I would highly recommend that students try BOTH the SAT and ACT. While both tests are accepted by colleges everywhere some students find that they prefer one test over another. Why not focus on your strengths? However, you can only know for sure where your strengths are by taking them both. Once you have taken both tests, you will know whether you should focus on just one of them going forward. If your scores on both were pretty comparable, you can try both of them again.
Let’s say that you don’t want to take the time and money to explore which test is preferable – you want to pick one and stick with it. Here are some ways you can make that decision.
- Look at your PSAT and Pre-ACT scores. The PSAT corresponds to the SAT, and the Pre-ACT corresponds to the ACT. Most students take the PSAT as juniors, and most take the Pre-ACT as sophomores. The easiest way to compare them is to look at the percentiles that you earned on each test. If, for example, if you have an 80thpercentile on the PSAT and a 65thpercentile on the Pre-ACT, it would probably make more sense to focus your efforts on the SAT. If the percentiles are comparable, you should probably do both the ACT and SAT at least once.
- Do you qualify for extended time? If so, I would recommend focusing on the ACT. In my tutoring experience, students who have extended time tend to find the ACT easier than the SAT. Students find this to be the case because the questions and passages on the ACT tend to be a bit more straight-forward and less “outside-the-box”, making them much more doable for students who have more time to process them. Much of the coaching I do for students with the ACT is with respect to timing, and if you have extended time on the ACT, you can focus much more on your critical thinking process rather than on how quickly you are doing things.
- Do you struggle with timing? You should almost certainly focus on the SAT. The ACT Math, Reading and Science are all pretty tough for students to finish. In my experience, few students have difficulty finishing the SAT.
- Do you have test anxiety? If so, the SAT may be a better fit because the questions go in order from easiest to hardest on almost every section, so it is much less likely that you will become stuck on a tough question. Also, you won’t have to worry about time as much.
- What is the Superscoring Policy of the College you Most Want to Attend? Most colleges will superscore the SAT, which means they will take the best score from each section of the test over several test dates. A few colleges superscore the ACT. If you are applying to a college that DOES superscore the ACT, you may want to be more open to taking the ACT because you will have more opportunities to earn a solid score. If the college only superscores the SAT and you tend to be somewhat inconsistent in your performance on test day, the SAT may be a better fit for you.
Having worked with thousands of students over the years, I’ve come to realize that some students, no matter how much content and strategy help they receive, are simply not very good test-takers. What can you do with respect to college admissions if no matter how hard you work, you can only make miniscule improvements in your test performance? Here are six ideas:
- Look into extended time. Maybe your issues with timing and test anxiety are due to an underlying learning disability that only manifests when you are doing a major test like the ACT or SAT. If you have never been tested for a learning disability and you find that you have serious issues with attention, reading, and problem solving, it may be worth checking out. Typically, a school psychologist will do it at no cost. If you want to move the process along, you may need to have a private psychologist conduct some testing. If you end up finding that you have a learning disability, you would then need to get an IEP or 504 plan through your school. After that, you could apply for extended time for the ACT and SAT.
- Know it’s only part of the process. In my reading of the blogosphere and my discussions with college admissions counselors, the consensus seems to be that about ¼ of the college admissions decision is based on your standardized test performance. If you know that tests are not your thing, be sure to make your extracurricular activities and grades as good as they can possibly be.
- Check out Test Optional Schools. Many colleges are now test-optional, making it possible to gain admission to a great college while having poor performance on the ACT or SAT. You can find a complete list on the website Fairtest.org.
- Submit a Portfolio. If your true intellectual talents cannot be demonstrated with a test, take the initiative to demonstrate them in a different way. If you are a great artist, send in a portfolio of your creations. If you excel at music, submit a CD of your recorded work. If you are an excellent writer, direct the admissions officers to your blog or novel. Admissions officers will only know that you have non-testable talents if you show them – the application gets accepted, not the person.
- Have a personal meeting with someone on the admissions staff. Schedule an in-person meeting with someone who works in the admission office at the school. This will give you the opportunity to explain your unique situation or share accomplishments that cannot be easily presented in an application. Most colleges will be more than happy to do this with you, provided you give them sufficient notice.
- Evaluate if college is really the best choice for you. So many recent college graduates find themselves with tens of thousands in debt and only able to find jobs that they could have gotten with a high school diploma. If you feel that you are likely to end up with a degree that won’t really help you find work, perhaps you should look into an associate’s degree in a field that is more to your liking. There are tons of people who have made great livings starting plumbing, electrical, and web design companies, just to name a few. Check out your options!