The redesigned SAT debuted a year ago, which means that high school students can now choose between the standardized tests of the “new” SAT and ACT.
But which to choose?
As part of our ongoing series of “Ask the Experts,” we surveyed top test prep tutors from around the country, and asked them a series of questions about these two tests. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to which test to take, and each student is a unique test-taker. But by asking the right questions, we can provide you with the proper tools to make an informed decision.
Here are our expert test prep tutors:
- Advantage Testing, Alex Freedman, Director of Connecticut office and senior tutor in Manhattan. Advantage has 16 offices throughout the US, and an office in Paris.
- Applerouth, Jed Applerouth, Founder. Applerouth has offices in NYC, DC, LA, Atlanta, Seattle, Savannah, Chicago.
- Peter Baum, test prep tutor in NYC and San Francisco.
- Compass Education Group, Matt Steiner, Senior Director of Outreach. Compass has offices in Northern California and Southern California.
- Inspirica, Lisa Jacobson, Founder and CEO. Inspirica has offices in NYC, Boston and Philadelphia.
- Phyllis Jencius, test prep tutor on Long Island for verbal content.
- Bill Ma, test prep tutor on Long Island for math content, author of CliffNotes SAT CramPlan, CliffNotes ACT CramPlan, 5 Steps to a 5 AP Calculus AB and BC.
- Signet Education, Jay Bacrania, Co-founder and CEO. Signet has offices in Cambridge MA and NYC.
- Summit Educational Group, Drew Heilpern, Brand Ambassador, offices in Connecticut/New York and Massachusetts.
- TestTakers, Frank Pomilla, President and Founder, with 11 offices throughout the Greater New York area.
Below are the questions we asked, and the responses of our expert tutors. In some cases, tutors have a consensus, and in others, there is a wide range of opinion. We hope this is helpful as you evaluate what course of action is best for your needs!
What are the differences between the ACT and New SAT?
- The SAT and the ACT have a similar structure and cover similar materials.
- The SAT questions are trickier and require more complex thought.
- The ACT is more straightforward, but much faster with more time pressure.
In general, the SAT and the ACT have a similar structure and cover similar materials; however tutors agree that the questions on the SAT are trickier and require more complex thought, while the ACT is a much faster test with much more time pressure. As TestTakers’ Frank Pomilla describes “An exam is considered to be ‘speeded’ if the score significantly depends on the rate at which tester answers the questions. Simply put, the ACT is much more speeded than the SAT.
According to Drew Heilpern of Summit Education Group: “Generally speaking, students feel that the ACT questions are more straightforward than those on the SAT, but the difficulty stems from the fast pace of the ACT. Many students walk out of an ACT test thinking that they understood what the questions were asking but wishing that they had another 5 or 10 minutes per section.” As a result, Peter Baum explains, “there is more advantage to getting extra time on the ACT than on the SAT.” He recommends that students who are allotted extra time take the ACT.
The chart below shows major differences between the two tests:
Reading (65 min)
Writing & Language (35 min)
Math (55 min) – With calculator
Math (25 min) – No calculator
Optional Essay (50 min)
Reading (35 min)
English (45 min)
Math (60 min) – With calculator
Science (35 min)
Optional Essay/Writing (40 min)
3 hours (without essay)
3 hours, 50 minutes (with essay)
2 hours, 55 minutes (without essay)
3 hours, 40 minutes (with essay)
Questions are evidence- and context-based in an effort to focus on real-world situations and multi-step problem-solving
Questions increase in difficulty level as you move through that question type in a section
Questions may be long but are usually less difficult to decipher
Difficulty level of the questions is random
5 reading passages
Relevant words in context
Grammar & usage
4 reading passages
Grammar & usage
Problem-solving & data analysis
Heart of algebra
Calculator allowed for 38 the questions, including advanced (TI-89)
Algebra I and II
No formulas provided
Calculator allowed for all sections, but not advanced (such as TI-89)
|Tests critical thinking skills, not specific science knowledge
|Tests your comprehension of a source text
|Tests how well you evaluate and analyze complex issues
Evidence-Based Reading & Writing: 200-800
Composite SAT score is the sum of the two section scores ranging from 400-1600
* You do not lose points for incorrect answers
Composite ACT score is the average of your scores on the four sections ranging from 1-36
* You do not lose points for incorrect answers
Tends to be more popular with private schools and schools on the East and West coasts
* Every four-year college in the US accepts SAT
Tends to be more popular with public schools and schools in the Midwest and South
* Every four-year college in the US accepts ACT
- Both tests require reading passages and answering questions about their content.
- SAT passages are harder – harder vocabulary and sentence structures.
- SAT questions are harder – require understanding author’s intent.
- ACT is easier, but faster – requires quickly finding details in the passage.
The reading sections of the two tests are structurally very similar; both require students to read written passages and then answer questions about their content. But again, the SAT section is generally harder, while the ACT requires students to answer the questions more quickly.
As Jed Applerouth of Applerouth Tutors explains, “SAT reading passages typically have a higher level of vocabulary and more sophisticated sentence structures. Particular SAT passages, frequently pulled from historical documents or American or English literature, are significantly harder than anything found on the ACT.”
SAT questions also require more in-depth understanding, requiring students to analyze the author’s intent, while the ACT typically requires the student to quickly locate details in the passage. An example of the difference in difficulty is provided by Peter Baum: “The classic SAT question is inferential – for instance, ‘Why did they mention dinosaurs in line 57?’ On the ACT, it’s more direct but there’s no line reference, ‘What did the author say about dinosaurs?’ ”
Unsurprisingly, the ACT reading section is also much more “speeded” than the SAT. As Drew Heilpern summarizes, the SAT Reading Test consists of 5 passages, typically 500-750 words each, with roughly 10 questions per section, providing students an average of 13 minutes per section. The ACT test consists of 4 passages, typically 700-900 words each, and also roughly 10 questions per section. However, even though the ACT passages are longer, students have on average only 8.5 minutes per passage. Also, as several of the tutors pointed out, unlike the SAT, the ACT questions do not appear in any order, requiring a greater ability to skim and scan. As Heilpern explains, “For most students, it is a total sprint from start to finish.”
If students have not had a lot of experience taking faster tests, they may initially score poorly on ACT practice tests. However, as Phyllis Jencius notes, they should not be discouraged, because speed can be improved with practice! She advises: “A low reading score on an initial practice ACT test should not automatically discourage students from taking this exam. A tutor should be able to discern whether the score is the result of time pressure rather than the understanding of the material. If so… [reading] under time constraints while maintaining accuracy is a skill that can often be taught.”
- Writing section is the most similar – both involve reading a passage and then answering questions about errors in it.
- SAT passages are harder; ACT passages are shorter and written at high school level.
- SAT passages require understanding of author’s intent.
- ACT section is much faster.
Tutors agree the writing sections are nearly identical, requiring students to “answer questions about specific errors in passages,” says Jay Bacrania. According to Alex Freedman of Advantage Testing, “Both test fundamental concepts of grammar, idiom, diction, and clarity of expression.” However, the writing section also follows the same trends in terms of difficulty and speed. The SAT passages typically resemble the reading passages in complexity, while the ACT passages are written at a much simpler level. According to Drew Heilpern, “The ACT English Test has passages that are shorter in length and resemble essays that might be written by a high school student. On the other hand, the SAT passages are well-written essays that, similar to the Reading passages, range in complexity from grades 9-10 to early college.” The SAT passages require a deeper understanding of the author’s intent, while the ACT questions are more straightforward, dealing with basic grammar.
And as always, the ACT section is much faster. As Frank Pomilla explains, “On the ACT, students are allotted 45 minutes to answer 75 questions; on the SAT, it’s 35 minutes for 44 questions. That’s 33% more time per SAT question than ACT question.”
- SAT has calculator and no calculator section; ACT allows calculator (but no TI-89).
- SAT covers more limited topics (more focus on algebra and functions).
- ACT covers wider range (more focus on geometry and trigonometry).
- SAT is more conceptual and more difficult (math concepts in combination, interpretation of math).
- ACT is more straightforward but faster-paced.
There are a few basic structural differences between the math portion of the two tests. The SAT Math Test is divided into sections: a calculator section (including advanced calculators like the TI-89) and a non-calculator section. The SAT also includes two types of questions: multiple-choice and grid-in. The ACT, on the other hand, consists of a single section, all multiple-choice, with a calculator allowed (but not a TI-89).
Another difference is in the scope of topics – the SAT covers a more limited set of topics, with a big focus on algebra, functions, and data analysis, while the ACT covers a wider array of topics, with a big focus on geometry and trigonometry, and also touches on more advanced topics like matrices and logarithms.
Similar to the reading and writing sections, the SAT math section is more difficult, requiring a deeper understanding of the topics, but the ACT test is more of a time crunch (students have 38% more time for each SAT math question). As Jed Applerouth explains, “SAT math has a greater reading burden, tests more math concepts in combination, and focuses more on translation and interpretation of math (i.e., math fluency) than upon direct solving.” While some feel the ACT Math has become harder, Matt Steiner of Compass Prep points out that “the perceived ‘hardness’ of ACT Math is less an issue of difficulty; more an issue of familiarity and exposure” with the handful of new topics added.
- ACT has separate science section; SAT has 21 science questions scattered throughout test (no actual science section).
- Both involve science questions based on passages.
- Neither tests knowledge of facts; both test understanding of scientific method and experiments, interpretation of charts and graphs.
- ACT section is more difficult.
The crucial difference between the science content on the two tests is that the ACT has a separate science section, while the SAT has 21 science-related questions scattered throughout the test. For example, the SAT may include a chart as part of one of the reading passages and consider questions about the chart to be science-related. On the SAT, students receive an “Analysis in Science” score on a 10-40 scale, which combines the science questions from the various sections, but colleges do not look at this separate score. For all intents and purposes, while the SAT includes science-based questions, it does not have a science section.
Neither test requires any specific knowledge of scientific facts, but rather tests students’ ability to reason deductively. Students are provided with passages about scientific topics that they may not know much about, and must interpret them to answer the questions. According to Matt Steiner, “ACT Science is simply another Reading section disguised by science-y flourishes: charts and graphs, descriptions of experiments, and other quantitative elements.”
However, tutors agree that the ACT science section is more difficult than the SAT science questions, requiring a higher level of data interpretation and understanding of experimental design. According to Frank Pomilla, the ACT tests “an ability to understand graphs and tables, and to analyze the design and results of hypothetical scientific experiments.” Drew Heilpern notes that as students read the passages, it will help them to consider the following types of questions: “What scientific question is being asked? What was the experimental design? What was the data that was collected? What conclusions did the author draw?”
And as you’ve probably come to understand by this point, students must go through the ACT Science section very quickly.
- Both offer optional essay; good idea to sit for the essay anyway.
- SAT provides a written essay; students analyze the author’s argument.
- ACT provides three perspectives on an issue; students defend their own perspective.
Both the SAT and the ACT offer optional essay sections. According to Matt Steiner, “only 10% of the top 360 colleges in the US require students to submit their SAT or ACT Essay results.” However most tutors recommend that students sit for the essay anyway in order to have the option to apply to a wider selection of colleges.
Both tests require students to analyze a rhetorical argument, however there are basic differences. “In essence,” according to Alex Freedman, “the ACT essay asks students to construct an argument, while the SAT asks students to analyze an argument.” As Phyllis Jencius explains, the 50-minute SAT section “provides a written essay and asks students to analyze it using textual evidence to determine how the writer effectively builds his or her argument.” Drew Heilpern adds, “It is a rhetorical analysis essay where students are not asked for their opinion on the topic, but rather to analyze what rhetorical devices the author used and their effectiveness.”
The 40-minute ACT on the other hand, according to Jay Bacrania of Signet, “presents a societal issue with three different perspectives on the issue and asks students to analyze the problem and defend a perspective of their own (which can be wholly or partially taken from one of the given perspectives, or not at all).” As noted out by Lisa Jacobson of Inspirica, “Consequently, the student need not get into too much depth about any one opinion… The SAT requires more depth and complexity… [and] is generally more challenging.”
As Peter Baum advises: “For a more literal student, the SAT essay, which is analyzing how an author made his or her points, is a better fit. For a more free-thinking student, the ACT essay allows him or her to find a path to individual expression.”
What kind of student would be better served by taking either the ACT or SAT?
- Colleges accept either test and don’t have a preference.
- Best strategy is to take both practice tests and compare scores.
- SAT is better for more complex thinkers and slower test takers.
- ACT better for more straightforward thinkers and faster test takers.
- SAT is better for strong readers; ACT is better for strong math students.
- Best to choose one test and stick with it to maximize prep.
The testing landscape has evolved considerably in recent years. Only a decade ago, the SAT was more commonly taken by students on the East and West coasts, while the ACT was more popular in the Midwest. Additionally, the most selective colleges expressed a preference for the SAT. But, “nowadays, both are accepted at all universities and are equally regarded, so students should prepare for and take the test on which they will receive the higher score,” according to Alex Freedman.
Some tutors feel that due to the similarities between the SAT and the ACT, students frequently will get comparable scores on the two tests. In this case, the decision comes down to personal preference. As Peter Baum emphasizes, “there’s at least a 70% overlap between the tests at this point. You’re not going to find many students who score much higher on one than on the other.”
However based on the general differences between the tests (especially complexity of the SAT vs. speed of the ACT) certain students may fare better on one or the other. Tutors are in agreement that the best way to figure out which test is for you is very simple: take full practice tests of both, then compare your scores using the College Board’s concordance table, which will tell you exactly which scores are equivalent on the two tests.
Though the tests are similar, tutors do have some thoughts on the type of students who may prefer one or the other. According to Jay Bacrania, “Generally speaking, the SAT is well suited for students who are good at more complicated problem solving but are slower test takers. The ACT on the other hand is often good for students who like to see more predictable, straightforward problems and are good at being efficient and accurate while under time pressure.” Additionally, according to Alex Freedman of Advantage, “students who are put off by the ACT’s Science section might be better off taking the SAT.”
Several tutors noted that the SAT is more reading-heavy than the ACT so strong readers might prefer the SAT, while the math on the ACT is more advanced, so stronger math students might prefer the ACT.
Lisa Jacobson of Inspirica adds that test anxiety may play a role. She explains that due to the difference in pace, the SAT may be a better fit for “one who has trouble with time, perhaps a little more prone to test anxiety. One who works more methodically and thoroughly.”
While some students choose to take both tests, tutors generally advise picking one test and sticking with it in order to put all of your test prep time into that test. Frank Pomilla notes that, “While the tests are quite similar, there is a disadvantage to splitting time between two exams, when colleges need to see only your best performance on either one.”
What is the percentage of your students who take SAT-only, ACT-only, or both?
- The distribution across tests varies widely across tutors and states.
- While many opt to take the ACT only, some have shifted back to the SAT.
- Yet, while there is great variation between the percentages of students taking either test, only a very small percentage currently take both.
The distribution of students taking both tests or just one test varies by tutor, by state, and by historical time frame.
During the period when the SAT overhauled its exam in spring of 2016, many students opted for ACT-only, due to the uncertainty of the new SAT exam and the lack of practice tests issued by the College Board. But in recent times, there is some shifting back to the SAT.
Some states choose to offer either the SAT or ACT as their standard state assessment test for public schools, so this impacts test prep as well. For example, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine and New Hampshire have chosen the SAT as their state-wide assessment test; while Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, Nebraska, and North Carolina have chosen the ACT (among other states).
Finally, tutors’ own philosophy about whether it makes sense to focus on one test or take both tests impacts students’ test prep approach as well. According to Lisa Jacobson, the breakdown includes 37% SAT-only, 62% ACT-only, and less than 1% take both tests. This breakdown is comparable to Signet (about 30% SAT-only, 65% ACT-only, 5% both) and Applerouth (45.3% SAT-only, 49.2% ACT-only and 5.5% both). In contrast, Peter Baum’s split is 55% SAT-only, 25% ACT-only, and 20% both. And Frank Pomilla notes, “In the New York area, where TestTakers operates, it’s been my experience that the SAT is still the more popular exam.”
Is there a maximum number of either SAT or ACT tests that you recommend to your students? In other words, do you find that scores tend to plateau after a certain number of tests?
- No maximum, but tutors recommend taking the test 2-3 times.
Most tutors agree that the sweet spot for the number of tests is 2-3. Of course every student is different so this should not be used as a hard and fast rule. According to Peter Baum, “My breakdown by number of times is 35% 1, 55% 2, 10% 3. There is, of course, selection bias involved since the kids who ace it the first time don’t take it again.”
Beyond three tests, it is rare to see a significant increase in scores, and small increases may take so much extra prep that it becomes a poor use of the student’s time. Alex Freedman states, “If scores do begin to plateau at a certain point, for example, our analysis of the data and our assessment of the student’s progress will indicate whether the plateau suggests an approaching ceiling, or whether there is still room for improvement. Of course, we also take into consideration the student’s personal goals.”
When do you feel is the ideal time for students to begin test prep for the SAT or ACT?
- Tutors recommend spring of sophomore year or summer before junior year.
- Best to start prep before heavy work load junior year.
- Aim for first test date in late fall or early spring of junior year, with cushion of senior year for retests.
Most tutors recommend that students begin to prepare during the spring of their sophomore year, while some recommend the summer between sophomore and junior year. The advantage of beginning before junior year is that students usually have more time for test prep before adding their junior year schoolwork. As Jed Applerouth notes: “The right time is determined by the most spacious time in a student’s schedule. Don’t begin prep during your most intense time for academics/activities.”
One point to be aware of is that students may not have learned everything they need to know until the end of sophomore year. As Frank Pomilla points out, “I don’t generally recommend starting during sophomore year, as the student might not have had all the math required for either the SAT or ACT; for virtually all students, it’s just too early.”
Beginning test prep the summer before junior year or earlier would typically allow students to aim for a first test date in late fall or early spring of junior year, with a cushion of senior year for retests if necessary.