ACT and SAT Myths and Misconceptions

The ACT and SAT have been prominent in the college applications process for over 60 years. It should thus come as no surprise that there are countless myths, rumors, and misconceptions surrounding both exams. Separating truth from fiction, along with everything between, can be vital for students and families who seek to create effective and stress-free study programs.

 “If you don’t know the answer to a question, leave it blank.”

This myth stems from older versions of the SAT. Before the exam was redesigned in 2016, the SAT had a “guessing penalty”— each incorrect answer would cost students a quarter of a point. On the current incarnation of the SAT and ACT, however, there is no penalty for guessing; students simply gain points for answering questions correctly and do not gain points for answering questions incorrectly. Therefore, there is no reason to omit any questions on the ACT or SAT. These tests are overwhelmingly multiple choice in format, so even guessing entirely at random, a student can expect to be correct 20-25% of the time depending on the section.

“Fall exams usually have tougher curves than spring exams because more high school seniors take those tests.”

This is entirely false: the SAT and ACT are not curved exams. A curved exam is one in which individual results are weighted in relation to the results of all test takers. In contrast, the ACT and SAT both use a process of “equating,” in which data are used prior to the administration of an exam to ensure that scores on one test date will carry the same weight as those from another test date. For example, a student might be able to correctly answer fewer questions on a date with a more difficult test and achieve the same score as a student who correctly answered a greater number of questions on a date with a less challenging exam. Since the results are the same regardless of who is taking the exam on a given date, it is impossible to predict the difficulty of an exam or how lenient its scale might be.

“A perfect score means getting every question correct.”

While answering all questions correctly does guarantee a perfect score, a perfect score does not necessarily require answering all questions correctly. The score for each test administration is based on a scale unique to that specific test form. Depending on the scale for a given test, students can sometimes miss a small number of questions and still achieve a perfect scaled score. For example, take this ACT scale below.

A11 ACT Scale cropped-1

On this particular administration of the exam, a student could get up to two questions incorrect on the English section and one question incorrect on each of the Math and Science sections and still have a perfect score of 36 across all sections.

“You get 400 points for spelling your name correctly on the SAT.”

This claim is actually true! Well, it’s sort of true. Students’ SAT scores are determined by the sum of their scores on the Evidence Based Reading and Writing Section and the Math Section. Since both sections are scored on a scale of 200-800, the lowest total score possible on an SAT exam would be a 400, regardless of how you spell your name.

“Students who struggle in science should avoid taking the ACT.”

While it is true that the ACT contains a dedicated science section that does not appear on the SAT, the claim that students who might struggle in science should avoid the ACT is mostly false. The ACT Science section challenges students to interpret data provided in the form of charts or tables and to use basic scientific reasoning. This actually makes it much closer to a reading comprehension test than a traditional science test. In fact, well over 80% of the questions on an average ACT Science section can be answered solely by referencing information provided within the passage. Students’ struggles in their high school science classes do not necessarily preclude their success on the ACT Science section!

“ACT math is easier than SAT math.”

The Math sections on both exams pose unique challenges. Many students believe that the ACT Math is easier simply because its questions are more straightforward and because it allows the use of a calculator across the entire section, whereas the SAT splits its math into a 20-question No Calculator section and a 38-question Calculator section. However, the ACT actually includes a few questions on more advanced topics not included on the SAT; these include logarithms, matrices, vectors, and more advanced concepts from statistics. The ACT also tasks students with completing 60 questions in 60 minutes, leaving students with only 1 minute per question on average; by comparison, the SAT allots about 20% more time per question. However, this is not to say that the SAT Math is easier. Though the SAT Math sections emphasize topics with which students may be more familiar, it does require a more in-depth understanding of the concepts and functions associated with those topics. Ultimately, which test’s Math section is “easier” is largely dependent on students’ preferences and abilities.

“The SAT is better for students strong in reading and writing, and the ACT is better for students strong in math and science.”

This is another common myth that likely stems from the ACT’s inclusion of a science section not present on the SAT. The truth is that although there are some significant differences between the exams, they are actually far more similar than they are different. Both exams have dedicated sections testing grammar (English on the ACT and Writing & Language on the SAT) and reading skills, with each of those sections constituting 25 percent of students’ composite scores. Although the SAT does not feature a dedicated science section, it does, in fact, feature many of the same components that appear on the ACT Science. Graphs and charts, often scientific in nature, are included in the SAT’s Reading and Writing & Language sections, and can also be found throughout the Math sections. Further, since the ACT Science section requires very little background knowledge and instead focuses on reading and interpreting data, it often ends up benefiting students with strong reading skills. For students who are strong in math, it’s worth considering that 50 percent of the SAT’s composite score comes from the Math sections, while only 25 percent of the ACT composite score is determined by students’ math performance. Naturally, many additional factors will also contribute to performance on each exam, so ultimately, the best way for students to determine which exam is the better fit would be to take a practice test for each and compare the results.

“Colleges prefer one exam to the other.”

While this claim may have once had some truth to it, it has outlived its validity. There was once a time when there was a geographic bias towards these exams, with the SAT favored by coastal colleges and the ACT favored in the midwest. However, such disparities have nearly entirely vanished, and both exams are currently accepted (and viewed equally) at all U.S. colleges.

“Students with good grades don’t need to do much to prepare for these exams.”

This is one of the most common misconceptions, often paired with the idea that students who score well on these exams must be exceptionally smart or that students who score poorly must be lacking academically. It is true that the ACT and SAT are both academic exams; students who excel in school generally have the upper hand. However, the ACT and SAT both present students with a unique set of circumstances unlike those they face in school on a daily basis. As with any test, understanding the specific challenges these exams present is paramount to success. 

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