Go Ask Mom

Go Ask Mom

SAT vs. ACT: A look at the decision as SAT unveils new test Saturday

Posted February 29, 2016

A new test means scores are likely to be low. The Department of Public Instruction is trying to manage expectations when scores are released Nov. 7, 2013.

Editor's Note: Melissa Rich, a Raleigh mom and owner of Raleigh Tutoring, shares important details about the ACT test and the new SAT test.

Just when you thought you had this parenting thing down, along comes planning for college. As if this process isn’t hard enough, one of the first steps is deciding not only when to have your child take the admissions tests most colleges require, but whether they should take the ACT, SAT or both.

North Carolina schools take some of the guesswork out of the process. Each spring, all public high schools offer the ACT free of charge to juniors. In Wake County, juniors in public schools will take the ACT on Tuesday, March 1. While this is a good start, most students need to take the test more than once in order to get scores that make them competitive, which for most schools in the UNC system would be a composite score in the high 20s (out of a maximum of 36).

Right on the heels of the ACT, the makers of the SAT will launch a completely redesigned version of the test on Saturday. Among other changes, the essay has a different prompt and is now optional. (While the ACT’s four main sections remain the same, the optional essay was redesigned in September 2015. For more info, visit

Here are some facts about the new SAT exam well as tips on when your child should take these tests:

In general: Observers say the College Board redesigned the SAT to be more competitive with the ACT, which has overtaken the SAT in popularity in recent years. Like the ACT, the new SAT is more aligned with high school curriculum. Also, like the ACT, the new SAT makes the much-dreaded essay optional, and it’s offered at the end of the two required sections (math and a combined reading, writing and language section, worth of maximum of 800 points each). Another change that mirrors the ACT: Gone is the ¼ penalty for wrong answers, which means that guessing is now an acceptable risk.

Math: One key change is that math questions are firmly aligned with the Common Core. Some say this gives students whose schools follow Common Core - which in our area includes most public schools - a distinct advantage over students in private schools. In order to test real-world applications of math, roughly 60 percent of the SAT math section is now devoted to algebra and data analysis. Only 10 percent of the new test focuses on geometry, trigonometry and other advanced math topics. Another change: There’s now a no-calculator section featuring 20 questions. Previously, the SAT allowed calculator use during the entire math test. The entire math section is 80 minutes.

Reading: One change that many experts - and all students - applaud is that the SAT makers have gotten rid of the fill-in-the blank section that featured difficult, often esoteric vocabulary words. Vocabulary questions are now about words in context. Reading passages cover a wider variety of topics including science and history. Each test contains a passage from a “U.S. founding document” or “great global conversation.” Additionally, the reading section includes, for the first time, passages illustrated with information graphics - tables, charts, graphs - that students will need to interpret. The reading test is also longer. At 65 minutes and 52 questions, it’s bound to be a test of endurance for many students.

Writing and language: This 35-minute section closely mirrors the English section of the ACT. Students are asked to respond to questions about underlined words, phrases or sentences in a text, playing the role of editor. Questions vary in complexity from easy grammar and punctuation to more difficult items about rhetorical strategies.

Optional essay: The essay is now 50 minutes and asks students to critique a text that presents a position or point of view. Since it’s optional, should students take it? Currently, most colleges in the UNC system neither recommend nor require the SAT essay. Generally, the more competitive/elite the college, the more likely it is to require the essay. Students should check with their guidance counselors or research the websites of the colleges they plan to apply to before signing up for the test.

Timing: If your child is a freshman or sophomore this year, your choice is easy. The SAT they take will be the new one. But, if you have a junior, the jury is out on whether they should take the new one, too. If they’ve already taken the old SAT, you should know that scores between the two versions can’t be “superscored,” meaning colleges can’t choose to accept a student’s highest section scores between or among two or more test dates. (The College Board will, however, include a concordance that will enable students, parents and colleges to make a reasonable comparison between scores on the old version and scores on the new SAT.) If they haven’t already taken the SAT, you’ll need to help them decide whether to take the first one on March 5, and be a kind of beta tester, or wait until either the May or June test dates, when any potential kinks should be worked out. However, since most college applications are due by October or November of a student’s senior year, they need to be done with test-taking by September.

SAT or ACT: The ACT has long been considered a difficult, but fair - AKA not “tricky” like the SAT - test. It contains a science section, so that’s a plus for students who are strong in science subjects. Now that the new SAT resembles the ACT more closely, the differences between them aren’t as clear. One way to decide which test to take is to compare your child’s PSAT and PLAN scores. The PSAT and PLAN are scaled-down versions of the SAT and ACT and are offered to all North Carolina public high school students during the fall of their sophomore year. Most teachers say that students are ready for both the ACT and SAT when they’ve completed algebra II or Common Core Math III. Starting the testing process early rather than late - say, in the fall of junior year - enables students to take the ACT, SAT or even both enough times to get a strong score before it’s time to submit applications in the fall of their senior year.

Melissa Rich is the Raleigh mom of two and owner of Raleigh Tutoring, which offers SAT and ACT prep, homework coaching, college prep and more.


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