True or false? The SAT is harder than the ACT.
You might have heard this or a similar fact about the ACT. But with so much information (and so many opinions), it can be hard to know what’s true about the ACT and SAT. We’re here to help. In this article, we talk through 15 ACT & SAT myths so that you have the knowledge and confidence you need to do your best on these tests. Let’s get started.
MYTH #1: Schools are going test-optional, so test scores don’t matter.
“Test optional” only applies to students willing to pay full price because colleges that are test-optional still require test scores for scholarships. Plus many colleges look at test scores for class placement or require minimum scores for specific programs or majors. Finally, if two similar candidates apply to a selective college, and one has a great test score and the other supplies no score, who has the advantage?
MYTH #2: The tests are easier (or harder) based on when you take them.
There are many ideas out there about when the tests are easier or harder. Some people believe that summer tests are easier because more “smart kids” take the test then. Others say that fall exams are tougher because of all the high school seniors taking these tests. Some even argue that the April mandated test is easiest because all juniors take it (in mandated states).
When you take the test does matter, but only because of what’s happening in your life. If you’ve had an extra math class, or had more time to prepare, your results should illustrate your improved readiness. Neither the ACT nor SAT use a curved scale: how well other students do on a test does not affect your score. However, both tests do use a statistical process called equating. Results from previous exams are compared to the current test to make sure that scores from different tests will show the same ability regardless of the test. So, you might correctly answer fewer questions on a more difficult test and receive the same score. The best time to take the test is when you can be prepared!
MYTH #3: Colleges only accept the ACT or SAT, not both.
A generation ago, this was true at some colleges, but all U.S. colleges will now accept either ACT or SAT scores when considering admissions and scholarship winners. You can use concordance tables to compare scores across both tests. We suggest taking both tests, then focusing on the one you prefer.
MYTH #4: Don’t take the ACT or SAT until late in your junior year.
Colleges only consider your highest score for admissions and scholarships, so take the test at least three times. Many colleges start accepting applications August 1 of your senior year, so fitting in multiple tests is difficult if your first test isn’t until April of your junior year. While waiting to take the test means you’ll have taken more math courses, most ACT/SAT math questions can be solved if you’ve completed Pre-Algebra, Algebra, and Geometry. So, beginning test prep in the summer after your sophomore year can be a sound strategy. Consider your academic load, activities, and personal commitments, and give yourself a cushion in case you have to postpone taking a test.
MYTH #5: Only take the ACT and SAT if you plan to go to college.
ACT and SAT scores are generally valid for five years (depending on individual college admission policies), so taking the test in high school is insurance should you later decide to go to college. Many community colleges, technical and trade schools, and ROTC programs accept ACT/SAT scores, in lieu of their own placement tests, for course placement.
MYTH #6: Skip the ACT writing & SAT essay sections because they’re now optional.
Few colleges require the writing and essay portions of the tests. But in 2019, more than 1.4 million students wrote the SAT essay and almost 800K students completed the ACT writing test. Why? Having a writing or essay score can be useful if a college on your ultimate list does recommend or require one, and it could save you from having to take another full test just to earn that score. Plus some colleges use these section to waive a college writing class. And if an admissions officer finds you and another prospective student have similar applications, your essay could be the tipping point in your favor.
MYTH #7: The ACT is easier than the SAT.
“Easier” depends on the test-taker, not the test. The ACT and SAT tests have differences, and you may find one test is easier for you. So take a practice (or official) test of each to find out which is better for you.
Additional Myth: Math on the ACT is easier than math on the SAT.
Many students believe ACT math is easier because calculators can be used on all questions, and the questions are more straightforward. But the ACT includes questions on advanced topics (the “Final 10” questions often consist of logarithms, matrices, vectors) that are not part of the SAT. Still, compared to ACT Math, SAT Math often asks for deeper understanding of math topics.
Additional Myth: If you’re better at reading and writing, take the SAT. If you’re stronger in math and science, take the ACT.
Math on the SAT accounts for 50% of the composite score, but math on the ACT only makes up 25% of the composite score. ACT tests science in a separate section while the SAT includes science questions in the Reading and Writing & Language sections. You’ll need to Hammer the Grammar on either test, and reading skills count on both tests as 25% of your composite score. Science-themed graphs and charts are included in all SAT sections. ACT Science focuses on reading and data interpretation, so it can be easier for strong readers.
Additional Myth: Students who struggle in science shouldn’t take the ACT.
The ACT Science section only asks you to interpret data from charts or tables and apply basic scientific reasoning. Deep science knowledge isn’t necessary.
MYTH #8: High GPA students don’t need to prepare for the ACT & SAT.
Both the ACT and SAT are academic exams, so students who do well in school tend to do well on them. But both tests are different from what students usually experience at school. Understanding strategies specific to each test can improve scores. Counting instructions and breaks, the tests are almost four hours long. Stamina and pacing needs to be strong. The math sections are comprehensive, covering math topics learned possibly years ago. English grammar questions may be structured differently, and many high school subjects (history, economics, civics, calculus) are not tested. So doing well in school may not translate to high test scores. Even students who do well on tests will benefit from ACT or SAT preparation.
MYTH 9: The ACT/SAT is an IQ test, so you can’t study for it.
Neither test measures intelligence. Both measure a portion of what is learned in high school, especially general reading comprehension, grammar, math, and data interpretation—and test-taking ability. The ACT requires memorization of formulas, and the SAT covers more logic and reasoning skills, skills improved with practice. Everyone can improve their score, and even a small point jump can make a big difference in scholarship dollars.
MYTH #10: If you don’t know the answer, leave it blank.
The “guessing penalty” has been removed on both the ACT and SAT, and points are only earned for correct answers. At the end of the test it’s “bubble time.” Fill in a bubble for every question. But remember, educated guesses that eliminate one or more answers are better than random guesses.
MYTH #11: Send scores to prospective schools after you get your results.
Free is good. Sending scores to four schools is included in your test registration, while sending scores afterwards will cost you (ACT: $13/school; SAT: first four schools free up to 9 days after test; then $12/school). If you don’t think you did well (sick, not prepared, etc.), you have the right to cancel scores by completing a form before you leave the test center, or downloading and mailing a cancel request within five days of your test date. Both tests allow you to send just your best rather than all scores, though some colleges prefer or require all your scores. So visit SAT’s College Search or the college website to check each college’s test score policy. For other score reporting questions, try ACT Score FAQs or SAT Score FAQs.
MYTH #12: ACT & SAT test scores are all that matter for college admissions.
Some people believe that you won’t get into your dream college if you don’t meet the minimum ACT or SAT score requirement. But test scores are just one part of the application. GPA, extracurriculars, essays, and interviews are important too, and many schools weigh additional factors, including family situations, learning disabilities, health issues, etc. While it’s impossible to go back and improve your GPA, practice and preparation can help improve test scores. Some students do better on the SAT than ACT or vice versa, and superscores and ACT section retakes (available late 2021) can also help boost scores.
MYTH #13: You can’t make big improvements on your test scores.
Answering only 2-3 more questions correctly jumps your section score. Those score jumps (and the scholarship money they can trigger) are why test prep can be the best-paying high school job you can have!
MYTH #14: ACT & SAT questions are in order of difficulty.
Within ACT Math and SAT Math, the questions generally get harder as you go. However, this isn’t true in the other sections: one reason why marking and returning to questions that are hard for you can help boost your score.
Bonus MYTH #15: The PSAT is just a practice SAT.
The October Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT) is a huge opportunity for high-scoring juniors. You can practice taking the PSAT in 8-10th grade, but only the junior year PSAT counts toward possible qualification to the National Merit Scholarship Program. Studying for the PSAT will also prepare you for the SAT and ACT, so take the PSAT seriously.
What other ACT or SAT myths have you heard? Comment below and let us know!
SAT or ACT: Which Test Should You Take?
This infographic compares the two tests to help you make an informed decision when it comes to the ACT vs SAT.