SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

The New SAT vs. the ACT: Full Breakdown

Posted by Alex Heimbach | Jun 30, 2015 9:00:00 AM

SAT versus ACT, New SAT



For the past decade or so, the SAT has come under increasing scrutiny for its confusing structure, trick questions, and obscure vocabulary. Meanwhile, the ACT was often seen as the fairer test, more closely based in what students learn in school.

So now, as you may have heard, the College Board is undertaking a radical overhaul of the SAT that will go into effect in March of 2016 and will, in many ways, make it much more similar to the ACT. Adding to the confusion is the fact that ACT, Inc. is also in the process of making more minor changes to the ACT. 

I've included a basic timeline of when the changes go into effect below, so you can determine which, if any, of the changes will apply to you.


Early 2015 or before

Slight changes to ACT question distribution

Paired passages on ACT reading

Fall 2015

New ACT Writing test

Redesigned PSAT

March 2016

Redesigned SAT


As you can see, the changes to the SAT won't affect you if you're planning to take the test this fall. However, the new ACT essay will be in effect—if you're primarily concerned with that, try our post on the ACT enhanced writing test.

But let's assume you're taking the test in or after March 2016; what you really want to know is what the differences will be between the new versions of the two tests.

The short answer is that they will be much more similar. The changes to the test have eliminated many of the two tests' major differences in both style and content. Nonetheless, there remain some important variations between the tests—some long-standing and some newly introduced.

I'm going to start by talking about what the two new tests will look like in general, and then I'll break down the new similarities and unique characteristics of each test section by section:

  • Structure: Timing, Sections, and Scoring
  • Reading
  • Writing/English
  • Math
  • Science
  • Essay


Test Structure

One of the goals of the SAT overhaul is to make the test more straightforward, so many of its structural oddities (like the wrong answer penalty) have been eliminated. The College Board is also streamlining the structure by including only one section of each type (except for the math), rather than three.

The ACT structure, on the other hand, is staying mostly the same. Let's go over the layout of the two tests, so you can understand the similarities and differences between them.


Timing and Sections

The New SAT has only one reading section and one writing section—the math section is divided into a calculator portion and a no-calculator portions. The sections will always be in the same order. The test will be 3 hours, plus the optional essay. The exact breakdown, in order, looks like this:

  • 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

The basic ACT structure and timing is remaining the same, with the exception of the new essay, which will be longer.

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

As you can see, the format of the redesigned SAT will be more similar to that of the ACT than to that of its previous incarnation.





The SAT redesign also involves some major changes to the scoring. Let's go through them one at a time.


Returning to the 400-1600 scale. Ten years ago, when the College Board last implemented major changes to the SAT, it added the Writing section; there were then three scores from 200-800 to combine, making the top possible score a 2400. Now the writing and reading sections will count to the same Evidence-Based Reading and Writing score, which will be combined with the Math score to create a final score between 400-1600.

No more wrong answer penaltyYou will no longer be penalized by 1/4 point for every wrong answer! The idea of that policy was to discourage guessing, but the College Board's research has found that eliminating won't affect scores that much and will cut down on students' reliance on test-taking strategies (a major goal for this overhaul).

The essay will be given three different scores and no longer affects your total score. Since it's now optional, the new SAT essay will work a lot more like the ACT essay—you'll receive a separate essay score that doesn't factor into your score on the 400-1600 range. The essay score itself is also changing: rather than one score between 2 and 12, you'll get three scores, for reading, analysis, and writing, between 2 and 8.

Lots of subscores. As part of their attempt to provide more helpful information to colleges, the College Board will be providing a number of subscores and cross-test scores: Analysis in History/Social Studies, Analysis in Science, Command of Evidence, Words in Context, Expression of Ideas, Standard English Conventions, Heart of Algebra, Problem Solving and Data Analysis, and Passport to Advanced Math. It's unclear how, or if, colleges will be using these scores, so you shouldn't worry about them for now.


The ACT scoring, on the other hand, is staying mostly the same—section scores from 1-36 averaged to create a composite also between 1 and 36.

The exception is the ACT Writing. It will still be a separate score, but it will now be on a scale of 1-36, rather than 2-12. Also, like the new SAT essay, it will be scored across multiple domains: Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions. Each of the subscores will be between 2 and 12.

Now that we've covered the big picture changes, let's move on to the nitty-gritty of each test section.


body_oldbooks.jpg(©Sharon & Nikki McCutcheon)



The redesigned SAT reading is the section that is most similar to its current incarnation. However, there are still some big changes coming. 

The new SAT reading will include only longer passages. Without sentence completions or short passages, it will look a lot more like the ACT reading: a series of 500-750 word passages with questions.

Moreover thanks to a recent change to the ACT, both tests will feature paired passages going forward.

Now that we've established the two new tests' basic similarities, let's dive into some of the unique features of each test. The chart below shows the basic specifications for each test, and below I've broken down what you need to know about each test in detail.

Time 65  min 35 min
# 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


Redesigned SAT Reading

Although the sentence completions and short passages are being eliminated, the remaining long reading passages look more or less the same as they always have, with a few exceptions.

Inclusion of classic texts. As part of the plan to make the reading texts more complex and therefore more similar to what you might read in school, the new SAT reading will include excerpts from texts from the Western canon, including stories and essays by famous authors, U.S. founding documents, and other historically important works. Because these are often quite old, they include a lot more challenging language.

Evidence questions. One of the big changes to the SAT reading that you may have heard about is the addition of the new evidence questions, which ask you to indicate which part of the passage supports your answer to a previous question. These questions are tricky, and if you're planning to take the new SAT, you'll definitely need to study how to approach them.

Questions go in chronological order. This is one aspect of the SAT reading that isn't changing and that really sets it apart from the ACT. 

Charts and figures in science passages. Two of the five passages on the redesigned SAT will cover scientific topics, and these will include charts and figures. 



ACT Reading

The big difference between the ACT and the SAT remains how you need to budget time. While the SAT is more focused on analyzing specific points in the passage and understanding how the author constructs an argument, the ACT is more about reading comprehension.

Randomly ordered questions. The SAT reading tells you where to look for the answers to most questions, but one of the biggest challenges on the ACT reading is finding the information you need. The questions are ordered randomly and often do not give line numbers, which can make finding specific details very tricky.

Less time per question. The strict time constraints are the other big difficulty most students fact with the ACT reading: you have roughly eight and half minutes per ten question passage for the ACT reading, compared to 13 minutes per 10-11 minute passage on the SAT.





Of the three SAT sections, the Writing is undergoing the biggest changes, though, if you've taken the ACT, its new format is going to look familiar. The new SAT Writing uses the same passage-based format as the ACT English.


The SAT writing will now also include more of the same grammatical concepts as the ACT English, most notably punctuation.


Time 35  min 45 min
# of 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%)


Despite the massive similarities between these two sections, there are still some noticeable differences—let's go through them one at a time.


Redesigned SAT Writing

As I noted above, the SAT overhaul involves a complete redesign of the writing section, so that all of the questions are presented in context. 

Writing and Language section included in Evidence-Based Reading and Writing score. For the new test, the writing section will be included in the same score as the reading, returning the SAT to its original 400-1600 scale.

Slightly more focused on writing style. The redesigned writing section has slightly more questions about "Expression of Ideas," namely writing style and argument, than ones about "Standard English Conventions," namely grammar and sentence structure. 

Includes charts and graphs. Like the new reading section, the new writing section includes charts and graphs in its passages. However, there will only be a few questions of this type.

Some word choice questions involve challenging vocab. While word choice questions on the ACT are more focused on nuanced differences between common words, this type of question on the new SAT will sometimes test knowledge of more traditional vocabulary words like those that are included in sentence completions.


ACT English

Again, the similarities between these sections are much greater than their differences, but the ACT does emphasize slightly different skills than the new SAT.

A lot more questions. The ACT English has almost twice as many questions as the SAT Writing. This doesn't necessarily make it more difficult, but it does necessitate a slightly different approach. For more suggestions on how to approach the ACT English passages, see our post on that topic.

Slightly more focused on grammar and conventions. While the new SAT includes a few more questions about style, the ACT has the emphasis reversed. It's primarily focused on the Usage and Mechanics questions, which cover sentence structure, grammar, and punctuation.

Big-picture questions. Though the two tests now cover almost all the same material, the ACT English has one type of question that the new SAT will not: main idea questions. Both tests ask questions like "what is the purpose of this passage?" on the reading section, but only the ACT includes them on the English as well.






The SAT math is the section of the test that's remaining most similar structurally, but there are some pretty big changes in terms of content. Like the ACT math, it will now include some more advanced math topics like trigonometry and complex numbers, though there will be only a few questions on these concepts.

The new SAT questions will also be closer to the ACT questions in style: they are more straightforward and test the kinds of math that you're learning in school rather than obscure topics like remainders.


Time Calculator: 55 min
No Calculator: 25 min
60 min
# of 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%


Redesigned SAT Math

The changes to the SAT math are designed to make it more similar to the tests you take in math class, meaning you'll be asked harder questions in a more straightforward way.

Divided into a calculator section and a no calculator section. The math on the new SAT is split over two sections, one for which you are allowed to use your calculator and one for which you aren't. Don't worry about the no-calculator section too much though, it will only require basic calculations that you can easily do in your head.

Heavily focused on algebra. As I mentioned above, one of the goals of the new SAT is to make it more similar to what you do in school and what you'll need for college. One part of this realignment is shifting the focus of the test towards algebra. 61% of the questions will deal with algebra topics, including manipulating equations and expressions, writing equations to solve word problems, solving quadratics, and working with formulas.

More data analysis. The proportion of questions focused on data analysis is also increasing. Almost a third of the questions on the test will deal with manipulating ratios and percents and understanding graphs and charts. 

Very little geometry. With so much of the new SAT math devoted to algebra and data analysis, there is very little room for geometry. In fact, only 6 questions will ask about geometry and trigonometry, though the test still provides most of the common formulas you'll need.

Still has grid-ins. Like the current version, the redesigned math section includes 13 Student-Produced Response questions, commonly known as grid-ins. 


ACT Math

The ACT math is staying more or less the same, despite some tweaks to topic distribution. However, the changes to the SAT have created some new differences between the tests.

Far more geometry and trigonometry. If you like geometry, the ACT will be the test for you. A quarter to a third of the questions on the math section deal with geometry or trig. However, unlike the SAT, the ACT doesn't provide formulas, so you'll absolutely have to know the common ones.

Wider range of material. In fact, the ACT tests more topics in general that the new SAT does. You may see questions about logarithims, graphs of trig functions, and matrices, none of which appear on the SAT.





There still won't be a science section on the new SAT, but the College Board is attempting to incorporate those skills into the other three sections. According to the SAT website,  the new test "will call on the same sorts of knowledge and skills that students will use in college, in their jobs, and throughout their lives to make sense of recent discoveries, political developments, global events, and health and environmental issues."

To that end, the redesigned SAT will include questions that ask you to analyze a chart or graph in all three sections, as well as two reading passages on scientific topics.

The ACT will continue to have a lot more science questions, since it has a dedicated science section. It also asks more complex questions than the new SAT will, especially with regards to experimental design



The essay is the one section for which both tests are undergoing a major overhaul. Moreover, the SAT essay and ACT writing test are both becoming more complex, rather than less so, and they will both be optional.

Ideally, the changes to the essay will create results that better reflect your ability to understand and build arguments, though it remains to be seen how many schools will require the essay section once it's optional for both tests. 


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


Redesigned SAT Essay

The College Board is shifting the SAT essay essay task from one that asks you to make an argument to one that asks you to dissect an argument. Take a look at the sample prompt below to get a sense of the type of question you'll be asked.


You'll be given a text and asked to analyze the author's argument. Unlike the prompt for the current SAT essay, the new essay assignment will ask you to read and and analyze an argumentative essay. You'll be graded on all three skills: reading, analysis, and writing.

They don't want your opinion. You may have noticed that the new essay prompt specifies that it doesn't matter what your opinion on the issue is—they only want you to explain how the other makes his point.

More similar to essays in English class and on AP tests. In keeping with the College Board's goal to make the SAT more accurately reflect the skills you learn in school, the new essay task is much closer to the type of essay you're asked to write in school.


ACT Writing

The Writing section (essay) is the only part of the ACT undergoing major changes. Nonetheless, it's remaining more similar to its old format than the SAT Essay is to its.


Asked to analyze three perspectives on an issue. Rather than simply laying out a question, the new prompt gives you three perspectives on an issue and asks you to evaluate them.

Must argue for your own opinion. Like the current ACT and SAT essay prompts, the new ACT writing task requires you to argue for your own position on the issue.

Need to generate specific examples. Since the prompt itself only provides perspectives on the issue, not facts, you'll need to come up with specific examples to bolster your argument.


body_handwriting-1.jpgImage credit: Caleb Roenigk


What Do These Differences Mean for You?

I'll be posting an in-depth breakdown of how to decide whether you should take the redesigned SAT or the ACT soon, but for now, here are the important takeaway points as you create a long term study plan.


Class of 2017: Take the ACT or the current SAT

If you're a rising junior, you're likely better off taking the current SAT (before it switches to the new format) or the ACT. Studying for a brand new version of a standardized test is tricky because there's less information about what to expect and fewer materials you can use to prep.

However, the College Board has done a fairly good job of providing official study materials through their partnership with Khan Academy—if you're curious about the new SAT, take a practice test and see how it goes.


Content Differences between the new SAT and ACT 

The redesigned SAT is much more content based than the current version, so if you're planning to take the new SAT make sure you understand what will be on it. Also, keep in mind that the ACT still tests more grammar and math concepts than the new SAT does.


Check Whether You Need to Take the Essay

Both the ACT enhanced writing test and the new SAT essay will be optional, so before registering for either test, make sure you know whether you need to take the essay. Requirements vary depending on what schools you're applying to, so if you aren't sure where you want to apply, you may want to go ahead and sign up for the essay.


What's Next?

If you've decided to take the new SAT, check out our study guide for the 2016 test.

On the other hand, if you think the ACT might be the test for you, try a practice test, calculate your goal, and check out our guide to a perfect score.


Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

Get eBook: 5 Tips for 160+ Points

Free eBook: 5 Tips to 4+ Points on the ACT


Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
Alex Heimbach
About the Author

Alex is an experienced tutor and writer. Over the past five years, she has worked with almost a hundred students and written about pop culture for a wide range of publications. She graduated with honors from University of Chicago, receiving a BA in English and Anthropology, and then went on to earn an MA at NYU in Cultural Reporting and Criticism. In high school, she was a National Merit Scholar, took 12 AP tests and scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and ACT.

Get Free Guides to Boost Your SAT/ACT
100% Privacy. No spam ever.

You should definitely follow us on social media. You'll get updates on our latest articles right on your feed. Follow us on all 3 of our social networks:

Twitter and Google+

Ask a Question Below

Have any questions about this article or other topics? Ask below and we'll reply!