SAT vs. ACT: The Final Word


A football scholarship... at age 12?

It's true. Colleges routinely recruit athletes as early as middle school. A few years ago, perennial football powerhouse Alabama offered a scholarship to an 8th grader. That must make for pretty good playground bragging rights.

I'm not that good at predicting the future. I can make educated guesses, some of which are right and some of which are way off. That's why I've learned to accumulate as much information as I can before making important decisions. So when a family comes into my office and asks if their son should prepare for the SAT or the ACT, I need some specific information.

First, here are a few things I don't worry about:

1. Which test students like better. We're looking for potential, not preference. And most students don't have enough experience with either test at that point to really know if they like one better.

2. What kind of student he is. It's of course true that students have different abilities and disabilities. But people are so complex that I think it's unduly presumptive to think I can predict whether someone will do better on a certain test based on his learning style.

3. Certain practice test scores. We're getting warmer here, but still cold. Scores from third-party-written tests (like those written by Kaplan, Elite, The Princeton Review, etc.) are no good - too unrealistic. I heavily discount the PSAT and pre-ACT, too, simply because a lot of students take those tests cold. They often don't try, or they give up on them midway through.

Ok, Vince, so how are we supposed to decide?

I'm glad you asked! Here's my step-by-step plan:

1. Educate the student about the basics of each test. We're talking timing, structure, scoring, etc. Have them try a few sample questions from each part of each test. Go over some very basic strategies, so they don't fall into the most common and easy to avoid traps. Also, debunk any myths students have about the tests, and gently remove any prejudices they have (the ACT is easier; the SAT is better for "math" people).

2. Take a timed practice SAT and a timed practice ACT. Make them realistic - have someone time the student and take the test all at once. They can skip the essays for now. What's that, you say? Taking two full practice tests will take a long time? You're right... but it's important enough to make it happen. If a student has taken an official SAT or ACT, we can use that score instead of making them take another test - if the score is fairly recent (within 6 months or so).

3. Score the tests and compare the scores. The student's feedback at this stage will be important as well. We need to know how the tests went - were there any major problems? Did the student try?

Once I have the data from the two practice tests, I'll be able to comfortably recommend which test to focus on.

So what happens when the scores look similar?

The earlier in the game it is, the more likely it is that a student can just focus on one test and keep taking it until the desired score is achieved. The later in the game it is, the more likely it is that the student should prepare for and take both tests - they need chances and those chances are running out if it's later in their junior year. This might apply to students who score higher on one of the tests, too, if it's late enough.

The Bottom Line

Since SAT and ACT prep takes time, money, and energy, it's important that the decision about which test to take should be made with care. Don't let rush the process or guess; get some good data on the front end. The initial effort it takes will be well worth it later.

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