Virtually everybody knows the SAT as the preeminent college entrance exam – primarily in the Southeast.

However, the ACT is growing in interest, and Payton Carter has found it a perfect fit.

He was recently notified of achieving a perfect 36 on the ACT – which is unusual and even more so for a South Aiken School student who is still a sophomore.

“I’m more into math and science,” Carter said on Friday. “ACT focuses more on that, but I didn’t think I would get the score I did.”

His accomplishment has coincided with an announcement from the College Board – the SAT’s administrative organization.

That organization has announced significant procedural and content changes to the SAT.

So, what’s the difference between the two exams?

They appear to have become more alike recently.

The SAT generally explores what students know in terms of thinking ability, said Joe Powell, the Aiken County School District’s English/language arts coordinator.

The College Board is continuing that approach by preparing to align with the new state-driven Common Core academic standards.

However, the Board has ended its 9-year-old essay requirement, now making it an optional choice.

The ACT has been considered more of an aptitude test, Powell said, “but that is in the past. Now it’s a hybrid, incorporating on the test some of what students learn.”

While the ACT provides a lot of content on math and sciences, students have to be strong readers, Powell said.

They don’t necessarily have to be especially enthusiastic of great books, but they still have to be capable readers, he said.

A son of Ty and Ramona Carter, Carter’s focus is definitely on math and science. His course schedule includes pre-calculus, Advanced Placement statistics, physics and chemistry.

He first took the SAT and did well as a seventh-grader at St. Mary Help of Christians Catholic School through Duke University’s Talent Identification Program, also known as TIP.

While in middle school, Carter participated in MathCounts, a competition for middle school students. As an eighth-grader, he took first place on the written test and also won the “Countdown” – an informal one-on-one contest.

“I like doing stuff like that,” Carter said. “It’s fun for me.”

The ACT is not easy, said Tracie McBride, a South Aiken guidance counselor.

“I encourage all my kids to do both the SAT and ACT,” McBride said. “Kids typically do better on one or the other. If they do prefer one of them, we develop a plan for that.”

Powell said the School District wants to give students as many options as they can.

“It’s not going to harm their academic avenues by preparing for and taking both tests,” Powell said. “Both are for those who want to go to college.”

Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard’s education reporter.