Why the ACT is The Better Test to Take

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By Jim Treadway

I cringe a little when a parent tells me their teen has chosen to take the SAT instead of the ACT.  In this article I’ll explain why nine times out of ten, the ACT is the better test to take.

1. ACT English and Reading Passages are more interesting than SAT Passages.  

They aren’t fast fiction, but ACT Passages can be charming, interesting, even profound. There’s an ACT Reading Passage about a mother coexisting with her teenage son as she grants him the autonomy he craves while subtly giving him the love he needs, too – and I reflect on it often as I see parents struggle with the exquisitely difficult job of raising teens.

SAT Passages grammar and reading Passages, by contrast, often seem to be picked as if they are TRYING to bore teenagers with the inane.

When you’re spending hours each week on raising your test scores, you might as well do so on Passages that are engaging.

2. The new SAT, since switching back to 1600 points several years ago, has had a noticeably higher rate of mistakes in their test writing than the ACT has.

On the SAT, you occasionally see Reading or Writing and Language questions where you can logically choose more than one answer, or where even the right answer doesn’t actually answer the question, or Math questions where the only way to solve them is to arrive at an unorthodox stroke of genius.

Admittedly, these questions are not so numerous that they noticeably affect scores, but they show up relatively consistently, whereas this basically never happens on the ACT.

A little-told backstory is worth mentioning:  when the SAT switched back to 1600 points, it fired ETS, the company that had written its tests for decades, relegating ETS instead to a consulting role.  The new test writers of the SAT have made numerous mistakes, from the poor questions above to easy Math Sections that led to overly punishing curves where only a couple questions answered incorrectly out of 58 have led to 80-point drops in students’ scores. 

3. The ACT Science Section is very masterable – particularly with quality tutoring and several weeks’ practice on the part of the student – thus raising students’ overall test score and giving them an advantage over others who aren’t studying as hard.  

A good ACT Science score also gives a student the optics of a “science credential” for their application that is much easier to achieve than a high grade in Science class or a high score on an SAT Subject test in Biology, Chemistry, or Physics.

4. This year’s change in ACT policy whereby students are allowed to re-take single Sections and super-score them, starting with the September, 2020 ACT, makes it more student-friendly.  

If students get a good English or Reading score now, for example, they won’t have to keep these skills sharp for later re-takes of the ACT.  They can consider them finished and only worry about preparing for the remaining Science and Math Sections that they’ve yet to conquer.  

5. The ACT has WAY more real practice materials available.  While the SAT has about 15 real tests in circulation that students can practice with, the ACT probably has 80 tests.  

The moment often comes during prep when the student has done all of the SATs in circulation and now has to practice on either tests they’ve already done or those written by prep companies like Barron’s or Princeton Review, the quality of which is mediocre at best.

With the ACT, by contrast, there is a near-endless supply of real exams from prior years to work with.

6. On the ACT, you get more “bang for their buck” for having memorized all the grammar rules you’ll need to learn regardless of which test you choose.

Scoring high on either test requires the student to memorize the same set of grammar rules – but because the ACT has 75 English questions compared to the SAT’s 44 questions, hardworking students who are willing to memorize the grammar rules get many more chances on the ACT to score points based on the knowledge they’ve acquired.

7. The two tests are 90% the same, so even if you’ve begun preparing for one test but you later discover the other one is better for you, changing to the other test isn’t a big deal.

That said, if you have to pick, going from ACT –> SAT is an easier transition (because the SAT doesn’t have a Science Section) than going from the SAT –> ACT (which requires learning the extra Science Section).

One last consideration to keep in mind:  Most tutoring services recommend you take a timed SAT and ACT, then compare the results and see which test you like more. I don’t agree.

This approach is framed almost like taking a personality quiz, as if you will get a bespoke answer about which test is the better test for you, personally, and everyone has a different answer.

I don’t buy it, though.  The ACT is simply the better test.

Admittedly, the ACT will seem unusually fast the first time you take it, particularly the Science Section!  But perhaps 9 out of 10 students get used to the ACT’s speed within a few weeks, and it stops being a problem. The Science Section, too, with a bit of training, becomes far more doable than it is the first time you take it.

Because of the ACT’s speed and Science Section, though, students often have a bad experience with it which isn’t representative of how it will be after some prep.  

The SAT, by contrast, while slower and more comfortable-feeling at first, tends to have the more boring Passages and less fair questions, and its lack of Science Section is actually a drawback for the dedicated student who is willing to learn the few steps required to master ACT Science.

So, when is the SAT the better test to take?

  • When the student needs an extra time accommodation to finish the test, and the SAT has given one while the ACT has denied it.
  • When the student simply cannot finish the test on time, so timing considerations trump all others. In these cases, the SAT is the better test.
  • When you’ve already committed to the SAT and it’s too late to change to the ACT.

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To start today with a Growth Wise tutor on either the SAT or ACT (we still teach both! The two tests demand very similar knowledge and skillsets), call 347.593.8783.

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