Your Money (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).