SAT vs. ACT reading: 5 key differences

SAT vs. ACT reading: 5 key differences

I was recently invited to do an interview about SAT vs. ACT Reading on the “Tests and the Rest” podcast, which is run by test-prep experts Amy Seeley and Mike Bergin and covers a wide range of issues related to standardized testing and college admissions. (This is actually the second time they’ve had me on; my previous interview, in which I discussed SAT vs. ACT grammar, can be found here. I’m not sure when the new interview will air but will post something when it does.)

I had a great time chatting with Amy and Mike, and as I looked at my notes, the thought popped into my mind that in all my years of running this blog, I had somehow neglected to devote a post to that particular topic. It also occurred to me that perhaps I’d actually done such a post and simply forgotten about, but when I went back and checked, it turned out that I had in fact never devoted an entire post to that particular topic. So I’m putting it up now. (more…)

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…)

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.