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The Digital SAT vs. ACT

The Digital SAT vs. ACT


With a good chunk of universities moving back from the test-optional policies implemented during COVID to test-required again, and the SAT getting a revamp, it’s easy to feel lost about where standardized testing currently stands.

But, before we dive into the world of testing, it’s important that we get one thing straight:

These exams do NOT measure intelligence. 

While the premise of the exams claims to be “to ensure college-readiness”, in reality, the two exams DO NOT measure intelligence or “college readiness”. 

Better to think of them more as puzzles you have to solve. The content is everything you’ve previously learned in school, however, a certain percentage of the questions are worded to confuse and misdirect. 

How well you do on these puzzles really depends on just how long you’ve spent practicing. 

So, with that said, here’s what we’ll talk about in this post: 

  • Defining SAT & ACT 
  • The differences between the Digital SAT and ACT + Scoring
  • Vocab to know: Super-Scoring, Test Blind, Test Optional, and Test Flexible
  • Test Fees + Reporting SAT & ACT Scores 
  • Testing Accommodations
  • Your Next Steps

By the end of the post, you’ll know 95% of all you need to know about the exams themselves – the other 5% will depend on the specific universities you decide to apply to and some guidelines within the state you reside in. 



The SAT and ACT are standardized exams offered in the U.S and internationally for students who’d like to attend university in the U.S. The exams are not required by every university, but the majority do ask for exam scores. 

The SAT is administered by College Board, an educational nonprofit that also runs the AP exams and PSAT. 

ACT, Inc, also an educational nonprofit runs all things related to ACT, including registration, accommodations, score sends and so on. 

In the U.S, each exam is offered 7x/school year so students have the ability to take & re-take the exams as needed. 



The SAT gets a revamp and goes digital as of March 2024. So, if you’re wondering what the exams will now look like, let’s take a look at the tables below.

A further breakdown:


Ultimately, the ACT is more of a time-crunch exam while the SAT allows for a bit more time per question. 

Note: Because the ACT Math includes Pre-Calculus and actual Trigonometry (as opposed to the basic SOH-CAH-TOA knowledge needed for SAT Trig), and the exam has a separate Science section, students often want to take the ACT to show their strengths in the math & sciences fields. 

I recommend taking the test you do better on. We’ll expand on this further in a later section, but for now, just know the if you want to show your strengths in the maths & sciences, take the higher-level classes for those subjects. Those could be the Honors or APs, depending on what you feel comfortable with and what your school has to offer.

Not all universities require the essay, in fact, most don’t. So, be sure to check the requirements for the universities on your college list before you register. 

The SAT Essay has been discontinued, however, it is still offered in certain College Board partner states for the annual in-school free SAT. 



You could have an additional 20-minute Experimental section at the end of either exam. 

These sections are NOT scored, and content could be any one of the topics included in the actual exam. 

The test makers have a certain National average score range in mind. To get to that score range, the exam needs to be a good balance of easy/direct and difficult/confusing questions. The experimental sections allow the test makers to test out future exam questions and if students perform too well in the section at a national level, the difficulty level is increased. If students perform poorly or even a few points outside the range, the questions are made easier. 

Bottom line: While Section 5 will not be scored – and students may not even be notified that it isn’t – take it seriously. It’s a great way to see what the test makers are thinking, and give you an idea of just what you need to review.



Here’s what you need to know about scoring:

  • For the SAT, the perfect score is a 1600. The Reading/Grammar & Math sections are each scored on a scale of 200 – 800 total. The scores are then combined to provide a final total out of 1600. 
  • In the ACT, each section – English, Math, Reading, and Science – is scored on a scale of 1-36. The numbers are then averaged, and decimals are rounded to the nearest whole number. 
  • The optional ACT Essay is scored on a scale of 2-12. Two separate readers score the essay from 1- 6 and the numbers are then added together. 
  • Neither exam has a “guessing penalty”, so don’t leave any questions blank!



Universities such as Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and NYU prefer SAT scores of 1450+ and ACT scores of 32+. 

However, if you’re not applying to those types of colleges, then be sure to check out the requirements of your specific universities. At the end of the day, a good score is whichever number falls into your target university’s score range.  

To find out the average score requirements for your universities of interest, simply Google the name of the university followed by “admissions statistics”. 

While numerous pages can pop up, if possible (and available), you want the .edu or .org from that universities. 

See, these numbers change every year so blog posts can’t always keep up with the 2000+ 4-year universities in our country. As such, for stats info, individual university pages will provide more accurate information about their own institutions. 

Here’s a sample of NYU’s stats page.


Now you know what your target SAT or ACT score should be if you’re thinking of applying to NYU. 

Be sure to keep track score ranges for all the universities you’re interested in. 



Super-scoring means that when multiple scores are submitted, the university will look at the breakdown by section, and mix-and-match those scores to create the highest overall score. 

For example, 

Let’s say your teen submitted 3 sets of SAT scores: 

Reading Math Total (Composite)
440 640 1080
580 700 1280
610 680 1290

The university would then take those scores and pull out the highest from the Reading and Math sections to give you an entirely new Composite Score. 

Reading Math Total (Composite)
440 640 1080
580 700 1280
610 680 1290

The new score used for admissions would be 610 + 700 = 1310

Same rules apply to ACT super-scoring.

While a good chunk of the universities super-score, they may not declare it on their websites (no idea why). In that case, just email the admissions department and ask. 

It’s important information so it’s good to have on hand. 



As mentioned in the intro, not all universities require SAT or ACT test scores. 

Ultimately, a university gets to determine its own policies. There is no national guideline or standard. 

So, outside of the “test-required” category, here are a few terms and practices that you should be familiar with: 

1. Test blind: Test blind universities do not require an ACT or SAT score. They admit students based on the other portions of their applications: GPA, volunteer work, personal statements, etc. If you include your scores in your college applications, they may be glanced at just because they’re there, but your SAT or ACT score will not be a deciding factor. 

2. Test-Optional: We became familiar with this term during COVID when universities rolled back their guidelines due to test center closures as the pandemic raged. 

Test optional universities do not require the SAT or ACT scores but will consider them as a part of your application if you choose to submit them

3. Test Flexible: Universities that do not require the SAT or ACT but instead ask for other scores in lieu are called test flexible. Instead of an SAT or ACT score, students can submit scores from Advanced Placement (AP) exams, SAT Subject tests, or International Baccalaureate exams. 

These test flexible universities will usually have a list of the acceptable scores on their “Admissions/Testing” page. 

Note: While not all universities require SAT or ACT score submissions as a part of their application process, know that if a university accepts one exam, it accepts the other. There is no SAT-only or ACT-only requirement. 



There are a couple different aspects to score reporting that you should be aware of: 


For the sake of simplicity, let’s use the SAT as an example. If a university is “score choice” it means it only wants the highest of your SAT Reading and highest of your SAT Math for superscoring. 

Reading Math Total (Composite)
440 640 1080
580 700 1280
610 680 1290

In this scenario, of the three exams, the teen would only send in Exams 2 & 3. The university would never know that the student took Exam #1. You wouldn’t have to report that score. 

The same principle applies to the ACT, but with more numbers involved since it has 4 sections. 

On the flip side, if a university claims to be “score history”, then it wants ALL your scores. Even if they’re superscoring. 



Because sending official score reports can get expensive, some universities will accept the SAT and ACT scores that students put on their college applications.


Notice how the application automatically asks for superscoring-related info e.g the highest in both the Reading and Math sections, along with the respective test dates. 

If a university accepts self-reported scores, it’ll trust that you’ve provided accurate information on the college application. If accepted – and should you decide to attend the university – you’ll be asked to send in your official reports then. 

Of course, there are universities that’ll ask you to send in the official score reports. 

In that case, here are the links to the various fees associated with test registration and sending score reports. 

SAT Fees

ACT Fees

Fee waivers are available to those who qualify! Talk to your guidance counselor about it. 

Note: Each exam offers a “4 Free Report Sends” during your time of registration and up to 9 days after the test date, however, if you choose this option, the universities you list will find out your scores a couple days after you do. 

So, I don’t recommend using that option unless you’re a senior who is about to or has already sent in their application(s).  



Let’s talk briefly about exam accommodations. 

If you’re looking to get testing accommodations/extended time due to medical reasons, such as ADD/ADHD, anxiety, depression, dyslexia, etc., have your 504 Plan in place ASAP – even if you’re not a junior yet. 

Talk to your guidance counselor about it because the process could take up to 6 months! 

While the type of accommodation given varies on a case-by-case basis, the most common is “time-and-a-half” meaning a student would have 1.5x to complete each section. 

Ex. 90 minutes to complete a 60-minute section. 

For more information about accommodations, it is important that you talk to your guidance counselor. 

If you’d like to learn more, check the SAT & ACT accommodations pages. 

SAT Accommodations

ACT Accommodations 


That was a lot of information and remember that you can always come back to the post and refer to the relevant sections when needed. 

But, now that you have all this info, what should you do next?




1. Take a free exam [one of each]

Because you don’t yet know if the universities you’re planning to apply to are score choice or score history, any student who has already completed Algebra 2 (or is in Junior year) should take a mock SAT & ACT with a test prep company. 

A good chunk of companies offer these for free as a part of their marketing strategies. 

You can check out The Princeton Review’s exams if you’d like. They can be completed online.   



Once you have your scores in hand, prep for the exam you did better on. 

At this point, you know what a “good” score is for each exam so allocate your energy into getting better on that particular exam. 

The content and prep strategies for each differ, so it’s not worth stretching yourself thin or stressing out prepping for both. 

Remember, any university that accepts one exam also accepts the other, so it doesn’t matter which test you choose to take. 


2. Determine the test requirements of the potential universities.

At least know the test score stats for the most competitive university you’re thinking of applying to. You can figure out the rest of your college list along the way.  

Ideally, you want a score that falls a little bit higher than the university’s average. After that, you can stop testing (unless required to for scholarship purposes) and focus on your grades. Those are just as – if not more- important.  

But know this: 

These tests are the most flexible part of the college application. 

The GPA took 3-4 years to create, as did the community service, sports, and other extracurriculars. Compared to that, this test only takes 3-4 hours to complete. Not to mention, with a few months of practice, the score can improve dramatically!   


3. Be Realistic

When aiming for an SAT/ACT score, be realistic about:

  1.     Parent expectations
  2.     Teen’s expectations
  3.     Your teen’s study habits, schedule, & dedication

It is absolutely crucial that #1 and #2 align. 

Unfortunately, students sometimes feel that parents are being too pushy. It’s completely done out of concern, but when your teen has been hearing about these amazing scores that his friends or classmates are getting, or the numerous reminders from teachers and guidance counselors, the absolute LAST thing they want is to come home and hear (possibly argue) about it. 

So, make the preemptive strike. Sit down for 10 minutes (set a time) and talk to your teen about expectations – they can be academic/career, financial, etc. 


4. Parents: Don’t discuss your teen’s test scores with everyone.

You can bet that your teen is already wondering how a “dumb” student did so well on the test while he/she didn’t. It creates a sense of inadequacy and competition that can be avoided.  

It’s tempting to share your pride in your children’s accomplishments and even your concerns, but I recommend running this by your teen first, then by someone who is actually in a position to help – it can be the high school’s college advisor or even a course from a test prep company. 

If your teen doesn’t mind you sharing his/her scores, great, but you never know. 

But with that said, be sure to congratulate and encourage their efforts, not their intelligence. The SATs & ACTs are not rocket science or brain surgery…or even close to it. With enough and correct prep, anyone can do well. 


5. Find the right sort of help.

There are thousands of books and tutors out there, but it is important to know what type of study method actually works for your teen. 

Does he prefer a one-on-one tutor?  

If left to it, will she buy the books necessary to prepare on her own?

Would taking a test prep course be a better route? What resources does his high school offer? 

To find out the traits of a tutor that is a great fit for your teen, check out my article on Finding a Tutor That Is Just Right.

No matter what, allow for at least 3 months of prep time, especially if a teen is managing schoolwork, extracurriculars, etc. 




1. Khan Academy is a free video-based learning website that helps students with not only academic subjects, but also with free SAT prep, so check it out! 

Here’s the direct link to the Khan Academy’s SAT Prep page

2. ACT Inc. has some free ACT prep content available here. If you find that you’re struggling with the math, then head over to Khan Academy to brush up on those topics.



As you move through your college applications journey, remember that standardized testing is an important part of the process. 

So, make sure that you’re aware of every component that surrounds it: the content of the exams, the important vocab, the ways universities receive the scores, the fees and so on. 

The idea is to eliminate as much of the “surprise” element as possible to not only allow for better planning, but also to reduce the stress and anxiety surrounding this process. 

And as you go along, if you have any questions along the way, please post in the comments below and I’ll address them!

Talk soon, 


*Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with College Board or ACT and do not own the SAT or ACT.