An Analysis: the New SAT vs ACT

As many have read about, and some have begun to study, there is a New SAT that goes into full effect March of 2016. So, do you study for this New SAT, with minimal available study material, or do you switch over and definitely take the ACT? I took a look at the New SAT and here is my analysis …

NB: It has been argued that the SAT is changing, once again, because the College Board fears that the ACT is the college test of choice, the changes, markedly making the SAT much more similar to the ACT would back that theory.

BIG ITEM OF NOTE: In one big change to copy the ACT, the New SAT will only have 4 option choices (A, B, C, and D) rather than its previous 5. With the additional change of not losing any points on a wrong answer, the New SAT says, “Hey, why try, just guess!” even more than in the past.

The New SAT breaks down as follows:

SECTION 1: READING: 52 Questions in 65 Minutes.
SECTION 2: WRITING and LANGUAGE: 44 Questions in 35 Minutes.
SECTION 3: MATH (no calculator): 15 Multiple-Choice & 5 Grid-Ins within a time of 25 Minutes.
SECTION 4: MATH (with calculator): 30 Multiple-Choice & 8 Grid-Ins within a time of 55 Minutes.
OPTIONAL: ESSAY in 50 Minutes

A Deeper Look: SECTION 1 – READING [52 Questions]

READING consists of long-passage analyses, similar to the current/old SAT, but with less convolution within the questions. Don’t worry, the vocabulary of this New SAT is much easier, so if you don’t know what convolution means, that’s okay, the questions are more straight-forward rather than being annoying. You still get your standard “What is the author doing here” type questions, but they are a little easier to comprehend. A step in the right direction.

There are a series of long passages and, like the ACT, the passages now relate to a broader spectrum of material including science and accompanying graphs.

A Deeper Look: SECTION 2 – WRITING and LANGUAGE [44 Questions]

WRITING and LANGUAGE consists of small passages to medium-long passages with underlined words or phrases, and questions that relate to word choice and grammar. Again, the questions are a little more simply put to the test-taker and do not involve overly complex vocabulary. Boom, you are done with Verbal. MUCH easier than the previous version. The need to study vocab is pretty much unneeded anymore. Read a few good books and look up words you don’t know and you will be fine. Focus on understanding the grammar of things better.

To note: Even the way the answer choices are worded copy the ACT “NO CHANGE” first option. The College Board should look up the vocab word “plagiarize”, not that vocabulary that strong is needed anymore.

VERBAL: Positives – Much simpler and easier. Negatives – Still doesn’t test punctuation, capitalization, or many basic writing skills, and is much less grammatically intense as the previous/current version.

A Deeper Look: SECTION 3 – MATH (no calculator) [20 Questions]

This is a change, and a welcome one! If you cannot do mental math, you are at a disadvantage in today’s world. You should be able to calculate change due when you buy something and also be able to calculate your paycheck. Yes, you may always have a smart fun, but maybe you won’t. Also, it probably helps fight off forms of dementia.

You are still given the same essential reference materials on area and volume at the start.

The questions are more straight forward, always a bonus, but the material is a little harder at times. Harder and easier at the same time. Everyone who has taken up to junior year level math will know all the material. There seems to be a good level of Algebra, some Geometry, Absolute Value is still in there, and imaginary numbers. But, again, nothing too complex. It seems as if the College Board’s approach in the New SAT is to be very basic with what is being asked. Much like the SAT II (Subject Test) it is more now about knowledge than “figuring out” what the heck the test is trying to ask or trick you with. That’s a good thing. That said, at some level it does feel a bit dumbed down, to the benefit of test-takers most likely, so I will leave it at that.

A Deeper Look: SECTION 4 – MATH (with calculator) [38 Questions]

To note, off the bat, the “with calculator” section has just under double the number of questions you have to answer in the without a calculator section. The College Board does realize that Texas Instruments pretty much lobbied the entire math textbook world into their corner so the game is played appropriately.

As with the previous SAT version, even though you are allowed a calculator, it does not mean that using one will be the most efficient use of time. That said, there are more questions that involve decimals or larger multipliers that will include the need for a calculator, but the problems do not seem that much more difficult than those in the no calculator section.

The calculator active section does include MORE word problems of slightly longer length, but not in the tricky way that the previous/current SAT utilizes word problems.

The questions, in general, are not that hard feeling, comparative to the types of math questions on the previous/current SAT. The exception being that the grid-ins in Section 4 seem to be on the more challenging side.

MATH: Positives – More straight forward and simpler. Negatives – Doesn’t involve much lateral thinking anymore.

A Look: THE ESSAY – 50 Minutes

The Essay is possibly the most changed of the New SAT. The Essay is no longer part of your score, it is optional, and instead of responding to a prompt, you read a short passage and write an analytical essay rather than an argumentative one off of the prompt.

This makes me a little sad. I liked the argumentative essay, it forced critical thinking, coming up with supportive points, and allowed the writer to have a little fun with the writing. Also, among the things we do most in the world, and in education, is write. No, in the real world the essays are not timed, so any standardized test situation is unusual at best, but we do tend to make points in life, and form arguments, and think critically about this thing or that. The optional nature and the change to “Analyze how Carter makes such and such argument without taking a side” style of essay makes it even more robotic and less of a tool for higher education, at least in my mind.



Section 1: ENGLISH: 75 Questions in 45 Minutes
Section 2: MATH: 60 Questions in 60 Minutes
Section 3: READING: 40 Questions in 35 Minutes
Section 4: SCIENCE: 40 Questions in 35 Minutes
Optional: ESSAY in 30 Minutes [thankfully still argumentative]

So, comparing with the New SAT:

ACT MATH = New SAT MATH, but ACT is allowed calculator the whole time and has no Grid-Ins
ACT SCIENCE = Sort of New SAT READING (the more Science-y passages)

Both tests (without the optional Essay) come in at approximately 3 hours worth of graded material (175 minutes for ACT & 180 minutes for the New SAT).

So, which to take? With everything in life, it depends on the person, the below is a list of possible questions to think about or factors to weigh in:

Is the Essay of value to you? If yes, the ACT argumentative essay seems like a stronger essay choice. The New SAT essay of writing sort of an elementary school styled book report essay would possibly make me opt out on material alone. That said, the New SAT essay will involve much less thought and just straight analysis, so if that is what you like, then the New SAT essay is just for you!

Total Questions: The ACT has 215 questions while the New SAT has shed its numbers and now only has 154 questions. That is a significant difference. The length of the test is the same but other than the WRITING and LANGUAGE Section of the New SAT, you actually get more than a minute per problem. If you are a slow reader, even with extra time, the New SAT may be better for you on timing alone.

Do you hate mental math? The math in the New SAT no calculator Section is not extremely hard, but you still are not allowed a calculator. If the idea of not having a calculator accessible to check your work scares you, the ACT may be whispering your name a little more sweetly.

Multiple-Choice vs Grid-Ins … the ACT is all Multiple-choice while the New SAT retains the math Section Grid-In styled questions. Though all New SAT multiple-choice no longer hold a penalty for getting an incorrect answer (it used to be only the grid-ins that were penalty-free), the grid-ins still present the test-taker with self-generated answer only questions. Not too many, but could play a factor.

English vs Math Start: While the ACT does not start with a Math Section, it does have Math 2nd, and ends with Reading-styled questions. The New SAT seems to have a fixed Section format now and gets the English Sections out of the way first and end with the two Math Sections. For those who are stronger when they can do the English first and have all their energy, and thus ending with Math Sections, the New SAT has its charm.

So which one do you take? Review the above formats, breakdowns, and questions, and if that does not bring you closer, you may have to take one of each, the ACT and the New SAT, to tell. Don’t take a “mini” test. Half of the task of taking a standardized test is dealing with the length of the test. The mini tests out there do you more harm than good. Take a full test and deal with the energy drain for that is the only way to tell which sections you are better at taking when you are out of fuel. That could be the difference between a good standardized score and a great one.

I hope this has helped!


Evan Zeisel of
creating the nerds of tomorrow, today.

Comments are closed