The SAT vs. ACT decision: how many practice tests do you need to take?

For those of you still deciding between the SAT and the ACT, one factor that you need to take into account is the number of practice tests you’re planning to take. I touched on this point in a recent post, but I’d like to revisit it here from a slightly different angle.

I’m insisting on it because of a couple of recent tutoring inquiries regarding students who want to start test prep early in junior year, and who are looking to raise their reading scores by enormous amounts (in the 200 point-range). But this post is also applicable to anyone looking to spend more than a few months prepping. 

To be clear, 200-point increases are extraordinarily difficult to achieve — new SAT, old SAT, whatever. But I’ve worked long-term with students who were serious about trying to make those kinds of gains, and if there is one thing they all had in common, it was the sheer number of practice tests they took. In some cases, 25 or more. 

In general, I am most definitely not a fan of the repeated practice tests approach. It’s infinitely more effective to work through material concept by concept, finding out where the gaps are and spending time plugging them, than to just take test after test. I’ve had students who took all of two practice tests who met their score goals easily, and students who took 30 (!) tests and never quite got to where they wanted to go. So if you’re worrying that that you need to take 25 practice tests just to have a fighting chance at a decent score, don’t worry — that’s probably not the case at all!

Likewise, if you are already a strong reader and/or are only trying to raise your SAT score by a modest amount, or if you are scoring so much better on the SAT than on the ACT that it doesn’t even make sense to look at the latter, this discussion doesn’t concern you so much.

However: if you are trying to raise your verbal score from average to “Ivy League-competitive” and your actual reading skills need work, or if you fall into one of the categories below, this is a real logistical concern that should at least be taken into account.

Most students who study for an extended period, either on their own or with a tutor, end up naturally going through a lot of tests. Even if they’re not doing full tests in one sitting, the individual practice sections can pile up pretty quickly once things really get going. 

Furthermore, some students are genuinely nervous test-takers who need to get as comfortable as possible with the testing process so that they’ll have as few surprises as possible when they take an exam for real. I’ve worked with students who needed to sign up for regular mock-testing at local companies for months on end, just so they wouldn’t have a nervous breakdown on test day. 

I also appreciate that reading tests pose a particular challenge for students who do not come from English-speaking families, or who did not grow up in the United States, but are aiming to gain admission to top colleges. Standardized tests include all sorts of cultural assumptions that American students take for granted, but internationals often do not have that luxury. They usually need to practice more. 

So if any of these things applies to you, and you are still trying to decided between tests, please consider the following:

Yes, the College Board has now released two additional practice tests, but that brings the grand total only to six, plus two PSATs. If you are planning to study for months and months, you will exhaust your supply of authentic tests very quickly.

You cannot compile a stash of old, released exams from your friends and the Internet because no old released exams exist.

If you want to take numerous full-length practice tests, you will either be forced to re-take the Official Guide tests — something I never recommend — or rely on third-party exams, which may or may not accurately reflect the content of the actual exam and which I never endorse either. 

(Note: as per “disgruntled” former College Board employee Manuel Alfaro’s revelations, released College Board exams #5 and #6 may not accurately reflect the content of the administered tests either.)

The bottom line is that if you’re planning to start prep in the fall of junior year (or earlier) for a spring test, you’re going to need a substantial amount of practice material; and if you’re not using official tests, you are likely to miss key issues that could have a noticeable effect on your score. 

And assuming that you can’t get access to the leaked exams, there is no way around it. 

For that reason, I am very strongly encouraging anyone who is scoring more or less comparably on the SAT and the ACT, and is seeking the type of score gains that will likely require long-term tutoring, to please seriously consider the ACT. There is only so much any tutor or student can do with the limited a supply of authentic SAT material, and to insist otherwise is unfair to everyone involved.

Yes, that test poses its own challenges, most notably involving speed, but at least it is possible to say that students can be prepared thoroughly and will have the opportunity to practice until they can get things right. Not to mention the fact that you can be sure the released exams you take were the same tests that were actually administered.