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. 

A quick SAT vs. ACT litmus test

When I start working with someone early in their junior, the first thing I try to get figured out is whether they’re going to take the SAT or the ACT. I’d rather have them go through a couple of weeks of indecision early on than suddenly decide to switch tests after six months of preparation (especially because every year I do get people who’ve already been prepping for one test for six months, then decide to switch two weeks before the other and want to cram. That’s really not fun for me.) Usually I just tell my students that if they can’t stomach the thought of taking both a full SAT and a full ACT, they should just do a couple of sections from each test and see which one they like better.

I’ve realized recently, however, that at the extreme end, there can be a simpler litmus test, at least on the verbal side of things, and that test involves sentence completions. Interestingly enough, though, it has very little to do with vocabulary per se. The giveaway is how easily you can either 1) plug in your own words, or 2) correctly determine whether the word that goes in a given blank should be positive or negative — regardless of how many of the words in the answer choices you actually know. If you try a handful of sections and are consistently stumbling over this exercise by the third question or so, that’s a pretty good sign that you should seriously consider the ACT.
Here why: while having a good vocabulary will help you on the SAT, the sentence completion section isn’t just a vocabulary test. It actually functions as a microcosm of the Critical Reading section as a whole in that it also tests your ability to perceive relationships between ideas. Vocabulary can be memorized, but if you have difficulty sorting out the basic connections between ideas in a sentence or identify key pieces of information, the unfortunate reality is that you’re probably not going to develop that skill in a couple of months. If you can’t even figure out what sorts of words go into the blanks on relatively straightforward questions, how are you going to be able to consistently determine nuances between words on vocabulary-in-context questions or  nail the relationship between the authors’ ideas on Passage 1/Passage 2? I’m not trying to be harsh, just realistic.
I’m also not suggesting that this is a fool-proof method, just that it can provide some quick insight into some of the struggles certain students might have down the line. To be fair, it’s not that these skills are not tested at all on the ACT — they are, but they feature less prominently and tend to be tested in a somewhat less circuitous way. There’s no sense in making yourself crazy if there’s a less headache-inducing option available.

Is the ACT less coachable than the SAT?

The short answer: No.

The long answer: Every now and again, I’ll stumble across some tutoring website announcement declaring that because the ACT is a “content-based” exam, designed to directly measure the kinds of skills that people learn in school, it is much less sensitive to tutoring than the SAT, which is primarily an exam about strategy and “how well someone can take the SAT.” As someone who has spent a good deal of time both writing and helping people prepare for both exams, I’d like to spend a little bit of time debunking that myth. First of all, in response to the idea that the ACT directly tests what students are learning in school, I’d like to say that I’m not really aware of any high school that teaches punctuation with anywhere near the level of thoroughness it’s tested on the ACT.

I’ve worked with numerous students from a particular “top-tier” NYC private school known, as James Atlas puts it, for its “intensely competitive students” (whom it requires to take several years of grammar), and not one of them has come close to knowing everything tested on the English portion of the ACT. In fact, some of them have been among the weakest students I’ve ever worked with.

I’ve also worked with kids from tip-top suburban districts who had idea how to use a colon or identify a non-essential clause. It seems to me that the ACT is testing the content that high schools should be teaching rather than the content they actually are teaching. The fact that the average national ACT score is 21.1 out of 36 seems to testify to that fact.

But does tutoring raise scores? Absolutely. Every one of my students who has put in a reasonable, consistent amount of study time has improved markedly — in some cases by 10 points. Most people scoring in the mid-high 20s can gain a good five points on English from capable tutoring. Some of the questions are very straightforward, but some of it them are extremely subtle (and tricky) and completely impervious to being answered by ear. As is the case for the SAT, you’re almost certain to get certain questions wrong unless you really understand the rules they’re testing. You learn the rules well enough, you get the questions right — it’s usually that simple.

As for the Reading… I’m not going to lie: tutoring ACT Reading can be more challenging than tutoring SAT Reading. The questions are often less predictable, less based on a holistic understanding of the passages, and most people have problems managing their time rather than actually knowing how to work through the questions.

But as I’ve written about before, ACT time management problems are usually something else in disguise. Many of the skills involved in locating information quickly actually involve logic skills similar to those tested on the SAT — how to make reasonable conjectures based on the organization of a passage or paragraph; how to identify important places in a passage based on the presence of particular transitions and punctuation marks; and how to determine the main idea or function of a passage or paragraph from reading key places (e.g. introduction, topic sentences) in the text. Work on the fundamentals enough and you usually see some improvement.

My biggest obstacle is convincing students that the ACT actually tests logic skills, even in a roundabout way, when they’ve fled the SAT precisely to avoid that kind of thinking. So no, the ACT is in no way less coachable than the SAT, at least on the verbal side of things. It has its own quirks and strategies, but the skills and concepts it tests can be taught just as thoroughly as they can for the SAT. As always, there are no guarantees, but in the hands of a competent tutor, most students should be able to raise their scores by at least a few points.