As a tutor, a large part of what I do is prepare students for the SAT or ACT, two standardized tests used for college admissions.
Typically, students have a limited amount of time to prepare for these tests. As such, they’re always asking which test they should focus on – the ACT or the SAT.
My answer to them is simple: Unless a student initially performs markedly better on an SAT than an ACT, he or she should prepare for the ACT.
I believe that preparing for the ACT is more helpful than preparing for the SAT because the structure and format of the ACT is more predictable. However, students must decide for themselves based off their test-taking performances and desired colleges. Here are some things to consider as you or your student decides whether to focus on the ACT or SAT:
Take a Practice Test
The first thing any student should do when deciding between the SAT and ACT is take a practice exam for each.
There are many free online and paper practice tests for both the SAT and ACT. Once a student has taken both, she can compare the scale scores for both tests. Scale scores measure aptitude by percentile (the percent of test-takers a student did as well as or better than).
If the scale score for one test is significantly higher than the other, that student should prepare for the test on which they scored the highest. If the scale scores are similar (within 5 percentile points of one another), students should prepare for the ACT.
The most accessible SAT tests can be found here. ACT tests can be found here. Either test can be taken online or printed out.
Why it is Tougher to Prepare for the SAT
Preparing for an SAT is not impossible – it's just harder.
The writers of the SAT, the College Board, reformatted the structure and timing of SAT passages, as well as the way the test is scored, at the end of the '16/'17 school year. Because this change was so recent, there aren't many trusted materials in the new format. The skills being tested have not changed, so students can still confidently prepare for the content of the SAT. However, working on timing and measuring score progress is harder.
In contrast, the ACT has been virtually the same for more than 20 years with no large changes. For example, the ACT recently adjusted the science portion from seven to six passages and added a new type of passage to the reading section. However, the number of questions and the way the test is scored remains the same.
Because the ACT is so consistent, it’s much easier to give students concrete goals. We can look up what scores they will need to get into the colleges of their choice. We can find out exactly how many questions students need to get correct in order to reach that score. We also can find ample materials in the correct format, so students can practice timing and strategy for years before test day, if they wish. All of this precision helps students build confidence.
Other Test Prep Tips
Students should not prepare for both tests at the same time. If a student must take both an ACT and SAT, I suggest working on them in sequence. First prepare for the ACT, then move on to SAT.
The ACT and SAT have very similar content. Once a student has prepared for an ACT, he should know nearly everything that would show up on an SAT. The student will simply have to get used to a different format and timing structure to get ready for an SAT.
Students and tutors should try to use materials that were printed in 2017 or later.
If a student is unsure where he’d like to attend college, it can be tough to decide which test to take. Practice tests are a great way to identify which test plays to a student’s strengths.
The ACT is more straightforward and has more practice material at the ready, so I suggest starting there. Luckily, once a student prepares for the ACT, he will be better prepared to take the SAT, as well, should he decide to.
When in doubt, take both tests. That way, students will be ready to put their best foot forward no matter which test a college prefers.
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