The Unpublished Changes to the ACT

The upcoming SAT changes in 2016 have dominated the mainstream media for the past 6 months. The undiscussed changes to the ACT that have been subtly occurring are equally important; this in-depth blog post covers several facets of these changes.

1) The test has been steadily changing for the past 24-36 months.
Without any formal announcement by the ACT, the ACT has been slowly and steadily changing the difficulty level of its test. If you compare some of the prior released ACT tests from 2005-2010 to ones from 2011-2014, the test is noticeably harder to finish, especially in Math, Reading, and Science. Additionally, the hardest of the hard English questions (the “Rhetorical Skills” questions) have become more time-consuming and less clear-cut. I still take the test each year and wholeheartedly agree with most of our students’ perception of these subtle but very meaningful changes to the ACT.

There have also been some more blatant changes this school year, such as how four of the past five ACT administrations have had one reading passage that is ripped straight from the SAT Medium Comparison passage format. On this comparison passage, students have two shorter passages to read, with some questions about Passage 1, some questions about Passage 2, and some questions comparing the two passages. No publicly-available ACT in existence contains one of these for students to practice with, and these passages have rattled students who took the ACT cold after preparing on their own. We expect this pattern of one Comparison Passage per test to continue.

The one silver lining in these difficulty changes is that, on the whole, the score curves at the top have become more generous. For example, the December 2013 test allowed test-takers to miss 4 questions on Science and still get a 35, whereas missing 4 on Red Book Test #1 would give a student a 29.

2) These new changes affect test-takers unequally.
These new test changes matter more for some test-takers than for others. It depends on what part of the score spectrum your student is competing in. If your student is in the lower part of the score spectrum (1-24), these changes will have a more limited impact on your student’s score, since those shooting for a 25 or under can afford to have great accuracy on the easier ones that they get to and guess on a few questions that they can’t finish. For example, a student who got a 21 on all four sections on the December 2013 test was allowed to miss 95 of the 215 questions.

Generally speaking, the ACT often remains a far easier test on which to move from a bottom 1/3 score to an average score than the SAT. Lower-scoring students can pick off the easy questions, guess on the rest, and get to where they need to be.

3) How this impacts students at the higher end (28-31):
However, for students looking for a top 12% or better score (28+), this timing change has had measurable impacts. In a world where over 70% of our students plan on applying to UGA and/or Georgia Tech, which have average ACT scores of 30 and 32, respectively, that makes this blog post very relevant and important. Running out of time on 6 or 7 questions per section would mean you’d have to ace the rest of the test to hit a 28+. If you’re shooting for a top 15-20% score or higher, leaving a bunch of questions blank is a killer.

4) How this impacts students aiming for tip-top scores (32+):
When our students see Silvia and me at the testing center, many of them often joke with us “I bet you guys probably finish each section with like 10 minutes left, right?” Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m good at the test–I recently became the first person ever to earn back-to-back-to-back Composite 36s with the June 2014 exam–yet the total time I had left at the end of all four sections combined was less than 90 seconds. I’m fast, but balancing speed and accuracy with these new, harder tests doesn’t allow much time to spare.

The mental mindset we have described to many of our students shooting for 32+ is called “an upbeat, panicked scamper.” Overly Type A students who insist on doing all questions exactly in order will get a suboptimal score. On Math, Reading, and Science, I didn’t answer questions anywhere near the order in which they were asked. I flip back and forth a fair bit to cherry-pick the easy ones, so much so that my proctor for the June 2013 ACT pulled me aside during the break to ask me what I was doing. The chasm between how long the easy vs. the hard questions take is large. The 7 hardest Science questions on the June 2014 test probably took me longer than the 18 easiest ones, and that’s fairly typical.

Many of our students who have tried this scamper method have initially seen it backfire because they don’t realize that they spent 18 seconds deciding whether to do the question or not, which is far too long. Students aiming for 32+ need to manufacture and hone a strong intuition as to which questions are worth doing immediately via large practice test volume. That spidey sense allows students to rapidly make a 2-3 second call as to whether to do the problem or come back later based on which types of questions have troubled them in the past.

The giant differences in the recommendations we’ve just described for various score levels of students illustrate the danger in listening to what a friend says about whether the SAT or ACT is easier. Why not simply take a mock test and find out? Unless you have an uncommon gift of speed, going from a 32 towards a 36 is often a far tougher road than going from the equivalent SAT of a 2120 towards a 2400.

5) How geography has been impacting the ACT:
Part of our theory for why the ACT has been having to make the test harder is that the highest achievers in the highest-achieving areas of the country (the Northeast and California) are now taking the ACT in much greater numbers than before, and these areas have a disproportionate share of the top scores. When we first moved to Atlanta in 2007, we struggled to convince some New York transplants to give the ACT the equal standing it has long held with the SAT at all college admissions offices. One mom (a recent Long Island transplant) had a son whose two diagnostic mock tests showed a top 45% score on the SAT but a top 5% score on the ACT…cold. We congratulated her and said “well, it looks like it’s the ACT for him!” She replied, “I will not pay money to have him tutored for that redneck test.” (???) Things have changed these past 7 years. That conversation no longer takes place. Similar stories abound, including Nick Anderson’s 2013 article in the Washington Post where he states: “The word is out among students that either test is acceptable for college applications. That’s a big change from previous generations, when the SAT was perceived in many quarters as the premier –and therefore “must-do”–test.”

In Atlanta, we consider ourselves great motivators, and are able to get most of our students to complete one test a week, sometimes two. Our tutor friend in DC frequently has students apologize for only doing three tests leading up to a session.  One only need look at the discussion forums on to see that our DC friend is not an anomaly.  Doing just part of the ACT Red Book won’t suffice anymore.

6) Practice volume remains paramount at all score levels:
The bottom line is that under this new era of a faster ACT, more practice test volume has to happen. Students need to expect the test they’re going to receive on test day to be far harder to complete than the “cupcake” tests that they’re seeing in the ACT Red Book. Students shouldn’t be lulled into complacency by doing well on Red Book Tests #1-3, which were the actual ACT tests when our current students were in diapers.

Silvia and I have long hoped that the ACT would concede that Red Book tests #1-3 are sadly out of date (#4 and 5 are slightly better, from the 2000s) and provide a 4th Edition of the book with 10 real past tests from 2010 to 2014, as the SAT has long done. In the interim, one way to combat this situation is to order the ACT Test Information Release (TIR) service if you happen to take the ACT in April, June, or December. With TIR, for $19, students can order a copy of the test booklet and answer key and have the chance to go over the exact questions they missed before taking it the next time.

If students were all given unlimited time on the test, five or six times as many students would likely get a 30+. Each question is typically worth an entire point on the Reading and Science sections, so having to guess on 5 or more questions at the end is an instant 4-point hit to that section’s score. In this new era with the test being harder to finish (albeit with a gentler curve), practice volume is everything.

7) Closing thoughts:
It is important to note that, even with fantastic tutoring, with this new amped-up, tough-to-finish version of the ACT, there will remain a meaningful minority of students who stand no real chance of finishing all four sections of the ACT on time (while maintaining accuracy/not rushing). Finding out whether your student is one of these people upfront at the beginning of tutoring, via a mock test, is critical.

Feel free to email us with questions at!

Edison Prep