A common experience among some of our test preparation students is that they study diligently for the SAT but are not ultimately able to increase their score beyond a certain range. No matter how hard they work, their scores plateau – often below their target. In this situation, we recommend students consider the other standardised test on the market: the ACT.
Looking back on my personal testing experience, it was fairly typical of those who switch between the exams. I had taken the SAT several times, studying from all of the preparation materials available, but was never able to increase my score beyond a certain threshold. I had hit a wall. In the ACT, I discovered a test that was more suited to my particular strengths, as a student and as a test taker. After studying as dutifully for the ACT as I had for the SAT, I earned a perfect score of 36 on the exam. For students who have been struggling with SAT, I encourage them to consider the ACT as an alternative to the SAT.
The ACT is accepted by every college and university in the US. Additionally, no institution favours one over the other – a good score on the SAT is not preferable to a comparably good score on the ACT, for example. All that matters is that the score – on either exam – is good.
The SAT is scored out of 1600 points, with Math and English language subsections of 800 each. To compare, the ACT is scored out of 36, with the English, Reading, Math and Science sections each scored at 36 as well. A competitive score is dependent upon the universities a student is considering applying to. Colleges publish information about the range of scores achieved by the middle 50 per cent of accepted applicants, and students can use this information to determine the comparative strength of their scores. For example, Stanford University’s middle 50 per cent of admitted students scored between 1390 and 1580 on the SAT, and 31 and 35 on the ACT. In comparison, Chapman University’s range of scores was 1210-1390 on the SAT, and 25-30 on the ACT.
The primary similarity between the exams is that they test students’ knowledge in math and English language. Both expect students to be able to read prose passages and answer questions. Likewise, students must be able to edit passages for grammatical correctness and good style. A wide range of mathematical topics is assessed.
The differences may at first seem subtle, but are in fact noteworthy. The most obvious is time: the ACT tests a far greater number of questions in about the same amount of exam time, meaning that students have, on average, more time to answer questions on the SAT than they do on the ACT. Questions on the SAT tend to require more logic and analysis to answer, which is why more time is allowed.
Also, the ACT has an entire section devoted to Science, which tests students’ ability to analyse data presented both visually and in table form, as well as to evaluate experimental methods and results. No prior knowledge is needed, but students with a background in science may find this section more manageable.
An analogy we like to use at Hale is that both exams are like swimming pools. The SAT is a diving well: not very large across, but very deep. The exam tests fewer overall topics but poses questions on more material. In contrast, the ACT is like an Olympic lap pool: very large across, but not very deep. More topics are tested – especially on the math section – but not as many questions are asked about any particular topic.
One final consideration: on the SAT, the two math sections account for half of the final score, out of 1600. On the ACT, math counts for only one quarter toward 36. While admissions departments do consider subscores, students who are weaker in math will likely earn a better topline score on the ACT than on the SAT, holding constant their results in Reading and Writing.
My advice for all students would be to seriously consider the ACT. I’ll be leading Hale’s ACT group course – which begins on February 19th – for the April 2021 exam, striving to help every student achieve their testing potential.
Patrick Fitz is a Hale ACT instructor who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a bachelor’s degree in Economics and English Literature. As a high school student, Patrick earned a perfect score on the ACT, scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT, and was a National AP Scholar. Additionally, Patrick has scored above the 90th percentile on all three sections of the GRE.