ACTs vs. SATs Revisited: A Closer Look at the ACT


In one of my first blog posts back in June, I discussed a growing trend among college-bound students—taking both major college admissions exams as a no-lose way to gain an edge in the most competitive era in admissions history. Based on the number of parents and students I’ve talked to since then, the key reasons bear repeating:

“There are several compelling reasons why student SHOULD TAKE BOTH tests. First, the tests are different enough such that most students will do better on one of them, but there’s no way of knowing which one if they don’t take both. Second, it’s a no lose proposition, as students need to release only one of the scores, i.e., the better one! Third, since there is about an 80% substantive overlap of material, students can easily prepare for both tests simultaneously. Fourth, there’s no substitute for experience, i.e., taking high-stakes tests under pressurized conditions; each time a student sits for 3.5 hrs (the approximate length of each test), s/he is acquiring invaluable experience for the next standardized test. And finally, taking the ACT can be a one-stop-shop; that is, since it comprises five sub-tests, each of which generates its own score, ONE ACT test can “count” as both the SAT and several SAT Subject Tests. Many colleges still require students to take the SAT AND SAT Subject Tests OR the ACT.” (Read the whole post  here.

Whereas most of you are fairly familiar with the SATs/PSATs, many of you have little experience with the ACTs and are letting fear of the unknown get the better of you. The purpose of this blog is to redress that unfortunate situation.

First, if words like “redress” cause you any discomfort, the first thing you’ll want to know is that there’s no vocab on the ACT :-). That’s right, NO VOCAB. Since there are no Sentence Completion items in the verbal sections, and the since the reading comprehension passages are pretty lowbrow, you don’t need to study any vocab for the ACT—a MAJOR divergence from the SATs, which places a premium on vocab.

Second, as shown in the chart above, there are FIVE sections on the ACT, and they always come in the same order, with the questions for each section all at one time, so there’s no switching gears (another key divergence from the CollegeBoard’s exam). You will always do English first (the grammar test), then Math, then Reading (i.e., reading comprehension), then Science (a totally different section as compared to the SAT), and finally Writing.  Let’s take a closer look at each of these five subtests, particularly as they differ from the SAT (note that ACT folks call each of the five sections “tests,” but to avoid confusion I refer to them as “sections”).

The first section in English, which contains 75 questions in 45 minutes. For many students, the most challenging part is time management, which is largely a function of preparation. If you know what to look for, you can do the problems faster. Whereas the SAT for the most part presents discrete, stand-alone sentences for correction, the ACT presents sentences within a passage. Consequently, they test both the same 7 major rules of grammar as the SAT (see CollegePrepExpress’s “Best Strategies” document on the downloads page for the complete list), plus a few more—namely, punctuation (commas, semicolons, colons, and dashes), redundancy, and paragraph structure. Pretty simple stuff with reasonable preparation.

Second comes the 60-min, 60-question Math section. It’s ALL multiple choice (no grid-ins :-)), and very straightforward (see second-to-last paragraph below). While the questions are easier to interpret than those on the SAT, the material is slightly more advanced. In addition to lots of very basic math material from junior high school and early high school, you will also see a few problems on the math section of the ACT, unlike that of the SATs, that require basic knowledge of complex numbers (i), quadratic inequalities, equations of circles, radians, basic trig functions (SOHCAHTOA), and converting between logarithmic and exponential equations. Don’t let those potentially complex sounding topics scare you: a very nut-and-bolts working knowledge of them is all you need to get those items right.

The third section is Reading, 40 questions in 35 min, which is, again, more “user-friendly” than that of the SAT. There are always four passages with several questions following each passage: the general topics are always I) prose fiction, II) social science, III) humanities, and IV) natural science. Unlike the SAT, there are no back-to-back passages that ask you to compare-and-contrast or inquire about what the author of one might say to the author of the other.

Next is the Science section, 40 questions in 35 min, which is far more a test of science reasoning than of actual science. That is, you do NOT need to review your books and notes from biology, chemistry, or physics :-). Students well-trained for this section know that it’s really more like a reading comprehension section than its name would indicate (it even has the same number of questions in the same amount of time as the Reading section). If you pay close attention to the “passages” (that’s actually what they call the description of various experiments and studies), and learn how to quickly interpret the data presented in charts and graphs, this is a very easy section, contrary to what you may have heard from ill-prepared or unprepared students.

Finally, there’s a 30-min writing sample in the Writing section, which always comes last and which is optional (your “composite” ACT score is based on only the four sections discussed above). This is just like the SAT writing section, only it’s five minutes longer and typically poses more interesting, relevant questions. The SAT likes to pose questions that lend themselves to drawing from literature (e.g., what is greater motivator of human behavior, conscience or money, fame, and power?), whereas the ACT tends to go for your opinion on more relevant, real-world issues (e.g., Do you think it’s a good idea to require students to maintain a C average to apply for a driver’s license?). The key to writing high-scoring essays is not what you say, but how you say it. The “Best Strategies” document (see downloads) covers both what the test examiners are looking for and the formula for writing a high-scoring response.

As you can probably tell, most students find the ACT a more “user-friendly” and fairer test than the SAT. If you’ve taken them both and have some experience to share, please be a good do-be and post a comment for others :-). My experience is that the ACTs have far fewer “trick questions.” They simply want to test what you know, not how clever you are. Moreover, there’s NO GUESSING penalty (!!), so you can feel good about answering every item, even if you’re clueless, another MAJOR difference from the CollegeBoard’s SAT.

A reasonable amount of preparation goes a long way on this test. Sign up today for private tutoring or one of our small classes so you won’t get left behind by the well-informed competition! CollegePrepExpress is here to help you do well on BOTH the SAT and ACT!


About CollegePrepExpress

The primary purpose of CollegePrepExpress, LLC is to help students get into their top secondary schools, colleges, and graduate schools and to reduce stress surrounding the entire admissions process.

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