The SAT versus the ACT Test – Which Test Should you Take?

Which test should you take—the SAT or the ACT?

This is a common question among high school students. Here are a few major differences between the tests:

1) The ACT has a Science section. The SAT does not. Keep in mind, however, that the ACT Science does not require much outside Science knowledge. It mainly tests your ability to read and interpret data. The SAT does have a few Science-related question in its Reading Comprehension section, where you sometimes must interpret graphs, charts, and data in relation to a scientific passage.

2) The SAT Math has a “No Calculator” section, in addition to a Math section in which you are allowed to use your calculator. The ACT Math is only a single section, in which you are permitted use of your calculator. For some students, doing an entire math section without a calculator seems daunting. Keep in mind, though, that many of the questions on both tests can be solved without use of a calculator.

3) The SAT has two Math sections, broken up into a 55 minute Calculator section and a 25 minute No Calculator section. The ACT has only one Math section, which lasts 60 minutes. So, the SAT is slightly more focused on Math. Math also accounts for half your SAT final score, whereas it’s only one quarter of your ACT score (since the ACT has additional sections.)

4) The ACT Math section has a larger focus on Geometry than the SAT Math sections. The ACT also sometimes has questions related to Trigonometry, Matrices, and Logarithms, which the SAT does not. Keep in mind, however, that these advanced math questions would only account for a handful of questions on the test. Both tests focus heavily on Algebra.

5) The SAT also has “grid-in” questions on both their No Calculator and Calculator sections (totaling about 13 questions combined.) Grid-ins are free-response math questions in which you do not have any multiple-choice answer choices. You must write in your answer yourself. This can seem daunting to some students. The ACT, however, has only multiple-choice Math questions.

6) The SAT Essay requires analyzing a passage. You must discuss how the author of the passage builds an effective argument. The ACT Essay, however, requires analyzing three different perspectives on an issue and taking a position. The SAT Essay is more like the essays you’ll encounter in your AP English classes. The ACT Essay is based more around your opinion of an issue.

Those are the key differences between the tests. However, we always tell our clients to take a sample SAT and a sample ACT test before they decide which test is right for them. By actually trying to work through the problems on each test, you’ll get a strong sense of which test you’re more comfortable with and confident about.

The New (More Difficult) SAT and PSAT

The College Board is redesigning the SAT (for release in March 2016) and the PSAT (for October 2015). Read more to find out about what these changes mean for you.

A PSAT for 8/9th graders and a separate exam for 10th graders are also in the works. This new collection of tests is called the SAT Suite of Assessments. Though this isn’t the first time the SAT has changed, it is a major overhaul of the exam, spurred by the fact that, beginning in 2012, more students were opting to take the ACT than the SAT.

The College Board recently released full-length New SAT and PSAT sample tests, which students may use for practice here.

Here’s what you need to know about the new exams:

The New PSAT

The New PSAT Reading and Writing sections have become more like the ACT exam. In the Reading section, there is less emphasis on vocabulary and more emphasis on locating details and evidence (like the ACT.) The Writing section is laid out almost identically to the ACT.

The Math sections of the New PSAT are more difficult than the old test, requiring many multiple-step solutions. The content has broadened as well; the New PSAT has more  Advanced Algebra and Algebra 2. It focuses heavily on systems of questions and quadratics. In addition, it includes a math section that does not permit calculators. The shortened time limit on the no-calculator section may seem daunting for many students, who are used to relying on calculators.

Here’s some good news: there is no guessing penalty on the new tests, so students should fill in every answer choice, even if they didn’t get to some questions. Further, multiple choice questions have only four answer choices (instead of five), making guessing the correct answer more likely.

Test-taking tricks and strategies can help students through the harder math questions. Plugging in answers, for example, has become a more efficient and critical strategy, since only four answer choices exist now.

Since the PSAT is the National Merit Scholarship-qualifying exam, it is imperative that students prepare for the new test.

The New PSAT is broken down as follows:


Breakdown: 47 questions (4 long passages, 1 paired passage)

Length: 60 minutes

Changes from the Old PSAT:

  • Longer Reading Passages
  • Charts and Graphs included
  • Less focus on obscure Vocabulary
  • Finding Evidence questions (paired questions)
  • Founding Document/Global Conversation passage
Writing and Language

Breakdown: 44 questions (4 passages)

Length: 35 minutes

Changes from the Old PSAT:

  • More emphasis on Punctuation errors
  • Questions are in the context of a passage
  • Charts and Graphs included
Math – No Calculator Section

Breakdown: 17 questions (13 multiple choice, 4 grid-ins)

Length: 25 minutes

Changes from the Old PSAT:

  • Multiple-Part questions
  • More Algebra and Data Analysis
  • Advanced Math, including Trigonometry
Math – Calculator Permitted

Breakdown: 31 questions (27 multiple choice, 4 grid-ins)

Length: 45 minutes

Changes from the Old PSAT:

  • Multiple-Part questions
  • More Emphasis on Algebra and Data Analysis
  • Advanced Math, including Trigonometry and Pre-Calculus

The New PSAT is 35 minutes longer than the Old PSAT.

The New SAT

The PSAT changes mentioned above are also applicable to the New SAT. Please note that if you plan to take the SAT (for the final time) before March 2016, you will be taking the Old SAT.

Students’ scores on the New SAT will be out of a composite 1600 scale. There will be separate scores broken down for each section (Reading, Writing & Language, Math, and Essay). Learn more about scoring here.

Math – No Calculator Section

Breakdown: 15 multiple choice; 5 grid ins

Length: 25 minutes

 Math – Calculator Permitted

Breakdown: 30 multiple choice; 8 grid-ins

Length: 55 minutes

There are more questions involving real-world situations and multi-part grid-ins. There is a much stronger emphasis on Algebra and Data Analysis. Pre-calculus and Trigonometry questions are also tested. There is significantly less emphasis on Geometry than the old SAT.


Breakdown: 4 Long passages, 1 Paired passage; 52 Multiple Choice questions

Length: 65 minutes

Changes from the Old SAT:

  • Less obscure vocabulary, more Vocabulary-in-Context questions
  • Charts and Graphs to be analyzed in relation to the text
  • 10 Finding Evidence questions (paired questions)
  • Founding Documents/Global Conversation passage
  • Sentence Completions have been removed
Writing and Language

Breakdown: 4 passages, 44 multiple choice

Length: 35 minutes

Changes from the Old SAT:

  • Questions offered in the context of a passage (much like the ACT)
  • Questions on Charts included
  • More emphasis on Ordering, Inserting or Deleting sentences
  • Vocabulary-in-Context questions

Breakdown: One prompt in relation to one full reading passage

Length: 50 minutes

Changes from the Old SAT:

  • Essay is optional and scored separately
  • Given at the end of the exam
  • Students must address the provided passage and analyze how the author uses evidence and develops an argument.
The changes in the New SAT and PSAT may seem intimidating to students, but with adequate and early preparation, they can learn to excel at the test!