Thursday, May 10, 2012

The SAT vs the ACT: How to Decide, and Prepare

Test preparation can be confusing and intimidating; even the best students may find the SATs or ACTs overwhelming. This is due largely to the (incorrect) assumption that there is simply no efficient way to study for either of these tests. Today, however, there is an overwhelming amount of preparation material for both the SATs and the ACTs, and in fact most students seek out some kind of assistance when studying. As students are ranked on a percentile score which compares them to one another, not receiving the same level of preparation as other students can put your child at a serious disadvantage.

The first step is deciding which test your child should take. The differences between the SATs and the ACTs  are distinct; do not make the mistake of assuming that because the SATs have been around longer that they are preferred by most colleges. Both tests are credible, and simply offer alternate ways for students to demonstrate their knowledge. Here are a few critical differences between the two:

The SAT:

Gives you the math formulas: The SAT math is primarily based on logical reasoning, so the formulas are provided.

Penalizes wrong answers: The SAT discourages guessing by deducting points for wrong answers.

Uses sentence completions: The SAT tests vocabulary through sentence completions.

Splits test sections up: The SAT is split into 25-minute chunks, with a short break after every hour of testing.

Is scored based on a composite: Each SAT section is scaled on a score from 200-800. These scores are added together to make a final composite score.

The ACT:

Requires you know the formulas: ACT math is based on knowledge as much as reasoning. The ACT also requires knowledge of more difficult math (trigonometry) than the SAT.

Does not penalize guessing: Wrong answers do not count against a student on the ACT. Thus, the percentage of questions students answer correctly tends to be slightly higher than average SAT scores.

Does not test vocabulary: Beyond context-based questions in reading passage (which the SAT also uses) the ACT does not cover vocabulary.

Does not split sections up: ACT sections run from 45 minutes to over an hour.

Is scored based on an average: The ACT is scored on a 1-36 average of each of the four sections. This can make it more difficult to increase an overall ACT score.


Ideally, students should begin preparation at least six to eight weeks before the test, but additional prep time is always beneficial. Some begin studying as early as twelve weeks before they are scheduled to take the exam. Getting your child a tutor is always a good idea, as they can provide guidance, structure, and the appropriate materials necessary for effective studying. The more time you can set aside with a tutor, the better. Tutors can also help diagnose potential problem areas, and focus on strategies that minimize these problems and help to buffer strengths.

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