My usual advice to students trying to decide between ACT and SAT has gone something like this: SAT and ACT are equal in college admissions. Colleges do not prefer one over the other. As you’re approaching junior year, take a practice test for both without any preparation, and make the decision based on your stronger score. Or, if the scores are similar, go with the test that seems more comfortable to you.
I tell students that SAT questions tend to be tricky. Part of doing well on SAT requires students to interpret the questions correctly. On the other hand, ACT is more straightforward without the tricky questions. ACT calls for a quicker pace when compared to the relatively slow, methodical approach required by the SAT. Both tests cover math, reading comprehension, and writing. ACT also includes a science section that isn’t about any particular field of science but basic scientific principles, like the scientific method.
With ACT’s increasing popularity as the more accessible option to SAT, College Board has unveiled a new version of the SAT in March 2016 that is, well, more like the ACT. ACT has also instrumented some changes to its test in 2015. What do these changes mean for students?
1. How is the new SAT more like the ACT?
The new SAT is designed to be more closely aligned with standard high school curriculum, specifically Common Core. For example, roughly 60% of the math section is now comprised of algebra and data analysis, with only 10% dedicated to advanced math topics like geometry and trigonometry. This change balances the new policy of no calculators allowed for most of the SAT math section.
In the reading section, the obscure vocabulary that SAT is infamous for has been replaced with what College Board terms as “high utility” vocabulary, words commonly used across many disciplines. Students answer questions about vocabulary used in context of a passage, as opposed to fill in the blank.
And, no longer will students be penalized for a wrong answer on SAT with a 0.25 deduction, making guessing on the SAT a better bet. Now, for both tests, it’s always better to guess rather than leave an answer blank.
More here on how the SAT and ACT sections have changed.
2. Is the essay really optional?
Yes and no. The new SAT essay is technically optional now, just like the ACT. And, the scoring for the SAT essay is now a separate score that doesn’t factor into your overall SAT score, also just like the ACT.
The new SAT essay score includes three scores, each between 2 and 8, for Reading, Analysis, and Writing. The ACT score has also changed, now including 4 scores, each between 2 and 12, on Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions.
So, does that mean that students don’t have to take the writing test? It’s true that not all colleges require the writing test, but there are so many that do, such as the University of California, that it’s usually in a student’s best interest to opt for the writing test. For sample prompts and essays, see here for ACT and here for SAT.
3. What is a strong SAT score?
Ultimately, a strong SAT or ACT score is your best score. Ask yourself: is this my personal best? If the answer is yes, your time would probably be better spent on your academics and pursuing meaningful activities outside of class than taking SAT or ACT again and again.
If you think you can improve on your last SAT or ACT score, then you haven’t reached your strongest score. That is, until you’ve reached the zone where there isn’t a statistical difference in admit rates. Typically, for ACT, the sweet spot is roughly in the 35-36 range, while for the previous version of the SAT, it was roughly 2300 and above.
Now that SAT is reverting back to a 1600 scale, the “don’t take another SAT” score is about 1530 and above. See here for a detailed breakdown on the most competitive SAT scores.
4. What do I need to know about the new version of the ACT?
The changes for ACT are more subtle than SAT’s overhaul. The two main changes have to do with the new “Enhanced ACT Writing Test” and what’s called paired passages in the ACT reading section.
The ACT writing test not only includes a new essay scoring system, as mentioned above, but a more complex essay prompt. Students are not just asked to take a position, but to analyze multiple positions. And, the prompt is much more open-ended. Clearly, the new ACT essay requires students to practice the new format. More here about how to prepare.
The other ACT change worth mentioning is the addition of one set of paired passages to the reading section. Essentially, students read two passages before answering questions that involve analyzing the information from both passages. Although this change is not as dramatic as the changes to the writing section, students should familiarize themselves with this new reading format. See here.
With the new SAT and ACT formats, how will my advice to students change? Not as much as you might think. The SAT still includes more challenging vocabulary than ACT and allows for more time per question. So, ACT remains the more accessible yet faster-paced test.
Regardless of which test, you decide to go with, I do recommend that you pick either SAT or ACT, as opposed to doing both. High school students have enough to contend with these days without preparing for an extra exam. Despite the trend in recent years of students who take both exams, the goal is for you to achieve your personal best on either SAT or ACT.