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Don't Waste Your Saturday

Worry about college admission testing can stress out even the best students. Some take the SAT or ACT three, four or more times, trying to eke out every last point, and poring over concordance tables to discern which scores to submit with their applications. If you are one of those people dedicating three-plus hours on multiple Saturday mornings to filling in bubbles with a No. 2 pencil, you owe it to yourself to take these two important steps to make sure each Saturday counts.


ACT or SAT? Since the revision of the SAT implemented last March, the content of the two tests has converged to make this question somewhat less dramatic. The SAT is now much closer to the ACT in terms of length (3 hours vs. 2 hours 55 minutes) and format (four answer choices; no penalty for guessing). But the differences--particularly in the math sections--are still important enough to matter. Some students will find they excel on one over the other. Some of the main differences:

The SAT rewards greater facility with language.

The SAT draws on harder words and uses more of them, requiring an understanding of context within more complex reading passages. Compared to the ACT, the average sentence length is longer, and the average reading level higher. Even the math section of the SAT relies heavily on word problems.

Math content differs significantly.

The math section of the SAT focuses more on algebra, while the ACT's includes much more geometry.

The ACT's pace is brisk.

The ACT requires test-takers to move right along. In the language arts sections, the ACT allows testers just 42 seconds per question, compared with 62 on the SAT. The same comparison holds true in math: 60 seconds for the ACT and 83 for the SAT.

ACT math questions are more straightforward.

While the content and format of the language arts sections of the two tests may be similar, there is more disparity between the SAT and ACT math sections. The ACT requires the student to remember formulas and apply them, usually testing a single concept in each question, with a calculator always available. In contrast, SAT Math questions often require several steps, integrate multiple concepts, and require the test-taker to wade through verbiage to find the actual problem. The SAT does provide formula references, but the student might be a little more confused as to how to apply them. Finally, SAT test-takers must set aside their calculators in one section and rely on their ability to process numbers accurately under pressure.

So – ACT or SAT? Carefully examining the above information, perhaps with the help of parents and a counselor, may be enough for some students to decide where to focus. However, most students are best served by taking a full-length practice test of each variety. This allows test-takers to easily compare their performance and comfort with each test before putting all their eggs in one basket. And you should put all your eggs in one basket; taking both tests repeatedly is a waste of time. Many test prep companies offer proctored and timed, full-length SATs and ACTs that approximate the real thing, for free or a nominal charge. If that doesn’t appeal, go to the College Board and ACT websites and take a full-length practice test on-line.


It’s laughable now to remember the SAT's claim to be an “aptitude” test impervious to preparation. Common sense and the move to more “achievement”-based tests have completely debunked that assertion. Both the SAT and ACT now explicitly claim to measure what the test-taker has learned in school, rather than some "innate" ability. Because preparation does affect the outcome, the percentile tables are naturally skewed in favor of the student who prepares. If everyone else prepared and you didn’t, how accurately will your scores reflect your ability, compared to everyone else?

Diligently working for three months allows most students to achieve their best score in two official sittings on either the SAT or ACT. The biggest waste is to prepare seriously for both tests, when every college in the United States now accepts either one. Students and families have many options for test prep, ranging from free on-line programs to in-person private tutoring. Consider the student’s motivation, target scoring range and financial resources when deciding on a test-prep plan.

So make the most of your Saturday morning: choose the right test, prepare diligently for it, and move on to other things. If you want advice on how to use that extra time to strengthen your college application, click the “Contact Me” button at the bottom of the page, or call me at 847-660-8625.

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