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.