SAT or ACT? An Opinion Article From a Standardized Test Prep Expert


SAT versus ACT blog post

One of the questions I am asked most is why do I recommend prepping for the ACT over the SAT (particularly when the baseline scores for the SAT seem stronger)?  Simply put: ACT questions are easier and the format is as well.

But, doesn't the SAT give you more time to prepare?

Some may argue that although SAT questions are more difficult, the test allows more time per question. In my experience, however, it is much easier to teach time saving test strategies than it is to teach content. Working on fundamentals increases testing speed on the entire range of questions from easy to most difficult. However, the SAT contains math problems so difficult that many top students well versed in AP Calculus and other advanced math are unable to do, making work on just the fundamental insufficient for strong improvement. This is coupled with reading passages so complex that many college educated adults can’t fully decipher the SAT passages. Here consistent and significant improvement comes from not only reviewing the basics and test taking strategies, it is achieved by pushing the student to understand unfamiliar advanced concepts or those that cause them to struggle the most. Consequently, since ACT questions are easier overall, the extra time gained through tutoring can make a larger impact on your score. After 12-20 hours of tutoring, an average gain of 4-8 points is not an uncommon; though improvement is largely dependent upon the student’s individual learning challenges.

Section Comparison

Let’s look at individual test sections with this theory in mind. For the most part, the ACT and SAT’s English (aka Writing and Language) sections are almost identical and most students perform similarly on each. Although both tests exploit the average students’ lack of grammar knowledge, fortunately, grammar is relatively simple to teach and students with proper tutoring and a commitment to homework can achieve dramatic improvement.  In my case that meant going from a “21” on the ACT English before tutoring to a “36” after tutoring because I was a strong reader who simply had never learned the proper rules for commas.

The Reading sections in both the ACT and the SAT offer a different type of challenge. Teaching the reading skills necessary for success on either test is actually more difficult than teaching those covered in the Math or English sections; unlike math or grammar, kids practice reading, (or don’t), beyond what is taught in school. By the age of 16 there is a significant discrepancy between the hundreds (if not thousands), of practice hours spent by those students who read for pleasure, and those who have only been exposed to classroom reading assignments. Because of this issue, tutoring is best focused on giving students more time per question and helping them decide on useful tactics based on a breakdown of question types. Once again, because the SAT reading passages are more complicated, I recommend the ACT based on the strategic advantage of a students’ use of time being applied to comprehension of easier passages.

Lastly, we have the dreaded Science section.  Most students who don’t feel strong in the sciences (or are frustrated by the section in general), initially choose the SAT entirely with that in mind. The truth is, the Science section is one of the easiest to prepare for; most students just don’t understand how to properly tackle this section. Many others, who take the ACT without preparation, feel rushed and score far below their capabilities.  But after only one tutoring session, Science scores have the potential to skyrocket!  These questions generally only require fundamental reading skills and problem solving, so the extra time students get back by optimizing their approach to the section has huge benefits.

Final Thoughts

Unless your student is already scoring within the top 5% of scores to begin with, much of the SAT problems are simply out of reach when looking at short term tutoring.  The ACT test offers problems that are all much simpler, and because any student can earn a greater score increase by simply learning how to optimize their testing time, I recommend the ACT for my students.

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