SAT and ACT: What's the Difference?

Jul 24, 2017 | La Grange

Article written by Stewart Finnegan

The New SAT

The SAT is changing: from this year on, the test will have a different format, different scoring, and even measure different skills. But how will that affect your child? And should they take this new SAT or the ACT instead? Join us for a look at the new test’s math section to help clear things up.

The biggest change is what the SAT will test for. Originally, the SAT was designed as a sort of aptitude test, grading students more on their ability to reason than on skills they learned in class. Filled with logic problems and analogies, it could seem more like an IQ test than a final exam. Now, though, the SAT is designed to only measure a student’s understanding of what they learned in high school.

What does this mean for the math section?

Math is now split between two sections, one in which students are allowed calculators and one in which they are not. All the questions for the no-calculator section are written with that in mind, so your kid doesn’t need to panic. Still, if it’s been years since your child’s done math without a computer helping them out, encourage them to do simpler calculations in their head, both in math class and outside it.

As for content, the testmakers will ground their questions in both high school curriculums and the real world so that students will be more familiar with the content. Gone are arcane logic problems, replaced with geometry questions modeled off the core curriculum and algebra problems about Spotify royalties. This is good news: Now, more than ever, just doing schoolwork will prepare students for the test.

Finally, the SAT has gotten rid of its guessing penalty for all sections, math included, and this is huge. Past versions of the test would penalize wrong answers more harshly than blank ones, but that’s all over. Students can now tackle daunting problems without fear, and should fill in every answer on their test, even if they have to guess for the last few.



ACT vs. the new SAT? Play to your strengths

Once, the schools you’d apply to would determine which test you’d try to ace, but that time has passed. All four-year institutions in the country accept both ACT and SAT scores for their admissions process. This means that your child can--and should!--focus on the test that best fits their strengths.

But how do they make that decision? Well, the best way would be to do a practice test of each and compare them, but here are a few questions your child can ask themselves to make an educated guess.

How well do I handle time limits? The ACT gives you 60 minutes to answer 60 math questions. The SAT gives you 70 to answer 58. The ACT in general is much stingier with its time-per-question than the SAT, and students who thrive under the pressure of a ticking clock will be at an advantage over their peers.

Do long questions trip me up? The SAT’s longer time limit comes at a cost: Its questions are typically longer and more involved than the ACT’s.

A good example: question 3 on the math section of SAT Practice Test 8 (which you can download here).

The question really just wants you to rearrange the given equation, which is something you’ll find on both tests. Unique to the SAT, though, is that the equation is one with real world applications, and the test tells you what those are, even though they’re not necessary to solve the problem. The challenge, then, isn’t just doing the calculations, but figuring out what part of the question is actually important. These twists are common on the SAT.

Do I keep forgetting formulas? The SAT includes a glossary of common formulas at the start of the test. The ACT wants you to have all that memorized to begin with.

Can I work without a calculator? Every math question on the ACT allows for a calculator, so if doing your own calculations is a struggle, the ACT can be a better choice.

How about all the other stuff? Yeah, this is about the math sections, but you don’t take them in a vacuum. Do you enjoy the data-heavy passages in the ACT’s science section? Or do you handle the SAT’s higher reading level better? Which essay format do you prefer?

Brave New Test

The SAT has undergone some major changes, but they’re mostly there for the student’s benefit. While choosing which test to focus on can be tough, that’s because each has its own pros and cons. Hopefully this has made your child’s path a little clearer, and whether they know exactly what test to choose or just need math help in general, consider Mathnasium.