Due to the historical legacy of standardized tests, a lot of people still think that students need to take the SAT no matter what. While it used to be that coastal colleges preferred the SAT, that has long since vanished. All 4-year colleges and universities in the U.S. now take both tests equally. They are indifferent to which test a student submits, and have a big table to compare the score results across the two tests (it’s the same one we use in performing evaluations). Students can use this fact to their advantage – we’ll explain how below.
There is a good amount of overlap between the tests – about half the questions on each test could have come from the other test. A lot of remaining questions test the same concepts, even if their approach is different. Due to this, most students will score very similarly between the two tests, usually within a few percentile ranks. So, should students just pick a test and go with it? It’s not a bad strategy! 90% of the time a student will score as well or better on one of the tests if they just pick one.
How to take advantage – test up front
For students looking to maximize the test score component of their admissions, though, they can use the fact there are two independent tests to their advantage. The first way is by figuring out if they have already developed a skillset that fits one of the tests better than the other. There are a number of online tools, and some high schools offer, “mini-diagnostics” that are meant to tell a student in half an hour if one test is better than the other. As with most things in life, though, the easy way has significant shortcomings.
To see how, consider the ACT math section. It covers a very broad set of skills, but doesn’t go too deeply into any of them. It also has a difficulty curve as you move through the section – the first 15 to 20 problems are pretty easy, the next 20 are medium difficulty, then 10 medium-hard, and the last 10 problems are usually quite difficult. A student taking a mini-diagnostic, which might have 20 math questions in total, could happen upon all topics they are familiar with and get most of them right. Conversely, they could see a lot of problems with concepts that just happen to miss their skillset, even though they have good overall math skills. In both of these cases, the student won’t get a true picture of how they would score on the math section. They also wouldn’t face the time pressure inherent in the section in an accurate way.
So what’s the alternative? Far and away the best thing for students to do is take a full-length practice ACT and SAT before they begin their prep. This gives a complete picture of how they handle all the different problem types, timing, and concepts that each test includes. For students looking to maximize their test scores, this is clearly the way to go. So what if they score about the same on both tests, as we said most students do? That’s OK too! Going through the exercise, most students will feel a lot better about one test than the other. This tends to improve their motivation as they begin their test prep.
How to take advantage – high scorers
High scorers have a special set of circumstances, and can again use the fact that there are two tests to their advantage. They are typically applying to highly competitive colleges, and getting the most out of the score can make the difference on admissions decisions. The important thing to know here is that students need only submit an SAT or ACT score – they do not need to send both, even if they take both. So, if a student has taken the SAT a couple of times and isn’t in the range that is going to be competitive for a certain school, they have the option of then switching to the ACT. If they do great on that, the SAT scores just go into the closet, never to be seen again.
So should all students just prep for, and take, both tests around the same time? Definitely not! It’s hard enough to learn one test completely, let alone both tests at the same time. Our recommendation is always to focus on one test, and only switch if the student isn’t seeing the scores they want.
Want to find out which test is best for your student? Need help putting together a testing plan? No problem! Give us a call at 610.688.6441 or schedule an in-person information session and we can help take all the complication out of testing.