ACT vs SAT: Which is Best?

Most students perform better on one exam versus the other given the slightly different orientations of the tests.  I typically advise my student-clients to try both after reviewing test strategies and questions from each. Then if one proves to be the stronger choice we emphasize that test in our work together.

These days most colleges will accept either test, since there is a widely used concordance chart that permits direct comparison of outcomes. The tests are more alike than not, but here are some of the key differences that may suggest a stronger performance on one of the exams:

Generally speaking, the SAT plays to students who read a lot (including reading for pleasure), and consequently have larger vocabularies. In my opinion, this is the most critical difference between the tests. The SAT automatically includes an essay-writing component, although with the ACT this is something that must be added to the test registration if desired. The majority of more highly selective colleges request the essay component, although many colleges are okay with the ACT without essay.

While the SAT is the longer test (at 200 minutes) when compared with the ACT w/out essay (175 minutes), the ACT has longer test sections, so students with attention-span issues may not do as well. The SAT rotates students through nine alternating test sections lasting 25, 20, and 10 minutes, while the ACT offers four sections lasting 45, 60, 35 and 35 minutes. Among the ACT segments is a science segment that requires students to interpret data charts and illustrations, so students who are into science this may do well in this area.

The ACT covers more advanced math problems with the inclusion of some trigonometry, although it is generally considered the broader test, relating more directly to courses taken in high school. The SAT is more esoteric, requiring more complex, critical thinking to answer many of the questions. This is seen in the essay components as well, with the ACT questions appearing to be more straightforward.

A lot of good info is available on the test websites, including local administration dates and sample tests and questions:

Pinnacle just concluded a 3-week ACT series and is about to launch a four to six-week SAT series for students in the Denver area testing on Nov 5 or Dec 3  For more information see the website:


College Entrance Exam Preparation Strategies

One of my services to clients is help in preparing for the SAT and ACT examinations. It’s been some time since I was on the college testing scene as a test taker, but at the moment I am right in there with high school juniors, studying for the SAT myself at the age of 50 with a looming October 4, 2008 test date. I decided that prepping for and taking the test myself would be an interesting, alternative sort of professional development at this point in my career.

What does an educational consultant and former higher ed administrator recommend as the best means of preparing for college entrance exams? As with nearly every consequential thing one plans for, “one size doesn’t fit all,” and “it depends.” For myself, given that I have nothing riding on my exam scores, I am going low level. My preparation consists solely of spending time working my way through the Barron’s guidebook, “How to Prepare for the SAT,” and also receipt and completion of the SAT question of the day from the College Board (and its Educational Testing Service), the folks who created and maintain the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

Generally, there are four broad types of preparation. One is to do what I’m doing, and prepare on your own with the help of a guidebook. There are several out there roughly in the $30 price range and each will help prepare you in relatively similar ways. I chose Barron’s because it is highly regarded by other tutors who are my colleagues and friends. I like it for its breadth of coverage of key test areas (critical reading, writing and mathematics), the fact that it includes a diagnostic test to help identify strengths and weaknesses, and the fact that it includes no fewer than six practice tests. It also comes packaged with a CD-Rom that I haven’t checked out yet.

I would only recommend guidebook preparation for students with solid across-the-board academic strengths, for those who scored quite well on the PSAT, and as an initial strategy when there is plenty of time left to re-test should more in-depth preparation prove to be necessary. Guidebooks also work best for those with the self-discipline and motivation necessary to devote multiple hours per week to study and review for several weeks leading up to the exam date.

Self-motivation would similarly be necessary for those who are attracted to the idea of using one of the on-line test prep programs, such as Kaplan online, Princeton Review online, and one of the newest, Encyclopedia Britannica online. These programs are more expensive, ranging in price from approximately $399 to $535. I am especially intrigued by the Encyclopedia Britannica online program given their publicized average score improvement of 300 points, and the fact that their program has multiple personalized features that are part of their basic $499 fee.

Next are the classroom based review services, including Kaplan, Princeton Review, and others. These programs offer comprehensive coverage and may work best for those who are more motivated by having a time and place all mapped out for their review sessions. They can be pricey, however, often costing upwards of $1000. I recently affirmed the choice of the Sylvan Learning program to a client in another state who had a positive experience with their services earlier in her high school career as it seemed comforting to her to return to them. If I were a parent, I would make inquiries about the background and experience of session presenters before committing to any of these programs.

Finally, there are private tutors, some of whom exclusively do tutoring, and others who combine tutoring with other educational consulting services, such as help with the college search and admission process. As a professional, I fall in the latter category. As with the classroom-based programs, parents would be wise to inquire equally about the background of private tutors. I am up-front with clients that I am a good test-taking strategist, and strong in the critical reading and writing categories, but far less so in mathematics. I would refer a student needing deep assistance in the math area to another tutor, and feel it would be dishonest of me to do otherwise.

There are two great advantages to private tutors, once you find the right one (and I note that the major test prep companies now also offer their own private tutors). First, the personalized attention simply can’t be beat. Second, the cost can be completely controlled by pre-determining the number of hours of review, as most tutors work on an hourly basis. Many private tutors also utilize a guidebook as they work with students, so there may be a positive triangulation effect from going this route.

One final observation: provided the student launches the process early enough, test-taking can be relatively non-stressful, as the test can be repeated multiple times with no need for anxiety about outcomes, as schools have long pledged to only consider one’s highest scores. Also SAT scores can be cancelled if done within published deadlines, and increasing numbers of schools have recently diminished the weight of standardized tests in their admission decision process. Happy studying, my fellow test-takers!

Lisa Ransdell is a college faculty member, former high ed administrator, and head of a Denver-based college-search consulting firm, Pinnacle Education Consulting, LLC,