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The PSAT is Done – Now it’s Time to Check Out the ACT

Originally published November 7, 2019

Congratulations on making it through the PSAT! I’m hoping you feel really good about it – and not just because it’s over! If you don’t, however, you certainly don’t need to stress, because colleges will never see those scores. But good, bad, or otherwise, you’ll be waiting until December for your scores to come back. One great use of your time between now and then is to check out the ACT. While rocking the PSAT won’t get you any closer to getting into the college of your choice, rocking the SAT or ACT most certainly will.

Since you just took the PSAT, you know what the SAT will be like. Why? Because the SAT is basically the PSAT again with 15 extra minutes and 15 extra questions. So, assuming you did your best and nothing super strange happened on test day, your PSAT scores are a really good predictor of how you’d do on the SAT were you to take it right now. Spending some time checking out and taking the ACT makes sense so that, in December, you can sit down with both sets of scores and decide which road you’re heading down.

It’s worth mentioning here that colleges really don’t care which test you take. They simply consult a concordance chart to equate the scores and put everyone on the same scale. The best test to take is the best test for you, so let’s take a better look at the ACT and how it’s different from the PSAT you just took. There are plenty of details below, but be sure to check out our handy SAT vs. ACT Infographic to see a comparison of the tests on one page.

Speedy Assessment vs. Slower Reasoning

When my students take an ACT for the first time after having taken the PSAT, their first response is typically something like, “The questions seemed much more clear. I felt like I knew what I was doing.” That probably sounds great to you, but with the next breath, it’s usually something like, “But I wish I had more time to finish each section.” And those really are the key differences between the ACT and the P/SAT: the hardest stuff on the SAT is harder than the hardest stuff on the ACT, mostly because it’s trickier, but you have more time to think about it. The material on the ACT is more straightforward, but you need to do more questions in less time. So expect to have to hustle more on each ACT section than you did on the SAT. If you already ran short of time on the SAT sections, you might have a very difficult time handling the pace of the ACT.

Let’s take a closer look at how each section of the ACT differs from the comparable SAT section and what you should be thinking about when you sit down to take an ACT practice test.

ACT English

This section will look the most familiar to you, since it’s very similar to the Writing section of the PSAT. That being said, here are a few tips:

  • Read every word of the passage. This section has the least time pressure, so don’t skip around from underlined portion to underlined portion. You’ll need to understand the passage as a whole to answer the questions that have directions. Make sure you read those directions and follow them like a robot. There’s no such thing as too obvious here.
  • Expect even more questions about punctuation, so be sure to brush up on identifying independent and dependent clauses and when to use commas, semicolons, or colons.
  • The ACT likes answers that are short and sweet. When in doubt, take the simplest answer: that could mean the shortest or that could mean the one with the least punctuation.
  • If you aren’t clear on a rule and need to rely on what “sounds right,” be sure to move your lips as you read the sentence. It’ll sharpen your ear for grammar and help you make the right choice.

ACT Math

There’s only one math section on the ACT, and you’ll be able to use your calculator on the whole thing. These questions will look more like those you’ve seen in math classes and will be drawn from Geometry, Algebra 1 and 2, and even Precalculus.

  • The questions get harder as you get further into the section. So take your time and execute on the easy questions, collecting all the points you can. If you run short of time at the end, it’ll likely be on questions that would’ve been difficult for you to answer correctly even if you had plenty of time. Rushing through the early ones, making hasty errors as you go, only to spend time at the end of the section being stumped by the hardest questions doesn’t do your score any favors.
  • There are way more geometry questions on the ACT and you don’t get any formulas to help you out, so make sure you know the ones you’ll need most: areas and volumes, Pythagorean theorem and triples, special right triangle ratios, etc.
  • The test writers really aren’t trying to mess with you. If you thought you knew what you were doing on a PSAT math question, you might have, or you might have been falling for a cleverly designed trap. If you think you know what you’re doing on an ACT math question, you know exactly what you’re doing.
  • There will be more precalculus at the end of the ACT than there was at the end of the PSAT. If you come across something you don’t know how to do, make a quick guess and use that time on another problem you do know how to do.

ACT Reading

This is the section for which time really becomes a factor. You’ll have about a third less time per passage, so you’ll have to keep moving in order to finish in time.

  • Despite the faster time, you still need to start by reading the passage for understanding. As if you’ll have to answer questions about it. Because you will. Read carefully and don’t skim, but don’t waste time with lots of underlining or margin notes either. 
  • Try to answer main idea questions from memory, but you’ve got to go back to the passage to find the answers to those detail questions. Try to do that before you look at the answer choices. You can’t find the right answer choice until you find the answer in the text. Think of this as the world’s worst game of Where’s Waldo? and you’ll be on the right track.
  • Struggling on the PSAT felt like, “Oh, gosh. Those lines. I didn’t understand those the first time I read them. Maybe I’ll look at the answer choices for help. Nope. That didn’t help.” Taking the ACT Reading section shouldn’t feel like that. If you’ve found the right part of the text, finding the right answer choice should be easy. If it’s not, you likely haven’t yet found the helpful lines in the text. If you are struggling on the ACT, it’ll be more like, “Ugh, I kind of remember that from the passage. Where was that again? Hmm… I can’t keep looking forever so I’ll have to make a guess and keep going.”
  • You just have to make peace with the fact that you don’t have enough time to be 100% sure of all your answers. Settle for 80% sure, make your answer, and keep moving!

ACT Science

There is no Science section on the PSAT, so this will be totally new to you. I’ve been describing the ACT as the more straightforward test, and it is, but the least honest thing the ACT does is calling the Science section the Science section. Were it being more honest, this section would be called the Reading Charts and Graphs section. It’s not about our science content knowledge, so if science isn’t your thing, that’s no reason to dodge the ACT. On the other hand, if you’re a big science geek, that doesn’t mean this is going to be a slam dunk.

  • Time is even tighter here than it is on the Reading section. It’s so tight, in fact, that you don’t have time to read the passages. Jump right into the questions and start answering them. Unlike on the reading section, here you have legends, headings, axes, and keys to help you find information fast. Most questions direct you right to the experiment, figure, or table you need to use. You’ll have enough time – barely – to find all the answers, but you won’t have enough time to either understand what you’re doing or feel good about your answers. That’s just how this section works.
  • There’s one Conflicting Viewpoints passage, however, that doesn’t have charts or graphs. You’ll need to treat that one like a reading passage and begin by reading the text.
  • The passages don’t really get harder as you go through the section. The questions, however, do get more difficult as you go through each passage. So focus on getting the first few questions on each passage right. Those should just require you to go to one place in the passage and get one piece of information. You might need to make some guesses on the last question or two of each passage in order to get through the section in time. Mark those to come back to if you have time and keep working.
  • You’re neither a geologist nor a geneticist. And that’s ok. Answering these questions won’t require the detailed knowledge of a scientist, so try to do the easiest, most obvious thing you can do. That’s likely going to get you the right answer.

Best of luck on your ACT practice test! In addition to following the tips above, be sure to put yourself in a position to win when you take the test. Don’t start it after a long day of school or after you lose the league championship. The best time to take one is first thing in the morning on a weekend when you’re well-rested and can focus. 

Deciding between the ACT and the SAT should be a thoughtful choice, but it shouldn’t be a stressful one. About half the students we see perform approximately equally well on either test, but the other half definitely overperforms on one test relative to the other. So if there is a path of least resistance for you, you’ll be thankful later that you took some time now to identify it!

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