What is the ACT?

With all of the changes to the SAT this year, I have a lot of parents asking about the ACT. They’ve heard that it’s easier, or better for students interested in math and science, so they want to know about preparing for it instead of preparing for the SAT. In this post, I want to touch upon what the ACT is, and in a future post dispelling some myths about it, what it isn’t.

What is the ACT?

The ACT is a college readiness assessment produced by ACT, Inc., and is a direct competitor to the SAT. In its early years, it was more popular in the central and southern United States, while the SAT was more popular along the coasts; in recent years, however, the ACT has become significantly more popular across the country, even overtaking the SAT in total number of tests administered in 2011.

The test has been known to emphasizing content-knowledge to a greater degree than the SAT, which focused heavily on reasoning. In fact, many of the changes made to the SAT in its most recent iteration were made to make it more like the ACT, including ditching some of the trickier “reasoning” type questions and emphasizing science and social studies content. On paper, both tests are remarkably similar:

English45 minutes
Math60 minutes
Reading35 minutes
Science35 minutes
Essay40 minutes
Total215 minutes
Reading65 minutes
Writing and Language35 minutes
Math 125 minutes
Math 255 minutes
Essay50 minutes
Total230 minutes

And that makes sense. They both are aiming to achieve similar goals.

To further muddle the difference between both tests, the ACT underwent a few changes this year as well:

  1. Added a set of paired passages to the Reading section, making it much more like the SAT Reading section, and
  2. Revised the essay to be more difficult and more objectively assessable.

There are still nuanced differences between the two tests, but they are more alike now than ever before.


In the next post in this series on the ACT, I’ll discuss the common myth that the ACT is an easier test.

Mike Constanza is the Director of Learning and Technology for Silver Oak Learning K-12. His expertise is primarily in reading, writing, SAT and ACT prep.