There are many similarities between the SAT and ACT: they test the same grammar concepts; they demand many of the same reading comprehension strategies; their math content overlaps significantly; excluding each test’s optional essay section, they both feature four sections and are almost identical in total length.
But there is at least one key difference that isn’t discussed enough. On the SAT, two of the four sections are math sections; on the ACT, only one of the four sections is a math section. This difference leads to a straightforward conclusion.
Students who are stronger with math than with English may feel more comfortable with and score higher on the SAT, as 50% of their SAT score will come down to their performance on the math sections. On the other hand, students who are stronger in English may prefer and score higher on the ACT. For the last 20 years, I have told capable English students to go into the ACT with a “chip on their shoulder,” because three-quarters of the ACT comes down to students' English abilities. The ACT English section tests students on the same grammar rules and standard conventions of English every time, making preparation relatively straightforward. Strong English students can learn to score very well on this section. On the ACT Reading section, students have to learn to move very quickly to absorb the passage details and find the answers, but many of these answers are in the passages verbatim. Strong readers, therefore, have an upper hand. Then there is the ACT Science section, which, in many ways, is another reading comprehension section. Students are presented with graphs, charts, tables, and text in the context of experiments or studies; students must learn to efficiently integrate the information. There is very little outside science knowledge that students need to know to answer the questions. Thus, fully 75% of the ACT comes down to a student’s English/reading comprehension ability; this is why I want strong English students who have diligently prepared for the test to go into the ACT with an expectation of excellence.
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