Everyone knows the importance of high test scores when it comes to college admissions and merit scholarships.
(Yes, even in a “test-optional” world.)
Depending on where you live and which school your child attends, there’s almost always a “default” test that schools offer.
When deciding which test your student should prep for, it’s important to understand the difference between the ACT vs. SAT.
Every student is practically born to take one test or the other. While the SAT and ACT serve the same purpose, and are similar in many ways, they are not created equal.
Randomly picking one of them based on what “everyone else is doing” could be disastrous for your college applications.
Fortunately, it’s easy to figure out which test you should take, and once you do, you’ll have a much better chance of getting into the school(s) of your choice.
Differences Between the SAT & ACT
Both tests are mostly multiple choice, test your math, grammatical, and reading aptitude, and run around three hours.
College Board announced in 2020 that it would no longer offer SAT Subject Tests and also eliminated the essay portion (except for states where the essay is required for School Day test administrations).
Considering over 1.2 million took the SAT essay in the class of 2020, getting rid of it was a big deal!
Those students who cheered this decision can still expect to find a rigorous writing and language section which assesses proofreading skills in the SAT.
Both exams (supposedly) test the material that you learn in middle school and high school.
While the material on both tests is remarkably similar (the SAT tests more vocabulary, the ACT tests a bit more math and has a “science” section that has nothing to do with science), the styles of these tests are incredibly different.
The SAT is great for students who like to ponder questions deeply, take their time, look for root causes, solve puzzles, and use their logical reasoning.
It is more challenging for students who aren’t good at logical reasoning games, or who need more straightforward directions.
The ACT is great for students who are focused, can work for long stretches without a break, and who have their ABCs of math, grammar, and sentence composition down.
It is less great for students who get stressed or distracted easily, or who aren’t good under time pressure.
To make an analogy: The ACT is a sprint, and the SAT is a chess game. If the wrong type of person takes the wrong test, they will encounter lots of frustration. If they switch to the right test, they’ll see an enormous comparative improvement in their results.
Obviously, there’s more to it than this, but understanding this basic “feel” will let you understand the critical difference between these two tests (and the critical nature of making sure you take the right one).
Which Standardized Test to Choose?
Understand something critically important: colleges DO NOT favor one test over the other.
The ACT and the SAT are taken equally as seriously, so the only thing that matters is which test gives your student a better score.
Fortunately, there’s an easy way to do this. If you already have PSAT and PLAN, or pre-existing SAT and ACT scores, just use the following “concordance table” to compare scores:
Whichever test gives you a better overall score is the one you should study for. If you only have one PSAT/SAT, or PLAN/ACT, or if you have nothing, here’s what you do:
- Get the official testing booklets for both tests. Get The Official College Board SAT Manual and The Official ACT Prep Guide. They contain real tests with real grading rubrics that you can take at home.
- Leaf through both tests to get a feel for the material, rules, formatting, etc. in each test. Make sure that you understand what to expect and what the rules are before you launch in.
- Set aside two 4-hour chunks in two consecutive weekends to take BOTH tests (or one, if you have the other test score already). You’ll want to take them under the same sleep, diet, and scheduling conditions to make sure it’s as “controlled” of an experiment as possible.
- Grade the test(s), then compare your scores using the concordance table. For now, leave out the science grade in the ACT and just average your math, English, and reading scores. It’s very easy to prep for, but weird at first, and it’ll affect your score unrealistically.
- Whichever test gives you the best score is the one you should study for. Plain and simple. It is very, very rare to see a student get the same level of score on both tests.
- If your scores ARE similar, go with the test you liked taking more. Maybe 1/30 students get similar scores on both tests. But they usually HATE one, and don’t mind the other. Stick with the one you don’t mind.
That’s all there is to it!
By using real tests, getting objective grades, and comparing them using the concordance table, you’ll know exactly which test to study for.
You’ll end up getting a better grade by putting in the same amount of effort, just because you’ll be taking the test that’s more geared toward your learning and neural style.
Well worth it!
How to Prep for the SAT/ACT
Once you figure out which test to take, it’s time to prep and plan your studying.
I usually recommend using an online, self-guided course and supplementing the course with one-on-one tutoring if you need some fine tuning.
Before you do anything else, be sure to find the right test for you!
It’ll make the entire process much simpler, much easier, and much more successful!
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