When students and parents begin thinking about test preparation, they inevitably ask, “Which test should I take, the ACT or the SAT?”
The assumption is that there is a single correct answer, and that finding it will be the key to success. But as usual, reality is more nuanced––there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. By gaining a more thorough understanding of the exams and of your own strengths and weaknesses, you can gain valuable insight into the test taking process and develop the best plan for yourself.
Learn About Each Test: One myth to dispel is that either the ACT or the SAT is inherently a “better” or “easier” test for everyone. Each student is different, and thus each student will need to navigate these standardized tests differently. Just because your older sister or brother took the SAT doesn’t mean you automatically should too. In fact, the SAT was completely redesigned in March 2016, and the ACT is continually evolving. The first step is therefore to understand how the two tests compare and, ideally, to see each of these tests up close for yourself.
Understand the Similarities & Differences: You can get an overview of the tests and compare them on our SAT-ACT Resources page. In general, the SAT is more of an analytical test that requires more critical reasoning and critical reading throughout; you must understand concepts more deeply and synthesize information effectively. However, you generally have more time on each question and each section than you would on the comparable ACT sections. In contrast, the ACT tends to be a more straightforward, content-based exam that tests your general knowledge and the skills you learned in school. However, the ACT is very fast-paced and requires a high level of focus and efficiency to master.
Take A Practice ACT & SAT: Reading about each test is very different from taking the test. The best first step is to take the PSAT, the PreACT, or ideally, a full-length, official practice test. These may be offered at your school, but if not, Method Test Prep offers official practice tests both online and in-person at our center on Long Island. Take one of these and you’ll receive a detailed score report that you can review to better understand your results. Additionally, you can access full-length ACT and SAT practice tests within our renowned web-based SAT-ACT prep program.
Consult With Someone About Your Results: Find a teacher, school counselor, or tutor who is knowledgeable about these exams and your own academic background. Your scores alone may not provide enough information to help you decide which test to take, but meeting with someone who can advise you on your specific results, questions, section scores, and overall performance can provide critical insight into where to begin and how best to direct your preparation.
Self-Assessment: It’s always important to take some time to think about your own academic background, your personal strengths and weaknesses, and your overall impressions of the tests. Ask yourself some questions:
- Do you consider yourself more of a Language Arts/Reading student or Math/Science student in general? Or both?
- What level of math are you currently taking in school, and what will you be taking next year?
- Have you taken any honors or AP English courses?
- Are you a calm test taker or does testing give you anxiety?
- Did you prefer the questions, format, or timing of one of the tests over the other?
- Do you feel that with a little practice, you could improve in certain areas?
- Will you likely be granted any testing accommodations like extended time?
Answers to these questions can help you determine the best test and the best plan.
Setting Your Timeline: An important aspect of planning is to understand your timeline. Most students should aim to take for the ACT or SAT two to four times. You want to be strategic about when it’s best for you to take the test. Many students end up taking each test at least once before steering toward one or the other. Think about your overall schedule, school, and personal commitments or conflicts, and anticipated preparation time. Are you a fall athlete? Performing in the spring musical? Planning on being away for one or more of the upcoming test dates? Set a plan for self-study, classroom prep, individual tutoring and practice tests, all in relation to the actual test dates. Both tests are offered throughout the year, but at different times. Don’t procrastinate and get stuck taking the test when it’s not ideal for you; make sure to leave room for make-ups and re-testing. Most students can still take the ACT and SAT in the fall of senior year and submit scores in time for applications. Consider the “special test dates” that offer the Test Information Release (TIR-ACT) or Questions & Answer Services (QAS-SAT) which let you review your specific questions and answers in preparation for the next test.
The best preparation for the ACT and SAT starts with making a good plan. Begin by getting familiar with both the tests and considering your own academic strengths and weaknesses. You may end up taking both tests, but you want to be strategic about where your greatest success will likely lie. This will help you plan and focus your test prep as effectively as possible.
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