Current SAT vs. new SAT vs. ACT: a quick guide for the class of 2017
15 September 2015

Current SAT vs. new SAT vs. ACT: a quick guide for the class of 2017

For this year’s junior (and their parents) who aren’t sure how to navigate the current SAT, the new SAT, or the ACT, here’s a brief rundown of the options.

Current SAT

The obvious problem with prepping for the current test is that you need to nail it by January or you will have no choice but to switch tests anyway. On the other hand, you’ll have access to a very considerable amount of accurate, authentic practice material; you can get a very clear ideas of how your strengths/weaknesses, pacing, strategies, etc. will play out on the real test. If you’re determined to get the testing process over with early in your junior year, it might be worth it.

Bottom line: If you’re aiming for very competitive schools, it’s probably not a good idea to focus on the current SAT unless you’re already scoring close to your target range and only need to work on areas that are easily dealt with in the short term. If vocabulary is a big problem, for example, you might need more than a few months. If you’re starting a little lower but think you might be able to nail it, or if your goals are moderate, by all means try — but that said, it’s not a bad idea to take your first test by November in order to give yourself ample time to study for a retake (or two). Just remember that scores don’t normally skyrocket in the space of a month or two.

Likewise, if you think you might be able to pull it off and don’t mind switching tests if necessary, you don’t have much to lose by trying. Assuming you don’t rack up a slew of scores that might cause an admissions committee at a non-score choice school to look askance at your application, you don’t have much to lose. And if you switch to the ACT, you won’t even need to submit your SAT scores.


This is the test I’m pushing people toward this year. Unless there’s a very good reason that you shouldn’t take it, it should probably be your default exam this year.

Even though the ACT has made some minor changes to the test in the last year or so (new essay, paired reading passages), there’s plenty of authentic practice material floating around. It won’t be too hard to get a good idea of what you’ll face on the actual test. Moreover, you won’t have to race to be done by the winter of junior year. If you need to retake after that, you’ll know what to focus on and can do so without worrying about dramatic changes to the test.

In addition, March SAT scores will not be released until May (assuming there aren’t further delays), making it very difficult for you to plan for potential retakes. You might end up studying for a test you don’t have to take or, conversely, not studying for a test you do have to take.

Bottom line: if you’re aiming for competitive schools but aren’t yet scoring close to your goal on the SAT, switching to the ACT will give you a full year to pull your scores up into a competitive range. You can prep more slowly and without the added stress of knowing that you have to nail the test six months earlier than would normally be the case. If you’re aiming for less competitive schools and/or don’t want to worry about test prep until later in your junior year, the ACT is also your best bet.

If you take a diagnostic test and aren’t sure, you can of course try the new SAT as well. Likewise, if you start prepping for the ACT and think you might want to switch, there’s enough overlap between the two exams that you should be able to apply what you’ve learned to the SAT without too much trouble.

The New SAT 

There are only a couple of circumstances under which I would recommend taking the new SAT.

First, if you’re among the 1% of  fantastic test-takers who aren’t easily fazed, get a kick out of figuring things out on the fly, and don’t mind waking up a 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning to be a guinea pig, you’re probably just as likely to ace the new test as you are the old.

Second, if you’re a strong reader but really struggle with ACT science, the SAT may still be a better choice. Yes, there are graph questions, but the majority are only moderately difficult, and you won’t have to deal with an entire section that revolves around them.

Third, somewhat more cautiously, if you’re very strong in math and multiple choice grammar and weaker (but still solid) in reading/vocabulary, then the new configuration of combining reading and writing into a single verbal score, as well as the addition of graph questions into both sections, could play to your advantage — all other things being equal. 

On the flip side, the reading section on the new SAT will be longer than the ACT reading section. It’ll be a slog, especially if you’re not a fast reader, and some of the passages and questions are still likely to be more challenging than what you’ll encounter on the ACT. Even if the SAT allows more time per question, the questions themselves are likely to be more time-consuming, so it’ll balance out. You’re probably best off taking a diagnostic of both before making a firm decision.

If you don’t fall into one of these categories, my advice is to avoid to the new test entirely — at least until the College Board works out the kinks and releases some administered exams. While the Official Guide/Khan Academy tests are generally representative of what the new test will look like, the exam is probably still being tinkered with.

If you look closely at the exams released so far, you’ll notice that some question types that appear on earlier exams don’t appear on later ones; the test clearly evolved as the tests were being written. Add that to the fact that it’s no longer clear just who is writing the test (I’ve heard from several sources that it’s no longer ETS but can’t seem to get confirmation either way); how much experience they have writing this type of material (putting the calculator-based math section AFTER the “no calculator section” is basically inviting people to go back and answer questions from the previous section with their calculators); or how rigorous the vetting process for questions is (one blog reader who wrote SAT questions for ETS several decades ago emailed me to say that she was astounded by the sloppiness of the new material — it never would have passed muster when she was working there), and it’s hard to know precisely what will show up on the March test.

In addition, both the math and verbal sections are primarily focused on a relatively small number of concepts; the small number of remaining questions will be split between many different concepts, some of which show up on some tests and some of which show up on others. If you’re aiming for a top score, you’re likely to spend a lot of time studying things that could theoretically appear but that in reality stand a fairly small chance of appearing. If you’re trying to answer every question correctly, though, you’ll have no choice but to devote time to them.

So to sum up: if you like the current SAT and are relatively close to where you want to end up, plan to take the test by January. If you’re aiming high but aren’t quite there yet, or you want to settle into junior year before you worry about test prep, plan to take the ACT. If you try the ACT and can’t seem to get where you want to go, consider the new SAT as a last resort.

5 Responses

  1. Ace

    Brilliant analysis, thank you!

    Definitely a move of desperation on SAT’s part, given their losing market share and all, but they have to be sweating those students who move to ACT and never look back. Large pockets of the Northeast still didn’t really know ACT was even an option until this whole redesign was announced. Now EVERYONE is psyched for ACT this winter/spring.

    They could have just axed/downplayed the vocab, combined Reading and Writing, and left the Math unchanged and they would have definitely stemmed the tide moving to ACT. Absurd.

  2. Larry Krieger

    Excellent analysis! Most of my top students are taking the Fall 2015 SATs. Given the dearth of prep materials we will be switching entirely to the ACT for the Spring 2016 exams. We have plenty of practice ACT exams plus your outstanding books! One question – in your blog you note that the ETS is not writing the exam. Really!? Wow – I didn’t know that. Where did you discover this information. Also I totally agree with you and the veteran ETS test writer. The released practice materials are surprisingly rough and unrefined.

    1. admin


      Thanks for the question — as per our email exchange, I’m going to do some further research regarding just who is going to be writing the test. It’s certainly possible that my sources were wrong and that ETS is still doing it. In addition to being “unrefined,” though, the released questions just don’t have an ETS “feel” to them. In the meantime, I’ve updated the post. I don’t want to be responsible for disseminating false information.


  3. Castle

    I completely agree with what you said. I myself am part of the Class of 2017, and I’m going to stick with the current SAT. I do have a question though — how would you recommend people like me (taking the current SAT) go about studying for the PSAT, which, as you know, is in the new format?

    1. admin

      It’s really going to depend on whether/how badly you want to try for National Merit. If it doesn’t mean that much to you, then I wouldn’t suggest you devote a lot of time to prepping for the PSAT. Most top schools don’t really care about NM one way or the other; it’s a nice thing to have, but as long as your actual SAT scores are well within the admitted range and the rest of your application is sufficiently strong, it won’t really have an effect. (If you seriously need the NM scholarship money or think that semifinalist status could give you a boost for other merit aid at less competitive schools, though, that’s a different story.) If you’re not planning to take the actual new SAT, I’d just treat it as an opportunity to see what it’s like to take a major test under official timed, proctored conditions, and beyond that not really worry about it. If you’re concerned anyway, you can certainly try the released practice test and spend some time getting familiar with the question types and timing. I’d also suggest that you look at the released Khan tests; since the PSAT was the first thing released, the test might have undergone some changes since then. Really, though, I wouldn’t make a big deal over it.

Leave a Reply