Breaking down the SAT and ACT: Which is for you? Part 2
The ACT and The SAT. The two are very different tests, and preparation for one is not necessarily preparation for both.
|Critical Reading (SAT)/Reading (ACT)||
48 questions on seven passages of varying lengths
40 questions on four passages (Prose Fiction, Social Science, Humanities, Natural Science)
Numbers & Operations, Algebra, Geometry, Data Analysis/Statistics/Probability
54 questions (including 10 student-produced responses)
Pre-Algebra (Numbers & Operations, Probability, etc.) Algebra I & II, Geometry, Trigonometry
|Writing (SAT)/English & Writing (ACT)||
49 multiple choice (identifying sentence errors, improving sentences and improving paragraphs)
75 questions on grammar/punctuation and style/organization
Essay optional, but generally required by selective colleges
40 questions on seven passages, including tables/graphs/charts
Most students should plan to take the SAT or ACT for the first time in their junior year. Select the test date that fits your schedule, not necessarily the one when everyone is taking it! While the May and June SAT dates, and the April and June ACT dates are the “traditional” times for juniors taking the test, don’t rule out earlier dates, especially if you are in accelerated math or English classes in school. Test dates near the end of the school year compete with AP exams, finals and social commitments. Consider the January and March SAT’s and the February ACT instead. Winter and/or spring break is a great time to prepare without the stress of school. Even better, complete your test prep over the summer before junior year and take the October SAT or the September or October ACT. A little knowledge goes a long way in selecting which college admissions exam is right for you. Make a decision as early in junior year as possible, then get to work. With good preparation (and maybe a little luck), a student can be finished with college admissions testing well before senior year!
How to find great test prep for every budget
So what is “great test prep?” Every student is different and what works for one could be a disaster for another. Here’s a few of the pros and cons of the three major prep options:
|Self-preparation (books and/or self-paced online courses)||
Reasonably priced, ranging from free to around $200
Flexible timing for busy students
Student may not be able to really understand mistakes or remediate weak areas
|Traditional test prep course||
Moderately priced, ranging $300-$1000
Widely available and offered at convenient times/locations
Easy to find
Reliably teaches test strategy and techniques
Quality varies widely
Official SAT or ACT books/materials are the gold standard, but many courses don’t use them
Class environment can be distracting/intimidating
Hard to get specific questions answered
Price varies — average range is $50-$150/hour
Individual attention allows remediation of weak subjects in addition to test strategies
Most personalized option
Especially desirable for students with special needs/athletes/students in the arts
May find tutors who work with specific populations
Can be very expensive with top tutors charging $300 or more per hour
Harder to find quality tutors — have to do more legwork
Requires more planning — good tutors may be booked well before a test date
While these are general categories, in reality students don’t have to commit to only one form of test prep. Tutors may reduce their hourly rate to work with two or three students at a time, so consider grabbing a couple of friends and negotiating. Students who want to primarily self-prep with books can hire a tutor for a session or two to get their questions answered, or even ask a tutor to develop a personalized self-prep plan for them. Even those taking a class can supplement their learning at home. If a class doesn’t use official SAT or ACT materials, students can still use those resources at their discretion. So get creative and generate a plan that works for your student!
So what are the best ways to find great prep? Asking parents, counselors and friends is a terrific place to start. But don’t stop there. Take to the internet! Sites like College Confidential and Twitter chats like #campuschat and #collegechat can yield great ideas. Many tutors now work online, so you don’t necessarily need to limit your search to your geographic area. Online options are particularly appealing for students needing a specific niche (i.e. athletes, special needs), or for those who live in rural areas or other countries, where tutors may not be readily available.
Overwhelmed yet? It may seem that there are as many choices out there as there are students. Making a good decision takes time, so start the process early. Procrastination can hurt the end result, so don’t do it! Any prep plan requires time and effort, and desirable tutors and classes may already be fully booked well before you need them. Even if your student doesn’t need or want to begin immediately, get prep on the calendar well in advance to reserve your first choice.
A quick poll of some of the best minds in test prep (aka tutors, teachers and parents) garnered some terrific tips:
- Have a goal score in mind when seeking out prep options. The farther you are from where you want to be, the more you should be prepared to invest.
- Visit the class you’re considering or have a short introductory session with a tutor. For courses, remember that the company is most likely showcasing its best teacher; others may not be as competent.
- Rank your options before considering price. Go with the highest quality prep you can afford from the beginning. You could end up paying more in the end if you go cheap (read: ineffective).
- Remember that prep is an investment that could reap rewards in terms of scholarships. Spending more on a great tutor now might pay off later.
- Score increase “guarantees” are marketing ploys. Promises of big point increases in only a few weeks/sessions are also warning signs. Score improvements come from hard work and building skills, not “secret” strategies!
- Students will almost always be expected to do homework to see real results. If you can afford a tutor who will do all the work with your student, terrific, but for most, homework is necessary.
- Regular monitoring of progress is essential to document areas that still need work.
- When asking other parents for recommendations, focus on whether their student’s scores improved rather than discussing actual numbers.
- Keep your student’s individual needs in mind. That might mean finding a tutor who works with students with learning differences or opting for a math specialist to help with a geometry weakness.
- Ask how many class hours are devoted to instruction vs. practice tests. Remember that a mock SAT takes several hours to administer. Be aware that some companies will count testing hours toward the total course hours.
- Practice tests are useful only when a student is given the opportunity to learn from them. Practice without analysis and correction of errors is wasted time.
- Ask for references from real people. Websites plastered with “quotes” from “actual students” don’t offer reliable input.
- Look for tutors who are interested in making you a better student overall. You’ll get better value if your test prep time improves your knowledge, study skills and mental toughness.
The most important thing is finding the right prep for your needs. One size absolutely does not fit all. So do a little legwork and you’ll almost certain reap big rewards. Good luck!
Many thanks to Akil Bello, Nancy Berk, Eric Clark, Claire Griffith, Elizabeth King, Jon Siegelman, Theresa Smith, and Debbie Stier for their input.