Should You Take the ACT or SAT?

ACT and SAT Test Prep, ACT Prep, ACT SAT Registration, College Admissions, College Applications, SAT Prep
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I would highly recommend that students try BOTH the SAT and ACT.  Why?  Both tests are accepted by colleges everywhere.  Some students find that they prefer one test over another, but they can only know this for sure by taking them both.  Once you have taken both tests, you will know whether you should focus on just one of them going forward.  If your scores on both were pretty comparable, you can try both of them again.  You can compare your test scores using my ACT/SAT comparison chart

Let’s say that you don’t want to take the time/money to explore which test is preferable – you want to pick one and stick with it.  Here are some ways you can make that decision.

1. Check out my ACT/SAT comparison chartI made a concise overview of the similarities and differences between the ACT and SAT.    

2. Look at your PSAT and PLAN scores.  The PSAT corresponds to the SAT, and the PLAN corresponds to the ACT.  Most students take the PSAT as juniors, and most take the PLAN as sophomores.  The easiest way to compare them is to look at the percentiles that you earned on each test.  If, for example, if you have an 80th percentile on the PSAT and a 65th percentile on the PLAN, it would probably make more sense to focus your efforts on the SAT.  If the percentiles are comparable, you should probably do both the ACT and SAT at least once.  

3. Do you qualify for extended time?  If so, I would recommend focusing on the ACT.  In my tutoring experience, students who have extended time tend to find the ACT easier than the SAT.  Perhaps this is why it seems like the ACT is more strict about allowing extended time than the SAT.  Students find this to be the case because the questions and passages on the ACT tend to be a bit more straight-forward and less “outside-the-box”, making them much more doable for students who have more time to process them.  Much of the coaching I do for students with the ACT is with respect to timing, and if you have extended time on the ACT, you can focus much more just on your critical thinking process rather than how quickly you are doing things. 

4. Where are your subject strengths?  If you are a solid reader, have a great vocabulary, and can write essays well, the SAT may be more for you.  If you are good at science and are more comfortable with advanced math like Trigonometry, the ACT may be up your alley. 

5. Do you struggle with timing?  You should almost certainly focus on the SAT.  The ACT Math, Reading and Science are all pretty tough for students to finish.  In my experience, few students have difficulty finishing the SAT. 

6. Do you have test anxiety?  If so, the SAT may be a better fit.  Why?  The questions go in order from easy to hard on almost every section, so it is much less likely that you will become stuck on a tough question.  Also, you won’t have to worry about time as much. 

7. What is the Superscoring Policy of the College you Most Want to Attend?  Most colleges will superscore the SAT, which means they will take the best score from each section of the test over several test dates.  A few colleges superscore the ACT.  If you are applying to a college that DOES superscore the ACT, you may want to be more open to taking the ACT because you will have more opportunities to earn a solid score.  If the college only superscores the SAT and you tend to be somewhat inconsistent in your performance on test day, the SAT may be a better fit for you.  To see the policies of colleges on superscoring, please take a look here:

If You Have a Disability, Where Can You Find Practice Tests for the ACT?

ACT and SAT Test Prep, ACT Prep, ACT SAT Registration
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If you are taking the ACT test and have a learning or physical disability, you may be taking the test not just with extended time, but with certain special accommodations.  If you have poor vision or are blind, you will likely need a braille practice test.  If you will be permitted to have the test questions read to you, you will want to practice using a DVD like you will have on test day.  Where can you find materials that will help you prepare, since typical materials won’t replicate your test-taking experience?  You can order them here:

I had a student recently show me these materials from ACT, and they are top-notch in quality and won’t cost you anything to use.  ACT wants to be certain that all test-takers have equal access to practice opportunities.

Do You Have to Clear the Calculator Memory for the ACT?

ACT and SAT Test Prep, ACT Math, ACT Prep
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While many students get away with putting math formulas into their calculators, and many businesses market programs that enable students to download the math formulas that students need for the test, storing information on your calculator is prohibited on the ACTPlease check out this link on the ACT website for more information:

With the test cheating scandals in recent years, the ACT is really cracking down on security procedures.  This test will lose its credibility if cheating is widespread, so the ACT is doing everything they can to stop it.  Instead of looking around for a way to put formulas into your calculator, have no worries by spending a few minutes memorizing what you need for test day:


Should you Recheck and Double-Check your Answers on the ACT and SAT?

ACT and SAT Test Prep, ACT Prep, PSAT, SAT Prep
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One of the major obstacles to top test performance on exams like the ACT and SAT is when test-takers want  to finish with tons of time to spare so that they can go back and double check all of their answers.  While this may be a good technique on other types of tests, it can lead to serious issues on the ACT and SAT.  Here are the reasons why:

1.       If you don’t understand the question the first time, you likely won’t understand it the second time.  The questions on the ACT and SAT are very, very well written.  If you misread a word or two, you will often find that you will miss the point of the entire question – the wording is just too intricate.  You will be much better off if you take the time to read the questions really well rather than rushing through them so that you have time at the end of the test to go back and double check them.  Reading them once well is far preferable to reading them 3-4 times poorly. 

2.       You can’t easily plug in answers.  The math section is one on which you would think you could go back and effortlessly double check your answers by plugging the answers back into the equations.  Unfortunately, it is quite rare that the SAT and ACT will give you an equation into which you can easily plug in answers.  Usually, the difficulty in answering these test questions is found in attempting to set up the problem in the first place.  Because of this, you would be better off devoting more time to understanding and setting up the problem rather than skimming through the questions so that you have time at the end to recheck. 

3.       The ACT and SAT are tough to finish – don’t make them more difficult than they already are.  By setting the unreasonable expectation that you should not only finish the questions  but should have time to recheck your answers, you will set yourself up for failure.  Rushing through the test will contribute to careless mistakes as well as increased test anxiety.    

4.       You will often simply convince yourself you were right rather than do anything productive.  A multiple choice test is different from  fill-in and essay tests in that you are always able to put something down as an answer.  This makes it very easy for you to want to spend your time going back to make yourself believe you picked the correct answer.  Many people do this because it helps with their test anxiety.  Spending time convincing yourself that you were correct will make you feel better during the test, but will do nothing to help improve your score. 

5.       You will often change things that you had correct.  The incorrect answers, or distractors, on ACT and SAT questions are extremely persuasive.  Time spent analyzing answers after you have made a solid attempt usually just persuades you that you picked the wrong answer.  Instead of going back and changing answers around, spend your time making sure that your answer is correct the first time. 

6.       It is unlikely that you will make a gridding error.  The SAT has sections no longer than 35 questions, so you will probably not make bubbling errors on your scantron sheet.  The ACT has longer sections – up to 75 questions on the ACT English – but questions alternate between ABCD and FGHJ in the answer choices, making it highly unlikely that you will get off by one question as you bubble in your answers.  Rather than worrying about a gridding error that is unlikely to happen, focus your mental energy on the much more productive task of answering the questions well. 

When does it make sense to spend time double checking answers?  On School Tests, not Skill-Based Standardized Tests.  Why?  On school tests, you might recall key facts when you give your mind a chance to think through things, use solutions to some questions to help you think of answers to other questions, and plug numbers back into equations to check your answers.  So be certain to modify your approach to checking answers depending on the type of test you are taking.  

What if You are a Bad Test Taker?

ACT and SAT Test Prep, ACT Prep, College Admissions, SAT Prep
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Having worked with thousands of students over the years, I’ve come to realize that no matter how much content and strategy discussion some students receive, they are simply not very good test-takers.  What can you do with respect to college admissions if no matter how hard you work, you can only make miniscule or zero improvements in your test performance?  Here are six ideas:

1.       Look into extended time.  Maybe your issues with timing and test anxiety are due to an underlying learning disability that only manifests when you are doing a major test like the ACT or SAT, but you can manage when you do normal school work.  If you have never been tested for a learning disability and you find that you have serious issues with attention, reading and problem solving, it may be worth checking out.  Typically, a school psychologist will do it at no cost.  If you want to move the process along, you may need to have a private psychologist conduct some testing.  If you end up finding that you have a learning disability, you would then need to get an IEP or 504 plan through your school.  After that, you could apply for extended time for the ACT and SAT. 

2.        Know it’s just part of the process.  In my reading of the blogosphere and my discussions with college admissions counselors, the consensus seems to be that about ¼ of the college admissions decision is based on your standardized test performance.  If you know that tests are not your thing, be sure to make your extracurricular activities and grades as good as they can possibly be.  

3.         Check out Test Optional Schools.  Many colleges are now test-optional, making it possible to gain admission to a great college while having poor performance on the ACT or SAT.  You can find a complete list on the website  

4.         Submit a Portfolio.  If your true intellectual talents cannot be demonstrated with a test, take the initiative to demonstrate them in a different way.  If you are a great artist, send in a portfolio of your creations.  If you excel at music, submit a CD of your recorded work.  If you are an excellent writer, direct the admissions officers to your blog or novel.  Admissions officers will only know that you have non-testable talents if you show them – the application gets accepted, not the person. 

5.         Have a personal meeting with someone on the admissions staff.  Schedule an in-person meeting with someone who works in the admission office at the school.  This will give you the opportunity to explain your unique situation or share accomplishments that cannot be easily presented in an application.  Most colleges will be more than happy to do this with you, provided you give them sufficient notice. 

6.         Evaluate if college is really the best choice for you.  So many recent college graduates find themselves with tens of thousands in debt and only able to find jobs that they could have gotten with simply a high school diploma.  If you feel that you are likely to end up with a degree that won’t really help you find work, perhaps you should look into an associate’s degree in a field that is more to your liking.  There are tons of people who have made great livings starting plumbing, electrical, and web design companies, just to name a few.  Here is a great article that lists some of the top-paying jobs you can have without a college degree:

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