What the Test Makers Won't Tell You
Let me lay out a common scenario for you. You, a high school student, purchase an official guide to the SAT or the ACT in the hope that this will make your college application process roughly one hundredth of a percent easier. Upon opening the book, however, the official guide insists that you, yes, you, have already mastered all of the skills required for this test, and that you have nothing to worry about. 36, here I come, you think. Emboldened, you take the first diagnostic test only to realize that you’ve run out of time, the questions are inane, and you now believe that you are woefully underprepared for this exam.
There is no telling how often this happens, but it is essential to know that what the test makers claim about the test and what the test actually entails are fundamentally different things. Taking the ACT or SAT does not simply require the knowledge of content that you receive in school—you also have to train for the strategies inherent to the tests themselves.
Neither test is necessarily harder than the other; they simply test different skills in different ways. For the ACT, most students struggle with the time pressure that the test enforces, particularly on the reading and science sections, both of which require students to answer 35 questions in 40 minutes, with the added pressure of reading through multiple passages. On the surface, this seems like an incredibly difficult task, but what they don’t tell you is that, with the exception of a handful of outside knowledge questions in the science section, every question is answerable based on a surface–level reading of the passages and graphs. Once this is understood, the timing becomes significantly less difficult, and the test begins to appear far less daunting.
On the other hand, the SAT allows for significantly more time per question and does not have a science section to get through. However, the reading questions, at least on the surface, appear more difficult, and this is true to a certain extent – proof-pair questions in particular often give inexperienced test-takers fits. Ultimately, though, just as on the ACT, the reading questions are all answerable based on the passages provided and correct answer choices will be either direct paraphrases or immediate inferences.
The math sections for both tests naturally require outside knowledge, but there are strategies here as well to make these sections easier for students. Often when I work with students, we go through the questions and figure out what they are actually asking, and my students realize that they do in fact have the skills to answer most, if not all, of the questions. In order to make the test more difficult, the test makers rely on what I call artificial difficulty—that is, they phrase questions in unusual ways or format answer choices to appear more esoteric than they actually are. Once you work through the methods in which the test makers artificially inflate the difficulty of questions and begin to understand that they are simply testing your knowledge in different ways, the fear factor starts to disappear. And then, even on questions that do test skills you might not have yet, you can usually rule out clearly wrong answers by working backwards from the answer choices or plugging in real values for variables.
It’s these truths about the SAT and ACT that make tutoring valuable. Using Khan Academy or ACT Online Prep will absolutely help you in your quest for a great score; however, these prep tools from the test-writers are never going to focus as much on the question-specific techniques or section-specific strategies as a tutor will. After all, to do so would be to admit that it’s not just about content: the tests themselves can be learned as well.
Ultimately, the ACT and the SAT are not simply testing your content knowledge, they are testing your ability to adapt to the test, which is where tutors come in. We have worked through countless problems and are intimately familiar with the tricks the test makers pull, so we are equipped to ease you through the process and into your best possible score. Once these strategies are mastered, most students realize there is nothing to fear about either of these tests—which is the goal! These tests are teachable and coachable, and preparation for them need not be torturous. Learning test strategies and seeing your score improve can be fun, and that is the most important thing that the test makers will not tell you.