We have identified several key trends that families should consider when deciding between the new SAT and the ACT.
1) The new SAT requires students to spend more time prepping than the ACT does. Test preparation works for the new SAT just as it does for the ACT (and any other standardized exam for that matter, including the IQ test). However, the scope of the material covered on the new SAT is broader and more complex than on the ACT. The types of questions on the new SAT are also more varied and complex. This means that nearly all students need to spend more time and energy preparing for the new SAT in order to achieve commensurate gains to what they would have achieved had they been preparing for the ACT. Parents and students should carefully weigh this information when deciding between preparing for the ACT and the new SAT.
2) The verbal portion of the new SAT is much more complex than it was on the old SAT. The verbal sections on the new SAT present more complex content through a wider variety of question types. For example, the new SAT tests a wider breadth of grammar rules and places more focus on original historical documents than the ACT does. We plan to go into further detail on this topic in a separate post next month, as this is very much at the heart of why the new SAT requires students to spend more time and energy preparing for it in order to achieve score gains commensurate to what they would have achieved on the ACT in less time.
3) The new SAT test requires having previously taken advanced math courses. We've known for quite some time that the new SAT would assess more advanced math skills than the previous version of the exam, but this idea is worth repeating for families who are just learning about the differences between the new SAT and the ACT. The new SAT covers more advanced math content than both the ACT and the old SAT, thus making it a much more challenging test for students who are not taking advanced math classes, such as Pre-Calculus, by their junior year in school. In the majority of cases, these students would be better served by preparing for the ACT.
4) Students who begin scoring below the 50th percentile on the new SAT will be better served preparing for the ACT. Many students who begin scoring below the 50th percentile on the ACT are able to improve their scores in dramatic fashion through a combination of hard work and expert instruction. We have seen a number of students over the years who were initially scoring in the bottom half of the country improve their scores enough to propel them into the top quartile or even the top ten percent nationally. This will be much more difficult to achieve with the new SAT. Due to the breadth and complexity of the material tested on the new SAT, students with starting scores below the 50th percentile will be better served preparing for the ACT.
5) Non-native English speakers should choose carefully between the ACT and the new SAT. Many international students who are not native English speakers assume that the new SAT will prove a better fit for them due to the SAT placing a stronger emphasis on math (the new SAT total score is 50% math-based whereas the ACT composite score is only 25% math-based). However, the opposite often proves true for these students, as even the math portion of the new SAT is strongly rooted in word problems requiring strong language skills. We have found that non-native English speakers often struggle with the idioms and minor nuances of language that are tested on the new SAT. These students also often have difficulty with the new SAT's critical reading questions that pertain to historical documents. As such, we recommend that non-native English speakers avoid leaping to conclusions that one test or the other will play more to their strengths. Instead, like everyone else, they should take proctor-administered practice tests of the SAT and the ACT under simulated test-like conditions and compare the results on a percentile basis with the guidance of a college counselor or reputable test prep professional.
6) The top one-tenth of one percent of test-takers might be better off with the new SAT. We have recently heard quite a bit of chatter among college counselors that many of the top colleges in the country will be more impressed by a perfect score on the new SAT than on the ACT. This line of thinking is based on an assumption that some top admissions officers will perceive that a perfect score on the new SAT is now more difficult to achieve than on the ACT. As such, students who are within striking distance of a perfect score on both the ACT and the new SAT might want to lean toward the new SAT. Only time will tell if this speculation can be substantiated with hard facts -- we'll be keeping a close eye on this trend through upcoming admissions cycles.
Final Thoughts: After assessing the data to date, we have found that the majority of students will be best served by preparing for the ACT. This is primarily due to the fact that while the new SAT is prepable, most students need to spend more time and energy preparing for the new SAT in order to achieve improvements similar to what they would have achieved had they been preparing for the ACT. There are exceptions:
- students who need to utilize the SAT's unique August test date.
- students whose practice test scores show a dramatic preference for the new SAT over the ACT (we recommend a percentile difference of at least fifteen points between the two exams and a starting SAT score above the 50th percentile in order to compensate for the extra time that will be required to adequately prepare for all aspects of the new SAT).
- students who are within striking distance of a perfect score on the new SAT.
We would also remind all families that the first step to deciding which exam to prepare for is to take proctor-administered practice exams of the SAT and the ACT under simulated test-like conditions (an official PSAT can be substituted for a practice SAT). Test Prep Gurus offers free diagnostic testing for the SAT, ACT, PSAT, ISEE, SSAT, and HSPT. Mock exams offer students the opportunity to see where they are currently scoring without having to record anything on their official records. To reserve your spot for free testing, visit our Contact page.
Parents and students can learn more about the differences between the ACT and SAT — including exam length, time per question, and the specific skills that will be tested — by downloading our ACT vs SAT infographic.
Also, look forward to an exclusive article in an upcoming blog post highlighting the specific content differences between the ACT and the new SAT.