If the SAT is a chess match, the ACT is a track meet
Traditionally, ACT has been the test of choice on the east coast, SAT on the west, with some mix in the middle. Lately, more and more of my students and their parents are asking about switching to (or doubling down on) the ACT. Here's what students should consider:
1) If you're good in math and science and bad in vocab, think seriously about the ACT. Half the ACT is math-oriented vs one-third in the SAT. In addition, the math section is much more straightforward than SAT math. Fewer tricks, fewer traps, but students must have a good classroom foundation in algebra-II and pre-calculus.
Overall, the ACT is a kinder, gentler test than the SAT. The test makers seem more intent on measuring actual academic knowledge (and speed) than on testing IQ-related pattern matching capabilities, which is the province of the SAT. Moreover, there's no guessing penalty on the ACT. So why don't all students take the ACT?
2) The Science section, unique to the ACT, is an absolute killer! Not really a science test at all, it's more a data-interpretation test couched in scientific language. Kids have to cut through a lot of sophisticated and mind-numbing jargon and then numerically correlate diverse graphs, charts, and tables to answer questions. It's brutal and most kids fail miserably on this section, bringing down their overall scores.
The ACT puts a premium on speed, intentionally asking too many questions in all categories; however, moving quickly through the Science section is particularly difficult. For this reason, in my ACT program, I make a point of doing speed drills in the Science section, teaching students how to look for relationships and analyze data quickly.
One important trick in this regard is to know that you don't have time to read the foreground material for each of the Science sections carefully. Just skim over it to get a basic idea of the topic and the relationship among the data, then work backwards from the questions. BUT YOU HAVE TO WORK REALLY FAST.
3) ACT has an essay and four sections: Math, Writing, Reading, Science. Unlike the SAT, these sections are not interleaved; that is, the ACT doesn't alternate different Math, Reading, and Writing sections as the SAT does. There's just one continuous section for Math, one continuous section for Reading, one continuous section for Writing and one continuous section for Science. Many students prefer this approach, finding it easier to concentrate on one subject at a time rather than having to move back and forth between subjects areas as they do on the SAT.
4) The ACT essay is quite different from the SAT essay. For one thing, the topic is much more specific and personal. For example: Should high school students be forced to wear uniforms? Unlike the SAT essay, in which you are only expected to argue one side of a position, on the ACT essay, you should devote at least one paragraph to counter-arguments, that is, arguments that contradict your thesis. I teach my ACT students to do a quick "pro and con chart" from the "prompt box" to outline their main points of contrast and then flesh out the details during the time allotted.
Note: the ACT calls the essay "optional", but most schools require that the essay be taken along with the test.
5) There is no "guessing penalty" on the ACT so students should ALWAYS FILL IN ALL THE BUBBLES on their answer sheets. Very important!
ACT or SAT: How to Determine Which Test to Take
For students who want a quick "read" on whether the ACT is suited for them, I've provided an "abbreviated" test from the ACT. Sit down in a quiet room and set your alarm clock to EXACTLY 40 minutes. Don't fudge; the ACT is a speed test so it's important to time yourself accurately. Answers are provided at the end of the test. If you miss 10 or fewer questions, seriously consider taking the ACT.
ACT abbreviated practice test
If you prefer to compare your performance on full-length ACT and SAT tests, here are two official practice tests from the College Board and ACT organizations.
ACT official full-length practice test
SAT official full-length practice test
You can then compare your performance on the tests by going to the College Board's ACT-SAT Concordance table.