Educational Success Tutoring

“Which college entrance test should I take: SAT or ACT?”

The Revised SAT Versus the ACT –

As an SAT/ACT tutor, I am frequently asked:

“Which of the two college entrance tests should I take: the SAT or the ACT?”

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this seemingly simple question. In the past, the two tests were very different from each other and students who applied to schools that accepted both had to decide which one to focus on. Now, the format of the new SAT is similar to the ACT and most colleges will accept either one. However, the best way to determine which test is right for you remains the same, and it is to take a practice test of each type and see which one you do better on. Remember, the SAT has been completely redesigned, so if you had prejudices against it in the past, do not carry them over to the new test.

There are a myriad of differences between the old SAT and the new one. Rather than going into detail, I will hit a few highlights: the SAT has reverted to the original point scale with the top score again being 1600 because the optional essay is no longer added to the “verbal” and math scores, and you are no longer penalized for guessing. The ACT never penalized wrong answers.

In this article, I am going to describe the differences between the new SAT and the ACT. When people ask me “What is the main difference between the SAT and the ACT?”, I say “30%”. What I mean is that the SAT gives you an average of 30% more time per question compared to the ACT. To break this down further, for the math questions, the students have 38% more time and, for the reading and writing sections, they have 24% more time per question. The optional SAT essay is a 50 minute test while the ACT essay (also optional) is allotted 40 minutes.

Obviously, the clarity, easiness, and fairness of the questions are as or more important than the amount of time you have to answer them. Speaking of fairness, I am from the generation that was permanently scarred by the SAT analogy questions: “Hyperbole is to braggadocio as analogy questions are to a root canal.” Well, mercifully they are long gone and I think that the questions and answers on the revised SAT test are less ambiguous and more relevant than before.

I find that the ACT has more easy questions in the beginning of each section than does the SAT, which is especially noticeable in the math section. The fact that the ACT has more questions, 215 versus 154, while both tests are three hours long, means that the ACT may be more stressful for some students. However, others may thrive on the fast pace and like the fact that more of the questions are quick and easy compared to the SAT ones which tend to require more thought.

In terms of content, the biggest differences are that only the SAT has a non-calculator math section and only the ACT has a science section. The science section may be a place for students who struggle with the reading and writing parts to shine. Also, both of the SAT math sections have free response questions: 5 out of 20 for the no calculator test and 8 out of 38 for the calculator test. In contrast, the ACT math comprises only multiple choice questions and, unlike the rest of the ACT and all of the SAT, this section has five rather than four answer choices, reducing the chances of guessing the correct one.

“Is the redesigned SAT better than the old one?”

The new SAT was given for the first time in March of 2016. What did the students who took the test have to say about it? I’ll let some of my students at Educational Success Tutoring in Nashua, New Hampshire weigh in on this topic:

Junior at Hollis Brookline: “The reading and writing sections were in good agreement with my classes. There were several questions on the no calculator section that covered topics I haven’t done in class.”

Junior at Hollis Brookline: “The questions were fair and I had enough time to get to all of them.”

Junior at Bishop Guertin: “The questions covered things I learned in my high school classes. The no calculator math section was hard.”

Senior at Nashua High: “I really hated the old SAT but this new one is much better. It is easier to understand what they are asking you.”

Nationwide, the reactions from students are very positive:

  • 80% of students said the vocabulary was useful up from with 55% for the old test.
  • 75% of students said the Reading Test was the same as or easier than the old test.
  • 71% of students said the test was aligned with what they’re learning in school.
  • 59% of students said they thought that the Math section tested the skills and knowledge they would need for success in college and career.


The most ringing endorsement is that students preferred the new SAT format over the old one by a 6 to 1 margin.

In redesigning the SAT, two of the College Board’s major goals were to more closely align the test with high school curricula, and to give students from lower socioeconomic brackets a chance to compete with the well prepped children of the moneyed classes. To achieve this goal, the College Board partnered with the Khan Academy to offer free online test preparation materials. Almost half of the students who took the test in March used this service to prepare for the examination. From the student responses, it appears that the College Board has met the first goal but since the scores are not out yet, we will have to wait to see if they achieved the second goal of leveling the playing field.

“Will colleges begin to favor the new SAT over the ACT?”

Historically, the SAT was more popular on the east and west coasts while the ACT dominated in the central and southern states. The SAT is older; the College Board, which administers the test, was formed in 1899. The ACT gave its first test in 1959 and surpassed the SAT in market share in 2011. However, the new SAT may reverse this trend. Perhaps the pressure will cause the ACT to revise its test. I am a strong believer in the power of competition to bring better products to the marketplace. Both of the organizations behind these tests are non-profits and comprise dedicated educators who are striving to put more students on the path to a college education rather than to satisfy stockholders. I hope that they both stay in the game. We are all different and it is nice to have a choice when it comes to issues that materially affect people’s futures, like which colleges you get into.

“When will my March 2016 test scores become available?”

In the past, SAT scores came out between 17 to 19 days after the test date on either a Tuesday or a Thursday. There will be a major break with this protocol beginning with the newly redesign version in March of 2016.

The March test is expected to take over two months to be scored (68 days) and the next two tests, the May and June ones are projected to take 38 days each. These are just estimates at this time.

The main reason for the delay is that the College Board will need to generate a new set of raw-to-scaled conversions. The other issue is the essay. Remember that last fall when the ACT made their essay more challenging, there were significant delays in their score reporting. Not only does writing a more sophisticated essay take longer, so does grading one. The SAT essay will be graded by two readers and if they disagree by more than one point, the essay will be sent to a third reader. Essentially, the essay readers need to be calibrated too!


After the dust settles, the lag between testing and score release should revert to the old timing. While all of this is very frustrating for students and parents alike, we need to understand that the two testing organizations are working very hard to improve their college entrance examinations and we should all commend them for their efforts.