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SAT or ACT: Which Test Should You Take?

The SAT and the ACT are long, difficult and often frustrating exams. While neither is very good at predicting success in college, most schools consider the tests when making decisions about admission. Scores on the PSAT taken in tenth grade are good indicators of SAT scores.  Many high schools also offer full practice SATs and ACTs. Comparing these preliminary scores with the average test scores recommended for admission to a college of choice, a student can determine how much work needs to be done in preparation. The twelve weeks prior to taking the exam is the most important for intense practice, but a longer period may be necessary. We recommend taking the SAT to count for the first time in December of junior year. Most students take the SAT twice, the second time being either March of junior year or October of senior year as juniors tend to be busy with SAT subject tests and AP exams in May and June. While the difficulty of the SAT varies from month to month, there is no month when it is guaranteed to be easier and variations in difficulty are corrected for with a curve. The best time for a student to take the SAT or ACT to count is when that student is ready. Almost all colleges will take the highest section scores from different testing sessions when computing the overall score for both the SAT and the ACT.

Most colleges will accept either the SAT or the ACT. Having taken the PSAT in tenth grade, most students are familiar with the format of the SAT. Some students, however, have a strong preference for the ACT. The questions on the ACT are more straightforward but the answers are just as tricky. Unlike the SAT, the ACT has a science section that tests the student’s ability to interpret graphs and tables. There are no sentence completion (vocabulary) questions on the ACT. All of the English grammar questions on the ACT are embedded in reading passages; most of the writing multiple choice grammar questions on the SAT are not in passages.  Some of the math on the ACT is at a higher level than on the SAT. There is no guessing penalty for the ACT. Both the SAT and the ACT have a written essay. The best way to determine which exam is preferred is to take practice tests for both. Some students take both the SAT and the ACT to count and then report the test with the higher scores. No matter which test you choose, it’s very important to complete practice tests right up until taking the test. Surprisingly, scores start to go down after a week or two without practice.

What is the Guessing Penalty on the SAT?

If a student doesn’t know the answer to a question on the SAT or the ACT, is it better to guess or to skip the question? The answer is to guess, but we are talking about educated guessing. There is a ¼ point penalty on the SAT for each wrong answer. That means if a student can rule out only one of the possible answers, it is still best to guess. Of course the more wrong answers that can be ruled out, the better the odds of getting the correct answer. Choosing between the remaining two or three answers for especially tough questions can be tiring and time consuming. Better to make a quick choice, mark the question to come back to if there’s time left at the end of the section, and move on to easier questions. It is possible to skip one or two questions in a section and still get a high score, but too many skipped questions will lower the score. If a question makes no sense or seems like it will take a long time to figure out, skip the question and return to it later. Only change an answer to a question if a mistake was made the first time.  Don’t second guess unless you redo the entire problem. There is no guessing penalty on the ACT so students should answer every question. Timing is a key factor on both the SAT and ACT, more specifically the shortness of time which makes it difficult to answer every question.  Always time sections on practice tests and establish a steady pace that allows for the finishing of each section. Not all sections are ordered by difficulty so those questions at the end may be easy.

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We are a husband-wife tutoring team with master’s degrees and expertise in English, math and science. Both of us have taught classes on the college level and have been tutoring in the Northern Virginia area for over nine years.
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