To address this question, we’ve written up a short “how to” that we use with our students. This was written by our CEO, Jay Bacrania. We hope you enjoy!
How to Choose Between the New SAT and the ACT
The current SAT will be retired in January, and the New SAT (the rSAT) will be launched in March of 2016. As many of you know, the rSAT has changed and now looks a LOT more like the ACT. However, there are still differences, and those differences can lead to one test being a better fit over the other for each student on account student’s unique strengths and weaknesses.
We’ve often heard people tell students: “Just prepare for and try both tests.” We strongly disagree. There are so many better things for students to do with their time, so we encourage students to identify which test is best for them and focus (or at least start with) that.
Here’s how we recommend going about determining which test is for you. Note: all of this is very generalized advice which should be customized for each student according to his or her specific situation.
1. First off, know the general differences between the two tests. There are a lot of smaller differences–too many to list here–but here are the major differences:
- Relative to the rSAT, the ACT has:
- a lower average reading level; more demanding timing (more questions in less time);
- a separate science section (which is mostly just reading comprehension around charts and graphs, not actual science)
- Relative to the ACT, the rSAT has:
- a higher average reading level (generally harder passages);
- more reading throughout the test, including in math and writing;
- more switching between types of problems (for example, there are charts and graphs in the writing section)
- Given the above, you may already have a hunch which test to go for. If so, you can start there. But if you don’t know, or if you want to be more thorough, continue to the remaining steps.
- Relative to the rSAT, the ACT has:
2. Next, you’ll want to get a diagnostic score and experience for each test by taking a full length diagnostic exam. Scores are important, as they can indicate which test you are more suited for initially. But experience is just as important, as it can indicate which test you feel more comfortable with and which test you may be able to improve most on.
For diagnostics, we recommend taking a full-length test under timed conditions. The test should be one that’s officially released by the CollegeBoard or ACT, NOT a third-party company test. You can find an official ACT here, and you can find official rSATs here.
For the ideal diagnostic, you should be familiar with the test rules and format beforehand so you’re not spending excessive time on the test sitting just understanding the rules. To do so, spend some time on the ACT and SAT websites familiarizing yourself with the format before the diagnostic, but don’t go overboard.
Can the PSAT be used for a diagnostic test score? Yes, it can be used as a diagnostic score. It’s not always completely accurate due to test content and testing conditions, but generally it’s close enough to help decide between tests. If you’re going to get a PSAT score in November/December, you can use that score (if you’re OK waiting until after that to start your prep).
3. Take your diagnostic exam under timed conditions and in the morning so that your brain is fresh. We recommend taking it on a Saturday or Sunday morning in a quiet environment without disturbances. Do not take both tests on the same day.
Stop when the time runs out for each section, and follow the test instructions carefully. In addition, do the following:
- Mark questions you guessed on with a “G”
- Circle questions you were unsure on
- At the end of each section, jot down the answer to each of the following questions:
- How did you feel during this section?
- Where do you think you need work?
- Did you feel pressured or run out of time?
- How easy was it for you to understand what was being asked of you?
4. Score each test, and review each set of post-section response questions. Use that analysis to decide which test to pursue.
Here’s what might happen when you review and analyze and what you should do about it:
- There is a clear winner in score and experience: your decision is made. Prepare for and take that exam.
- There is no winner: you score similarly on both tests and neither feels better. If this is the case, then you should choose the exam that you feel you can improve most on. As a general guideline, it’s often more straightforward improve on content than it is to improve on timing, so you may be better served choosing the test on which your timing was better. Frankly, though, there are many nuances, and you may benefit from speaking to a test-prep professional before making your final decision.
- You score higher in one exam but you feel better on the other: you need to analyze the differences. What about the exams made you score differently? Feel differently? Use the answer sheet to review each incorrect answer, and use your post-section observations. Try to put your finger on what the differences were, and then choose the test that you feel will be able to prepare best for. Again, though, there are many nuances, and you may benefit from speaking to a test-prep professional before making your final decision.
5. Once you know which test to take, you’ll want to structure a basic prep plan. Here are our general recommendations.
- Preparing for a test requires regular practice, just like any other skill. At minimum, we recommend students plan to spend 2-5 hrs/wk during their prep period (30-45 min/day is ideal, but we understand that’s not always possible).
- We generally recommend that students prepare for tests for at least 2-3 months (we find optimal results happen at 6 months+ of prep/practice).
- a target test date so you have something to work towards. Try not to test too late into the year or into senior year, as your testing can then derail exam studying, applications, etc…
- Use only real practice materials. Third-party materials are useful for some things, but they are not great for simulating real-life exams. I can’t say this enough: use real/official testing materials for practice.
- Set up a plan in advance: “this week I’ll focus on X and spend 2-3 hours this week practicing,” “next week I’ll move to Z, and, because of my football schedule, I’ll only be able to do 1-2 hours.” A concrete, written plan will help you tremendously.
6. Finally, a note about accommodations: if you’re going to request accommodations for a disability, it’s a good idea to request the accommodation for both tests and then decide which one you want to pursue. The granting of an accommodation by one test and not the other may make the decision very simple. This process can also take 5-7 weeks (and more if there are appeals), so be sure to start early.