SAT or ACT – Which is the Right Test for Me?
When I used to prepare students for American colleges and universities in the 1980s and 1990s they all took the SAT. The ACT was a test that was predominantly taken by students in the mid-west and was little known on the east coast. In this new millennium, however, the ACT has taken on a new lease of life amongst our US east coast college hopefuls. While it is true that some students take only the SAT, there are some who are taking only the ACT. What is especially interesting is that an ever increasing number are now taking both the SAT and the ACT. So, in light of this continuing trend, you may well ask: “Which is the right test for me?” “Should I take just one or both?” The fact is that the majority of colleges accept both the SAT and the ACT as part of their admissions process.
Let’s start by looking carefully at what each test entails, where they are similar, where they are different and where one test might suit a particular student’s learning style.
The SAT Reasoning Test
The Structure of the SAT?
The new SAT (March 2016 onwards) looks very different from its predecessor. The old SAT had ten sections of various lengths. They were 10, 20, or 25 minutes in length, and, for the most part, the order of subjects was completely random. Among these ten sections was an experimental section which, though unscored, could still cause anxiety with test-takers’ as it would often include unfamiliar question types.
For most test-takers, the changes to the SAT are likely to be very welcome. The new SAT format is much more predictable. Now you can know exactly what order the subjects come in, as well as the amount of time and number of questions you’ll get. Furthermore, you won’t have to deal with ten sections, but instead will get just four, or five if you choose to take the now optional essay. That experimental section has been eliminated.
This chart shows the structure of the new SAT. Since we now know section length and number of questions, we can also estimate approximately how much time you get per question.
|Order||Section||Time in Minutes||# of Questions||Time per question|
|2||Writing and Language||35||44||48 seconds|
|3||Math No Calculator||25||20||75 seconds|
|4||Math Calculator||55||38||77 seconds|
|Total:||3 hours, 50 minutes (3 hours without essay)||154 (+1 essay prompt)|
When you take the SAT, you’ll get a 5-minute break after about every hour of testing. That means you’ll get a break after the Reading section and a second one after the Math No Calculator. If you’re taking the Essay section, you’ll also get a break before starting.As you can see, the new SAT presents each topic in one big period of time, rather than dividing them into several shorter sections. The only exception is Math, which is divided for the first time into a “calculator permitted” and a “calculator prohibited” section. The Essay section now comes at the end of the SAT, and the decision to take it is left up to the student.
In addition to giving the test in its entirety a more predictable structure, the College Board has also become more transparent about what you’ll encounter on each individual section of the SAT.Let’s take a closer look at each section, starting with the one that always comes first: Reading.
Reading Section Structure
SAT Reading is the longest section of the new SAT, clocking in at 65 minutes. All Reading questions are passage-based. You’ll answer 10 to 12 questions on each of five passages, for a total of 52 questions. As you saw in the chart above, that leaves you with about 1 minute and 15 seconds per question. All of the questions are multiple choice and feature four answer choices: A, B, C, and D.
The source and subject matter of each passage is predetermined, a useful piece of information for your test prep. You’ll get one passage from US or world literature, two dealing with history and social studies, and two related to science. One or more of these passages will be accompanied by a graphic, such as a table or graph. In fact, you’ll encounter tables and graphs in all four sections of the SAT.
Writing and Language Section Structure
The SAT Writing and Language section is about half as long as Reading at 35 minutes. It’s technically called Writing and Language, but you’ll probably hear it shortened to Writing. All of its questions are also passage-based.
You’ll get 11 questions for each of four passages, for a total of 44 questions on the Writing section. That leaves you with about 47 to 48 seconds to answer each question. All of the Writing questions are multiple choice with four answer choices, A, B, C, and D. Since some of the questions ask you about changing a word or sentence, many will feature an answer choice (typically choice A) that reads, “No change.”
Going along with the SAT’s greater predictability, the subject matter of the Writing passages is predetermined. The passages deal with Careers, Social Studies, Humanities, and Science. Unlike the Reading section, you won’t encounter any prose or selections from literature; all of the Writing passages will be argument-based, explanatory, or nonfiction narrative.
As mentioned above, you’ll find data interpretation questions on graphs and tables throughout the SAT, and the Writing section is no exception. One or more of the passages will accompany a graphic, and you might be asked whether the passage and graphic are in sync with each other.
The designers of the new SAT went a little graph crazy; you’ll find graphics in every section of the test.
Math No Calculator Section Structure
A Math Section during which you’re not allowed to use a calculator is completely new on the SAT. This 25-minute section asks you 20 questions, and you’re not allowed to use a calculator on any of them. 15 of these questions are multiple choice, and the remaining five are “grid-ins,” officially known as student-produced responses.
|Time||# of Multiple Choice||# of Grid-ins|
|25 minutes||15 (#1-15)||5 (#16-20)|
The Math No Calculator section asks questions that fall into three skills areas, Heart of Algebra, Passport to Advanced Math, and Additional Topics. The main focus, as you can see in the chart below, falls on Heart of Algebra and Passport to Advanced Math.
|Content Categories||# of Questions||Percent of Test|
|Heart of Algebra||8||40%|
|Passport to Advanced Math||9||45%|
Source: College Board
You won’t find any Problem Solving and Data Analysis questions here. These question types are featured much more heavily on the Math with Calculator section.
Math with Calculator Section Structure
You can use a calculator throughout this 55-minute section, though you don’t necessarily need to. College Board says it wants to test your calculator fluency, or your ability to determine when a calculator is a useful tool and when it would just slow you down. The Math with Calculator is the longer of the two math sections and asks 38 questions. This leaves you with about 1 minute and 17 seconds per question.
The Math with Calculator section asks 30 multiple choice questions and eight grid-ins. One of the grid-ins will be an Extended Thinking question, which features a word problem or graphic and asks two or more questions about it. Outside of this Extended Thinking question, the math questions won’t relate to one another. As with the Math No Calculator section, the grid-ins will come at the end:
|Time||# of Multiple Choice||# of Grid-ins|
|55 minutes||30 (#1-30)||8 (#31-38)|
The Math with Calculator section tests from the same skill areas as the Math No Calculator – Heart of Algebra, Passport to Advanced Math, and Additional topics – but it also tests Problem Solving and Data Analysis. In fact, almost half of the Math with Calculator questions fall into this skill area, as you can see in the chart below.
|Content Categories||# of Questions||Percent of Test|
|Heart of Algebra||11||29%|
|Passport to Advanced Math||7||18%|
|Problem Solving and Data Analysis||17||45%|
Source: College Board
This section may be your last on the SAT, meaning you’ll pass in your materials and leave the testing centre. If you elect to take the essay, then you’ll get a 5-minute break and then move onto the Essay section.
Essay Section Structure
The 50-minute Essay section tasks you with writing an essay based on a 650 to 750-word passage. You’ll be prompted to write a thesis-driven essay in which you analyze the passage’s argument. This assignment is entirely different from the one on the old SAT, where you were asked to present an opinion and support it with examples from pretty much anywhere, like your personal experience or favourite books.
On the new SAT Essay section your prompt will typically give you a succinct summary of the passage’s central argument. Then you’ll be asked to analyze how the author builds his/her argument. Here’s one example of an essay prompt from the College Board:
Write an essay in which you explain how Paul Bogard builds an argument to persuade his audience that natural darkness should be preserved. In your essay, analyze how Bogard uses one or more of the features in the directions that precede the passage (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of his argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage.
Your essay should not explain whether you agree with Bogard’s claims, but rather explain how Bogard builds an argument to persuade his audience.
As you see in this example, you’ll be reminded that your essay should not discuss whether or not you agree with the author’s claims. Instead, you should present an objective breakdown of the techniques the author uses to persuade his/her readers.
If you’ve made it this far, you now have an understanding of the SAT’s structure, both on the big picture level and in each individual section. There’s another important feature to learn to understand the new SAT format – how the SAT is scored.
How Is the New SAT Scored?
The new SAT is scored on a scale from 400 to 1600. You’ll get two section scores, one for Math and one for Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW), which is essentially your Reading and Writing sections combined. The scale for both Math and EBRW ranges from 200 to 800.
If you choose to take the essay, your essay score won’t factor into your total scores. Your essay will be scored by two readers. You’ll get three scores between 2 and 8 for three areas: Reading, Analysis, and Writing. A perfect essay score would be 8 / 8 / 8.
In addition to your section and total scores, you’ll also get test scores that show how you performed on each of the four sections individually. Plus, cross-test scores and subscores will break down certain skills, showing how you did on questions that test your Analysis in Science, Command of Evidence, and Words in Context skills, to give a few examples.
These subscores can serve as valuable feedback for your test prep, but the most important scores for college are your section scores and how they combine to form a total score out of 1600.
One last note about SAT scoring – the process now uses “rights-only” scoring. In other words, you won’t get any point deductions for wrong answers. You’ll just get one point for every correct answer, and no points for wrong or blank answers.
Now that you’re familiar with the format of the new SAT, let’s consider what the main structural updates mean for students.
How to Adapt to the New SAT Format
Simply familiarizing yourself with the new format is one important step in your SAT preparation. If you know the test inside and out, then you’ll know exactly what to expect on test day and eliminate any unwelcome surprises. Let’s look at the new features on the SAT this year and how you can best prepare for them.
#1: Learn to Manage Your Time Over Four Long Sections
Four sections is a big decrease from ten, which is what students got on the old SAT. In previous years, students had to shift their thinking quickly from one subject to another and back again. Now, students taking the new SAT are tasked with maintaining focus on one subject for a longer period of time.
On the Reading section, for example, you’ll be reading and delving into five passages in a row. On Math, you’ll be answering questions for almost an hour, even more if you consider the “no calculator” section together with the “calculator permitted” section.
Working quickly and efficiently under narrow time constraints is still an essential skill, but now you also have to endure focus for longer periods of time. You’ll also need to sharpen your time management skills, figuring out how to divide your time so you don’t, for example, spend an hour on one or two Reading passages and run out of time on the remaining ones.
Finally, you should work on mental strategies for recovering from a particularly challenging question or passage. You don’t want to let one hurdle trip you up for the rest of the section. Instead, you’ll have to know when to move on because your time will be better spent on other questions.
#2: Determine Whether You Need the Essay
Since the new essay is optional, you have some more research to do before you register for the SAT besides your optimal test date. You should figure out whether or not you need to take the essay section for your prospective colleges. If you are taking the essay, then you’ll have to prepare for this section separately from the other sections.
First, you should familiarize yourself with the rubric that graders will use to give you their three scores for reading, analysis, and writing. Then you should focus on honing your ability to analyze an argument and write an organised, well-supported essay under time constraints. This section calls on your writing skills, but it also tests your reading comprehension and analysis.
#3: Forget About the Experimental Section
The new SAT no longer features an extra un-scored section to test out new material. Since this section was never identified, its absence shouldn’t affect your test-taking experience very much. Fortunately, you won’t have to deal with unusual format or question types you haven’t prepared for, nor will you have to add an extra section to your practice tests to account for extra time.
Instead, you can feel confident that your official SAT practice tests will resemble the SAT you’ll get on test day. The structure is much more predictable, so you should go into test day knowing exactly what to expect.
#4: Use the New Scoring System to Your Advantage
There are a few ways that you can make the most of the new SAT scoring system. For one, the rights-only scoring means that you shouldn’t leave any questions blank. Since there are no more point deductions, you should make your best guess on every question. Even if you’re not sure, you have a shot at getting it right (an even greater shot now that the multiple choice questions feature four answer choices instead of five!).
Since math now counts as half of your total score (in the past, it counted toward one-third), you may shape your test preparation to reflect this altered emphasis. You may divide your time so that you focus just as much on math as you do on the verbal sections, especially if you’re weaker in math. Of course, the way you divide your time also depends on your individual strengths and weaknesses as a student.
Finally, you can use all the cross-test and subscores to inform your test prep. You should take the time to calculate these various scores for your official practice tests. Then you can look for patterns in the questions you tend to answer right and the ones you tend to get wrong. For instance, your subscores might reveal that you’re strong on Words in Context questions but need to work on Command of Evidence. You can use these score types as feedback to adjust your test prep and target your weak spots.
Reading this guide is a great initial step in studying for the SAT, as it helps you get familiar with big picture format, like timing and number of questions. Below are some more resources for learning about the content of each section, along with some strategies for studying for the new SAT.
The ACT Test
The ACT® test assesses high school students’ general educational development and their ability to complete college-level work.
The multiple-choice tests cover four skill areas: English, mathematics, reading, and science.
The Writing Test, which is optional, measures skills in planning and in writing a short essay.
The complete ACT test takes just over 4 hours without the Writing Test, including administration instructions and breaks.
Actual testing time is 2 hours and 55 minutes, broken down as follows:
The ACT Writing Test adds an additional 30 minutes to the testing time. For more information about the ACT please visit www.actstudent.org So let’s do an in-depth comparison of the two tests.
Firstly, the two tests are quite different. They do, however, have a similar role in the US college admissions process. Both tests give college admissions personnel a benchmark that allows them to compare students from a wide variety of educational backgrounds. The tests are also designed to be realistic predictors of first-year academic achievement in college. The main comparative features of the tests are:
- The ACT tests English grammar; the SAT does not.
- The ACT math section tests trigonometry; the SAT math sections do not.
- The ACT includes a science reasoning test; the SAT does not.
- Apart from the timed essay the ACT is entirely multiple choice; the SAT has 10 student-produced response questions within one of its math sections.
- The essay component on the ACT is optional; on the SAT the essay component is compulsory.
- The ACT math section counts for one quarter of the exam; the SAT math section counts for one of three subject scores.
- The questions on the ACT tend to be more straightforward but some do require more advanced knowledge.
- The ACT often presents much more of a time challenge for many students. Unless you have an extra time accommodation you will need to decide if this feature presents a significant challenge for you.
- Taking the ACT may well exempt you from having to take three SAT II subject tests (find out if any of your target schools offer this benefit) – this could save you from much additional preparation time, testing fees and further anxiety.
- The SAT scores are cumulative which means that colleges receive your most recent score and up to six previous scores. You need only send your highest ACT score to the colleges of your choice.
- The SAT tests more difficult vocabulary than the ACT,
- The SAT includes a penalty for incorrect answers; the ACT does not.
- The SAT has an experimental section which does not count; the ACT does not.
- The SAT arranges questions in order of difficulty; the ACT does not.
- The actual test time of the ACT is 2 hours and 55 minutes; the actual test time of the SAT is 3 hours and 45 minutes.
So do you know which test you are going to take yet? Still puzzled? At GK Consultants you can enroll in the Practice Testing Program which allows you to take frequent complete SAT or ACT practice tests. These tests are just like real SATs or ACTs and are administered in just the same way. By doing these practice tests a student starts to feel much more comfortable with the whole process. The completed tests are graded by the tutor and complete feedback is given at the next tutorial lesson. In this way you will be in a much more informed position about which test option is best for you: SAT only, ACT only or both the SAT and the ACT.
I have heard admissions officers and teachers talk about the similarities and differences between the ACT and the SAT in a variety of ways. A common theme is that the SAT is essentially a test of critical thinking and problem solving whereas the ACT is a much more curriculum based test. In actual fact the contrast is not so clearly defined. For example, there are a significant number of questions on the ACT that require critical thinking skills and there are some questions on the SAT that require curriculum base knowledge. Only by doing the actual tests can a student really gain a realistic appreciation of the actual flavor of the tests.
It is vital that a student finds out from the colleges to which they are applying precisely what the requirements are in terms of standardized tests. Then a student can discuss the possible combinations with their school college advisor and their GK Consultants consultant.
What Strategy is Best?
So, to sum up, your overall strategy should be:
- Take both an ACT and an SAT practice test under actual test conditions such as offered by the GK Consultants Practice Testing Program.
- Review the scores with your tutor to identify your specific strengths and weaknesses.
- Decide with the help of your tutor if the ACT or the SAT is going to be clearly your best bet in terms of future test performance, or decide if taking both tests is your best choice.
- Ensure that you are clearly informed about the entrance requirements of your target colleges. Currently most colleges accept both – just make sure!
- Find out if you only take the SAT will any of your target colleges require you to also take three SAT subject (SAT II) tests.
- Once you have decided which option is best for you, work closely with your consultant in order to be comprehensively prepared for each test when the time comes.
- Most important – research these issues yourself so that you feel confident that you are able to make the most informed decision regarding your future. Seek out the best advice available to you. Talk to your teachers, your parents, your classmates, your college guidance counselor and if you’re lucky enough to have one: your educational consultant.