Digital SAT versus the ACT: which test should you take? In this blog, I am going to give you the rundown between the new digital SAT and the ACT exam. I’m going to talk about the similarities and differences of these tests, what people recommend, and give you the tools to make this decision yourself.
First, we’re going to talk about time. Time is probably the most infamous difference between the SAT and the ACT. The SAT is a shorter test overall, now clocking in at two hours and 14 minutes of active testing time. The ACT is 41 more minutes of active testing, clocking in at two hours and 55 minutes. The SAT has a reading and writing section that’s broken into two modules. The ACT adds a science section and an English section, but know that there are also English-style questions in the reading and writing sections of the SAT. You can see that there are actually more math questions on the SAT than on the ACT. And the science section of the ACT is actually more of a reading comprehension section, but it has lots of graphs and charts. So if those drive you bonkers, maybe the SAT is a better fit.
In any case, that’s the basic rundown. The SAT: you’ve got 134 minutes to finish 98 questions. On the ACT, you’ve got 175 minutes to finish 215 questions. Who is the winner? In my mind, it’s the SAT, because who doesn’t like shorter tests?
Next, let’s talk about the format. The digital SAT is offered only on a tablet or computer. The ACT, on the other hand, can be taken in some locations digitally on a computer, but most of the time it is given, at least on national test dates, in paper format. I personally love paper.
The digital SAT is adaptive. What that means is that you’re going to take two different sections, the reading section and the math section, but each section has two modules. Your performance on the first module in each section will determine whether you get the harder or the easier section for your second module in that subject domain. So, in the reading, you start off with reading module one. If you do well and you miss, say, fewer than about 10 items—and that number varies per test; it could be 10 items or 12 items, and it also depends on which items you miss because each one has a different point value—you will get shuttled to the harder section. If you don’t do as well, you will get shuttled to an easier section. But if you get shuttled to that easier section, there is a limit on how many points you can get. And what I found from my testing is that you can only score a maximum of maybe a 620 to a 660 on any given digital SAT per section if you trigger that lower point section, even if you get a perfect score on that second section. So for those students in that mid-score range who are scoring a 570 to a 640, it is really critical that you do well on the first section and trigger that harder second section so that you’re able to keep increasing your score.
And so for those students in that sort of nexus of scoring, you may have to decide whether your patterns of testing align with or are optimized by the digital SAT or by the ACT. We’re still getting to know the digital SAT, and we’ll see how that works, but again, the digital SAT is adaptive. The ACT, on the other hand, is just a regular old linear test. You do one section at a time, and you just kind of roll through it. I will say that there are some studies in social science that show that students learn more deeply when they read on paper, they’re able to focus better on paper, and they can work more quickly through reading passages. So even though the ACT is a faster test, I have found that some students just do better on paper. My colleagues that work in test prep who I talk to about the digital SAT versus ACT debate and have students that are ADD that have extra time swear by the ACT, in part because of this paper reason. You also get extra time on the ACT, so that test becomes easier to tackle. If you have trouble with focus, the ACT may be a better test for you, especially if you have accommodations. So who is the winner on format? I don’t know, it’s a toss-up; it really depends on what you like. But I like paper.
Vibe and Content
So, the next thing I’m going to talk about is kind of the vibe of the test as well as what kind of content is on the test section by section. First, we’re going to talk about the reading and science sections. Why have I grouped those together? Well, on the ACT, the reading section includes science passages, and that’s how it tests science. Though the science section is kind of its own unique beast on the ACT, it’s a lot of graph and chart reading. The SAT, in correlation, has something called command of evidence quantitative questions that require you to read graphs and charts. This section is similar to the ACT science section in some ways, but it’s not really a section; it’s a question type, and it occurs only a few times per test. So, you’re just not going to be graph and chart reading as much, which is maybe the first differential between the tests. I have some students who swear that they really hate and don’t do well in the ACT science section. I have a student that I’m working with right now on the digital SAT, and the graph and chart questions still totally royally grill her because she just has trouble remembering to take stock of all the little details,read all the labels, and just be really precise. It’s just a challenging skill for her for whatever reason, and she does better on the digital SAT because she always bombed the science section on the ACT. So always make sure you take a practice science section before you determine which tests you want to take, because that’s a pretty big difference.
The second difference—and this is more of a character differential—is that I like to say that the SAT tends to be more of a test of nuance. To get questions right on the SAT, you have to choose the best answer of those available, not the perfect answer. None of your SAT choices will be in the red center of a dartboard. They’re all going to be somewhere on the dartboard; maybe one is off the dartboard, maybe one’s on the very edge of the dartboard, and then there’s two others, and you have to determine which answer choice is what I call closest to perfect, not which one is perfect. So being able to determine which answer choice is a little bit better than another answer choice, that reading into the nuance, you have to be able to do that on the SAT to succeed. It’s not going to be as clear as a bell, and if you can manage nuance, you might perform better on the SAT than the ACT. Now, if that sounds like torture and you are more of a straightforward, what you see is what you get kind of person, the ACT may be the test for you. The ACT generally, at least in the reading and science section, is 97% of the time very straightforward. If you find the right evidence, it will look like the answer choices. You have to paraphrase a little bit, and you have to do a little bit of interpretation, but it’s pretty much like if you find it, you get it. You find it; you get it. Over and over again, it is a scavenger hunt. If you are a grinder, if you work hard, and if you can work on improving your speed, accuracy, and precision, the ACT might be the right test for you.
Also, another difference in the reading section is that the SAT has paragraph-long passages only, while the ACT has full-page passages. So depending on your ability to focus, this is another reason why sometimes students with learning differences are better off with the ACT, because they have to just focus on one passage, and once they get that one passage, they can kind of work on all the questions. On the SAT, you’re constantly being asked to refocus on a new topic, and that constant channel-changing in your brain to new things can be exhausting for some students who struggle with focus. So that’s something to keep in mind.
The other thing is that the SAT reading level tends to be a little bit harder in terms of grade level. It could be 12th grade or even college-level reading level. There’s also poetry on the SAT, and some students do not like poetry. The ACT passages tend to be a little bit lower in reading level, but they are longer. Still, that’s something to keep in mind, depending on how strong of a reader you are.
Moving onto math, I like to call the ACT a final exam for every class you’ve ever taken or never taken, because if you’ve never had statistics, well, it’s a final exam on that too. ACT covers a lot of different question types, and there’s a lot of breadth in terms of what kind of questions might show up. The SAT has a smaller sample set of the kinds of things it asks about. So, once you master SAT math, you’ve mastered it. And because there are fewer types of items on the SAT, I find some students find it easier to study for the SAT math section than for the ACT math section. That being said, the SAT tends to include some really challenging abstract-thinking upper-level advanced algebra questions. If algebra is your weak point, the SAT drills algebra like crazy. The ACT has a few more items in geometry and trigonometry. So, if those are your strong math points, you might fare better on the ACT. The SAT in the math section also tends to reward clever thinkers and people who think in shortcuts. Additionally, the SAT allows you to use Desmos. So if you know how to, as I like to say, Desmos out questions, you might do well on the SAT. So, which is better for math? It really depends on you and what you’re working on.
Let’s talk about English. The ACT English section is hands-down the easiest section on either of these tests to prepare for. If that is your lowest score, when you take practice tests to compare, definitely take the ACT because you can get that score up really easily. It’s so straightforward; you learn the rules, and you’ll get the points. SAT, on the other hand, has some more complex kinds of grammar questions, particularly boundaries questions, that have to do with phrasing and clauses and require really digging in and understanding the complex way that a sentence works, as well as the meaning of transition words and how those play into the punctuation that’s appropriate. The reading and writing section on the SAT is basically reading and grammar. They can be harder for some students to broach, and a lot of them are still struggling with how to use a colon or how to use a dash. So, it tends to be a little bit more challenging if grammar is your nemesis. The ACT is probably the winner on the English-type questions.
Finally, a quick note on the essay. The ACT offers an optional essay. The SAT does not if you’re taking a national test sitting, but if you take a school day test, you might have to take the essay depending on what state you live in and what your district’s policy is toward that. But the essay doesn’t really matter for college admissions right now because it’s not being given by the SAT. It’s sort of become a moot point in admissions and is not really being considered much, so I wouldn’t worry about it.
High Scores vs. Low Scores
In the test prep community, there’s sort of this belief among some of my colleagues that if you score a 1000 or lower on your SAT, it is easier to prep for the ACT than the SAT because it’s just a more straightforward test and a little bit easier to grind it out. The ACT has this reputation as sort of the grinder test, so if you’re the kind of student that can just work really hard and grind it out, that could be the test for you. The SAT has a little bit more of a reputation if you’re a student who is kind of just a more abstract creative thinker, who thinks in shortcuts, and who’s always looking for the easy way to solve a problem.
In addition, I tend to work with extremely high scores. Maybe it’s my branding, but because I work with a lot of top students, we often lean towards the SAT because most of my students want to be National Merit Scholars or National Merit Commended students. And in order to qualify for those programs, you have to take the PSAT and perform well on it. And why prep for two tests, the PSAT and the ACT, when you can basically prep for one? The PSAT is essentially the same test as the SAT, just with a little bit lower scoring range and maybe a few easier questions as opposed to hard questions, but it really comes down to the scoring. You can have hard questions on a PSAT, and they just might not count for as many points, or you might not earn as many points for them. So yeah, with my top scores, we tend to lean SAT, but it really just has to do with the fact that we don’t want to prep for two tests.
So who’s the winner of this round? If you’re a high scorer, it tends to be the SAT. If you’re a low scorer, it tends to be ACT, but that doesn’t mean it’s the full story for everyone.
The Best Test For You
Final round. What’s the best test for you? How do you determine that? The best way to determine it is to take a practice SAT, take a practice ACT, and compare your scores. How do you do that? We have an awesome concordance table on our blog that we have custom-created based on user percentiles and national percentiles to estimate what a correlated ACT score would be if you took the PSAT sophomore year. Now, if you’re about equal, it’s up to you. Which tests do you like better? Which tests are you going to put more time into? Because that’s what matters most. Your effort and your personal determination to improve and do better are what’s going to dictate how well you do on these tests. It’s about you, people. And if you like one better than the other, well, I say go for that.
I hope you guys found this helpful!