ACT or SAT? Pick One, Don’t Take Both

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ACT or SAT…or both? More and more students in the DC area are no longer taking just the SAT for college admissions. The ACT is on the rise. The number of ACT test-takers area-wide has doubled in the last three years.

Many students find that the ACT is simply a better test for them, and it’s great for them to have the option of a different test. Some like the structure better, they may find the content more their speed or the presentation more straightforward, or they may simply like that it isn’t the SAT. For these reasons and others, there is wisdom for pretty much anyone to look at the ACT as well as the SAT to determine which test is better.

Please note, however, that the key is to examine both and then to make a determination. You might be surprised to hear that those who choose to take both tests throughout junior year are likely doing themselves a disservice (in addition to chewing up a lot of Saturday mornings) even while they think they are increasing their chances by pursuing all options, I’ll invoke Warren Buffett who intones that, “Diversification is a protection against ignorance. It makes very little sense for those who know what they’re doing.”

Deciding ACT or SAT? Our advice is to check out both tests, but then make a decision. Three points apply:

  1.      The ACT and SAT are different tests.

The ACT was introduced in 1959 as a kind of an anti-SAT—designed to test acquired academic knowledge. At the time, the SAT was still the Scholastic Aptitude Test—designed to test reasoning ability. Much of that difference still remains. There are commonalities, but there are also differences in content, presentation, and “flavor.”

Shortstop and center fielder are both positions in baseball but the instincts and training required for each are meaningfully different. Young players do well to try out different positions; but by game-time, each should know and have practiced for a specific role. So too with the ACT and SAT. The instincts for one may actually work against you in the other. Apart from not making junior year about a treadmill of ACT, SAT, and APs and such, there is a logic to specializing in the test that better suits you.

  1.      The belief that it’s better to keep one’s options open indefinitely is actually erroneous.

A curious study by Harvard psychologist (and happiness researcher) Daniel Gilbert revealed that efforts to maintain choice can actually inhibit happiness. Among his findings was this: “Rule 3: Keeping your options open won’t necessarily make you happier.” Given the choice, people like to keep their options open. When researchers asked people whether they preferred to take home a poster they had to keep or take home one that could be exchanged later on, most people chose the latter; but it was people who made irrevocable choices early on who were happier in the end with their posters.

Meaning? If you obsess about both the ACT and SAT, as you are preparing for one, you’ll constantly be questioning whether you would be better off taking the other. So, ACT or SAT? Pick one, prepare for it, and go for it!

  1.     Decide what’s best for you.

Now that students and parents have embraced the notion that the ACT is fully accepted by colleges and universities throughout the country, they are delighted to have options. However, many don’t see this as a choice to be made. They decide to take both test. ‘All of the above,’ when it comes to test selection, risks diluting your efforts, consuming a lot of time and effort, and (likely) leading to lower scores on two tests rather than to a higher score on one.

So, ACT or SAT? My advice is this. Grab a practice ACT test booklet from your school counselor. Study the content and rules (such as no penalty for wrong answers, which means you should leave nothing blank!), and take a practice test under timed conditions (we offer them at PrepMatters). Grade the test and compare those scores against your likely SAT results (as predicted by your PSAT score). Use a score conversion chart and consider not only which score is higher but also which test seems better suited to you. Assess which score would be easier to improve. Which felt easier? Which did you “get” better. Did you miss things you forgot or know you’ll learn this year in school? Your teachers, parents, tutor, or counselor can walk through the tests with you to help you analyze the tests and your performance.

When deciding ACT or SAT, make a choice. Embrace that choice and go for it!

Ned Johnson

President & Tutor-Geek

Ned Johnson is the president and founder of PrepMatters. A professional tutor-geek since 1993, Mr. Johnson has devoted in excess of 35,000 hours in one-on-one test prep for nearly the entire alphabet of tests. His experience includes work with all ages and abilities in preparation for SSAT and ISEE to ACT and SAT to GMAT, GRE and LSAT.

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