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A Personalized Approach To ACT Test Prep

Every year, we see more and more students interested in ACT test prep. Though it was once considered an obscure test used primarily by colleges in the South and Midwest, in recent years the ACT’s popularity has skyrocketed.

If you are a junior or rising senior, the biggest question you face on the road to admission at a US university is which test to take: SAT or ACT? Your decision carries great importance. Ultimately, it may be a deciding factor in which schools make your final list, as the most selective universities seek students with not only excellent academic and extra-curricular records, but also strong test scores, regardless of which test you submit.

Most testing agencies suggest that you take a diagnostic exam to identify which test may suit you better. This is good advice, as trying out each exam provides you with a first-hand, personal taste of what the SAT and ACT have to offer. However, many students do not have access to testing agencies or expert feedback on which exam suits the student better.

To that end, CATES has organized the following tables to help students decide which exam suits them better based on three conditions: strengths, weaknesses, and circumstances. Each table provides direction to help make this decision easier.

Strengths-Based Decision-Making

One way to decide which test is a better fit involves taking one’s academic strengths into consideration. For example, students strong in reading comprehension may consider the ACT, as the ACT essentially rewards strong reading comprehension skills across the entire exam, even in the Math and Science tests. Similarly, a student strong in math (who may, in turn, be relatively weaker in reading comprehension) may consider the SAT, which tests higher level math skills.


Strengths-Based Decision Table

If you are great at... English Math Reading Science
then take the... ACT SAT ACT SAT

You may be thinking: “Wait a second. If I am strong at science, you recommend that I take the SAT? Wouldn’t it be smarter for me to take the ACT? It has a science section, and science is a strength for me.” Maybe. However, the Science test on the ACT does not really test science. Frankly, it tests comprehension skills. A background in science, while admittedly helpful, is not necessary for a high score on the Science test, or even a perfect score. Furthermore, students who lean more towards the sciences may not have as strongly developed English and reading comprehension skills. As a result, while the student may in fact do well on the ACT Science test, the ACT English and Reading tests may prove to be a great challenge. This conception – or rather misconception – that science students should take the ACT because it has a Science section may be the single most erroneous assumption made by students deciding between the SAT and ACT. 

Weaknesses-Based Decision-Making

At CATES, we continuously strive to maintain a positive attitude and focus on the positive at all times. That said, sometimes the SAT vs. ACT decision comes to down to working around a short-coming, or weakness in your skills. For example, students who do not pursue advanced math courses tend to favor the ACT because the math tested on the exam aligns well with fundamental math curricula. By contrast, the SAT Math, after the redesign, resembles the Math Level II SAT Subject Test material (which is more advanced than ACT Math) and also includes a No Calculator section. For these reasons, students who may not be strong in math should probably consider the ACT, which tests more familiar concepts and allows use of a calculator on the entire Math test. 


Weaknesses-Based Decision Table

If you are not great at... English Math Reading Science
then take the... SAT ACT SAT ACT

Circumstances-based Decision-Making

For some students, their decision to take the SAT or ACT comes down to their personal circumstances, or factors they face beyond their strengths and weaknesses:

Students who struggle with time favor the SAT over the ACT, because the SAT provides students with more time for fewer questions. This is especially true in the Evidence-Based Reading section of the SAT compared to the ACT Reading section. Mastering the timing on the Math, Reading, and Science sections is a critical component to success on the ACT. For some students, this can be a difficult skill to develop, especially without consistent, dedicated practice. 

Students who have a limited budget might consider the ACT for a few reasons. First, many schools waive their SAT Subject Test requirements for students who opt for the ACT with Writing. Schools such as Brown, Rice, Tufts, and Wellesley fall into this category.

That being said, some schools such as Cal-Tech, Carnegie Mellon, and Cornell can still require SAT Subject Tests, regardless of whether you opt for the ACT with Writing. Students should research the testing requirements for each university to which they intend to apply.

Students who arrive late to the process should think about taking the ACT. More than anything, it is a scheduling matter. The ACT is administered in early September and again in late October. The SAT is administered in early October and early November.

While both ACT and SAT students have two shots at the exam before the 1 November Early Decision/Action deadline, the ACT students can receive their first scores before the end of September, allowing them a full month to make adjustments in their preparation before they re-sit the ACT in October.

SAT students receive their scores near the end of October and then only have a week for adjustments. What happens to the SAT student who banked on hitting her SAT targets on the October exam but then a week before her November SAT Subject Tests learns that her SAT score isn’t strong enough for her Early Decision/Action School? It’s too late to change at that point.

Still unsure of which test to take?

Finally, the simple answer to the SAT vs. ACT question is this: Take the test on which you will score higher. Seems obvious, right? Not so much. 

Often, a student may take a diagnostic SAT or ACT and score better on one test, but take the other. Why? The reason lies in the answer to the following question: on which test can you improve the most over time? We see this with students who initially score higher on the ACT, but in fact, show more long-term promise on the SAT. One example of such promise is that once a student learns how to really attack a section of weakness (the Math, for instance), it raises their SAT score to a level that overtakes their maximum ACT score. How do you determine whether you fit this phenomenon? We created an SAT vs. ACT diagnostic test for just this purpose! Review your SAT vs. ACT diagnostics with an expert to identify your target scores on each test. You may be surprised by what you learn!


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