Who Should Take the ACT?

Who Should Take the ACT?

When students first approach college test prep, the first question they often ask is whether they should take the ACT or SAT. While the two tests essentially cover the same content, they present two very different sets of challenges to students. 

To help students prepare for the ACT quickly and effectively, MEK provides a two- to three-week Intensive course, comprised of simulation tests and targeted lectures, taking place right before the official exam. The ACT Intensive will take place both virtually and in-person at our Palisades Park campus.

Sign up for the ACT Intensive here.

At MEK, it’s our top priority to supply our students with different paths to achieve their dreams. Mr. Tony Kim and Ms. Rachel Erwin, Directors of Exam Prep Math and English, respectively, guide students every day through the best ways to make leaps and bounds in their test prep progress. Read below to find out who they think is the best candidate to take the ACT, as opposed to the SAT.

How does the ACT differ from the SAT?

RE: So the SAT and ACT both have four sections. They both have an English/Writing section, Reading section, and Math section. To speak to the English side of things, the ACT English section and the SAT Writing sections have a great deal of content overlap. However, ACT has more questions (75 vs. 44 questions), and, thus, tends to test a broader range of questions. So some more obscure grammar concepts will sometimes work their way into ACT. 

For the reading section, while they both have passages of about 750 words (4 for ACT and 5 for SAT), followed by multiple choice questions that test concepts such as main idea, reading comprehension, purpose and function, organization, tone, and vocabulary in context, the nature of ACT Reading is vastly different from SAT Reading. SAT Reading gives students more time per question and per passage (65 minutes for 52 questions and 5 passages, which is about 13 minutes per passage), whereas ACT Reading is much faster (35 minutes for 4 passages and 40 questions, which is about 8.5 minutes per passage). 

So, students must read, comprehend, and answer questions more quickly for ACT Reading. However, the trade off is that the questions tend to be much more surface level than SAT Reading. So it’s more about locating evidence efficiently and strategically, than the deeper thinking required by SAT Reading. 

TK: From the math and science point of view, first of all, the ACT Math section is also a lot more fast-paced and straightforward. For the SAT, in order for you to complete the 58 questions for sections 3 and 4, they are going to give you a total of 80 minutes.

But on the ACT, it is just 60 questions in 60 minutes—a minute per question. And a lot of those questions are very straightforward compared to the SAT because the SAT has more critical thinking questions.

Plus, the ACT has a science section, which you don’t have on the SAT. This can be a very complicated section for some students because it requires quick reading skills, annotating, and catching information. 

Is the ACT weighed any differently than the SAT in the college admissions process?

RE: No. All schools who take the SAT, also take the ACT. And they are both considered valuable metrics for college admissions decisions. 

What type of student typically does better on the ACT?

RE: On the English sections, students who have a firm grasp of grammar (which can be taught!) and are able to comprehend passages quickly tend to do better on the ACT. In fact, we often start students with SAT prep in order to lay a more thorough foundation which they need for that test, and then transition those students to ACT, where they are, in a matter of a couple weeks, able to get elite scores in this test. Once they have that firm foundation, they just need to learn the specific test-taking strategies required of ACT in order to score 35s and 36s.

TK: Generally, students who are in a higher level math class will do better on the ACT Math section, even if their level of understanding in the subject matter is not too strong. The ACT Math section tends to test on a greater breadth of content, without getting into too much depth.

This means that students who are in AP Calculus, Honors Pre-Calculus, or even regular Pre-Calculus have already learned everything that will be on the ACT. So as long as they get their test-taking strategy down, they’ll be good! 

But if we look at the larger picture, students generally need to be fast readers. Let’s look at the ACT Science section. On the Science section, students need to not only read a text faster, but also quickly identify the information they need in the passage and given charts/graphs to answer the questions accurately. This skill is required through the entire exam. 

What is one piece of advice you’d give to students considering taking the ACT?

RE: Intentional practice. You definitely need to practice the ACT before you take it, but that practice needs to be intentional and purposeful. It should mimic realistic testing conditions as much as possible. You should have specific strategies for how you are tackling each section of the test as you complete either simulation tests or practice problems. After finishing a test or assignment, you should reflect to identify what skill areas you need to work on. 

TK: Test-taking strategy, especially if your intention is to take the ACT several times. For math, as long as you are well prepared, and are a good math student throughout high school, you should be good to go. 

It’s also all about time management. Managing your time during the Science section is key because it is going to have approximately six different passages that you have to read and decipher in 40 minutes. This is why a lot of students will struggle with time management in the Science section. 

So if you are a student who is trying to take the ACT, it’s all about test-taking strategy. Don’t stress out too much about specific content. For Science, there’s very little you need to know in terms of actual science knowledge because everything is there. As long as you understand the question, you’ll be able to identify the information that they’re looking for.

How do ACT test-taking strategies differ from SAT?

RE: I would say for ACT English and SAT Writing, there isn’t actually that much of a difference. Because there’s so much overlap in content and even style, it’s more a matter of degrees. One tip is increasing endurance since ACT English is longer. Another tip is broadening the grammar concepts since there are a few more to contend with on ACT English. 

For the Reading section, it’s very different. For instance, the way we teach students to annotate or read the passage is different because ACT Reading is geared toward speed and basic comprehension, whereas SAT Reading is more deliberate and thorough. The way we teach them to tackle the questions is also very different. To give you an example, SAT Reading tends to go out of its way to trick you so many of our strategies for certain question types involve initially ignoring the answers. 

ACT Reading, however, is much more surface-level. The answers are sometimes word-for-word in the text, so students read the answers first and then we teach them quick ways to confirm the answer in the text. 

TK: I think the biggest one is time management because when we teach SAT, we are doing more test-taking strategy than anything else. That will be the most effective thing to reinforce. The most important aspect of ACT is time. You need to navigate questions effectively. 

Being fast is important, but you can’t just rush through the test. Remember the amount of time you can afford for each question is much smaller than SAT. ACT Math has 60 questions, and students are allowed to use calculators. If you utilize the calculator in a very smart way, that’s going to actually save you a lot of time.

What do you consider to be the most challenging section of the ACT for students, and why?

RE: Obviously, it could vary depending on an individual student’s strengths and weaknesses. But I would say a higher percentage of students need help with ACT Reading and ACT Science Reading. Both of these sections require quick comprehension of text or graphics and students need time to practice that. It’s also critical to master the time management aspect.

TK: Even with AP Chemistry AP, Biology, and AP Physics background students, they will still struggle with the ACT Science section because it’s not a traditional science test. It feels much more like a reading test with science passages. So you just have to realize how to approach each of the different types of passages.

How does MEK stand out in its ACT Prep program?

RE: We understand the nature of the exam, and are therefore able to specifically cater to the unique skills that are required for that test. We aren’t, for example, in the English and Reading classes, just teaching content. Rather, we prioritize teaching specific strategies that maximize students’ scores for ACT in particular. We also have detailed score reports that can help students understand their specific weaknesses so they know what to focus on in their study sessions. Students can utilize the many resources and expert teachers we have to address those weaknesses.

TK: The biggest takeaway to why MEK stands out, especially with ACT Prep, is experience. We know what students need to be successful. If you look at both tests, you’ll notice they’re a little bit different. With the ACT, test-taking strategies are much more required due to the volume of questions on the test. So we focus highly on the strategy so that students can use the contents that they learned most effectively and accurately.

We also tend to introduce most of our students to the SAT first, building their content understanding. Then, when they are ready, we switch them over to the ACT to finish off their prep with highly sharpened test taking skills.

Next Steps

With solid test-taking strategies and time management, anyone can beat the ACT. As mentioned by our teachers, often times SAT students switch over to ACT and achieve even stronger scores. So don’t miss out on an opportunity to make your academic dreams a reality. Register for our 2-week intensive today! 

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