ACT on the new SAT: “We’re not having it. And neither should you.”

Tensions between the organizations that make the ACT and the SAT are flaring after the CEO of the ACT denounced the concordance tables recently released by The College Board.

You can read the full statement here.

These tables supposedly allow students to compare their performances on the new SAT and the ACT. By using these tables, for example, a student who got a 35 on the ACT and a 1500 on the new SAT would know to submit the 35 on the ACT, which equates to a 1570 on the new SAT, to colleges rather than the 1500 on the new SAT.

For students who find the tables hard to use, The College Board even developed a SAT Score Converter App, which will translate New SAT scores to old SAT scores as well as ACT scores.

Sounds good so far, right?

Apparently, The College Board cut the ACT out of the creation of the concordance tables. Furthermore, The College Board did not wait until they had a full year’s worth of data before trying to compare student scores on the New SAT with those of the ACT, potentially misleading students by making error-prone comparisons based on insufficient data.

In response, the ACT has called the tables “a bridge too far,” saying that “the College Board has taken it upon itself not only to describe what its scores mean, but what ACT’s scores mean.”

“ACT remains eager to engage the higher education community in conducting a rigorous concordance between scores on the ACT and the new SAT—when the data are available. That will be in about a year.

Until then, we urge you not to use the SAT Score Converter. And not to listen to messages suggesting the old SAT and the new SAT, or even the ACT, are comparable.”

This isn’t the first time the ACT and The College Board have butted heads. The College Board has been waging a war with the ACT over contracts for state-level testing. The aggression simply hasn’t stopped since the ACT overtook the SAT as the most widely-taken test in the country last year.

As a teacher and author, I just have to say I find this intensifying fight between rivals quite amusing. Though some are strongly advising everyone to take the ACT while The College Board figures out its mess, my perspective is one that’s more opportunistic: Take the test that you like more and that you’ll do better on. After all, the whole point is to give yourself the best chance in college admissions.

And if you’re considering both the SAT and the ACT, you might as well use those concordance tables to give you a rough idea of how your scores might compare. Even if they’re dubious, there’s no alternative and I suspect many colleges will be using the very same tables to compare you with other students.


1560 is the new 2300: Is the New SAT Much Too Easy?

The College Board has recently released a SAT Score Convertor that converts between old SAT and new SAT scores (as well as the ACT).

The calculator itself is quite clunky. I’ve managed to reverse engineer it into easy-to-read concordance tables:

These tables reveal something pretty startling: An old SAT score of 2300, long considered a good qualifying threshold score for Ivy League and other top-20 schools, is equivalent to a 1560 out of 1600 on the new SAT.

To put this in perspective, you can’t get more than an average of 4 questions wrong on the entire test (154 questions) if your goal is a 1560+.

And a 1500/1600 on the new exam is only a 2170/2400 on the old exam. Ouch. What you think is an amazing score may just be a good one.

This score inflation is due to a few factors:

  • No penalty for guessing on the new SAT
  • Only four answer choices instead of five on the new SAT
  • The test overall is easier in terms of subject matter and question types

Don’t get me wrong—the new SAT is not a walk in the park. You’ll definitely encounter some very tough and tricky questions. The problem is that you’ll need to get those tough questions right to stay competitive. Silly mistakes on the easier questions will cost you more than ever before.

It will be interesting to see how this shakes up the college admissions landscape in the coming year.

By the way, if you took the PSAT, there is clear evidence of inflation there as well. See my PSAT National Merit Cutoff Predictions here.

Has the SAT gotten so easy that the margin of error at the top is now too thin? Or should we welcome the new changes simply because the test is now easier to get through?

Feel free to leave comments here.


New SAT Prep

I’m currently transitioning this blog and the newsletter to teach the new SAT format. Until this transition is complete, there will be some outdated material.

So far, I have released updated books on the new writing section and the new math section. Here are the amazon links:

To help as many students as possible with the new test, I’ve decided to release all the review material from the SAT Writing book for free on this site. Unfortunately I can’t do the same for the SAT Math book due to the sheer number of graphs and equations in the book.

Both guides contain pretty much everything you need to get a perfect score. You can view the SAT Writing guide here:

The Advanced Guide to the New SAT Writing

To make it worth your while, the paperback version contains over 500 extra practice questions (grouped by topic) not found here and three practice tests. Again, both books are fully updated for the new SAT and continue in the same style as the bestselling first editions.

Lastly, I’ve written an updated book that contains my best insights on college admissions and how to plan your university applications. These are the secrets I’ve used over the years to help students get into the Ivy League and other top tier schools. It’s a short read (~40 pages), so instead of making it a physical book, I’ve turned it into an eBook. It’s only available to those who have purchased one of my other books. Full details are here.


I took the ACT three times to figure out the best strategies–—here’s what happened

Because I used the SAT (pre-2016) instead of the ACT for college admissions, it’s only relatively recently that I’ve started to delve into the ACT.

Due to the updates to the exam in 2015, which include a complete overhaul to the essay and a dual reading passage, many students and parents have been wondering what the best way to prepare is. The lack of resources has brought about a lot of uncertainty—only one practice exam with the new changes has been released and the ACT has not yet published an updated official guide, which has misled some students into preparing for the old exam format. Other books, such as the ones from major test prep companies, are written by academics who haven’t taken the exam themselves. Much of their material isn’t battle-tested or it’s too broad and simplistic to be useful for top-performing students.

In teaching students, I myself had to wrestle with the best way to tackle the new essay. There just wasn’t enough information out there to follow. No one really knew what worked and what didn’t.

So to get a grip on the new test, I decided to sit for three official administrations of the exam—Dec 2015, Feb 2016, and Apr 2016. As a tutor who has already graduated from college, my goal wasn’t exactly to get a perfect score. Instead, I went into the exams with the following agenda in mind:

  • Test out an essay template that was designed to work for any prompt.
  • Test out strategies for the reading and science sections, which are notorious for their time pressure.
  • Get a sense of any updated question types on the ACT English section (The 2015-2016 ACT booklet suggests that there has been a slight shift).
  • Check whether the exam as a whole has gotten tougher (The 2015-2016 ACT booklet suggests that it has).
December 2015:

ACT Test December Score Report

My Thoughts:

The English section has definitely gotten a bit tougher. Expect to see a lot more sentence placement questions. Also, some inside advice: know the rules for dashes inside and out. There were quite a few tricky punctuation questions involving dashes that you typically wouldn’t see on the old exam.

The dual reading passage isn’t any more difficult than the single passages. Don’t be intimidated by it. The math and reading sections are pretty much the same as they were before and you should be fine practicing for these sections using old exams.

On initial practice tests, I struggled horribly to finish the reading section on time. At one point, I almost thought it was impossible. Fortunately, I was able to train myself to perform under time pressure. If you’re having trouble finishing on time, this post details how I practiced my timing with this watch. I attribute my 36 on reading to this way of practicing.

I sort of dropped the ball on the science section. For some reason, my mind hit a brick wall and I struggled to grasp one of the passages. I ended up wasting way too much time trying to chase the answers down. Lesson learned—you can’t give any questions more time than they deserve. My goal next time would be to tackle the science section in a more strategic and disciplined way.

Overall I’d say the science section was tougher than usual and the exam overall was also a bit tougher. UPDATE: I finally received the curve for this exam, which pretty much confirms my suspicions that the exam was tougher.

The highlight of this exam was the perfect score I got on the ACT essay. Why? Because I managed to crush it with an essay template that I developed.

Since the announcement of the new ACT essay, it’s been a mysterious black box that no one has truly figured out. So my approach was to do an experiment to figure out what worked and what didn’t. In this experiment, I used an essay template that I believed would be flexible enough for any prompt. It contained the exact words and sentences I would use as well as prepared examples and a predetermined structure.

As you can see, it worked extremely well.

And because I took the exam in December, I was able to retrieve a copy of my essay from the ACT’s Test Information Release Service, which is offered only in December, April, and June.

To see my template and my actual essay from the December 2015 exam, get my ACT essay book. It goes way beyond the simple writing tips that you read in every other test prep book.

Now getting a perfect 36 on the essay meant that I could try new things on the next two exams to further see what worked and what didn’t.

February 2016:

ACT Test February Score Report

My Thoughts:

As you can see, my tweaks to the essay only hurt me, which is ok since I was able to learn even more about what the ACT graders are looking for. Again, get the ACT Essay book if you’d like to know what tweaks I made so that you can avoid the mistakes.

Moving to the other sections, I was able to tackle the science section in a much better way, hence the higher score, but there was still room to refine my approach. My main goal for the next exam would be to score a 35-36 on the science section.

My thoughts on the math, reading, and English sections are pretty much the same as they were for the Dec 2015 exam. The exam overall continued the trend of being a bit harder than the old pre-2015 exam, but there wasn’t anything that really surprised me.

April 2016:

ACT Test April Score Report

My Thoughts:

This was my best performance on the ACT. Even though my goal wasn’t necessarily to get a perfect score, I’m proud that I came close.

As you can see, I got my science strategy down cold and will be writing more about it soon. If I can go from a 30 to a 33 to a 35, so can you.

I tried something new on the essay and it totally didn’t work out. I can now state for sure that I nailed the approach the first time around on the December exam and that it’s the approach everyone should be using.

Having taken the exam twice already, I encountered no surprises on the other sections. The math, reading, and English sections all felt the same. I’ll be posting the curve for this exam once I get it.

One of my biggest takeaways from this whole experience is the great potential in retaking the exam. Even though I dreaded all the Saturday mornings I would have to go in for the ACT, I can’t tell you how much more relaxed and focused I became from the first exam to the third. While it’s true that I was better prepared each time around, I know for a fact I was mentally tougher on the second and third retakes. On the first exam, I psyched myself out a bit and the pressure got to me on the science section. By the third exam, I was a seasoned pro and finished with time to spare on nearly every section. My results speak for themselves.

If you’ve taken the exam just once and you’re on the fence about retaking, I highly recommend that you do. You don’t have much to lose and you might be surprised at how well you perform the next time around.

Lastly, if you’ve been wondering all this time how I consistently got 35’s on the ACT English section, get the ACT English book. It contains everything I know about that section and covers all the question types you’ll see on the updated exam.

If you’ve been wondering how I got perfect scores on the math section three times, a math book will be coming soon.

Feel free to contact me with any questions. Again, the ACT is relatively new to me so I haven’t been able to write a lot about it. Expect a lot more soon!


About Nielson

about-npNielson Phu is a teacher, author, and engineer. Since graduating from NYU with a degree in Actuarial Science, he has helped hundreds of students throughout Boston and Hong Kong improve their SAT and ACT scores with a unique approach that goes far beyond the basic strategies found in typical test prep material. In 2013, he started The College Panda blog, which now attracts over 15,000 readers each month. His best test scores are listed below:

  • Old SAT: 2400
  • ACT: 35
  • SAT Math 2 Subject Test: 800
  • SAT Physics Subject Test: 780
  • SAT Chemistry Subject Test: 780