How to choose between the new SAT, old SAT, and ACT. Plus, be careful to avoid this common mistake.


If you’re the parent of a junior, you’ve probably heard about the upcoming changes to the SAT and all the extra anxiety that’s creating. Alyssa Coburn, Director of Learning and Development at Nurturing Wisdom Tutoring, shares her tips for what to consider during this transition period:

This is going to be a tough year for juniors. The new PSAT rolled out in October, the new SAT will start in March 2016, and there are only a few chances left to take the old SAT. In addition, the ACT made some changes to their essay section in September. There’s a lot of uncertainty about all these changes and how students are likely to score on the revised tests.

You can help by encouraging your teen pick one test to focus on. It’s not worth slaving over prep for three (or four, if you count the PSAT) test formats. It’s better to focus on improving your scores on just one test.

Every college accepts both the ACT and the SAT. Colleges don’t have a preference for one test over the other, so your teen should pick the test she’ll be most likely to perform well on.

In almost every case, we’re recommending the ACT. First, the ACT is typically an easier test to prep for anyway. Second, even with the changes to the essay section, the ACT is more of a known quantity. We know how many answers you have to get right to achieve a certain score, for instance. On the new SAT, even with the sample prep materials released, no one is sure how raw numbers of correct answers will translate into final scores.

Not only that, but the first group to take the new SAT in March of 2016 won’t get their scores until after the next available test date, in May—about twice the current wait time. Students who don’t do well won’t have much time to switch to the ACT if that looks like a better option at that point.


For students who want to take the SAT, I’d recommend the redesigned test at this point for two reasons:

  • First, there are only two testing dates available for taking the SAT in the current format after Saturday, November 7th. If you prepare for the current version, you simply won’t have a lot of opportunities to retake the test (especially with holidays and finals thrown in the mix!).
  • Second, some colleges are expressing a clear preference for the new SAT. Virginia Tech, for instance, won’t even accept the current version of the SAT. You don’t want to run into a situation where you take a test that a school doesn’t accept!

Some situations where you might want to consider the SAT instead of the ACT:

  • If your teen is a slow test-taker.

The timing is more generous on the old SAT than the ACT—but be sure to take it before next March.

  • If your teen needs testing accommodations.

The SAT seems to be more generous with accommodations in general. We’ve had cases where a student gets approved for accommodations for the SAT and the same student is denied accommodations on the ACT.

  • If your teen did well on the new PSAT and is hoping for a National Merit Scholarship.

If your student is chasing a National Merit Commendation—and especially if he did well on the required PSAT—it might make sense to continue with the new SAT in March 2016 or after.

  • If your teen is particularly good at vocabulary or reading comprehension.

The old SAT has a very challenging vocab section, and both the old and new SAT have harder reading sections than the ACT. If your teen excels at vocab or reading, his or her score may be higher compared to other students.

  • If your teen is a particularly strong writer.

For the same reasons as above, if your teen writes stellar essays, he might be able to stand out in the SAT’s more difficult essay section. The new SAT’s (optional) essay section looks like it will be particularly difficult.

Be careful taking all the tests to “see what happens.” In addition to the danger and hassle of over-stressing by over-prepping, some colleges, including some Ivy League schools, are now requiring to see all your teen’s scores instead of just the best scores. At Nurturing Wisdom, if students score high enough on practice tests, we have them take the real test twice, and try to increase their score the second time around. But if the initial practice test scores are low enough that it might make a college look twice (in a bad way), we’ll keep students working on practice tests and have them take the real test just once.

Beware of this common mistake: Tell your teen not to fill out the bubbles on the actual test, where it asks about sending scores to colleges. He can always send his scores later if he’s pleased with them, but if he doesn’t do well on the test, he won’t want the scores going automatically to his dream schools.

There’s a lot of worry that the new SAT will be significantly harder than either the old SAT or the ACT across the board. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Parts of the revised test will most likely be harder (like the essay), and other parts will most likely be easier. I think overall that the difficulty level will balance out—but we’ll have to wait till March 2016 to find out!
Photos: Steven S/Flickr; ccarlstead/Flickr

See also: 

By | 2017-09-05T09:05:35+00:00 November 6th, 2015|Uncategorized|

One Comment

  1. Leslie Cohen July 15, 2015 at 9:33 am - Reply

    Ms. Coburn has offered some excellent guidance in regards to testing considerations in this article. I would also point out another option for students to consider—that is test-optional colleges. Take a look at the National Center for Fair and Open Testing ( for a complete list of colleges in this category. According to their website, “More than 800 four-year colleges and universities do not use the SAT or ACT to admit substantial numbers of bachelor degree applicants.” In the increasingly competitive and demanding arena of college admissions, it is great for students to have options that meet their individual needs and abilities.

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