ACT vs. SAT Debate: Out with the old and In with the new


Paulina Maczuga, Features Editor

In public high schools like our very own Crystal Lake Central, sophomores and juniors will be preparing for a new college entrance exam: The SAT.  Although the ACT will still be accepted, some 143,000 public school juniors in Illinois, as well as students elsewhere in the country, are expected to take a revamped SAT. The new version eliminates penalties for guessing, focuses on areas of math that “matter most for college and career readiness,” and encompasses other changes, according to the College Board.

Interested in knowing more? Here’s the full breakdown for each section of both exams:

Section ACT SAT
English (ACT); Writing and Language (SAT) 45 minutes

75 questions

35 minutes

44 questions

Math 60 minutes

60 questions

80 minutes

58 questions

Reading 35 minutes

40 questions

65 minutes

52 questions

Science 35 minutes

40 questions

Essay (optional) 40 minutes

1 essay

50 minutes

1 essay

Across sections, you’ll have an average of 50 seconds per question on the ACT and 1 minute and 10 seconds per question on the new SAT. With that said, you’ll have less time per question on every section of the ACT than you will on the SAT. Also, as you can see, the SAT doesn’t include a Science portion.

Regarding scoring, the ACT uses what’s called a composite score to give students an overall ACT score. Your overall composite score ranges from 1 to 36 and is an average of your scores on each of the four multiple choice sections. You’ll also receive your individual section scores, which range from 1 to 36 as well, but for most colleges, it’s the composite score that counts. The new SAT is scored on a range between 400 and 1600. This is based on adding your Reading/Writing score from 200-800 and Math score from 200-800 together. Even though there are three main multiple choice sections to the SAT—Reading, Writing, and Math—Reading and Writing are combined into one score out of 800. This is different from the old SAT, on which students received a score out of 800 on each of the three sections, meaning the highest score on the old SAT was 2400.

As for the opinions of the test takers themselves, it’s certainly not an easy transition from one college entrance exam to the other. Bazif Bala, a junior at CLC, says:

I personally feel that the transition to SAT was hasty and inappropriate. Though it’s easy to blame Crystal Lake Central, I don’t believe anyone here is at fault, since the administrators are mandated to follow the standardized testing decisions of the Illinois State Board of Education. Now, I’m not saying that the SAT or ACT is more effective than the other, but I do believe that the change to SAT should have been gradual, rather than forced. For students like me, who were given practice ACT tests (in the course curriculum, including the Explore in 8th Grade) until 10th grade, suddenly changing the entire set of strategies and practices that I had employed in taking multiple ACT’s is unfair. Had the Illinois State Board of Education planned a change in 3-4 years, this would have given schools enough time to create personalized testing that caters to understanding skills for the SAT, rather than the ACT. Now I am in the uncomfortable position of being mildly prepared for both, rather than exceptionally prepared for one.”

There’s no doubt that this sudden switch puts many students in a difficult position, especially when it comes to the amount of prior preparation. The resources used for ACT, such as practice tests or “John Baylor,” may not be a total waste in comparison to what SAT prep entails, but it certainly isn’t exactly what high schoolers need. For example, while time management is important on the SAT, time management means everything on the ACT. With this said, it’s easy to see where the type of prep really comes into play.

To sum it all up, here are some tips if you’re stuck in that awkward phase of not knowing which exam is better for YOU:

The ACT might be easier for you than the SAT if:

  • You are really fast at your work. You generally don’t have trouble running out of time on tests at school and you are a fast reader. The ACT, in many ways, is still a more straightforward test, provided you can finish it in time.
  • You like science and are good at interpreting data and trends. Students who may not be a fan of science but are really good at seeing the trends in graphs and tables are also likely to be successful at ACT Science.

The SAT might be easier for you than the ACT if:

  • You’re not a fast reader, but you’re a good reader. You can understand complex passages pretty well when you take your time.
  • You’re good at reading between the lines.
  • You’re good at mental math.