SAT vs ACT: Should I Switch Tests?

SAT vs ACT: Should I Switch Tests?

Once a student has chosen which test to take, it’s not uncommon that he or she will feel good about that decision for the first month or two, while learning cool techniques and strategies and brushing up on a few academic subjects. But once he starts taking practice tests - which should without fail be a part of any test preparation - that feeling may quickly fade. After a mediocre mock test score or two, he may even consider switching tests. Of course, there are some pros and cons to this. Let’s start by considering the reasons not to switch.

Firstly, just because you got a mediocre mock test score, does not necessarily mean you are not good at that test, in general, or that it is not the right test for you. It may just be telling you that now that you have finished your content-related preparation, you need to work on the actual performance of taking the test. It’s the same in sports: there’s drilling skills and drawing up and practicing plays - and then there are the scrimmages. The mock tests are the scrimmages. This is why the second phase of my preparation focuses on performance.

Performance includes psychological elements, such as handling pressure and managing distractions. It also includes mental aspects, such as focus, energy, confidence, relaxation and most of all, the ability to make good decisions under pressure. Often, on the first mock test, at least one of these challenges is not met, and the whole score goes out the window. So, rather than bailing on the test, what you really need to do is determine which challenge got the best of you and address that challenge.

Also, there are dilemmas you will encounter for the first time when you take a proctored mock test. For example, while working on the reading section, you may realize that you spent too much time on the second passage. How do you make up that time? Do you rush? Do you skip hard problems? Do you simply run out of time at the end? That’s a serious - and so common - dilemma. And the answers to dilemmas such as this - which will likely be different for different students - should be found through experimentation. (I’ll write more on different ways you can speed up your pace on the reading section.)

Endurance is another challenge presented by mock tests. Just as an athlete must improve his conditioning to have gas in the tank at the end of the fourth quarter, so, too, does a test-taker. For example, the ACT Science section is hard on its own, but it’s also hard simply because it’s the fourth section of the test! By the time you get to it on a mock test, you’ve already done over two hours of exhausting work! (More on endurance later.)

So, if at first you’re not scoring as you’d like to be, you may need to address performance issues rather than switching tests. You don’t want to waste valuable time or disrupt your work, just to encounter the same problems on the other test!

SAT vs ACT: Which Test Should I Take?

The question I get asked most often is: “How do I know which test to take, the SAT or the ACT?” And it’s an important question! Yes, there are technical differences between the tests; for example, the SAT Reading section is almost twice as long as the ACT’s - but the fundamental difference lies in which particular skills and abilities are demanded (and rewarded) by each test. And in that way, the SAT and ACT are strikingly different! You need to know yourself and which challenges you may be better suited to take on.

Let’s use the reading sections from the two tests as an example:

On the ACT, the student has to read a passage about 100 lines long and answer 10 multiple choice questions, all in 8 minutes and 45 seconds. If she reads the passage in 3 minutes and 45 seconds, that leaves 30 seconds to answer each question. Not easy! So the test is not testing how well you can read, but how well can you read when you’re reading faster than you’d like to! Whether intentionally or not, the test forces the test-taker to come up with a solution to this time-management problem. And there are different solutions - but the most common one - rushing - is not the answer! The trick is to find an approach that will work for each student. If you’re practicing the ACT without a stop watch, you’re not practicing the ACT.

On the other hand, the SAT gives the test-taker plenty of time to take its reading section. Pace is not the major challenge. Instead, you must be able to compare answer choices that are strikingly similar to one another. Nuance is the key. For example, on a recent PSAT, a problem asked which word completed the sentence best, and the two best answers were “vow” and “promise.” Pretty similar, right?! At first, they may seem identical, but upon reflection, there’s a subtle difference between the two: a vow is a solemn promise. You make a wedding vow, or vow revenge, but you do not vow to “walk the dog every day,” for example. So the test-taker must base her decision on the context the word is in: if the sentence or paragraph it’s in is about a solemn subject, or is solemn in tone, “vow” is appropriate. If not, “promise” is the better answer. You don’t need more than thirty seconds to work that one out - but you do have train yourself to notice nuance!

So what are you better at? When I begin working with new students, I present them with all of these differences and help determine which set of challenges they may be better suited for - or even which set of skills they’d prefer to work on.

I’ll write again on the difference between the SAT and ACT Math sections.