We humans love to categorize everything, including ourselves.  This is especially true about academics.  We all know peers, students, and friends who call themselves a “math person”, or a “science person”, or an “English person”, and there is some truth in that, although that truth is more complicated than a simple label.  As complicated beings, we are each more than just one thing.  But sometimes, one aspect of ourselves can guide us in making a tough decision.

            In several recent articles, I have parsed the differences between the SAT and the ACT.  We have previously looked at the differences between the math sections and the differences between the various English language arts sections — reading, grammar, and the essay — on the two tests.  The goal was to help students and their families decide which test might be the best fit for their individual application processes.  Understanding the differences between the tests can allow students to maximize their scores and possibly improve their chances of admission to the school of their choice.

            Beyond the content of the SAT and ACT, there are philosophical differences between the tests.  The College Board, creators, publishers, and administrators of the SAT, marketed the SAT as a scholastic aptitude test during the first fifty years of the test’s existence.  To this day, the College Board still claims that the SAT can be used to predict a student’s success at the college level.  Such claims have not been supported by research from independent observers.  Despite that, most colleges, especially the most prestigious and competitive universities, still utilize the SAT heavily in the admission process.  The reason why can be explained by the SAT’s continued focus on problem-solving and analytical reading as major components in the design of SAT questions.  The SAT builds difficulty into its questions by making them tricky.  Maximizing your score on the SAT requires understanding complicated puzzles and knowing how to beat those puzzles.

            The ACT, in contrast, has always been touted by its designers as a test focused on knowledge and general academic benchmarks. The ACT organization also claims that the ACT  accurately measures college readiness, however, like the College Board’s claims, these are based on internal studies of test results and eventual graduation rates and do not necessarily identify a predictive relationship.  By the end of the first decade of the 21st Century, every four-year college in the United States accepted the ACT for admissions. In fact, many colleges and universities, especially in the Midwest and mountain regions of the US, transitioned into ACT-only schools in the period between 1960 and 2000, thereby rejecting the SAT, due to the ACT’s focus on knowledge-based questions.  The ACT tends to provide students with much more straightforward questions which require a broad base of general knowledge.  The only section on the ACT which utilizes problem-solving techniques is the Science section, which allows students to demonstrate analytical thinking even if a student has not yet taken a specific science class.  The ACT builds difficulty into its questions by applying a stringent time limit which allows far less time per questions than almost any other standardized test at any level.  Maximizing your score on the ACT requires strong time management skills and a wide knowledge base.

            To make a broad generalization, students who feel more comfortable with puzzles, riddles, and problem-solving skills tend to find the SAT a more comfortable testing experience.  Students who prefer challenging, but more straightforward academic work, even under an onerous time limit, tend to find the ACT a more comfortable testing experience. One can even go so far as to generalize that students who prefer creative thinking to solve problems will prefer the SAT and students who prefer more concrete thinking to achieve academic success will prefer the ACT.  These are broad generalizations, however, they are helpful to keep in mind when deciding which test to take.

            Creative thinking can be a powerful tool when preparing for and taking the SAT.  Since many of the questions are fashioned into tricky puzzles, strong problem-solving skills and an eye for making connections can be the best resources a student can possess.  While the reading level on the SAT is quite challenging, the ability to analyze the questions for meaning can lead a student to success, especially because those questions focus more on inferences and writing technique.  In the grammar and math sections, the skill level of the material is often surprisingly much lower than one would normally expect. Using problem-solving skills to strip away complexity and get to the lower level problem on the inside is the key to beating the puzzles.

            Concrete thinking and a solid background in the specifics of high school academics are the best tools for success on the ACT. The questions on the ACT are designed to be straightforward and clear but often depend on advanced academic topics. While the reading passages on the ACT can be challenging, the questions tend to focus more on identifying details and information.  The math on the ACT is often more challenging than the math on the SAT, but the vast majority of the questions are clearly defined and simple to understand.  Having a base of knowledge in grammar, math, and science is the simplest path to success on the ACT, and the ability to apply that knowledge quickly and efficiently is the key to high achievement.

            Structurally and superficially, the SAT and the ACT are more similar than they have ever been.  In those previous articles, I discussed the number of sections and the content of each test, and how that information is more similar now than it has ever been.  Beneath the surface, however, the SAT and the ACT are still very different, and students should identify which method of thinking suits them best, and then dedicate themselves to mastering the skills to achieve the strongest results possible on that test.