What Every Parent Must Know About the SAT and ACT Tests


Parents of college-bound children need to know the difference between the SAT and the ACT, how to determine whether their student should choose one of these tests or take both, when to take the tests, how much advanced preparation and study time is needed, and how to study for these tests. I have sought to provide an introduction to test preparation and the resources that are available to you as you navigate through this exciting time in your student’s life.

What is the Difference Between the SAT and the ACT Tests?
These tests have many similarities in what is tested. It is, however, the way in which each test determines a student’s proficiency in a given area that sets them apart. While the SAT and ACT both look at Reading, Writing and Math skills, and both have an essay section, they test these skills in very different ways.

  • SAT – Tests reasoning and logic skills and assumes little prior knowledge of the subject areas. For example, on the SAT, students are given the formulas for the area of a circle and the side relationships for a 45-45-90 triangle, and they must demonstrates their ability to use these formulas to arrive at the correct answer.
  • ACT – More curriculum-based test and assumes some prior knowledge. A student must have memorized the formulas for the circumference and area of a circle, as well as the side relationships for special triangles. The questions on this test tend to be more straightforward as they test a student’s ability to use information in fairly straightforward ways.

The two tests do vary in subject matter as well. The SAT only tests math through Algebra II, while the ACT tests math through Trigonometry. The SAT does not test science-based knowledge, while the ACT has a complete section dedicated to science.

Should Students Choose One of These Tests or Take Both?
I believe that students should determine which test works best for them and focus all of their effort on achieving the best possible score on just one of these tests. I always ask students a few questions to start the process of choosing a test:

  • Do you prefer math and science or English and writing?
  • Do you have strong vocabulary?
  • Do you work well under time pressure?

4 Things to Consider as You Choose Between the SAT and ACT

  1. Students who prefer math and science will want to take a good look at the ACT since it is split 50-50 between math/science and English/writing.
  2. Students who prefer the language arts may naturally perform better on the SAT, which has two sections focused on reading and writing, and only one on math.
  3. Students with a strong vocabulary will do better on the critical reading section of the SAT which specifically tests vocabulary skills.
  4. Students must work under intense time pressure on the ACT. Students need to be comfortable working very quickly and must use strategies to improve their speed. Students need to work quickly on the SAT, but the time pressure is nowhere near as great.

What is the Best Preparation Strategy for the SAT and ACT?
If students have a clear predisposition for one of these tests based on their answers to these questions, I would recommend that they take a practice test right off the bat to determine their starting point and then study the material and strategies needed for the test before taking another practice test.

  • Download an official College Board Practice SAT Test here
  • Find more real practice SAT tests in this book
  • Download an official ACT Practice Test here
  • Find more real practice ACT tests in this book

If a predisposition toward one test is not clear, then I recommend that students take a practice test for each to see if they have a preference for one over the other. Students often simply prefer one test to the other, and generally speaking, the test that feels like a better fit usually is.

Professionally speaking, I do not agree with the advice that today’s students often hear, “just take both tests and see which one you do better on.” This is simply not the best advice. For example, taking the ACT for the first time, in an official capacity and with the strict time limits, does not yield an accurate assessment of how a student will ultimately perform on this test. When I give students an assessment test for the ACT, I ask them to take the test untimed. I am only interested in discovering whether they can answer the questions correctly, not in how many they will miss if they are timed. If students are capable of doing well without any time pressure, then I know that I can help them develop strategies to build the speed that they will need to get a high score.

The best approach is to start with a student’s strengths, learn test-specific strategies, then study and take practice tests to build speed and raise the student’s score to the greatest degree possible.

When Should Students Take the SAT and ACT Tests?

Students have traditionally taken the SAT or the ACT in the spring of their junior year; however, more and more students are starting to study for this test earlier and earlier. Spending more time studying for these tests is not always a good thing. Once a student has advanced to the level of math tested on these exams (and science, in the case of the ACT), I believe that the best plan is to choose a test date (usually in the fall or winter of their junior year) when they will be able to spend 3-6 hours per week studying for two to three months leading up to the test. They should take timed real practice tests before the test to determine whether their target score is in reach. This still be early enough for students to delay taking the test until a later date or to retake it if they are not happy with their score. I find that students who stretch out the study time to 4 months or more often waste a lot of this time, while students who study intensely for just 2 or 3 months tend to see much better results. But this process also requires getting guidance on how to focus the study efforts from a good tutor, class or prep book.

Preparation is Your Child’s Key to Test Success
As with anything in life, preparation is essential. Because scores on the SAT or ACT test can play a key role in your child’s academic future, one of the biggest gifts you can give your child is a well-formulated plan. Planning to your student’s strengths, understanding the intricate strategies of the test they will be taking, building both speed and proficiency, and creating a structure in which your child can succeed are all key.

Amy Martin Rodriguez

Excellence for College

Phone:  408-823-9999

Email:  Amy@ExcellenceForCollege.com

This post was provided by Amy Rodriguez, owner of Excellence for College, who was a guest on College Smart Radio “Tackling the Runaway Costs of College” on September 28th, 2013.  Listen to this broadcast on YouTube here.

Photo Credit: albertogp123

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