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Acing the ACT: When to Shift from the SAT to the ACT?


Image of road sign pointing in two different directions in front of a brick wall

Why Switch?

With many colleges reinstating requirements for standardized testing, it has become increasingly important to secure a strong SAT or ACT score for competitive college applications. Although the SAT is more popular than the ACT (the class of 2023 saw 1.9 million students take the SAT compared to 1.3 million for the ACT), colleges don’t have a preference.


If your SAT scores are plateauing (for example, a 1400, 1420, and 1430 across multiple tests), we encourage you to consider the ACT. Similarly, if you aren’t near your goal score (regardless of testing history) or are struggling with specific aspects of the SAT, you may find that the different format, structure, and content of the ACT suits you and will help you reach your testing goals! 


Students may feel hesitant about the ACT and want to stick with the SAT out of habit—they may have familiarity with the SAT through the PSAT or from their schools proctoring in-house SAT sittings. Many students will even have taken the official SAT multiple times. However, students shouldn’t be afraid to make the switch to the ACT. 


When to Switch

Students should take a diagnostic test first and compare their diagnostic scores to their previous SAT performance. We recommend students consider switching focus to a different testing format by the summer after their sophomore year if needed. This allows for the crucial summer before junior year to be spent adequately preparing for the ACT. 


If a student has a stronger ACT diagnostic score or demonstrates the potential for more significant improvement through prep classes and tutoring, the next step would be to take the ACT in the fall of their junior year.


Remaining 2024 test dates include the following:

  • July 13

  • September 14

  • October 26

  • December 14


If you’re a rising senior, it isn’t too late to make the switch and utilize these summer and fall test dates. The July 13 ACT can be especially crucial for rising seniors. Although scores from the September 14 test date will be available in time to send to schools with Early Action deadlines of October 15 or November 1, it will cause students to wait until the last minute with no option to retest if necessary. Taking the July 13 test also removes the pressure of preparing for the test over the summer when students should be building their profiles and preparing college applications. 


What’s Different?

The SAT underwent a near-complete overhaul with its transition to a digital and module-based format this spring. The familiarity of the paper ACT may actually benefit some students. Existing ACT test prep materials are also more likely to be continually relevant whereas SAT prep materials need to be updated and specifically geared toward the digital SAT. There are future plans for the ACT to shift toward a fully digital test, but the majority of testing is staying in a paper format for now.


There are a few important differences between the two tests:


Digital SAT:

  1. There are two sections: Math and a combined Reading & Writing

  2. The Reading section now uses short passages (~25-150 words) unique to each question

  3. The Math section focuses on algebra, advanced math, problem-solving and data analysis, and geometry and trigonometry


  1. There are four sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science

  2. The Reading section retains the more standard (~800 words) multi-page passage per ~10 questions format

  3. The Math section focuses on number and quantity, algebra, functions, geometry, and statistics & probability


The two test also have different timing:


Digital SAT

Section

Questions

Time

Time per question

Reading & Writing

54

64 minutes

~1.19 minutes

Math

44

70 minutes

~1.59 minutes

ACT

Section

Questions

Time

Time per question

English

75

45 minutes

~0.6 minutes

Math

60

60 minutes

1 minute

Reading

40

35 minutes

~0.88 minutes

Science

40

35 minutes

~0.88 minutes

The total testing time of the ACT is two hours and 55 minutes compared to two hours and 14 minutes for the SAT. The SAT has a 10 minute break between the Reading & Writing section and the Math section, and the ACT has a 15 minute break between the Math section and the Reading section. Overall, the SAT is 46 minutes shorter than the ACT.


Next Steps

Students don’t need to be wary of trying out the ACT! Freshman and sophomores can try diagnostic tests for both while older students can compare their ACT diagnostic scores with previous SAT scores if they have already taken the test. The next step is to set a solid preparation plan and secure a score to set themselves up for success in college admissions.


Students should work to plan their standardized testing strategy as soon as possible. Even if a student doesn’t intend to take a test until the next school year, taking a diagnostic test now can help direct future study plans. 


To support students in preparing for standardized testing, B2A offers many classes throughout the year: end-of-semester cram sessions, full-length summer sessions, fall and spring semester sessions, and winter and spring break sessions in addition to 1:1 tutoring. 


B2A also offers the Gateway Program, an all-inclusive college admissions counseling program, as well as the Steps Program, which guides freshman through junior students in optimizing their preparations for college.

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