Last week, I wrote about some of the major differences between the ACT and the SAT, focusing on the structure and content of the tests.  Today, we will build off that and discuss how students can decide which test is right for them.


First and foremost, students weighing which test is best for them should take a full-length practice test for each!  You want these diagnostic tests to simulate testing conditions as much as possible, so a few important guidelines are:

  1. Take them timed!  As we discussed last time, there are differences in pacing and timing between the two tests, which factors heavily into how students score and how students feel moving through each section.  
  2. Take them in a quiet, distraction free environment.  The “which day of the week are you” quiz can wait until you’re done.
  3.  Make sure you are awake and fully functional on the days you take them.  These tests do eat up a lot of time, so a good goal might be doing one test on a Saturday one weekend and then the other test the following Saturday.  


After students take a practice ACT and a practice SAT, the biggest thing I look at is their overall percentile on each.  Generally, whichever test a student scores higher on in their initial diagnostic is the one I recommend focusing on most heavily.


There are, I suppose, a few exceptions to this, and I try to take the following factors into account with my students when developing a plan for test-prepping.  

  1. Personal preference/confidence: Sometimes I have students who felt a lot more comfortable taking the test they initially scored worse on, and feel like with practice they can do better on that one.  This is most commonly the case when students feel like they’ve forgotten a lot of the relevant math concepts tested, but with practice they could master those concepts more easily.  For example, I’ve had  students score higher on the ACT initially, but feel a lot more confident about the algebraic concepts emphasized on the SAT and want to focus on improving there.  
  2. Logistical: Another big consideration (especially for seniors trying to prepare for these tests) can be logistical: the ACT and SAT offer different administrations throughout the year, and occasionally there are situations where a student may not have quite enough time to prepare for the October SAT, and have college applications due before the next available date.  In these cases it is important to look carefully at what the students’ various deadlines are, how much time they have before different test dates, and get a realistic sense of how much time the students will have to prepare before each test date.  Overall, however, these situations are avoidable, and speak to the importance of planning out test-prep far in advance.  


I think the discussion of ideal timelines for test-prep is important enough to merit its own blog post (we’ll probably want to get into that next time), but I do want to end with a couple thoughts and observations I’ve had pertaining to today’s topic of deciding between the ACT and the SAT.

  1. Math counts for 25% of the score on the ACT and 50% of the score on the SAT, so (theoretically at least) students whose strong suit is math would have better chances on the SAT, and students who struggle in math might prefer the ACT.
  2. The hardest sections to finish on-time tend to be ACT science, ACT reading, and SAT math no-calculator.  Therefore, slower readers might struggle more on the ACT, and those who need more time for math problems and feel more pressured under time might struggle more on SAT math (however, people do sometimes have a hard time finishing ACT math as well, which is why taking a diagnostic is so important)
  3. I have had many students start off lower on the SAT and then do better on it when they take the real one (and vice-versa) so it is very often a good idea to prepare for both and take each at least once.  These tests remain an important part of the college application process, and getting the best possible score you can is definitely worth the time and effort it takes to prepare for them!  


Next time, I will want to talk about developing a timeline for standardized test prep and perhaps build on that last point about taking both tests vs. focusing your energy on just one.  Till then!