There's a better way to choose whether to take the SAT or the ACT
If you’re a high school sophomore or junior, you probably just took the PSAT, the test designed to help you figure out how you’d do on the SAT. But if you’re in high school right now, you also know that not everyone takes the SAT anymore. More and more students are taking the ACT, especially since some schools accept the ACT with writing in place of the SAT and SAT subject tests, including Amherst and Yale. If you’re asking yourself why you just took the PSAT, there’s good news: it can help you figure out all your testing options, not just the SAT!
How’s that? The PSAT is a mini-version of the SAT, without the essay (which is why few people go in for PSAT tutoring), but it introduces you to all other sections of the test. It also gives you a sense of the pacing, which can be helpful in determining which tests are right for you.
1. When you took the PSAT (or when you’ve worked on the SAT), did you find the final Writing Skills section editing a piece of writing easier or harder than the rest of the test? Do you ever edit your own writing?
The SAT breaks Writing Skills into three sections: two with isolated sentences and one passage with corrections in context. The ACT contains only this last kind of grammar passage, with entire passages and corresponding questions. There are similar grammatical questions about subject-verb agreement, misplaced modifiers, punctuation, but all in the context of longer passages that you can read to hear how the writing should sound. The ACT also has “style” and “editing” questions like the last SAT Writing Skills section that ask about transitions, specificity (the best way to convey a specific idea), redundancy, and paragraph and sentence order.
If you found this last section much easier than the grammatically tricky single sentences that preceded it, the ACT English section will probably be a better test for you. If you found it harder than the rest of the test, you’ll likely be more comfortable with the SAT Writing Skills section.
2. The PSAT and the SAT have a lot of vocabulary questions, both sentence fill-ins and reading comprehension questions that actually test vocabulary. How did you do on vocabulary questions on the PSAT? Do you read for pleasure?
The SAT is known for its vocabulary questions, fill-in-the-blank questions with a variety of different kinds of words. The ACT has no vocabulary questions. It only uses words that it expects you to know in the reading section, some of which are difficult, but which you can figure out from context clues. If you like vocabulary, and/or read for pleasure, you may find it easy to acquire new words, but if you struggle with vocabulary, you may prefer the ACT.
3. The PSAT math is slightly easier than the SAT math, because it is intended for students earlier in the school year, but still includes the same type of questions and the same topics, including functions, graphing, and geometry. How did you do on the math section? Were there topics that you hadn’t studied in school, or questions that you weren’t sure how to solve?
The math on the SAT is more puzzle-like than the math on the ACT, and it covers fewer topics. The math on the ACT is more straightforward than that on the SAT, and it’s more directly related to what you learn in school. It also covers some topics not included on the SAT, including basic trigonometry and imaginary numbers.
If there was a lot of material that you didn’t recognize on the PSAT, you may have a hard time with the math on the ACT. However, if you like math in school and recognized the topics, but found the questions themselves too tricky, you may prefer the ACT.
4. Format: Did you run out of time on any of the sections of the PSAT? and Did you omit any answers on the PSAT, or did you answer all of the questions, even those that were a complete guess?
The formats of the ACT and the SAT complement each other: the SAT is slower than the ACT, but it deducts .25 points for every wrong answer. The ACT is faster and more direct, with no penalty for incorrect answers. The ACT is a fast test, so if you run out of time in a section or you don’t know the answer—but don’t plan on guessing on large blocs at the end of every section.
If you always run out of time, the ACT in regular time will be tough. You can guess at the end, but you don’t want to plan on doing so at the end of every section to make the timing work. If you find yourself either unable to skip a question on the PSAT or spending too much time deciding whether to answer, you may want to look at the ACT, which has no such penalty.
If you’re getting “SAT” with most of these questions, it still may be worth looking at the ACT, just to see what you think. But if you’re coming up with “ACT” on most of these questions, it’s definitely time to look at the ACT! And if you're still struggling, consider contactin Cambridge Coaching for a free consult. We provide expert PSAT, ACT, and SAT tutoring in New York, Cambridge, and online!