Should I Take the ACT or the New SAT?

Should I take the ACT or the new SAT?


Redesigned SAT, ACT, or old SAT: which test should you take?

(Hint: the answer is the ACT)

The ACT is a better test than the SAT

It took me awhile to realize it. I’ve been tutoring for the SAT since 2000. I’ve written three SAT prep books and created a deck of SAT vocabulary flash cards. When you spend that much time with one test, you begin to develop an affection for it. I think they call that Stockholm syndrome.

Most of America suffered along with me. We stuck with the SAT because it was the test we knew better—not because it was a better test. I see it differently now.

So do many others. In 2011, for the first time ever, more students took the ACT than the SAT. In the years since, the gap between the number of students taking the two tests has widened.

While that was happening, I was studying education at UCLA. I took a deeper look at the SAT and ACT and the methodology behind both. What I found changed my outlook on the approaches of the two tests.

One quick disclaimer: No test is perfect.

That said, you might be surprised—and maybe even appalled—by how poorly the SAT does the job that it aims to do.

A College Board study found an unadjusted correlation between the 2400-point SAT and college freshman GPA of 0.35, a moderate positive correlation. That suggests there is a relationship between SAT scores and success in college but not a strong one.

What each test measures

The SAT is literally designed to predict college freshman GPA. So why doesn’t it do a better job of it? The answer, in part, is because there are many factors that determine a student’s success in college. A four-hour multiple-choice test has an impossible task in trying to measure those things.

The ACT, by contrast, does not measure the mysterious relationship between college success and one long and dreary Saturday morning in a high school classroom. Instead, it measures students’ academic readiness through concrete and specific aims. It tests students on their command of grammar, from the very basic to the most advanced usage. It tests their fluency with math concepts from elementary school through Trigonometry. It tests their ability to read quickly and interpret charts and graphs. It is an achievement and a skills test. There is no guessing penalty, each section is self-contained, and the structure of the test is always the same.

What about the new, redesigned SAT? Great question. The redesigned SAT is meant to test students’ deep knowledge of fundamental high school math and English. It asks students to interpret charts and graphs. There is no guessing penalty, each section is self-contained, and the structure of the test is the same at every sitting.

Does that sound familiar? Yep, the new SAT is basically an adaptation (some would say a rip-off) of the ACT. The content of the math section is somewhat different—the redesigned SAT focuses heavily on Algebra, especially linear and quadratic equations—and the reading level is a little higher on the SAT than the ACT. Besides that, the new SAT is startlingly similar in structure and content to the ACT.

Why we recommend the ACT

So why are we at Tutor Ted recommending students take the ACT and not the SAT? As of now, the College Board has released four practice tests for the SAT and one for the PSAT. They had originally announced that there would be eight tests available right away: four in their new book, and four on the Khan Academy program website. That is not the case, as the four tests in the book are the same as the four available on Khan’s website for free. Hey, we just saved you $24.99!

The fact that we have only four full exams—half of what was promised—is indicative that the College Board has not yet perfected their own test. Do you want to be the guinea pig that takes the new SAT? I don’t blame you.

The ACT, by contrast, has a 30-year track record for consistency. Sure, the essay section just changed, and double-reading passages are a relative newcomer to the test, but other than that, the ACT is always exactly what we expect it to be.

We say throughout our test prep books that score improvement is not magic. On the ACT, it’s quite predictable. Here’s an anecdote that I think sheds light on that idea.

I recently worked with a student on the ACT Science. It was her first time getting any test prep or help with that section. Because the ACT is straightforward, my intention was to demystify the test—to show her how simple it truly is. This student had that revelation in front of my eyes. Not only did she appear more relaxed when faced with Science Test material, she actually got excited about it. She knew what the test makers were up to, and she was ready to kick some butt.

Let’s recap. The ACT is a better test than the old SAT. The redesigned SAT is essentially a copy of the ACT. ACT prep can draw on 30 years of history. Redesigned SAT prep relies on a grand total of four practice tests.

If it isn’t clear already, I’ll summarize: if you’re getting ready to apply to college, take the ACT!

Should I take the ACT or the SAT?

Should I take the ACT or the SAT?

Tutor Ted, aka Ted Dorsey, holds a Masters degree in Education from UCLA and a Bachelors degree in English from Princeton. Ted earned perfect scores on the SAT and ACT tests. To help students achieve their target scores, Ted has relentlessly studied actual SAT and ACT exams and broken every problem in every section down into teachable concepts. After years of working with students himself, Ted started his own tutoring group. Ted recruits tutors who have mastered the content of the tests and also have the teaching skills and personality to relay that knowledge to their students. Tutor Ted’s Guide to the ACT is available here, and Tutor Ted’s ACT Practice Tests are available here.

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