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New SAT vs ACT. Which One to Take? Key Differences

Most of the U.S. colleges accept both tests - the SAT and the ACT. The tests cover the same core areas of study and have similar sections Reading, Writing, and Math and an optional essay. How do they differ? How to figure out which one to take? We’ve prepared a comparison of both tests to help you sort things out.

Time pressure

Time per question is one of the main differences between the new SAT and the ACT. You’ll have less time to answer a question on the ACT (50 seconds per question) than on the SAT (1 minute and 10 seconds). Many students struggle to finish at least one, and sometimes several sections on the ACT. And though questions on SAT tend to be harder and require more time to parse, ACT is still really time-pressured. You’ll have to move quickly through the questions on the ACT, so if you become too stressed out in such a time crunch, give one point to taking the SAT.

English/Writing sections

ACT’s English section and SAT’s  Writing & Language section are quite similar and test the same concepts. However, SAT has trickier and more nuanced questions and answer choices. Besides, passages in the English section of the ACT are of the easy reading level, and the SAT has more advanced and complex passages. In addition, the new SAT has more challenging vocabulary tested, in both Writing and Reading sections.

Another distinguishing feature of the Writing and Language section of the SAT is tables, graphs, and charts, so you’ll have to analyze them to answer the questions. And on the ACT you work exclusively with text.

Not that good with informational graphics and charts? The point goes out to the ACT.

Reading section differences

Besides challenging vocabulary and high-level words, SAT has advanced reading passages mixed with easier ones. They are shorter (up to 750 words) than ACT’s (up to 900 words), but can be harder and include infographics. However, the questions are placed in order, and it’s easy to find the corresponding information in the text. Questions on the ACT are ordered randomly, so you have to be good at spotting details while reading.

Struggle with finding details in the text? You are a SAT person.

But if you want to avoid info graphics and challenging vocabulary, opt for ACT.

What about the Math?

There are three main areas where ACT and SAT Math sections differ: level of math and concepts tested, type of questions, calculator usage.

  • Level of math and concepts tested

SAT has questions on advanced math and trigonometry. ACT contains Algebra II and Trigonometry questions and a lot more geometry. Both ACT and SAT have basic level trigonometry, so don’t panic if you haven’t studied trigonometry. You can grasp the basic concepts by yourself. You’ll have to memorize all the standard math formulas for the ACT, as the test doesn’t provide any, then the SAT lists all of them at the beginning.

  • Type of questions

All the questions on the ACT are multiple choice, so even you have a complete blackout when answering a question, you still have a chance to get it right. The SAT has 20% of the grid-ins questions, where you fill in the blank with your own answer. Little chance to get lucky, if you don’t know the answer.

  • Calculator usage

How your mental math doin’? Not so good? You’ll struggle for 25 minutes on the SAT. The SAT has 25-minutes 20-questions section which is no-calculator. If you are numbers expert, you’ll thrive on SAT. Otherwise, choose ACT, as you can use a calculator on every question.

Science time

If you were thinking to avoid graphs and charts entirely by taking ACT, your dreams are going to be destroyed now. There is a science section on ACT and it’s an abundance of graphs.

To tell the truth, there is not much of actual science in the section, it’s more about reading and analyzing graphs, scientific experiments and hypotheses. You’ll require logic and quantitative thinking to accomplish this part of the test.  

Finally, an essay

An approach on the essay drastically differs in the SAT and the ACT. On the SAT you’ll have a passage to read, analyze and write an essay on author's opinion and argument, just like analyzing texts in the English class. Basically, SAT doesn’t want your personal opinion at all. On the other hand, ACT does. You’ll get three perspectives on the same issue and have to write an essay explaining your own point of view. If you excel at debating, this task will be perfect for you.

Try to give a point to one of the tests after each passage and see which one scores more.

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