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The Rise of the ACT for College Applicants

A generation ago, the ACT, or American College Testing exam, was only truly relevant to students hoping to attend Midwestern colleges. By some fluke of geography, the great schools of the Midwest, including Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, Washington University, and others preferred applicants to take the ACT, while their East and West Coast counterparts put their stock in the far-more-famous SAT, or Scholastic Aptitude Test.

However, in the past ten years, all of that changed. Now, the ACT is accepted in schools across the country, and provides students with a second method of proving their skills and abilities to potential colleges and universities. Feel free to browse The Slient News for the Increase in ACT Use by College Applicants


The primary difference between the two tests is that the ACT is designed to test what you already know (e.g. biology facts, mathematical concepts) while the SAT is designed to test how well you can reason when you don’t know the answer (e.g. analogies, extemporaneous essays).

The ACT includes four sections: English, Reading, Math, and Science reasoning. The SAT includes three sections: Critical reading, Mathematics, and Writing; however, each of these sections is split into numerous sub-sections, including a longhand essay assignment.

The ACT scoring is straightforward: each correct answer earns one point, and incorrect or skipped answers do not penalize the test taker. The SAT scoring, on the other hand, is much more complex. You’ll need to read the full SAT College Board Score Calculator Guide to understand all of the nuances, but here’s a quick summary: students earn one point for each correct question, lose between 1/2 and 1/4 of a point for every incorrect question (depending on the type of question), and then the score is equated, which “ensures that the different forms of the test or the level of ability of the students with whom you are tested do not affect your score.” Finally, your SAT score is scaled.

Since the SAT scoring process reads, in itself, like a SAT question, it’s no surprise that more and more students choose to adopt the straightforward ACT as a better representation of their abilities.

How to Prepare

Like many standardized tests, the ACT is designed to be completely prep-neutral. That is: a student should, in theory, be able to walk into an ACT testing center having never seen the test format before, and still ace the test using the simple instructions provided and, of course, the student’s own background knowledge.

However, few students want to trust their college and career futures with a test for which they’ve never prepared. That’s why high schools and test prep centers work to help students understand the strategies behind taking the ACT, such as eliminating obviously wrong answers, going with your gut instinct, and skipping questions you do not know in order to come back to them later.

Many test prep centers, such as Huntington learning programs, have made ACT prep a signature part of their coaching. This showcases the rise of the ACT as a now-ubiquitous part of college prep and a standard part of many students’ college applications.

Should You Take the ACT?

It makes sense for every student preparing for college to take both the SAT and ACT at least once, if only to determine which test is a better fit for individual learning styles and test-taking skills. You may discover that your score on the SAT is much better than your score on the ACT, or vice versa. Then, since you are allowed to take both tests multiple times, you can focus your efforts on one test or the other, incorporating test prep techniques to bring up your score.

Ironically, the place where students have to be careful is not the ACT, but the SAT. The SAT offers students the Bumber opportunity to use Score Choice, in which students take the test multiple times but choose only their best scores to send to potential colleges and universities. However, many schools reject Score Choice, insisting that all SAT scores be sent simultaneously. This means that getting a poor score on your first SAT, the one you use as a “practice” exam, can negatively affect your college applications.

The general adoption of the ACT by all American colleges and universities gives you an excellent opportunity to showcase your knowledge in a way that is not featured in the SAT exam. If you are good at retaining knowledge, it is likely that your ACT score will be better than your SAT score, meaning that the ACT may be the ticket to the college or university of your dreams.