As a certified high school teacher and test prep expert, the question I hear most often from parents and students is, “What is the difference between the ACT and SAT tests?” Although there is no one word (or even one sentence) answer for that, there are some distinct differences. I will list a few of those differences here and explain in-depth in the blog below!

  • SAT math contains some “non-calculator” questions
  • SAT math contains a few math questions for which no multiple choice is provided
  • ACT contains a separate science section
  • SAT test mixes the science in with the language, reading and math sections
  • SAT allows a bit more time per question on reading but shorter time on English

The most obvious difference is that the SAT test contains some math questions that you are not permitted to use a calculator on AND some that are not multiple choice questions but you must instead provide an answer on a grid. The ACT has a separate and distinct science sections, whereas the SAT mixes the graphs/charts into the reading/writing sections. A third main difference in the SAT versus ACT distinction is the timing: the SAT does allow more time per question overall. However, I have analyzed questions from both tests and there is a difference in the rigor of the reading comprehension questions. The SAT is tougher; so, students do receive more time on tougher questions. I am not sure that extra time is a true advantage then. That being said, there are students who fare better on the SAT than the ACT. My advice is to sit for both and then for the student to determine which they liked better.

Should students take these the ACT and SAT tests multiple times? The answer is a resounding “YES!” My advice to parents is to have your child sit for either the SAT or ACT with no prep to see a baseline score. Then, see what you are up against and create a plan. Another great debate in the realm of test prep is whether or not to seek a tutor for these tests. Will the money invested in tutor open doors for students in terms of opportunity or extra scholarship monies?  Then of course it is wise to invest in this help, just as parents pay for strength coaches and hitting lessons and private music lessons. The ACT claims that a student will only raise their score 3 points with any type of prep work. I (and others in my field) know this claim to be completely false with the proper help.

Students who choose the right tutor can improve their score significantly: I have had students who worked with me who improved as much as 12 points in a sub-section. Take, for instance, Devin D. from Cincinnati, OH. Devin came to me with a science score of a 26. Not a bad score (well above the state and national averages), but I knew with a few adjustments he could do better. On score release day, I received a call from his mom. Devin’s science score improved to a 36: a perfect score! I also cite Tory N. from Cincinnati who met me at Panera over my yearly summer visit to Ohio. Tory was excited to improve her score, but her mom was a bit hesitant about spending any money without a guarantee. They signed Tory up, and through my program she brought her 25 composite up to a 30, with a near perfect 35 on the English section! I have taken 9 composites to 18s—the success stories are really endless and all have the same message: with proper teaching and preparation, a student will continue to improve. There is a rumor that a student will max out a score after taking the test 3 times. I am glad Lauren M. from Ohio did not listen to that tall tale. Lauren prepped with me for 2 tests but continued to practice the strategies she learned and take released practice tests. On her fifth attempt at the test, Lauren maxed out her score to a 30—her goal score (she started at a 25)!

There are some simple strategies that students can employ to improve their scores. First, buy and complete practice tests from books with valid practice tests. There are many books out there, but I prefer “The Official ACT Prep Guide” as it is full of released tests that they ACT proctored within the last couple of years and “Cracking the ACT” by the Princeton Review. Many of those books contain rules for grammar and math concepts that student need to know. I have compiled the punctuation rules in one document you can find here.  Another tip is to make sure to leave no bubbles blank on the answer sheet. None. Pick a letter to guess and stick with that letter throughout the entire test if you are unsure of an answer OR run out of time. No joke: a student could bubble all “A and F” and score a 14 composite (disclaimer: I am not sure the ACT would consider this a valid test though!). Lastly, a common mistake that students make on the math portion of the ACT is to rush through the easier problems (1-20) and potentially the medium rigor problems (21-40) to get to the hard problems (41-60). This is a huge mistake. Many students can’t answer the questions at the end confidently, so this “rushing” approach in the Math ACT causes them to miss easy questions and spend valuable time on tough questions.

The test prep process can be overwhelming. As with any aspect in life, seek help from professionals who understand the process and can guide you through the maze effortlessly. With so many ACT v SAT differences, books available to study, and simple strategies that can be learned from experts, it makes sense to seek help. Students and parents who reach out to me and mention this blog will receive my Guide To Punctuation for free. Please reach out at jenniferchenson@msn.com after looking over the program materials at www.jenhenactprep.com.

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