In March of 2016, the College Board released a complete overhaul of the SAT, its first update in over a decade. Since then, many parents and students have wondered whether they should take the new SAT or to stick with the ACT. I have spent some time researching this, as well as discussing it with other test prep professionals, and hope to shed some light on this to help make your decision easier.
Interestingly, all of the changes to the SAT make it more like the ACT. There has always existed a fair amount of overlap between the two tests, but with this new revision that has never been more true. In a way, this makes deciding which to take harder because the tests are now so similar. On the other hand, it makes this same choice less consequential because the tests are now so similar.
That said, the larger test prep community that I am connected to has tended to direct students toward the ACT for the past year for one simple reason: there is much more test prep material available for the ACT than there is for the new SAT, simply because the ACT has been around for so much longer. The College Board (the company that makes the SAT) has only released six full length practice tests and only four of these are included in their new SAT prep book. That is down from ten full length exams included in their previous prep book. In time, the College Board will release more prep material and third party vendors will refine theirs so as to better reflect the nuances of the real test. Right now, the latter process is very much underway. This is why we currently point students toward the ACT.
The question remains: what are the differences between the old SAT and the new version, and in what ways does that make the new SAT more like the ACT?
Let's take a look at each of the major updates to the SAT to find out.
The SAT no longer assess a guessing penalty.
One of the biggest differences between the old SAT and the ACT had to do with the SAT's dreaded "guessing penalty." On the old SAT, wrong answers received a 1/4 point deduction. This was meant to discourage students from blindly guessing, but in practice it induced panic in many students. It would hang over their heads, causing them to overthink their answers. Many students preferred the lack of a guessing penalty offered by the ACT. Now neither test assesses a penalty for wrong answers.
The SAT now utilizes a four answer-choice format, down from five.
Another big change to the SAT relates to the number of answer choices each question includes. The SAT has always presented five answers to choose from per question, while most sections of the ACT present only four (the ACT Math section uses five). Trying to select an answer out of four instead of five is easier, especially when using the process of elimination.
The SAT now consists of longer sections, but contains fewer of them.
A notable difference between the old SAT and the ACT was the number of sections each contained. The old SAT was composed of 9 sections, most of which lasted 20 to 25 minutes. In contrast, the ACT is made up of longer sections, but contains only one section for each subject. The new version of the SAT adopts a format similar to the ACT. It now contains one Reading section, one Writing section, and two Math sections (one with a calculator and one without). The SAT also includes an optional Essay section (see below).
The Essay section on the SAT is now optional.
The SAT used to always kick off with an essay, which everyone had to take. This is not the case on the new SAT. They have made the essay optional and moved it to the end of the test. I generally encourage students to take the essay, although this advice varies depending on the student their unique situation.
The new SAT now includes science questions.
One of the biggest, most obvious differences between the old SAT and the ACT was the fact that the ACT includes a Science section. Contrary to how it sounds, this section does not test for deep science knowledge, but rather asks students to interpret data from charts, tables, and graphs. While the new SAT did not add in a stand-alone science section, it does include data analysis questions that are comparable to those found in the ACT.
The new SAT emphasizes content taught in school.
The math content in the new SAT is designed to be more representative of content taught in schools, similar to the ACT. In the past, the SAT utilized familiar concepts but presented questions that used these concepts in novel ways. The ACT math section has always been more reflective of what students learn in class. The new SAT has moved in that direction as well. The new SAT has also done away with analogy questions, which tested students on their knowledge of obscure vocabulary words.
As I said earlier, with this recent redesign there has never been less of a difference between the SAT and the ACT. One practical difference that remains has to do with timing. The ACT tends to offer more questions per section but designs each question to each take less time. The SAT provides more time per question, but they tend to take a bit longer to answer. Because the tests are now so similar, people often make a bigger deal out of this difference than is warranted. For some students this difference in pacing will matter, but most students that I have worked with don't notice it.
Hopefully this overview helps to illuminate the differences and similarities between the new version of the SAT and the ACT. If you have any questions or would like more information about test prep at LifeWorks, please visit our test prep page here.