There used to be a huge difference but with the redesign they are looking more alike. College board reformatted the SAT and shed aptitude heavy questions and added a writing component in the SAT.

With this alone, you might find that you prefer one test over the other. Although the sections outside of the ones mentioned above are the same, the content and way they are structured differ significantly.

On the SAT, questions are primarily evidence-based and context-based to encourage students to focus on real world issues and problem solving.

On the ACT, questions are more straightforward, but generally tend to be longer.

Neither test penalizes test-takers for incorrect answers, as the SAT removed the guessing penalization. Points are solely given for correctly answered questions.

The new SAT is a reflection of and aligned with the common core standards. Common core will have assessments in all grade levels.

Another difference is time per question is a lot longer 33% more on grammar and 43% more on reading and about 40% more on the math section.

ACT vs. SAT Comparison Table

Test componentsReading (5 reading passages)Writing and LiteratureMath (arithmetic, Algebra I & II, Geometry, Trigonometry, Data Analysis)Optional EssayEnglish (4 reading passagesMath (arithmetic, Algebra I & II, Geometry, Trigonometry, Probability & Statistics)ReadingScience Reasoning (testing critical thinking, not specific science knowledge) Optional Essay
Duration3 hours without essay3 hours, 50 minutes with essay2 hours, 55 minutes without essay3 hours, 40 minutes with essay
Rules for CalculatorsCalculators Not AllowedCalculators Allowed
Rules for EssaysEssay tests comprehension of a provided textEssay determines how well you evaluate and analyze complex problems
ScoringScoring uses scale from 400-1600Scoring uses scale from 1-36

Which one should I take – Both?

That depends on several factors: Scoring, super scoring, age, goals which colleges you are looking at etc. If you are unsure about which test to take, you should consider the differences between the two in order to determine which test will better convey your strengths. Ultimately, both are content-based tests that cover a range of fundamental academic topics.

  • Both SAT and ACT are now the same length of time.
  • Colleges will take both and some schools want all the scores from all the tests ever taken. You can find this info in the admissions section on the college website that you will be applying to.
  • New SAT time allocation for each question is 83 seconds vs 60 on ACT.
  • SAT now focuses on context rather than achievement.
  • SAT includes words and context on the ACT it only includes words and context in the science section.
  • SAT – 7% of questions are vocabulary. Students have to have a better command of vocabulary in the new SAT. Students who struggle with reading will find themselves challenged across the test in all areas as it permeates the entire test.
  • ACT – 3% vocabulary
  • Both SAT and SAT consider the essay an additional score
  • SAT has a math section for which you may not use a calculator
  • New SAT is more aligned with college level thinking, reading and writing
  • Students who perform well with logical reasoning exams and puzzles do very well on the SAT
  • Students who prefer straight forward information and plow through their academic curriculum with straight A’s do better on the ACT
  • May who are high achievers will prefer to take the ACT until the new SAT stabilizes
  • ACT is constantly making slight changes
  • ACT includes a science component
  • On the ACT it is important to practice your timing. Most students run out of time so practice your timing…practice, practice, practice
  • Students taking both ACT and SAT tests say they feel identical but not as much of a time pressure

How many times should I take the test:

  • This depends on the ambition and aptitude of the student
  • SAT is given 7 times throughout the school year
  • ACT is given 6 times throughout the school year
  • Students usually improve their scores when retaking the test.
  • Some schools allow you to super score
  • You could literally take 13 in an academic year but why? There is no prescribed limit on the amount of tests you can take.
  • SAT – 9 of the 60 problems in math require more complex math like trig, imaginary numbers, advanced geometric shapes, logarithms etc.
  • The SAT science section pretty much requires no knowledge of history, biology, or physics or geology but does require a strategy. It also has nothing to do with science but does require a lot of reading.
  • You want your test score to reflect appropriate with your GPA and the high school profile, so when colleges see that your GPA is not consistent with a SAT or ACT test score it could raise red flags.
  • If your test score is in the top 10% of the freshman profiles in your target schools don’t continue to take the test. There is a point of diminishing return. If you are shooting for schools such as Stanford and you have a 1600 SAT or a 34 ACT there is really no reason to waste time trying to get a higher score. A couple of years ago Princeton denied admissions to hundreds of perfect SAT recipients. Just saying…
  • Just as you would study for any mid-term or final it is important to study for these standardized tests.

Which scores do I submit

When sending scores there are 3 different ways to send them:

Score Choice – Students can select scores by test date for the SAT and by individual scores for the SAT subject test

Any or all of your scores can be sent to a college by a single report. Score choice only applies to the scores you send to colleges. All scores will continue to go to you and your high school.

Super scoring – Process colleges use for the highest section scores across the dates you took the ACT. So rather than being confined to score from one particular date, colleges will take your best score from each subject test. Fortunately for you and the college, many colleges take your highest scores for all your tests when considering your ACT scores.

this policy benefits both you and the college because it shows their students get higher scores and this will help the college possibly rank higher.

Many colleges want all the scores – that way they can choose what boots their incoming freshman ranks as well as noticing trends. Some colleges might pick the best dates or sitting some might pick the highest sections. College board offers 4 FREE score sends during registration. These can be used to send scores to colleges but they won’t be available for use after the test. 

Not all schools support the use of score choice however, but will take it on good faith that you will send all your scores. 

Some notable schools with a send all scores policy – Yale, Stanford, Cornell, Carnagie Mellon and the UC system.

How Early to Test?

  • You want to begin early
  • There is no statistical advantage of when you take the test.
  • If you feel you have a good grasp on the material you can take the test as early as freshman year but if you haven’t covered the material in your classes wait until you have.
  • Most students heading to college take the test once in the spring of their junior year and once again in October in their senior year.
  • remember in your junior year you have AP tests SAT subject tests and other standardized tests. So sometimes earlier is better.
  • Going into you junior year studying is a good practice and could pay off pretty well.
  • We like to see your college list finished by the end of your junior year. You can start and finish your college admissions apps by the end of the summer. You can’t do the college list without the first pass of your ACT or SAT test scores.
  • You take the PSAT test in addition to all the other tests. The PSAT is for the national merit scholarship qualifier. To be a finalist means minimally $1000 to $2500 from the national merit corporation and for some schools it means full tuition or even a full rides for national merit finalists.
  • Even though the PSAT is a preliminary SAT test there is money attached to the top percentage of scorers. Each state also has it’s own cut off scores.
  • As a general rule of thumb, If your student gets in the 95 percentile on their PSAT we recommend students sit for the SAT soon after that again with a prep course.
  • What about AP or SAT subject tests? It’s best to take these tests while the information is still fresh in your mind. It’s possible to take the AP test without actually taking the AP class. Lots of home schoolers do this. Lots of free resources and study courses online.
  • Generally December of the Senior year is the cut off for the admissions decisions to go out so If student applies for early action or early decision then the October sitting of the test is the latest students can take the test. 
  • Some schools offer merit money if the student brings up their test scores after they have been accepted. Baylor is one of those schools.
  • Test optional schools attacks the student that doesn’t test well or doesn’t have test scores at all. So colleges that are test optional attract more applications after adopting a test optional policy. Space in college hasn’t increase, just the number of applications.
  • Bottom line is, if most students are submitting SAT or ACT test scores, you might want to do this as well. Some colleges will take certain tests in lieu of others like AP or IB tests instead. If you want to check out all the test optional colleges in the US go to there are about 850 colleges and universities that are test optional.

Different study methods

  • Best to invest in some sort of prep especially when you child is going to spend 4 grueling hours on a test.

Different prep methods

  • Learn from a bookPros: Inexpensive and convenient, go at your own pace. Can do with a study group or with a tutor. Cons: It can be boring and if the student doesn’t understand the material this can be very frustrating for the student.
  • Learn from a class – very popular. Kaplan, Princeton review, revolution prep, etc big chains. Pros: Can be in a large group or small group, cost can be between $400 and $700, natural study groups form and there is usually some sort of a high score guarantee. Cons: Everyone goes at the same pace so the slower learners get lost and the faster learners might become frustrated. Sometimes class times and locations aren’t convenient.
  • Learn onlinePros: Learn by video, convenient, students can learn at their own pace, perfect for the busy athlete, or theatre arts student, It’s always available it’s a student that never sleeps and also guarantees a high score. The costs range from $200-$500. Video integrated studying. Cons: Students get distracted or don’t have good time management skills.
  • EPREP – guarantees 1pt increase if you don’t get this you can retake the test free.
  • Learn from a tutorPros: One on one instruction, convenient, flexible costs 50-$150 and hour. Extremely effective. Cons: Priciest method. Not always very time flexible.
  • Lack of poor testing is usually the result of poor planning and being prepared which ultimately leads to poor performance.
  • For prepping – We recommend your student study an hour a day everyday for the 3 months going into the course. This doesn’t include practice tests. 
  • If you only have a month to study then you need to practice 3 hours a day. Prepping in a boot camp type study course for a weekend will really do nothing for you if you don’t know the material. So Practice!

How Do I Know if My SAT Score Is Good Enough For My Dream School?

Fortunately, most colleges publish their average SAT scores and GPAs of incoming freshman on their websites, so it is pretty easy to see where your score needs to be for your dream school. For most schools, you don’t need a perfect SAT score. Your target score should fall between the 50th and 75th percentile of scores for your chosen school.

Sometimes the overall SAT percentiles are misleading. Some schools will publish their overall SAT statistics, based on how they prioritize in state students. In state students scores are generally lower than out of state students. Also, different programs within certain schools have different requirements and averages.

Check with the schools you are considering for information on their average SAT scores as well as their GPA averages. Take a look at this list for averages for schools across the country. From here, you can determine what a good score is for you. If you aren’t sure about different score priorities, call the admissions officers at your school of choice or work with your counselor to find out.

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