ACT or SAT? Which One is Right for Me?

Artful Tutoring

I’ll tell you a quick story or two. I was working with a young man who was at Paul VI High School. Lived in Fairfax. His Reading and Writing scores were decent enough, but his Math scores were pretty abysmal. He had taken the SAT twice, and had gotten a 380 the first time, and a 390 the second time. I worked with him for about six or eight weeks, and he tried again, but hardly did any better, scoring a 410, which is only in the 15th percentile. So, at that point, the family and I decided to switch to the ACT, and to try that out. His first time at it, he scored a 27 on Math, which is approximately equal to a 630 on the SAT, which is the 81st percentile!

And, there was a young woman who attended Bishop O’Connell High School, and lived in Herndon. Her story reads the opposite. She was doing fine in Math, but her Reading scores were just terrible. Her Reading scores on two tries, were 360 and 370, which put her in the 7th and the 9th percentile, respectively. Not good scores for getting into college! So, I recommended to her that we try the ACT, and we worked together for a number of weeks. Her first effort, she scored a 28 on the ACT Reading, which roughly equates to a 650 on the SAT, putting her in the 85th percentile!

So, here we have a couple of instances in which the question of which test to take was really critically important to these students. Just switching from one test to the other added 220 points to that young man’s SAT score-equivalent, and brought him from the 15th percentile in Math to the 81st percentile, and added 280 points to that young woman’s SAT score-equivalent, increasing her percentile scores in Reading from 9th to 85th.

It was certainly well worth the effort for both of these students to try both tests. Our goal, of course, is always going to be to paint the student in the most favorable light that we can, and if that means taking the ACT instead of the SAT, or vice versa, we should absolutely do that.

However, it must be said that for the overwhelming majority of students that do take both tests, their scores are approximately the same. It’s much like weighing yourself at home on your bathroom scale, and then going in to your doctor’s office to weigh yourself on that scale. The numbers might be a bit different, but not appreciably so. And that’s how it goes for the overwhelming majority of students: the numbers are usually not appreciably different.

And now for story number three. This involves a young woman who was at South County High School, and lived in Fairfax Station. She wanted to go to a top notch engineering school, and felt that she needed a 700 or better in Math to get accepted. She had taken the SAT twice, and had gotten a 620 both times. So, I worked with her for several months, and then we tried again. However, we were ony able to increase her score to 630. She was very disappointed, but I was able to convince her to try the ACT, which she did. She ended up scoring a 27 on the ACT Math, which corresponds to about a……….wait for it……….630 on the SAT. So, no success there, either. Her scores were about the same, regardless of which test she took and how many times she took it.

So, what category are you going to fall into? Are you going to dramatically improve your chances of getting into your first choice college by taking one test versus the other? Maybe so.

Or, are you going to score about the same, no matter which test you take? Maybe that will be you. Just how do we decide this?

I have never encountered any sure way to predict which test is going to be better for a given student. I know that there are some companies that have created these so-called hybrid tests, that are supposed to be able to predict this. But, in my experience, their predictions are wrong more often than they are right. I also know of a college counselor who feels that after spending five minutes with a student, she can guide him or her to the correct test, the one that’s going to best for them. I don’t know that any of her predictions have ever come true!

The only sure way that I know of is just to actually take the tests. Now, there are two, very different ways to go about this.

One way would be to simply register for both tests and take them. That’s pretty simple and it’s pretty straightforward. It does have a drawback, though. It takes time! If you set about to answer this question right now, today, February 21st, you would see that there is a upcoming SAT in March, and an upcoming ACT in April. Register and take both tests, and you will have your results by the beginning of May.

Here’s an alternative. Download (or purchase) an official SAT test and an official ACT test. Take them both this weekend, say, one on Saturday morning, and one on Sunday morning. Have mom or dad serve as a proctor, to ensure that time limits are rigidly adhered to, just as a real proctor would. And there you go. You have your results on Sunday afternoon!

Students are in a really great situation today, vis-à-vis testing. If they choose, they can completely opt out of taking any standardized tests. I’ve seen some different counts – one survey says 380, one survey says 700, one survey says 925 — but there are quite a few colleges in this country that are test optional. Colleges in Virginia that are test optional include James Madison, Christopher Newport, and Radford.

Or, if they prefer, they can take just the SAT. Alternatively, they can take just the ACT.

Another choice would be to take both the SAT and the ACT.

This decision is entirely up to the student and his or her family. But, as we have seen many times, it is a critically important one. We can help. Give us a call and we can talk in detail about your specific situation.

(I always want to tell this story to people, but I’m afraid that I might have already gone overboard with the three stories above! But, here goes!

As the ACT had begun to gain more and more acceptance nationally, there came a point in time when in the entire country, there were only two hold-outs. Two colleges that would NOT accept the ACT and required the SAT and only the SAT. Those two were Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California.

Wake Forest caved in first, leaving Harvey Mudd as the sole holdout. And so, when Harvey Mudd did finally change their policy, it was pretty big news. A reporter had asked the Dean of Admissions at Harvey Mudd why they had finally decided to begin accepting the ACT. His answer? He explained, “We have just gotten tired of having to explain to people why we don’t accept the ACT. So, now we do.”)