The ACT and the New SAT: Which Is Best for Your Students

How do you pick between the ACT and the SAT when you don’t even know what’s on them anymore? Sure, at first glance the changes to the New SAT make it look like they’re the same test. OK, maybe, not exactly the same – one has a separate science test, one has a no-calculator section, and they weigh the final scores differently. But other than that, everything looks alike, right? When you take the ACT or the SAT, whether you lost points for wrong answers, how long it takes to take the tests, what is typically on the tests – just look at how much they have in common!

What the ACT and the New SAT Have in Common

  •  Test Dates: Fall or Spring (both tests have testing days in the same time periods – basically October through June).
  • Points: You get a point for each correct answer. You do not lose points for wrong answers on either the ACT or the SAT.
  • Format: Sure, font and spacing are a little different. On the other hand, the passage formatting is practically identical, and multiple choice questions have the same number of options.
  • Time: They’re very close. For the SAT, you get 3 hours without the essay and 3 hours and 50 minutes with it. For the ACT, you get 2 hours and 55 minutes without the essay and 3 hours and 40 minutes with it. That’s only a 5-minute difference without the essay, and a 10-minute difference total.
  • Math: Arithmetic, Algebra I & II, Geometry, and Trigonometry
  • Reading: reading comprehension, words in context, passage development and organization, and other rhetorical skills (A.K.A. writing technique)
  • English: usage and mechanics (grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, etc.), topic development, organization, style, and other rhetorical skills
  • Science: passage-based questions and reading visual aids like charts and graphs
  • Essay: The essay is optional for both tests, but check with the universities you’re applying to.

See! The tests are more similar than ever. When you look at the topics they cover and how they’re laid out, there’s nothing that jumps out as different. The ACT and the New SAT truly look so similar that you would think there are no real differences between them.

But what if that’s not true? What if there are big differences between the ACT and the New SAT that you can’t see without looking closely at both of them? What crazy person is going to take the time to study both tests side-by-side? 

*coughs* That would be me. I’ve looked at the practice tests, I’ve read articles about both, and before they lock me in the asylum, I’ll tell you a secret – there are major differences between the ACT and the New SAT. Differences that can have dramatic effects on a student’s score.

How the ACT and the New SAT Are Different

What most breakdowns will focus on is the fact that the SAT has a no-calculator section on the math test, and that the ACT has a specific science test. Some will assume that those distinctions make one test automatically more difficult than the other. But that’s not what really makes either test harder or easier for a student. And if you focus on those kinds of details, you’re missing the big picture.

First, let me tell you a little secret about the no-calculator section: a calculator wouldn’t help you. Seriously, for the types of problems I saw on the practice test, using a calculator would only be a waste of your time – or lead you down the wrong path as far as finding the answer. The goal is to test concepts, not arithmetic, so having a calculator or not isn’t going to have a big impact on a student’s score. That means that focusing on the lack of calculator doesn’t tell you what you need to know to pick between the tests. In fact, it might give you a misleading impression of which test is best for you.

The SAT’s lack of a science test is also a little deceptive. It turns out that science is tested within some of the other sections – a reading passage here, a math problem there. Sure, there’s not a whole section devoted to it like on the ACT, but you do get a science subscore on the SAT. So the presence or lack of a science section should not be the main part of your testing decision (you can’t avoid science altogether). It is a factor to consider, just not the main factor when it comes to picking a test (unless you’re amazing at both math and English).

So what should you look at to choose between the ACT and the SAT? What is the biggest difference between them? The answer? The focus of the questions. It’s the big picture of what they’re testing. Even though the questions have the same format and are in similar sections, they’re weighted towards different goals: specific skills versus conceptual understanding.

The ACT is detail focused. Can you do this type of math problem? Can you identify the right homophone? The whole test is aimed more at the technical side. They have more questions about topics like grammar, punctuation, sentence usage, specific types of math problems, and more specific science questions. Don’t get me wrong – you’ll see those types of questions on both tests, but the ACT has more questions aimed at specific skills. So if you’re confident about English grammar and less confident about math concepts, you might like the ACT better.

The SAT, on the other hand, is focused on concepts. Do you understand how Algebra works? Do you understand how an essay should flow? The SAT is more about writing skills like organization and style, the idea that makes a math problem work, or analyzing data in science. Yes, the ACT has some questions like that, too. The SAT has more. So if you’re better at big ideas than specific skills (in math and English, especially), then you might like the SAT better.

Want more details? Need some data to back up the analysis? Well, if you want to see what I consider the biggest differences laid out side by side, take a gander at this lovely infographic: the ACT v. the SAT.

The New SAT or the ACT – which one will you pick?
The New SAT or the ACT – which one will you pick?

That’s the big picture – the differences between the ACT and the New SAT broken down into more digestible pieces. Like I said, they’re pretty similar, but the differences they have are awfully important. And which test is more difficult depends entirely on you.

The New SAT or the ACT – which one will you pick?




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