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The New SAT vs. the ACT: Full Breakdown

Posted by Alex Heimbach | Jun 8, 2017 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 is 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 undertook a radical overhaul of the SAT that went effect in March of 2016 and, in many ways, made it much more similar to the ACT. Adding to the confusion is the fact that ACT, Inc. also made some minor changes to the ACT. 

I've included a basic timeline of when the changes went into effect below.


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


But clearly you're taking the test in or after March 2016; what you really want to know is, what are the differences between the new versions of the two tests?

The short answer is that the new tests are much more similar. The changes 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 look like in general, and then I'll break down the new similarities and unique characteristics of each test section by section:

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


Test Structure

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

The ACT structure, on the other hand, stayed 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, and 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 is 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
  • Essay (Optional): 1 prompt, 50 min

The basic ACT structure and timing has not changed, with the exception of the new essay, which is longer.

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

As you can see, the format of the redesigned SAT is 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. In 2005, 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 2400. Now the Writing and Reading sections count towards the same Evidence-Based Reading and Writing score, which are combined with the Math score to create a final score between 400-1600.

No more wrong answer penaltyYou are no longer 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 it doesn't affect scores that much and cuts down on students' reliance on test-taking strategies (a major goal for this overhaul).

The essay is given three different scores and no longer affects your total score. Since it's now optional, the new SAT essay works a lot more like the ACT essay—you receive separate essay scores that don't factor into your score on the 400-1600 range. The essay score itself also changed: rather than one score between 2 and 12, you 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 provides a number of subscores and cross-test scoresAnalysis 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 use these scores, so you shouldn't worry about them for now.


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

The exception is ACT Writing. It's still separate from the composite and scored on a scale of 2-12, but like the new SAT essay, it is also scored across multiple domains: Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use. Each of the subscores will be between 2 and 12; the average of these four subscores is your ACT Writing score.

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 previous incarnation. However, there are still some big changes. 

The new SAT Reading section only 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.

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

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 have been 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 section includes 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 you'll definitely need to study how to approach them if you're planning on taking the SAT.

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

Charts and figures in science passages. Two of the five passages on the redesigned SAT cover scientific topics and 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. SAT Reading tells you where to look for the answers to most questions, but one of the biggest challenges on 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 face with ACT Reading: you have roughly eight and half minutes per ten-question passage for the ACT Reading section, compared to 13 minutes per 10-11 minute passage on the SAT Reading section.





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


SAT Writing now also includes more of the same grammatical concepts as 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 involved a complete redesign of the Writing section, so that all of the questions are now presented in context. 

Writing and Language section included in Evidence-Based Reading and Writing score. For the new test, the Writing section is included in the same score as the Reading section, 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 are only a few questions of this type per test.

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 sometimes tests knowledge of more traditional vocabulary words like those that were 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. ACT English has almost twice as many questions as 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, ACT English has one type of question that the new SAT Writing does not have: 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 section as well.






SAT Math is the section of the SAT that remains the most similar structurally, but there were some pretty big changes in terms of content. Like the ACT Math section, SAT Math now includes some more advanced math topics like trigonometry and complex numbers, though there are only a few questions on these concepts.

New SAT Math questions are also be closer to ACT Math 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 SAT Math were designed to make it more similar to the tests you take in math class, meaning you're asked harder questions in a more straightforward way.

Divided into a calculator section and a no calculator section. 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, as 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 was shifting the focus of the test towards algebra. 61% of the questions 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 has also increased. Almost a third of the questions on the test deal with manipulating ratios and percents and understanding graphs and charts. 

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

Still has grid-ins. Like the previous version of the SAT, the redesigned Math section includes 13 Student-Produced Response questions, commonly known as grid-ins


ACT Math

ACT Math stayed 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 is 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, ACT Math tests more topics in general than 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 isn'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 "call[s] 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 includes 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 continues to have a lot more science questions, since it has a dedicated Science section. It also asks more complex questions than the new SAT does, especially with regards to experimental design



The essay is the one section for which both tests underwent a major overhaul. Moreover, the SAT essay and ACT Writing test both became more complex, rather than less so, and they both are optional.

Ideally, the changes to the essay 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 Reading, Analysis, and Writing Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use


Redesigned SAT Essay

The College Board shifted 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're given a text and asked to analyze the author's argument. Unlike the prompt for the previous SAT essay, the new essay assignment asks you to read and and analyze an argumentative essay. You're 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 author 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 that underwent major changes. Nonetheless, it's remaining more similar to its old format than the new SAT Essay did to its. Take a look at the sample prompt below to see what you'll be asked to write about.


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 previous 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've written an in-depth breakdown of how to decide whether you should take the redesigned SAT or the ACT here if you want to read through it, but for now, here are the important takeaway points as you create a long-term study plan.


Content Differences between the new SAT and ACT 

The redesigned SAT is much more content-based than the previous 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 Writing test and the new SAT essay are 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:

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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.

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