Every year I hear this question from students and parents alike. Because the SAT exam is the more commonly known college admissions test in the Long Island area, people tend to be more familiar with that exam. And because the SAT is such a challenging exam, it’s very natural to hope to find an easier option and many are hopeful that the ACT will become their golden ticket for college.
So is the ACT easier? The answer depends on who you ask. If you ask students who have not yet experienced the ACT, the parents of those students, or most guidance counselors, you will probably hear more yes than no. If you ask a student – or the parent of a student – who has already taken both the SAT and the ACT, you are likely to hear a lot more variance in your answers. The reason for this is that the ACT is easier for some students, but the SAT is easier for others.
One reason many would assume that the ACT is a better option is because the ACT casts itself as an “achievement test” that measures “what a student has learned in school.” This isn’t completely accurate. Here is a section by section (the difference sections are called “tests”) break down of the ACT:
The English Test: This section essentially tests grammar. While some of the grammar tested is learned in school, some of it is not.
Does it test what is learned in school? This is half true.
The Mathematics Test: This section tests math skills that “students have typically acquired in courses taken up to the beginning of grade 12.” While there may be a couple of questions that test a concept (matrixes, logs, etc.) that some students may not have learned, for the most part, this section is comprised of math common to most students. Outside of a few questions that may be somewhat deceiving, most questions tend to be relatively straightforward.
Does it test what is learned in school? This is almost entirely true.
The Reading Test: This section tests reading comprehension. While one can argue this section tests what is learned in school, this is only true inasmuch as students do in fact learn how to read in school. The connection to school ends there. The extreme timing constraints of the reading test turn this section into one that measures a student’s ability to read extremely quickly and retain a significant amount of details (important as well as trivial details). This component of the ACT gives most students a considerable amount of trouble.
Does it test what is learned in school? Barely – while students learn to read in school, the skills needed to do well here are not taught in schools.
The Science test: This section tests “the interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning, and problem solving skills” as they pertain to science. This might sound to you much more like a reasoning test (similar to the SAT) than simply measuring “what is learned in school.” While a certain level of scientific sensibility is helpful in this section, for the most part students are being tested on how to read charts, graphs, and tables and make logical inferences. Many students find this section to be interesting and doable; however, there is one significant challenge: time constraints!
Does it test what is learned in school? Barely – some school-based scientific knowledge is helpful, but this section mostly tests reasoning abilities.
Essentially the ACT is a solid option. Many students will end up scoring comparatively higher on the more straight forward ACT exam, but others are bound to perform better on the less time-intensive – but trickier – SAT exam. It is advisable for students to try both exams to determine which one they are better suited for.