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When I was in high school, back in the late 1990’s, no one took the ACT. It was a “midwestern” thing. But today, the ACT is picking up steam across the country. Students everywhere are giving it a try, and while it hasn’t yet quite caught up to the SAT, it is quickly gaining ground. In academically competitive regions of the country, almost everyone is taking both tests. The purpose of this post to illuminate some key, non-obvious differences between the two tests, differences that go beyond “there is a science section on the ACT.” Hopefully, once you have learned more about both tests, you will have a better idea of which one can work best for you.
The broadest difference between the tests is that SAT is more of an “aptitude” test and the ACT is more of an “achievement” test. In other words, the SAT is more a test of your inherent capabilities, and the ACT is more a test of what you have learned in school. From another perspective, the SAT is trying to predict how well you will do in college, and the ACT is trying to determine how well you have learned what you should have learned in high school. This is not to say that the SAT doesn’t test you on what you have learned in high school, or that the ACT isn’t trying to predict how well you will do in college. But the two tests definitely present the material in different ways, ways that are governed by the philosophical differences that I mentioned above.
These philosophical differences are evident in the questions on each test. SAT questions are notoriously tricky; it is often the wording of the questions, and not the material contained within them, that makes the questions hard. Sometimes, you will have a difficult time figuring out what you are even being asked. On the ACT, however, the wording is usually much more straightforward. You may not know the answer to every question, but you will at least know what you are being asked. To make up for this lack of tricky wording, however, the ACT tests on a broader range of material, including some advanced topics (mainly in math) that would never appear on the SAT. So a “hard question” is something different for each test. A hard SAT question usually contains tricky wording and a lot of steps, while a hard ACT question usually requires more advanced knowledge that you learn later in school. So on the ACT, if you have mastered the topic in the question, you will most likely get the question right, but on the SAT, you may not get the question right even if you have mastered the topic; in fact, you might not even recognize that the topic you have mastered is applicable to the question. But on the flip side, the SAT mitigates its trickiness by testing on a narrower range of topics. Nonetheless, most students say they feel more “comfortable” taking the ACT, even if their scores are about equal on the two tests.
One thing that makes the ACT more difficult than the SAT for some students is the speed, particularly in the reading and science sections. Most students agree that the ACT reading passages are easier than those on the SAT, but they find the time allotment – 35 minutes to read four passages and answer 40 questions on them – to be tough to deal with. Science presents the same problem – 35 minutes for 40 questions. Students who have time difficulty often find they just cannot finish these sections of the test; with the reading section, I have had several students who could never make it to the last passage with more than a couple of minutes to spare without sacrificing a great deal of accuracy on the first three passages. Furthermore, the ACT is extremely strict about giving out extra time since speed is such an important part of the test. The SAT is not nearly as strict about giving out extra time, but time is not as much of a issue on the SAT for most students, anyway.
So what type of student is each test best for? The ACT is best for the student I call “the plugger.” This student succeeds through hard work. When given a sheet of formulas to learn, this student will make flashcards and learn the whole thing. This student does well in school but is often said to be “not a test-taker.” The ACT is also good for students with test anxiety, since the test format is not nearly as intimidating. However, the ACT is not very good for slow readers who may have accommodations in school, since the SAT is much more generous with extra time. As most people know, the ACT is also a little better for students who are strong in science and math, since those sections comprise 50% of the ACT, as compared to only 33% of the SAT. I have not found this advantage to be that great, however.
The SAT is better for the student I call the “intelligent slacker.” This student doesn’t always give 100% on everyday tasks, but has a knack for finding the right answer when under pressure by using his or her wits. This student is sharp, insightful, and enjoys solving puzzles and finding shortcuts. The SAT also plays to the strengths of very strong readers, since two-thirds of the test is verbal, and the critical reading section contains a significant vocabulary component that is completely absent from the ACT. Obviously, many students don’t fit neatly into either category. And the fact is, most students will do roughly the same on both tests. But I have found a small but significant block of students who do much better on the ACT than the SAT, so a student should take both tests at least once to see if he or she does markedly better on one test than the other.
I hope this post enlightened you about the differences between the two tests. Don’t hesitate to leave a post if you have any questions.