Answers to Taking the ACT vs. SAT and Other Test Taking Questions

1.     How many times should my child count on taking the ACT or SAT?

Unless your daughter or son gets their desired score the first time, they should at least expect to take a test 2 -3 times. It is not unusual for a student to take a test up to 4-5 times, particularly if your student starts the test prep cycle as a sophomore, or in the Fall of junior year.


2.     Is there a maximum number of times that my child should take the ACT or SAT?

There does seem to be an urban legend that taking the test too many times has negative ramifications on one’s college application. Please ask your college counselor – but we take the view that as long as your scores are moving, and clear work is being done, admissions officers take a positive view on the effort evinced. We get concerned when a student takes the same test a number of times – without seeing score increases!


3.     When should my student start test prep?

To a significant degree, the decision about when to start test prep depends on the child, their commitments, and their state of mental and academic preparedness.

Generally, we recommend that students have completed Algebra II in terms of Math (it helps, though it is by no means necessary, for a student to be in Precalculus) – for details on Math, see FAQ 7.

Most of the students with whom we work begin in the Fall or Winter of their Junior year. We have worked with Freshmen and Sophomores, however. When we work with students at an earlier academic stage, we tend to think about working in several short spurts of instruction – sometimes over a period of a year or two. We don’t necessarily add to the total number of sessions, but we work with students 3-4 sessions at a time, focusing on a particular test section (e.g. Reading) for each series. The main benefit of these early sessions appears to be the development of greater familiarity with standardized testing. In short, it can serve to demystify the standardized testing universe before the pressure builds.

We have run PSAT courses in the past for students in contention for National Merit Scholarship candidates, although we recognize that the threshold set for NMS is very high. 

If there is a common thread for students who do well in our program, it is that – regardless of when they start – they bring (or discover) self-motivation and a work ethic to the table.


4.     Is it better for my child to take the ACT or the SAT? Which is viewed preferentially by competitive institutions?

The tests are interchangeable. There may historically have been a preference for the SAT as the more competitive test, but that is decidedly no longer the case. There is no daylight between the ACT and the SAT in the eyes of a college admissions officer. All that really matters is the test on which your student got the better score! A number of score comparison charts are available online, although neither testing company offers official score conversions between the tests.


5.     Can you help me choose which test should my student take?

We can offer guidelines, but ultimately the decision is best made on the basis of which test the student feels most comfortable with (see FAQ 6 – it is ideal if a student tries both tests).

That said, please find below a few considerations that may help a student their family decide which test they should start with:

At its most reductive, the ACT differs from the SAT because the ACT applies greater time pressure to questions that are – on average – easier, and the SAT does not impose the same time constraints, but SAT questions on the Reading and Math portions are – on average – harder (our statistical models show remarkable similarity between the SAT Writing Test and the ACT English Test, with questions similarly distributed and at a similar level of sophistication). As a result, if the personality of a student is such that time pressure is a hurdle, the SAT might be a good starting place. By contrast, if a student is comfortable in Honors English or AP Lit-Lang, the SAT may be a natural starting place.

A second factor to consider is the relative proportion of math versus the presence of a science test. The SAT is now 50 per cent math, with math comprising just 25 per cent of the ACT. Of course, students taking the ACT will encounter the Science Test, which has no corollary on the SAT. In short, students encounter more (and generally harder) math on the SAT, while they need to grapple with the Science Test on the ACT

(Note: While a strong science background can help students navigate the Science Test on the ACT (breeding greater familiarity with the subject matter), it is not necessary to achieving an optimal score – the Science Test is a test of reading comprehension and data interpretation, with no more than 2-3 Q’s out of 40 requiring external science knowledge.)

A third factor to consider, in consultation with your guidance counselor, is the differing rates with which the ACT & the SAT grant time accommodations. If your student has (or has applied for) an IEP in the classroom (a time accommodation based on a diagnosed learning disability), it is worth noting that accommodations on the SAT are near automatic, whereas the ACT seldom grants accommodations – most likely because time pressure is an important factor to the ACT.

A fourth factor is based on our informal observation that – if students feel relatively equally comfortable with both tests – starting with the SAT, and moving to the ACT, can make for an easier transition. Roughly, where the student is trained to deal with the harder questions offered by the SAT, the student can often be better able to manage time pressure on the ACT, because the questions themselves feel somewhat easier (Note: this is a broad generalization, and ultimately the student’s view of the tests should be dispositive).

The final factor to consider is score elasticity on each test. Taking the ACT or the SAT cold (or with minimal prep) can give an initial baseline. But the more important consideration, in our view, is how rapidly scores increase over the first few weeks of tutoring or self-directed prep. It is our experience that if a student comes in with comparable ACT & SAT, it may still be the case that the student’s scores increase more rapidly in one test over the other. This is an important consideration in picking your test! To test this factor, some of our students do an initial series of 4 sessions in each test, before taking the ACT and the SAT for the first time.


6.     Should my child take both the ACT & the SAT?

Yes, with a caveat. Please consult your College Admissions Counselor, but the gold standard is to try both the ACT and the SAT. In choosing which test to start with, see FAQ 5. Ultimately, however, we do recommend that a student focus on one test at a time. As described in FAQ 5, choosing a test may require a bit of a runway in each.  But picking a test, and moving forward with exclusive focus for a set period tends to lead to greater score gains in our experience than bouncing back and forth between tests.

More than anything else this decision depends on the bandwidth a particular student has. We hope to work with students at a time when they can dedicate between 2-3 hours of work between OOO sessions, or attend the course sessions.


7.     What level of Math is required for the SAT/ACT?

Generally, we recommend that students have completed Algebra II in terms of Math. It helps, though it is by no means necessary, for a student to be in Precalculus. In our experience, most of the substance that a student needs for either the ACT or SAT Math Tests is covered by the completion of Algebra II (depending on the school and curriculum progression). However, Precalculus often serves to reinforce understanding of some of the more advanced math questions on either test. To quantify this observation, we consider 7 per cent of the SAT Math Test to fall into Advanced Math, and about 5 per cent of question categories to be those that are most squarely covered in Precalculus.

While Precalculus can help reinforce a range of advanced and core math problem types on either test, we aim to teach in a very targeted manner the math categories and problem types that a student will encounter. We use our statistical analysis to teach each math category as a predictable “ecosystem” with no more than 2-3 question subtypes. In other words, the Math on a standardized test is predictable, and can be taught via our resources and practice sets.

Geometry is taught at different points in the curriculum at different high schools. It is relevant to note that Geometry on the SAT is a relatively minor consideration, while Geometry on the ACT is still a major question category.


8.     How has University Select responded to recent changes to the SAT and to the ACT?

The changes to both the SAT and ACT in 2016 were substantial. The SAT was overhauled, and the ACT significantly modified. We at University Select saw this as an opportunity to apply our research backgrounds to analyzing the changes to each test. In response, we spent a tremendous amount of time studying and analyzing all publicly available official tests. As a result, our approaches and methods to each of the test sections have changed substantially. We have written about these changes to the SAT here, here, and here. Our post about the changes to the ACT is coming soon!