Answers to Your Biggest ACT and SAT Questions

Let’s face it, applying to college is tricky and exhausting. While test prep is essential, every day we speak with parents who are confused about the test prep process. In fact, parents from all over the DC Metro area seem to have the same questions. For this reason, we decided to devote an entire blog to answering the most common ACT and SAT questions. You’ll find answers to many of these questions below.

Is the SAT or the ACT the better test for my child?

For undecided students, we recommend completing a full length practice SAT and ACT. At Educational Connections, we’ve found that about a third of students prefer the SAT, a third prefer the ACT, and the remaining third do not have a strong preference either way. On top of personal preference, we can use a concordance table to look at the student’s diagnostic scores on both tests to determine if he does better on one over the other.

You can request a free, full-length practice test to take at home or sign up for one of our proctored practice exams.

What are the differences between the SAT and ACT?

First, the SAT is ten short sections taken in 3 hours and 45 minutes whereas the ACT is five longer sections called “tests” taken in 3 hours and 25 minutes. While SAT questions involve more reasoning and deduction skills, the ACT requires content mastery and a quick pace. Both are long tests and it’s important for students to get in as much simulated practice as possible so that they don’t fatigue on test day.

Second, for incorrect multiple choice answers on the SAT one quarter of a point is deducted. There are no deductions for incorrect answers on the ACT, so every question should be answered.

Third, the SAT writing section includes a limited set of grammar topics intended to test a student’s understanding of standard English grammar and usage, whereas the ACT tests punctuation and writing strategy and organization in addition to grammar and organization.

Fourth, SAT math covers Arithmetic, Algebra I and II, and Geometry, focusing on core math skills and solving “tricky” problems. ACT math, on the other hand tests pre-algebra through basic Trig in a more straightforward manner, with a greater emphasis on word problems.

Fifth, the SAT Critical Reading places an emphasis on vocabulary, which is tested through sentence completion questions. It includes 7 short and long reading passages, which follow the order of the passage and include a higher concentration of inference, tone, and purpose questions. The ACT Reading test places little to no emphasis on vocabulary and includes four long reading passages, each with 10 questions in random order that are straightforward but require a close reading of the passage.

Sixth, the SAT does not include a science section, while the ACT does. The ACT science test is a reasoning test requiring students to navigate complex diagrams and tables to find relevant information. Contrary to what many students think, the test does not require specific knowledge from science classes.

Finally, both tests include a writing component; however, the SAT provides test takers with a broad theme that can be approached formulaically or creatively, while the ACT presents a narrow topic that is relevant to high school students.

I heard the SAT is being reformatted, what are the major changes taking place and will it affect my student?

The company that creates the SAT, The College Board, announced last spring that they were reformatting the SAT and rolling it out in Spring 2016. This means, that current high school sophomores will be taking a brand new test.

To read all about the changes being made the test, you can read our blog, “Changes to the SAT: What Every Parent Must Know,” or check out our New vs. Current SAT comparison chart.

Though The College Board, has announced the general structure of the test, no prep materials have been released thus far. For this reason, many students are considering the ACT instead of the SAT for 2016.

When should my student take the test?

Many people take the SAT to “see what score they’re going to get.” However, you can see what score you’re going to get by taking a proctored practice test and not have the result count against you. Students should take the SAT or ACT when they are ready, (i.e., they are scoring within 100 points of their goal score on consecutive practice tests), rather than registering for the closest SAT simply because that’s what their friends are doing.

The basic sequence for determining when your student should take the SAT (or ACT) is as follows:

1) Figure out your student’s goal score. This can be done with the help of a tutor.

2) Figure out your student’s current score with a diagnostic test.

3) Figure out your student’s test prep schedule and how long it will (probably) take to reach his target score.

4) Pick a test date after that point and have your student register for it.

5) Encourage your student to take practice tests frequently during the preparation process to gauge and measure progress.

6) Figure out the last possible date your student can take the test in case progress is slower than anticipated.

Should I sign my student up for group ACT prep or one-on-one tutoring?

Though private, individual tutoring is a premium service, it provides students with a level of personalized, tailored instruction that can’t be duplicated in a classroom or small group setting. One-on-one tutors provide expert instruction and undivided attention, leading to greater engagement and a higher degree of accountability.

In order to accommodate a range of students, group classes will briefly cover all concepts and strategies equally, whereas a private tutor customizes sessions to focus on a student’s biggest weaknesses resulting in higher score gains. Group classes can provide structure to a student preparing for the SAT or ACT, but a private tutor can really drive score increases.

If you are interested in learning more about SAT or ACT test prep, or if you have a specific question about test prep, you can email Educational Connections’ Test Prep Director, Michael Oliver, at at [email protected].