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Q&A: SAT or ACT?

Q: I’m rather confused with all the changes in the SAT and ACT. Can you advise what the changes are and which one my son should take?



A: Dear Michelle,

Starting in March 2016, College Board will be administering the new SAT, which will be quite different from the previous version. The ACT largely remains the same, except for some changes in the optional writing test, which rolled out in September 2015. In our opinion, the new SAT has become remarkably similar to the ACT. Here’s a side-by-side comparison:


Previous SAT New SAT ACT
Test Structure 10 sections:

  • 3x Critical Reading
  • 3x Math (calculator)
  • 3x Writing (includes 1 required essay)
  • 1x Experimental  (unscored)
4 sections:

  • Evidence-Based Reading (65 min)
  • Writing & Language (35 min)
  • Math – no calculator (25 min)
  • Math – calculator (55 min)

Plus an optional Essay (50 min)

4 Tests:

  • English (45 min)
  • Math (60 min)
  • Reading (35 min)
  • Science  (35 min)

Plus an optional Writing Test
(1 essay, 40 min)

Score Range Total: 600-2400

  • Critical Reading 200-800
  • Writing 200-800
  • Math 200-800
Total: 400-1600

  • Evidence-Based Reading & Writing 200-800
  • Math : 200-800

Optional Essay scored separately

Composite: 1-36

  • English: 1-36
  • Math: 1-36
  • Reading: 1-36
  • Science : 1-36

Optional Writing scored separately

Timing 3 hours 45 minutes 3 hours (plus 50 minutes for optional essay) 2 hours 55 min (plus 40 minutes for optional essay)
Penalty for Guessing -¼ points per wrong answer No penalty No penalty


Which one should your son take?

Our view is to take the ACT simply because there’s no reason to risk being a guinea pig for the New SAT, which will undoubtedly be an evolving work-in-progress for the College Board throughout 2016. Moreover, it’s unclear how universities will be interpreting the results. Preparation for the ACT is much more straightforward as there’s a lot more preparation materials available that have been tried and tested.

That said, it’s still important to weigh in some key factors before jumping to a final decision:

  • The New SAT does not have a science section. Note, though, that the ACT science section doesn’t really test science. It tests student’s ability to logically process information presented in writing, graphs, and charts. Either way, if your son is weak in this area or simply dislikes science, then the New SAT would be more suitable for him.
  • The ACT allows students to use the calculator throughout the test, and all answers are multiple choice. The New SAT has a non-calculator section and also some grid-ins. So if your son prefers being able to use the calculator throughout, and being able to guess from the multiple choice answers, then the ACT would be more suitable for him.
  • The timing of the New SAT is more comfortable, whereas the ACT forces students to work a bit faster. So if pacing is a concern, then the New SAT might suit him better.
  • There are only 6 test dates per year for the ACT and SAT respectively. So if your son is planning to take the SAT Subject Tests as well, then taking the ACT will open him up to more test date options. In other words, he has 12 tests dates to take (and re-take) the ACT and SAT Subject Tests, but only 6 test dates to share across the SAT Reasoning Test and Subject Tests.

Still can’t decide?

Ask your son to spend an hour or two looking at the two tests. Then have him take a mock in the one he feels more comfortable with. If needed, take mock tests in both to see which he does better in. Regardless of your test choice, do take the mock test ASAP so you can identify the gap between his mock with his target test scores. He will likely need all the time in between to prepare accordingly.

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