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6 Min Read
November 07, 2022




For students in grade 11 (or Year 12) planning to apply to top US universities, it is time for you to start preparing for the standardized tests.  The most popular question is which one you should take – the ACT or the SAT. Make an informed decision by knowing who you are, what areas you are comfortable with, and how you can showcase your aptitude. The SAT is famous for its killer 'SAT vocab' – highly sophisticated words that are rarely used in daily life. The ACT, on the other hand, is well known for its strict time constraint. Both tests undergo revisions from time to time, with the latest overhaul done by the College Board (the SAT test maker). The redesigned SAT was first administered in March 2016; 10 years after the previous revision occurred in 2005.

Overall, the new SAT has now become more similar to the ACT in terms of structure and focus. The overhaul of the SAT also results in fewer questions and removed guessing penalty. Like the ACT, the new SAT also treats essay as optional!  Read on for more details.

  1. Goodbye killer 'SAT vocab'!

The SAT has claimed to move into incorporating vocab that will be useful throughout your life, i.e. “vocab you'll use long after test day”. The College Board took similar approach as the ACT. Great vocab bank will still be proven useful, but trying to remember 1,000 SAT words no longer makes sense. Allocate your prep time to other aspects of the test.

  1. SAT questions are 'trickier' than ACT questions

The SAT focuses on reasoning skills and specific details. It requires you to dissect and analyze the questions in depth. The new SAT reading added evidence questions, which ask you to indicate which part of the passage supports your answer to the previous question. On the other hand, ACT questions tend to be more straightforward. It tests what you already learned from high school. It focuses on how well you study and how you perform under pressure. With one minute per question in the math section and less than one minute in the reading and science sections, it is either you know the answer, or you don't.

  1. The ACT has a science section

If you're worried about this section, you will soon realize that you do not need to have scored A in Chemistry, Physics, Biology, etc., to answer the questions successfully. It actually has no theoretical questions that require prior knowledge of any science subject. In fact, it is similar to science passages you find in the new SAT. You just need to look past through the jargon, and apply some common sense in drawing connections between the question and the answer.

Now, for Indonesian students or students studying in Indonesia…

Indonesian curriculum tends to be more focused on English grammars than vocabularies, and have relatively strong math foundation. Since the ACT is also more focused on math, Indonesian students may be better off taking the ACT than the SAT. With straight forward questions, the time pressure of the ACT may not be a problem for us. While there is no more killer 'SAT vocabs' section, the new SAT introduced evidence-based reading and writing questions which require students to analyze techniques that an author uses to persuade the audience. The writing section is different from the old SAT in which students present their position on an issue. These aspects require a great reading comprehension ability, which could be lacking in Indonesian students who are non-native English speakers and who do not read regularly. It is not impossible to ace the test, but one should learn how to approach the 'tricky' questions in the SAT. In addition, the SAT has just been introduced few months ago, which means limited resources available for your preparation.

The moment of decision: which one to take

Take BOTH practice tests to get the general feel of the two tests and to know what to expect. Look at your scores and see which one you did better on. Don't forget to analyze your strengths and weaknesses. Is it the time pressure? Or the complexity of the questions asked? If both scores are pretty much on par, pick the one you are more confident doing. One thing to remember: schools do NOT prefer one score to the other. So, your main goal is to achieve YOUR highest score in either. Decide early so that you can strategically prepare for a particular test, as each has unique features that must be approached differently when preparing. Remember, it's all in the preparation. P.S. If you're interested in side-by-side comparison among the old SAT, the New SAT, and the ACT, you can refer to the table below.

  OLD SAT NEW SAT March 2016 onwards ACT
Total testing time 3 hours and 45 minutes 3 hours (plus 50 minutes for essay—optional) 2 hours 55 minutes (plus 40 minutes for essay—optional)
Critical reading
70 minutes 67 questions Vocabulary, critical reading, sentence-level reading
60 minutes 49 questions Grammar, usage, diction
70 minutes 54 questions Numbers & operations, algebra & functions, geometry, statistics, probability, and data analysis
25 minutes Take a position on presented issue Essay results scaled to multiple-choice Writing
Evidence-Based Reading and Writing
65 minutes 52 questions 4 individual passages and 1 pair of passages “read between the lines
Writing and Language
35 minutes 44 questions 'editor'-style of improving passages, words in context, analysis in history/science/social studies, expression of ideas, English conventions
80 minutes 58 questions Algebra, Problem solving and data analysis, trigonometry, manipulations of complex equations (exponential, quadratic)
Essay (optional)
50 minutes Domains: reading, analysis, writing skills Write an analysis of a provided text Each domain score is reported individually and separate from total SAT score, each between 2-8.
35 minutes 40 questions Prose fiction, social science, humanities, natural science
45 minutes 75 questions Usage, mechanics, and rhetorical skills
60 minutes 60 questions Pre-algebra, intermediate algebra, plane geometry, coordinate geometry, trigonometry
35 minutes 40 questions Interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning passages: data representation, research summary, conflicting viewpoints
Writing test (optional)
40 minutes Writing skills (3 domains):  Ideas & analysis, development & support, organization, language use & conventions. Analyze different perspectives presented on an issue and relate personal opinion to perspectives. Separate total score reported : 1-36, each domain's score will be 2-12
Scoring 600-2400 400-1600 1-36
Guessing Penalty ¼ scores for wrong answers No penalties for wrong answers No penalties for wrong answers
Number of questions 171 154 215
Time per question 1 minute, 19 seconds 1 minute, 10 seconds 49 seconds
  • General reasoning skills
  • Vocabulary —often in limited contexts
  • Knowledge, skills, and understanding that are essential for college and career readiness
  • Meaning of words in extended contexts and how word choice shapes meaning, tone, impact
Evaluate knowledges and reasoning skills with straight forward questions on Mathematics, English, and Science
Test days 7 times a year 7 times a year 6 times a year
Cost $54.50 $54.5 ($43 without essay) $56.50 ($39.50 without essay)