Our friends at Compass Prep have provided a helpful new guide to making sense of the new digital SAT that replaces paper tests starting on March 9th this year, versus the ACT, which is still paper-based (unless you are outside the US.)
Here is their summary:
Digital SAT Overview
The digital SAT begins with two sets, or stages, of Reading and Writing questions that take just over an hour. After a break, the test continues on to two math stages for 70 minutes.
The SAT and ACT are more different than ever before—the tables below demonstrate how much shorter and more focused the SAT is when compared to the ACT. And yet, though the SAT is now a much shorter test, students have much more time per question. The SAT’s 134 minutes to answer 98 questions results in an average of about 1 minute 22 seconds per question, while the ACT’s 175 minutes to answer 215 questions results in an average of about 48 seconds per question. In other words, the SAT gives students 50% more time to answer each question, yet still manages to be 41 minutes shorter.
Paper ACT Overview
The ACT is made up of tests in English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science, and an optional Writing test.
Perhaps the most noticeable content difference between the SAT and the ACT is the inclusion of a Science section on the ACT. Rather than devoting a specific section to science, College Board has peppered the SAT with questions that have science themes or involve charts and graphs.
Students have the option to take the ACT with Writing, but colleges have largely stopped using the score for admission.
Although most students score comparably on the competing exams, some students perform better on the ACT (as some do on the SAT) and find it to their advantage to submit the comparatively higher scores with their applications.
Click through the image to find a downloadable PDF comparing the two tests side-by-side.
Compass is my first referral for test prep for most students. Their annually updated Guide to College Admission Testing is the most helpful resource on understanding the ins and outs of these tests that I know of. I promise that I get nothing in return for my enthusiastic recommendation; I have learned from decades in the counseling and admission world that the ethical, student-centered, and deeply informed online, in-person, group and 1:1 tutoring they offer is a rarity. My favorite aspect of their approach is the focus on efficiency: maximizing student scores in a reasonable amount of time. Any test prep tutor or company that wants to engage students in many months (or, as sometimes happens, years) of prep is prioritizing their revenue over student success and wellbeing.
In particular, Compass' prep materials and mock tests for the new digital SAT are unmatched in the industry.
As for my recommendation on testing-- it's worthwhile for most students to figure out which is their best test by taking practice tests, or a diagnostic that tells you which one they lean toward, then doing a little targeted preparation to make the most of their first attempt. Generally speaking, prep should start no sooner than the summer after 10th grade, and the best window for first tests is December through April of 11th grade, if possible. After that, a second test can be taken in summer or early fall if desired, or students can decide that testing doesn't represent their ability as well as their transcript, and move on. Test optional is real! There are a handful of exceptions, mostly public universities in the Southeast, Purdue, and MIT, and some test-optional colleges utilize testing in merit scholarship award. Otherwise, transcript/ rigor of curriculum/ performance over time and quality/ impact of community engagement carry the day.
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