Comparing the ACT and the new SAT

In 2016, the SAT underwent some changes. The goal was to make it more straightforward, more similar to how students are assessed in school, and, perhaps, more comparable to the ACT. The new SAT returned to the original SAT scoring (between 400-1600), and they eliminated the wrong answer policy. The new SAT format includes one reading/writing section, two math sections (one to be completed with a calculator and one to be completed without a calculator), and an optional essay section. The essay receives three different scores, but the essay scores will not affect the student’s composite score.

SAT

  • Reading: 52 questions, 65 minutes
  • Writing and Language: 44 questions, 35 minutes
  • Math: no calculator, 20 questions, 25 min; with calculator—38 questions, 55 min
  • Optional essay: 1 prompt, 50 min

ACT

  • English: 75 questions, 45 min
  • Math: calculator, 60 questions, 60 min
  • Reading: 40 questions, 35 min
  • Science: 40 questions, 35 min
  • Optional writing: 1 prompt, 40 min

The reading section

The SAT reading section remains similar to its predecessor but now includes longer passages. Without sentence completions or short passages, it looks a lot more like the ACT reading section: a series of 500-750 word passages with questions. In addition, the passages look more like something a student would read in school (classic texts, historically important works, etc.) Two of the five passages cover scientific topics, and thee include charts and figures. One of the biggest changes to this section involves evidence questions. These questions will ask students to indicate which part of the passage supports their answer to a previous question.

The new SAT appears to be more focused on analyzing specific points in the passage and understanding how the author constructs an argument, while the ACT emphasizes reading comprehension. The ACT questions often require students to search for the information they need, while the SAT questions direct students where to look for most answers.

  New SAT ACT
Time 65 min (approx. 13 min/passage) 35 min (approx. 9 min/passage)
Number of questions 5 passages, 52 questions 4 passages, 40 questions
Passage types 1 U.S. or World Literature, 2 History or Social Studies, 2 Science 1 Prose Fiction or Literary Narrative, 1 Social Sciences, 1 Humanities, 1 Natural Sciences
Question types Main Idea, Vocab-in-Context, Inference, Evidence Support, Data Reasoning, Technique, Detail-Oriented Main Idea, Vocab-in-Context, Inference, Detail-Oriented 

The English/writing section

The new SAT English/writing section has changed from the old SAT, and it now uses the same passage-based format as the ACT English section. It includes more of the same grammatical concepts as the ACT English section and for that reason, will likely be more familiar to students of the ACT.

New SAT ACT
Time 35 min (approx. 9 min/passage) 45 min (approx. 9 min/passage)
Number questions 4 passages, 44 questions 5 passages, 75 questions
Content Standard English Conventions: 20 questions (45%), covering sentence structure, conventions of usage, and conventions of punctuation
Expression of Ideas: 24 questions (55%), covering development, organization and effective language use
Usage and Mechanics: sentence structure (20-25%), grammar and usage (15-20%), and punctuation (10-15%)
Rhetorical Skills: style (15-20%), strategy (15-20%), and organization (10-15%)

The math sections

The new SAT math section is  similar structurally to its predecessor, but there are some big changes in terms of content. Like the ACT math section, the new SAT now includes more advanced math topics such as trigonometry and complex numbers, though there are only a few of these type of math questions. The new SAT math questions are stylistically more similar to the ACT math questions, and they probably seem more similar to what students encounter during in-class math assessments.

The no-calculator section of the new SAT only requires basic calculations that students can likely compute in their head. This new test is more algebra-heavy and has more data analysis; approximately one-third of the questions involve manipulating rations and percents and understanding graphs and charts. This means there will only be six geometry questions, and the test provides many formulas. This could be helpful for students who find geometry more challenging than algebra.

As for the ACT, there are a few minor changes this year. The test remains more geometry-heavy and does not provide formulas to test takers. Therefore, students with strength in geometry might excel in the ACT math section. The ACT also incorporates a wider range of math concepts such as logs, graphs of trig functions, and matrices. Basing one’s decision on the math sections is probably too narrow for selection criteria, but students’ depth of math knowledge and their achievement in math could be a helpful starting point when trying to decide which standardized test to take.

New SAT ACT
Time Calculator: 55 min
No Calculator: 25 min
60 min
Number questions Calculator: 38 questions
No Calculator: 20 questions
60 questions
Topics Heart of Algebra — 33%
Problem Solving and Data Analysis — 28%
Passport to Advanced Math — 29%
Additional Topics in Math — 10%
Pre-algebra — 20-25%
Elementary algebra — 15-20%
Intermediate algebra — 15-20%
Coordinate geometry — 15-20%
Plane geometry — 20-25%
Trigonometry — 5-10% 

The science section

The new SAT does not have a dedicated science section, but students will encounter science questions in other sections.

The ACT still has a dedicated science section, and remains the last section on the ACT, apart from the optional writing section. It also asks more complex questions than the new SAT.

The essay/writing sections

The new SAT and ACT have both changed their essay/writing sections. It is more complex on both tests than previous years, but it remains optional on both tests. The overall goal of the SAT and ACT essay/writing changes is to better assess students’ ability to show that they understand and can develop cogent, written arguments.

The new SAT shifted the essay/writing section from developing a written argument to analyzing a written argument. Three main skills are assessed: reading, analysis, and writing. As the sample prompt below indicates, the new SAT essay/writing section is asking students to provide an explanation regarding how the author makes his/her point. Like many of the other new SAT sections, the SAT essay/writing section reflects more of what students encounter in their high school English classes.

In terms of the ACT, students will find the biggest changes in 2016 are in the essay/writing section. The new prompt format provides students with three perspectives on an issue, and asks them to evaluate each. Unlike the SAT, students must argue for their own opinion/position on the issue, using specific examples.

New SAT ACT
Time 50 min 40 min
Optional? Yes Yes
Scoring Domains Writing, Reading, and Analysis Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions