ACT or SAT? Choosing the "right" test can be complicated.


The college admissions landscape has changed over the past twenty years as standardized testing has shifted from a foreground determinant to one of many factors in a holistic process. Testing is still important, however; what's changed is how colleges regard the scores of prospective students.

Students today have an array of options. The divergent information posted on college websites can be confusing. For example, many schools accept both the ACT and the SAT; others use standardized tests for placement only; others are test-flexible, giving students the choice of sending ACT, SAT, SAT II Subject Test, AP or IB scores; still others are testing-optional. What's a kid to do?

Whether a school says it requires testing or not, most students should send test scores. The whole idea of test-optional can be misleading. Unless a student has some severe handicap that renders test scores so unrepresentative of ability demonstrated elsewhere on an application, not sending scores can put one at a disadvantage, especially when taken in aggregate (as students are as an applicant pool). In other words, not testing comes with a big risk. Even for students applying to test-optional schools, test scores can boost an application.

Therefore, most students need to choose SAT or ACT. The two tests are different and have their strengths and their weaknesses. During the two years when the SAT was phasing out its old form and redesigning itself, the ACT became popular. Over the past year, the SAT has gone through several administrations and is making a comeback. Students (and their parents) should consider several factors in order to make an informed decision about which test to take.

There are debates about the differential difficulty of the two tests. I cannot authoritatively comment on the math, but students have told me that the topics are similar, though the SAT does not permit calculator use on one subsection, while the ACT allows calculator throughout. Both Reading sections contain primary source texts; the SAT includes historical documents based on 11th grade topics while the ACT does not. I think the Reading and Writing/English sections of the two tests are of equal difficulty. Though the questions are dissimilar, they follow predictable patterns.

A deciding feature can be how well a student functions under constraint of time. Both tests are about the some total length. But the sections are vastly different in timeframe. The SAT Reading gives 65 minutes for students to read passages and answer 52 questions. The ACT Reading consists of four passages and 40 questions in 35 minutes.  In addition, within the SAT Reading, some questions come in pairs, with the first asking about an idea from the passage and the second asking the student to find the textual evidence for the previous answer. Thus, these questions can be answered together.  The English section of the ACT has 75 questions in 45 minutes, while the comparable Writing section of the SAT contains 44 questions that must be answered in 38 minutes. The ACT Science (which is more of a reading comprehension test than a science one) has seven experiments with 40 questions that must be solved in 35 minutes. Clearly, the ACT is much more of a race against the clock.

Why should a student take the ACT, if so much more time is given on the SAT? The main advantage of the ACT is for students with the accommodation for extra time. Extra time on the ACT gives students a huge advantage. The difference between 35 minutes and 52 is considerable for a close-reading section like Science. By contrast, extra time on the SAT borders on diminishing returns: 97.5 minutes on the Reading--for a student with time and a half--has its downside.

The situation is even more lopsided with the ACT Essay. Though not mandatory, the ACT Essay gives students with extra time a big bonus: they are permitted to self-pace over the entire test. In other words, a student can do the sections in whatever order she chooses, allowing more or less time according to perceived needs and abilities. The optional SAT Essay (done by a minority of testers) offers no such provision.

There are advantages to both tests. The ACT gives a certain subset of students a time advantage over others. Yet the SAT offers an advantage in its scoring: the Reading and the Writing sections are combined into one composite Verbal score. Thus, students who master the grammar can use that to bolster their Reading score.  As well, many colleges super-score the SAT but not the ACT.

Parents and students must consider all elements in making the decision about testing. Don't follow the herd. Don't listen to rumors, such as "The SAT Reading is harder." Most of all, be aware of the inequalities in the system.

That the ACT needs to do something about the problem it has spawned is obvious. For now, however, this is the reality of college entrance testing in 2017.

ACT and SAT: New since 2016

In early 2016, the College Board changed the SAT in substantive ways. Both the structure and the content of the test have been modified.

The new test has been streamlined, though the overall timeframe remains the same. The old test consisted of ten sections, one of which was experimental and thus unscored. The remaining nine sections included an essay, three Critical Reading sections, two Writing sections, and three math. The new SAT has four sections, now called tests (as are the sections of the ACT): a Reading Test, a Writing and Language Test, and two Math tests, one permitting use of a calculator and one without. The new SAT may be taken with or without an essay section.

In addition to revamping the form, the College Board has altered the content. The old Critical Reading featured (1) rather subtle passages with a preponderance of inference questions to assess comprehension and (2) a challenging vocabulary subsection. Now, the passages and the questions are oriented around more basic comprehension of ideas, though the ideas may be sophisticated. The reading comprehension passages in the new SAT are primary sources, pieces of fiction or nonfiction (including scientific discussion) from modern and historical sources. The older sources are intended to be at least somewhat familiar to the majority of students. Many high schoolers will be happy to hear that the vocabulary section has been eliminated. The Writing and Language Test has been recast from individual sentences to narrative essays testing the ability to recognize and fix grammatical errors. The Reading Test has 52 questions (compared with 67 on the three Critical Reading sections), and the Writing and Language Test clocks in at 44 questions (versus 49 on the old test). 

What motivated the change was the growing popularity of the ACT, which has gained widespread acceptance by college admissions offices. While I am glad for many of the revisions, including the end of vocabulary drilling, I wonder at the slowness of the College Board to adapt. The ACT had been making inroads for a decade, to the point that it had made a huge dent in the entrance examination market. Yet it seems that the SAT didn't see what was happening.

I believe that the problem had to do with hubris. The SAT had been THE test for college admissions forever--despite the ACT's traction in the South and Midwest--and occupied a storied place in the culture. It was a rite of passage; one's SAT scores were tantamount to a measure of intelligence (or lack thereof) and the ticket to a secure future. How could a regional upstart like the ACT unseat the SAT?

For the past 40 years, high school has been changing from its reliance on distinct tracks to a more general college readiness approach; thousands more students are entering state universities as a four-year degree has become indispensable. Yes, plenty of high schools offer AP classes and teach canonical texts, but the number of students possessing the advanced word power assumed by the old SAT has dropped. Immigration has also played a role. The ACT has been more in tune with the new test-taking population.

In prepping students for the old SAT, I began to wonder at the choice of the passages. One test featured a comparison of two readings on the persuasive techniques of trial lawyers!

I feel you, David Coleman. As a word freak, I can get how difficult a shift it must have been, from the word power to the evidence-gathering. But the change was welcome and necessary.

I'll talk more on the new essay in another post. 

Why not a prep class, like Kaplan or Princeton Review?

I'll tell you why not. Because it's a class, and classes focus on presenting content, not on making sure you learn it. 

Getting the results you want on standardized tests like the SAT and ACT has consequences for your life. Therefore, it's important to find the support that will help you maximize your results--support that focuses on you, the student.

Test prep companies like Kaplan and Princeton Review have brand recognition, which appeals to the herd mentality.  Just sign up for a class! There's probably a class in a school or an office not far from home. What else is there to think about?

Plenty. Have you stopped to consider . . . 

1.  The materials they use. Kaplan's materials are mediocre. They recycle and reuse the same practice tests year after year, even when these materials DO NOT APPROXIMATE THE ACTUAL TEST. Kaplan produces quality materials for higher-level tests, but their SAT materials are too easy and not on target. Princeton Review is also off-base: their materials tend to be too difficult, too oblique, and also NOT ON TARGET TO THE ACTUAL TEST. 

2. The people who teach their classes.  The instructors who work for these companies are usually young and relatively inexperienced; they're bright and have been trained in the company method, but very likely have NO EXPERIENCE in working with individual needs. Nor are they likely to be around for the long haul; their investment in your outcome is small. 

3.  It's a class. If you take a class, you will gain some basic information about the test. But with 25 people in the room, the instructor cannot devote time to help individuals overcome stumbling blocks. So you'll probably need a tutor anyway.

Kaplan and Princeton Review are not the only tutoring companies out there. Each year, more crop up because they employ relatively inexperienced instructors who are trained to deliver their material and not much else.

There is a big difference between presenting information and learning. A tutor should help you learn. Learning is a process of self-understanding: of gaining awareness of your blocks to reading, of seeing how you respond to an author's intent, of retraining yourself to avoid personal pitfalls. Your tutor's job is to facilitate this process; you'll never get that from a test prep class.

It's said that mastery of a skill or a discipline takes 10,000 hours of practice, or about 10 years. Isn't that what you want from your tutor?


Partnership and commitment

On my home page, I state that tutoring is a partnership. This is a central truth to the process: a student must be committed to achieving results for the tutoring to be effective. Otherwise, the tutor is put in an unfair position; I can't do much with an unwilling student. 

What does this mean, commitment? It means that students must be willing to listen and follow instructions. They need to do the homework that I assign. If you aren't on board for working hard, then tell the truth. Don't spend the money on a tutor, because you won't get your money's worth. 

Welcome to Making Distinctions, my blog about tutoring and college admissions.

Hello. This blog is intended for anyone (including students and parents) who is considering tutoring help in reading, writing, and verbal test prep, or for college admissions. I call this website Tutoring with Distinction because that is how I approach my work. To be effective, tutoring must be individualized: material must be presented in a way that fits the student's learning level and style--and motivates him/her to take on the next challenges.  Learning is making distinctions, and I help students to make distinctions of all kinds by expanding their ability to use language. 

My work is of two types:

  • coursework in English and writing, including boosting reading comprehension and writing across curricula, for students of all learning levels; and 
  • test prep and college admissions. Please note that I tutor for reading and writing sections of the SAT, GRE, and GMAT; for the ACT, I tutor for the essay writing, the English test, the reading test, and the science test. I will refer you to an excellent, qualified math tutor. 
  • Once you are in, and receive financial aid packages, I will help you to negotiate the best offer.
  • I also provide tutoring help in writing essays for admissions to graduate and professional programs.