The ACT is not a “curriculum-based” test (and colleges aren’t biased against it)

The ACT is not a “curriculum-based” test (and colleges aren’t biased against it)

Image © Antonioguillem, Adobe Stock


The notion that the ACT is a curriculum-based test is one of those hoary old ideas that, like so-called “obscure words” or the “guessing penalty” on the old SAT, has apparently now achieved zombie status. In fact, I confess I thought it had more or less disappeared into the ether until I encountered it on Instagram (yes, Instagram!) of all places. And by a test-prep company no less. That made me realize it wasn’t nearly as gone as I thought. Hence this post.

The confusion stems in large part from the fact that way back, the ACT was originally designed to be aligned with a generic high school curriculum—“originally” meaning “in the 1950s.” At that point, the exam did actually test some pieces of specific factual knowledge. In the late 1980s, however, the original Social Studies and Science tests were replaced with the current Reading and Scientific Reasoning tests and, presumably recognizing that students’ exposure to specific topics varied dramatically as well as wanting to compete with the SAT, the ACT moved towards testing more general reasoning abilities. (more…)

Should you switch from the SAT to the ACT (or vice versa)? Five ways to help you decide

Should you switch from the SAT to the ACT (or vice versa)? Five ways to help you decide

image by Brendan Church


By the summer before senior year, many students find themselves in the following situation: they’ve been prepping for the SAT or ACT for months and have already taken it two or three times. But despite all the work they’ve put in, they just can’t seem to reach their goals. Perhaps their scores are just a bit too low across the board, or perhaps one section remains stubbornly resistant to improving.

It’s not surprising that many students who find themselves in this situation start to wonder whether they should switch from the SAT to the ACT or, somewhat less commonly, from the ACT to the SAT.

I worked with a few students who did ultimately switch tests, and I saw it go both ways. (more…)

The SAT vs. ACT decision: how many practice tests do you need to take?

For those of you still deciding between the SAT and the ACT, one factor that you need to take into account is the number of practice tests you’re planning to take. I touched on this point in a recent post, but I’d like to revisit it here from a slightly different angle.

I’m insisting on it because of a couple of recent tutoring inquiries regarding students who want to start test prep early in junior year, and who are looking to raise their reading scores by enormous amounts (in the 200 point-range). But this post is also applicable to anyone looking to spend more than a few months prepping.  (more…)

A quick SAT vs. ACT litmus test

When I start working with someone early in their junior, the first thing I try to get figured out is whether they’re going to take the SAT or the ACT. I’d rather have them go through a couple of weeks of indecision early on than suddenly decide to switch tests after six months of preparation (especially because every year I do get people who’ve already been prepping for one test for six months, then decide to switch two weeks before the other and want to cram. That’s really not fun for me.) Usually I just tell my students that if they can’t stomach the thought of taking both a full SAT and a full ACT, they should just do a couple of sections from each test and see which one they like better.

I’ve realized recently, however, that at the extreme end, there can be a simpler litmus test, at least on the verbal side of things, and that test involves sentence completions. Interestingly enough, though, it has very little to do with vocabulary per se. The giveaway is how easily you can either 1) plug in your own words, or 2) correctly determine whether the word that goes in a given blank should be positive or negative — regardless of how many of the words in the answer choices you actually know. If you try a handful of sections and are consistently stumbling over this exercise by the third question or so, that’s a pretty good sign that you should seriously consider the ACT.
Here why: while having a good vocabulary will help you on the SAT, the sentence completion section isn’t just a vocabulary test. It actually functions as a microcosm of the Critical Reading section as a whole in that it also tests your ability to perceive relationships between ideas. Vocabulary can be memorized, but if you have difficulty sorting out the basic connections between ideas in a sentence or identify key pieces of information, the unfortunate reality is that you’re probably not going to develop that skill in a couple of months. If you can’t even figure out what sorts of words go into the blanks on relatively straightforward questions, how are you going to be able to consistently determine nuances between words on vocabulary-in-context questions or  nail the relationship between the authors’ ideas on Passage 1/Passage 2? I’m not trying to be harsh, just realistic.
I’m also not suggesting that this is a fool-proof method, just that it can provide some quick insight into some of the struggles certain students might have down the line. To be fair, it’s not that these skills are not tested at all on the ACT — they are, but they feature less prominently and tend to be tested in a somewhat less circuitous way. There’s no sense in making yourself crazy if there’s a less headache-inducing option available.

Is the ACT less coachable than the SAT?

The short answer: No.

The long answer: Every now and again, I’ll stumble across some tutoring website announcement declaring that because the ACT is a “content-based” exam, designed to directly measure the kinds of skills that people learn in school, it is much less sensitive to tutoring than the SAT, which is primarily an exam about strategy and “how well someone can take the SAT.” As someone who has spent a good deal of time both writing and helping people prepare for both exams, I’d like to spend a little bit of time debunking that myth. First of all, in response to the idea that the ACT directly tests what students are learning in school, I’d like to say that I’m not really aware of any high school that teaches punctuation with anywhere near the level of thoroughness it’s tested on the ACT.

I’ve worked with numerous students from a particular “top-tier” NYC private school known, as James Atlas puts it, for its “intensely competitive students” (whom it requires to take several years of grammar), and not one of them has come close to knowing everything tested on the English portion of the ACT. In fact, some of them have been among the weakest students I’ve ever worked with.

I’ve also worked with kids from tip-top suburban districts who had idea how to use a colon or identify a non-essential clause. It seems to me that the ACT is testing the content that high schools should be teaching rather than the content they actually are teaching. The fact that the average national ACT score is 21.1 out of 36 seems to testify to that fact.

But does tutoring raise scores? Absolutely. Every one of my students who has put in a reasonable, consistent amount of study time has improved markedly — in some cases by 10 points. Most people scoring in the mid-high 20s can gain a good five points on English from capable tutoring. Some of the questions are very straightforward, but some of it them are extremely subtle (and tricky) and completely impervious to being answered by ear. As is the case for the SAT, you’re almost certain to get certain questions wrong unless you really understand the rules they’re testing. You learn the rules well enough, you get the questions right — it’s usually that simple.

As for the Reading… I’m not going to lie: tutoring ACT Reading can be more challenging than tutoring SAT Reading. The questions are often less predictable, less based on a holistic understanding of the passages, and most people have problems managing their time rather than actually knowing how to work through the questions.

But as I’ve written about before, ACT time management problems are usually something else in disguise. Many of the skills involved in locating information quickly actually involve logic skills similar to those tested on the SAT — how to make reasonable conjectures based on the organization of a passage or paragraph; how to identify important places in a passage based on the presence of particular transitions and punctuation marks; and how to determine the main idea or function of a passage or paragraph from reading key places (e.g. introduction, topic sentences) in the text. Work on the fundamentals enough and you usually see some improvement.

My biggest obstacle is convincing students that the ACT actually tests logic skills, even in a roundabout way, when they’ve fled the SAT precisely to avoid that kind of thinking. So no, the ACT is in no way less coachable than the SAT, at least on the verbal side of things. It has its own quirks and strategies, but the skills and concepts it tests can be taught just as thoroughly as they can for the SAT. As always, there are no guarantees, but in the hands of a competent tutor, most students should be able to raise their scores by at least a few points.