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The ACT vs. the New SAT: Which one is right for you? (Part One)

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With the changes to the March 2016 SAT, it’s time to update our “ACT vs. SAT” guide. The redesigned SAT is more like the ACT than the old SAT was. Both the ACT and SAT now feature four answer choices, no penalty for incorrect answers, and an optional essay. Nevertheless, there are still some important differences that you should consider when deciding whether to take the ACT, the SAT, or both.

Because of the length of this guide, we’re splitting it into two parts. Part one covers general considerations, ACT Reading vs. SAT Reading, and ACT English vs. SAT Writing and Language. Part Two will compare the math and essay sections of both exams. It will also cover the ACT Science section, which is unique to that exam.

The Age of the Exams

Except for the Writing section (see below), the ACT has not changed substantially since 2005. On the other hand, the format of the March 2016 SAT (with one notable exception) is entirely new. While the age of the exams should not be your only consideration, it does directly impact the quantity and quality of resources available for each. There is a wealth of official and unofficial practice material available for the ACT. Because the revised SAT is so new, there are very few guides and practice tests, official or otherwise, currently on the market. The official guide contains only four practice tests, and the third party guides/tests that do exist vary widely in accuracy and consistency.

ACT English vs. SAT Writing and Language

The new SAT Writing and Language section is strikingly similar to the ACT English section. In fact, the two sections are so similar that you could conceivably use official practice tests from one exam to study for the other. Both present a series of short passages with deliberate errors in grammar and rhetoric. Each question appears directly across from the related part of the passage. The ACT includes more questions per passage, while the SAT occasionally asks students to incorporate information from a simple chart, graph, or table. In other words, the differences between ACT English and SAT Writing are essentially irrelevant when considering which exam to take.

ACT Reading vs. SAT Reading

The ACT and SAT Reading sections ask students to answer a series of multiple choice questions related to several short passages. The wording of ACT Reading questions and answer choices ranges from simple to somewhat convoluted. SAT Reading questions and answer choices, on the other hand, tend to be consistently short and straightforward.

Although shorter, SAT Reading questions are not necessarily easier. The passages include some fairly challenging questions where you must choose the set of lines that best supports your answer to the previous question. In addition, a couple of the passages include charts, graphs, or tables that you must successfully interpret to answer one or more of the questions. To compensate for these added tasks, the time limit of SAT Reading is more generous than that of ACT Reading. On both exams, correct answers must be directly supported by the passages. Neither Reading section requires students to draw on outside knowledge to correctly answer the questions.

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