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A Personalized Approach To ACT Test Prep

Every year, we see more and more students interested in ACT test prep. Though it was once considered an obscure test used primarily by colleges in the South and Midwest, in recent years the ACT’s popularity has skyrocketed.


One of the most common questions we field at CATES is: “Should I take the SAT or the ACT?” The short answer is yes, and yes. Try both and see how you feel. At CATES, we offer free SAT practice tests and free ACT practice tests almost every weekend, so sign up!

The long answer is that it all depends on the student. For some, the ACT is a godsend, the long-dreamed-of alternative to the dreaded SAT. For others, the ACT is more like the SAT’s evil twin, a rigorous, stubbornly straightforward test with few breaks between sections and little room for strategic thinking.

In the simplest terms, we like to tell our students that the ACT tests what you know and the SAT tests how you think. Known for using tricky and sometimes intentionally confusing phrasing to determine test-taking skills, the SAT is better suited to the student with strong deductive reasoning capabilities. Particularly good test-takers love the SAT. The ACT is much more straightforward and direct. If you’ve gotten good grades in challenging classes during high school, the ACT may be a good fit, since you’ll be tested on what you’ve learned, rather than on your strategic test-taking abilities.

If you struggle with extended time, you may want to opt for the SAT. The ACT is notoriously stingy with granting extra time. Also, unlike the SAT, which is broken up into 10 separate, shorter sections, the ACT is given in 4 mammoth chunks of material.

Before you decide which one is the right fit for you, here is a breakdown of the main differences:

10 sections: 3 Math, 3 Critical Reading, 3 Writing (one of which is the Essay), and 1 Experimental (either Math, Critical Reading, or Writing) 4 Sections, plus the optional Writing Test: English, Math, Reading, and Science Reasoning
Sections are given in a different order every time Sections are always given in same order
3 hours and 45 minutes 3 hours and 25 minutes (including the Writing Test)
SAT tests math up to Algebra II ACT tests math up to Trigonometry
SAT tests vocabulary directly ACT does not test vocabulary
Scored out of 2400 points Scored out of 36 points, with Writing scoredseparately on a 12-point scale
Chances are, you must also take SAT II’s You often do not need SAT II’s if you take the Writing Test
“Guessing penalty:” you lose 1/4 point per incorrect answer No guessing penalty
Easier to get extended time for LD students Much harder to get extended time
Each SAT test includes an unidentified Experimental Section The ACT test has no Experimental Section

Details aside, it all comes down to which test you can make better gains on. Many students believe the ACT will be a better choice for them, but upon closer investigation, sometimes it turns out they can score better on the SAT.

Lastly, an often-overlooked aspect of choosing between the SAT and the ACT is composite improvement. Since the ACT composite score is generated by averaging the scores from the four sections (English, Math, Reading, and Science), a student must improve in almost every aspect of the exam in order to improve their overall score—gains in only one section will not make a big difference in raising the composite score, since those gains will be spread out when the scores are averaged together. One lagging section can keep a composite from breaking into the 30’s. On the SAT, however, answering five more questions correctly between the Critical Reading and the Math sections could raise your score from a 2050 to a 2100. As you can see, on the SAT, smaller improvements can make a huge difference in your composite score.

Sign up for a free SAT practice test or a free ACT practice test any weekend at CATES to decide which test is the right fit for you.

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