How to Decide Whether the (New) SAT or ACT is Right for You

January 19, 2016
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For decades, test prep companies, tutors, and students have passed around maxims (sometimes bordering on mythological lore) that are intended to sort students into an SAT or an ACT box. Slow reader? Take the SAT! Good at science? Take the ACT!

Well, there’s a new test in town from the College Board in 2016, and for students beginning to think about testing, the question now has become “Is the ACT or the NEW SAT better for me?”

The Redesigned SAT (the “new” SAT) is pretty radically different from the old SAT: there’s no penalty for wrong answers, no testing of difficult vocabulary, and a new structure for every single section.

With such drastic changes, students need new guidelines to help them figure out whether they are better suited for the new SAT or the ACT. But don’t panic yet: our friends at Magoosh Test Prep have done some seriously thorough analysis of both tests to help you make your decision.

Timing and Pacing

The SAT has always been less time-pressured than the ACT, and the Redesigned SAT is no different.

The new SAT has 154 questions to complete in 3 hours, while the ACT has a whopping 215 questions to complete in 2 hours and 55 minutes. The ACT provides an additional 40 minutes to write the optional essay at the end while the SAT provides 50 minutes. On every single subject, the SAT allows more time per question than the ACT does. Granted, part of the reason for this bonus time is because many of the questions on the SAT are more complex, but this doesn’t take away from the fact that the ACT tends to feel like more of a sprint than the SAT.

  • The ACT might be better for you can read and process information quickly and can make fast decisions. Running out of time on a test in school has never been a problem for you.



  • The SAT might be better for you if…you have trouble finishing tests in time. You are prone to making mistakes when you are forced to move too quickly.


On the surface, the ACT English test and new SAT Writing test look almost identical. All of the questions are presented within the context of a passage. Basically, the idea is that you are editing a draft for someone else, fixing grammar errors and clarifying meaning as you go.

Although the differences here are more subtle than in the other subjects…

  • ACT English might be for you if...your reading skills are not as strong. All of the passages are fairly easy reading—around a 9th grade reading level. On the SAT, you’ll see more variation in passage difficulty and some questions testing subtler grammar issues.




  • SAT Writing might be for you if…you are a stronger reader and have eyes like a hawk when you are peer editing a friend’s paper. It’s also for you if you are taking statistics or simply like informational graphics—you’ll find a few questions that ask you to use tables or graphs in the passage to help you correct errors.  


Since both the ACT and the new SAT test more advanced math concepts such as trigonometry, radians, and complex numbers, the nature of the content probably won’t be the deciding factor for you on the math front. But the structure of the respective tests very well might be.  

  • ACT Math might be for you if…you are reliant on your calculator or answer choices to help you solve problems. The SAT has both a no-calculator section and multiple grid-in questions that don’t provide answer choices.




  • SAT Math might be for you if…you need a little more time to solve math problems. On the ACT, you have to work at a pace of 1 minute per question. On the SAT, you’ll have 1 minute and 26 seconds for each question on the calculator portion and 1 minute 15 seconds per question on the non-calculator portion.


  • ACT Reading might be for you if…you are a fast reader. The ACT passages are a little longer than SAT passages. Many questions will ask you about specific details that you need to locate in the passage, so you need the time to be able to do this after you read.




  • SAT Reading might be for you if…you are a strong literature student (meaning you like to read the “classics,” or, at the very least, you’re good at understanding them). All of the ACT passages are modern, but the new SAT has at least one or two classical texts, including one passage from a U.S. “Founding Document,” such as the Constitution or Federalist Papers, or a historical text from the “Great Global Conversation.”

Science (only on the ACT)

  • ACT Science might be for you if…you like science and are good at interpreting charts and graphs. You are good at honing in on important data and answering questions quickly.




  • The SAT might be for you take a practice ACT Science section and it makes no sense to you whatsoever. The ACT Science section is WEIRD and probably unlike anything you’ve ever done before. It’s worth considering with an open mind, and this means testing it out and seeing how you do.

Writing (optional on both ACT and New SAT)

  • ACT Writing might be for you are on the debate team or are simply great at winning arguments at the dinner table. The ACT essay asks you to analyze various perspectives on an issue and state your own case.




  • SAT Writing might be for you if…you’re good at analyzing texts. The SAT essay doesn’t ask you to present your own opinion, it asks you to explain how someone else supports their point of view. For many students, this is going to seem like a writing task much more like the ones they see in their English or history classes.

So now what do you think? Are you an ACT student or a new SAT test? If one test is clearly jumping out at you, go with your gut and try a practice test. If you’re not happy with your baseline results, try a practice test of the other exam. That’s the beauty of having options. But once you decide, go all in. For most students, concentrating all of their energy on one test is going to lead to happier results than dividing efforts between two.

Already take the tests and not sure where to apply? Check out our database of admitted students to see SAT and ACT scores from college students from all over. See where they got in, and find out how you can too. 

About The Author

Kristin Fracchia, Guest Blogger
Kristin Fracchia, Guest Blogger

Kristin Fracchia is from Magoosh Test Prep. Kristin creates awesomely fun ACT lessons and practice materials for Magoosh students. With a PhD from UC Irvine and degrees in Education and English, she’s been working in education since 2004 and has helped students prepare for standardized tests, as well as college and graduate school admissions, since 2007. She enjoys the agonizing bliss of marathon running, backpacking, hot yoga, and esoteric knowledge. 

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