New SAT vs. ACT: Which Should You Take?


In the past decade the powers of the standardized test universe have been shifting. The GRE has been nibbling away at the GMAT (detailed here in GRE vs. GMAT) for MBA supremacy while the ACT has crept up on the SAT in competition for those seeking spots at top undergraduate programs. Come spring 2016, the SAT will up the ante with a major re-design. High school students worldwide will have the choice between this newly designed SAT and the now long-in-the-tooth ACT. You can find a massive amount of new SAT propaganda here but if you want the short of it read on as we clarify the major updates of the new SAT and consider the best option for you.

New SAT vs. ACT Math

The literature for the new SAT screams: critical thinking test! Think math puzzles as opposed to a standard math test. The SAT has always been the more conceptual of the two exams and although the new SAT continues in this direction the College Board has indicated that the math questions will be given a more real world context. In addition, the new SAT math sample questions seem a notch tougher than classic SAT questions. But, the sample set is very small and we don’t have any indication of what difficulty level those questions are.

The ACT math is akin to a standard math test and although it might present some tough questions tends to focus on recalling content rather than on creative ways of applying that content. On the ACT math section there are very few surprises. It was designed as a strict content test. What can be tough on the ACT math section? A slim sixty minutes for the sixty questions versus a meaty eighty minutes for the fifty-two questions on the new SAT math section. So if math timing is a big issue, you might consider the new SAT. But be warned that there is a reason why you have more time on the new SAT: the questions you will likely face will be more challenging and less familiar. If you’re a quant whiz, that can be to your favor because the revised SAT is a great way to highlight your astonishing quantitative reasoning skills. 

New SAT vs. ACT Writing

The College Board emphasizes that the new SAT writing focuses on context. The new exam does away with grammar rules isolated in lonely sentences and instead focuses on applying this knowledge in full texts. Strangely (or not so strangely) the format is almost exactly the same as the format on the ACT. The sections are nearly identical. It is important to note though that the new SAT offers a generous thirty-five minutes for forty-four questions while the ACT offers an anemic forty-five minutes for a whopping seventy-five questions. So the format is the same but expect to see a greater proportion of head scratchers on the new SAT.

New SAT vs. ACT Reading

The new SAT reading comprehension section is somewhat familiar but a bit jazzed up with some new question types including charts and graphics. Nothing mind melting but just keeping with the test’s greater critical reasoning/practical thinking focus. Practical application remains a top priority so sentence completions are gonzo. Great move! All vocabulary is tested in the context of the paragraphs. These changes seem for the better and generally align the new SAT with the ACT. The sections diverge quite a bit on timing: seventy-five seconds per question on the new SAT vs. fifty-two seconds per question on the ACT. This timing gap again reinforces that the new SAT is deeper than the ACT.

ACT Science – Live long and prosper or Fa-Get-About-It

The ACT science section has no true parallel on the new SAT. Yes – the new SAT will have data interpretation questions resembling questions on the ACT science section but those will comprise a small portion of the test rather than an entire section of the exam. Is the science section a reason to avoid the ACT? For most people – no. This isn’t usually the section that holds the score back and generally doesn’t require as much preparation as the math and verbal sections do.

New SAT vs. ACT Essay

Educators are divided on this issue but I’m sure that nearly all students are breathing a collective sigh of relief that the essay on the new SAT is optional. This is another move in the direction of the ACT. Why the change? Perhaps a move to entice more students to the new SAT (a shorter test is much more appealing to students) but the College Board now claims the essay added little predictive value to scores and that many admissions officers found it extraneous. If you do decide to take the essay either for fun or because your school application requires it then be ready for two major changes: First off, the essay prompt will be the same for every test administration. That’s right. You know the question in advance. Why the change? To make the test more standardized! Second, you will no longer be using outside information or your imagination to support your essay. The new SAT will provide texts/charts/graphics which you must use to support your point. Considering that both of the essays are optional and that many schools do not require them the new SAT and ACT seem equal here.

New SAT vs. ACT Scoring

The SAT has abandoned the guessing penalty. Hurrah. In addition, the new SAT follows in the ACT’s footsteps and provides detailed sub-section scoring. Whether that gradation is actually helpful is up for debate. How universities will use this i- depth scoring is yet to be seen, but I wouldn’t bet on it being extremely relevant. Regardless, the ACT and new SAT rank equally here.

New SAT v. ACT Preparation

The now veteran ACT has been the same for many years so there is a wealth of study materials – along with 11 official ACTs there are a myriad of third party guides. For the new SAT you are left high and dry. Yes – the old SAT will still be good practice but it will only be an approximation of the real deal. It is highly likely that the college board will release more practice questions but still it will take some time before there is a critical mass of solid preparation material for the new SAT. In addition, the College Board is partnering with the Khan Academy to create a free new SAT curriculum. That may tip the balance towards the new SAT but we will have to wait to judge.


In some key areas (no guessing penalty, essay optional, charts/graphs, vocab and grammar in context) the SAT has moved closer to the ACT but the mantra of the SAT remains somewhat unchanged. It is a critical thinking test. Those students who might have chosen the old SAT would still be making a good choice with the new SAT and might even have an easier time considering that the essay is now optional and the guessing penalty is gone. These two things may not make the content easier but will certainly make the test less draining and stress inducing.

Still in the dark? My general advice would be to take an ACT practice test and an SAT practice test. See which test is easier for you. The difficulty is that the new SAT has no practice tests but the old questions will still give you a reasonably good indication of what to expect on the new test. Still in the dark? Here come some colossal generalizations to sum it up: If you are smart but lazy think new SAT because it rewards creative thinking over memorizing content. If you are a hard working overachiever or generally struggle with standardized tests you may be better off with the ACT because there is a lot of practice material for you and the way that the content is presented is remarkably consistent. If you are an all-around superstar you might have an edge in admissions by acing the tougher of the two.

Andrew Geller has been teaching test takers since 2002 and throughout the past decade has worked for various big and small test prep companies helping people succeed on the GMAT, LSAT, SAT, ACT, and GRE. Throughout his career he has successfully taught people from many different backgrounds, countries, and starting scores. He now leads Atlantic GMAT, a company which he founded to provide a creative and nuanced approach to GMAT preparation especially for students who have struggled to achieve their GMAT goals through big box test prep.


Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.