With so many colleges extending test-optional policies put in place during the pandemic, you may be wondering how much effort you should put into standardized testing.
Many schools that are technically test-optional have demonstrated a preference for students who submit test scores (in the form of higher admit rates compared to students who don’t submit scores). And even where there isn’t such a preference, a strong test score can only help you by adding yet another compelling piece of data to your application.
So, knowing that test scores can be important, how do you decide whether to take the SAT or the ACT? Ideally, you’ll take full-length diagnostic tests in your sophomore year to see which feels more comfortable to you and where you might be able to see the most improvement. To get you started thinking about these tests, here are some key differences between the SAT and the ACT, including information about the upcoming digital SAT. Parents can also learn more about how to support your students through test preparation here.
The current SAT has three sections: Reading, Writing and Language, and Math.
The digital SAT has only two sections: Reading and Writing (together) and Math.
The ACT contains four sections: English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science. The ACT also offers the option to take the test with an additional Writing section that requires students to write an essay.
The SAT has changed its content over the years. While it’s still designed to test critical reasoning and thinking skills, it now also incorporates curricular knowledge (what you learn in school). Curricular knowledge has always been the focus of the ACT.
Current SAT: The Reading section of the SAT tests comprehension and drawing logical inferences, while the Writing and Language section tests grammar, vocabulary, organization, and tone. The Math section of the SAT includes data analysis, algebra, trigonometry, and geometry. The Math section allows the use of calculators for some but not all questions.
Digital SAT: The Reading and Writing section requires students to read shorter passages with only one question per passage. This section tests vocabulary, grammar, reading comprehension, and reasoning. The Math section also has shorter word problems than the current test. It tests algebra, geometry, trigonometry, data analysis, and advanced mathematics including non-linear equations. The new SAT comes with a built-in graphing calculator that students can use for all questions in the Math section.
ACT: The English section of the ACT tests grammar, vocabulary, and style. The Math section tests Algebra I and II, geometry, and some trigonometry. Calculators are permitted for every question on the Math section. The Reading section tests reading comprehension with passages from a variety of subjects (fiction, social studies, humanities, and natural sciences). The Science section includes questions about scientific writing (prose passages) as well as tables, charts, and graphs.
On both the SAT and the ACT, you will move through one section at a time. On the current SAT, you will first complete the Reading section, then Writing and Language, then Math. The ACT begins with the English section, followed by Math, Reading, and Science. The Writing section is last (if you choose to take it).
The digital SAT is adaptive. What this means in practice is that each section consists of two “modules.” Your performance on the first module determines the content of the second module.
The current SAT takes three hours (65 minutes for the Reading section; 35 minutes for Writing and Language; 80 minutes for Math).
The digital SAT takes just over two hours to complete (32 minutes for each of the Reading and Writing modules and 35 minutes for each of the Math modules).
The ACT takes roughly the same amount of time as the current SAT – 2 hours and 55 minutes to be precise (45 minutes for the English section; 60 minutes for Math; 35 for Reading; 35 for Science). Add another 40 minutes to that time if you choose to take the Writing section.
Number of Questions
There are a total of 154 questions on the current SAT. There are 52 multiple-choice questions on the Reading section and 44 multiple-choice questions on Writing and Language. The Math section contains 45 multiple-choice questions and 13 questions that require the student to supply their own written answer.
The digital SAT has a total of 98 questions. There are 54 questions on the Reading and Writing section and 44 questions on the Math section. Almost all of the questions are multiple choice, but there are some questions on the Math section that require students to enter their own answer.
There are 215 questions on the ACT. There are 75 questions on the English section; 60 questions on the Math section; 40 on the Reading section; and 40 on the Science section. All questions are multiple choice.
The current SAT has an overall score range from 400 to 1600. This total score is divided between two main subscores: 200-800 for the Math section and 200-800 for Evidence-Based Reading and Writing. The SAT also provides a variety of other subscores, including cross-test scores for Analysis in History/Social Studies and Analysis in Science that are based on relevant questions across each of the three main test sections.
The score ranges have not changed for the digital SAT. However, subscores and cross-test scores will no longer be reported.
On both the current and digital SAT, there is no penalty for an incorrect answer. It’s better to guess than to leave a blank response.
Each of the four main sections of the ACT is given its own score between 1 and 36. These scores are then averaged to create the composite score, also between 1 and 36. Only the optional Writing section is scored differently (it’s out of 12). The ACT does not deduct points for incorrect answers.
For more information on each exam, practice tests, and registration, visit The College Board and ACT.org.
More on the Digital SAT
The new SAT is currently available to international students and will be rolling out for students in the US starting in the spring of 2024. If you’re a US student and currently a 9th or 10th grader, you’ll be impacted by this change. If you’re a current junior, you should be finished testing before any changes are implemented, whether you chose to focus on the SAT or the ACT.
If you’re a sophomore and want to take the current SAT, you’ll only have this year to complete it. Most students need more time to prepare and don’t finish testing until the end of junior year or beginning of senior year. Current sophomores might want to consider focusing on the ACT since it will be as predictable as ever, test prep materials are abundant, and tutors have thoroughly studied the test to best prepare their students.
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