ACT and SAT down to a T

In the light of the recent overhauling of the SAT, our post to ACT or to SAT made it clear that the ACT deserves to be taken seriously. Colleges accept both indifferently, but for us at Essai the ACT is definitely the way ahead. The present post is a follow-up in which we will get into the nitty gritty of things and give concrete examples of what separates the SAT and the ACT. 

SAT has only 7 practice tests

By far the most significant factor that makes us firm believers in the ACT is the scarcity of reliable practise material for the new SAT. There are only seven official practise papers published by the CollegeBoard. The bulk of the practice materials are imitations of the real test. But since nobody really knows what the new test is like, it's impossible to know how accurate its imitations will be. 

Students need more than 7 practice tests

A lot of practise material is necessary because students will be expected to take the test at least twice to cross the crucial college readiness mark. Each attempt requires at least ten papers. In the case of the new SAT, the available material will be exhausted after the first attempt. So, precisely at the most crucial moment, students will have to prepare with material that only imperfectly mimics the real test. From this point of view, the new SAT is full of what students, parents, and teachers want least: unknowns. Score optimisation is a process of fine tuning to the very particular demands of a standardised test. The problem is that at the moment the practise materials for the new SAT are by no means standardised, which renders the entire undertaking of practicing for it futile.

ACT has 50 practice tests

As far as the ACT practice materials are concerned, there's enough for as many attempts as students might wish: fifty real papersThis means students are able to gradually learn to deal with exactly the difficulties they will have to tackle in the real test. Each test is a real test; there are no imitations. Furthermore, tutors can rest assured that what they teach is really going to help students when they take the test. This gives both student and teacher a clear goal, which is the foundation of all motivation: reward will be commensurate with effort.

SAT becomes more like the ACT

One significant fact is frequently overlooked by people who are facing the ‘to ACT or to SAT’ conundrum: the SAT has partly been remodelled to become more like the ACT. The English Grammar section in particular has been totally changed from the older format and now looks much like that of the ACT. It is no longer a collection of unconnected snippets littered with faulty comparisons and other tricky traps but a running text mainly focussing on basic applied grammar. The ACT definitely has to have some virtues in order to have been chosen as the model for the remodelling of the SAT.

ACT is faster but less tricky

The main difference between the ACT and SAT is speed. The ACT is slightly faster paced, but it is also, question for question, the easier test. The good news is that speed can be trained. As students get used to the different types of questions, they will speed up. In contrast, many of the skills the new SAT tests are very difficult to categorise and train, and therefor also only very difficult to learn.

SAT reading 

The one section that is particularly tough in the SAT is the reading. The questions are not necessarily much more difficult than the difficult ACT questions; the problem is the sheer amount of questions that really test a student's ability to read critically. There are nearly no straightforward questions, no freebies; each question is a challenge. By including so called evidence based reading, the new SAT has become even more challenging. In questions like these, students will not only need to find the right answer, but also the right justification for the answer in the subsequent question. Obviously, if the answer is wrong in the first place, the evidence will also be wrong. A test contains about 8 of these linked questions (16 in total, i.e. nearly a third of the entire questions), which means that getting a really high score is contingent on not getting too many of the initial questions wrong. This, in addition to the high average level of difficulty of the questions, makes the new SAT very tricky to master if you are not a very experienced reader.

ACT reading

The ACT is much more straightforward. The questions are mostly simple reading questions requiring the student to effectively navigate the text and find items or express the main idea of a passage, which is not very difficult with a bit of help from an experienced teacher. Moreover, the few tougher types of questions are in general more teachable since they are more classifiable than those of the SAT. No one who has experience with both the ACT and SAT would deny that all in all the ACT is considerably more teachable and predictable. 


This represents a question typical of the new SAT. Even if the ACT has questions that are roughly similar in what they ask about, the options are much less abstract than here. The new SAT really expects the student to synthesise the paragraph into its most basic constituents, and this is very tough, especially when the test does this again and again with each new passage. To answer this kind of question with confidence one has to be a very good reader, and one becomes a good reader only by constant practise over years. Since most of the students we teach, are not usually experienced readers, we can only very imperfectly help them to get better at the new SAT.


This the same type of question (about the paragraph main point) but from the ACT. You can see that the options require much less abstraction. They are all literal; you just have to find which one matches the focus of the passage. Solving questions like these just requires guidance by a teacher, not years of reading experience. 


These questions are all from the same ACT reading section. They have been selected here to show how much of the ACT focuses on basic rather than on critical reading skills. These questions all start with either 'according to the passage' or 'based on the passage'. This means the student just has to locate material in the passage. This is one of the most important skills in the ACT: find information quickly - a bit like a find Waldo with words. This is a skill tutors can be confident to teach students in a couple of months. While the SAT also has some of these more straightforward questions, there will be only a handful per test, never four in one passage. This is what we mean when we say that, question for question, the ACT is more teachable than the SAT.

The essays

Although the SAT and ACT have in some respects become more similar, the essay certainly is something that sets them apart. The ACT essay is a typical high school level writing assignment where students are meant to pick and write about one of three perspectives on a theme. It can be taught effectively as part of the curriculum and doesn’t require preceding experience in structuring a written argument on the students’ side.

The essay of the new SAT, on the other hand, has a distinctively more college oriented drift. It asks students to analyse a piece of writing in terms of how it structures its argument. It essentially is an exercise in literary criticism, which is very difficult for students who are not used to judge a piece of writing in an objective way. Most colleges ask for an essay score, so the writing assignment of either the ACT or the SAT is not really optional for students who want to make the most of their chances to get into a good college. Our teaching experience has shown us that students have a considerably higher chance to get a good score in the ACT essay. We therefore warmly recommend students to opt in favour of the ACT to maximise their chances in the very competitive process of US college applications.