When to Make the Switch
Juniors across the country are preparing to take the last SAT and ACT tests of the school year. Most of these students will choose one test or the other, based on a wealth of factors. Some live in states where the majority of students take the ACT. Some prefer the format of the SAT to that of the ACT. Others were recommended one test by their high school counselors. But what happens when you can’t make your score goal on one test, even after several tests? In those cases, it is worth while to consider whether switching tests will help to meet admissions and financial aid score goals.
Let’s take a look at a few reasons why you might switch from the ACT to the SAT or vice versa.
Why switch to the SAT?
Low science scores
The science section sets the ACT apart from the SAT. The ACT’s science is a strange beast, testing speed-reading and graph interpretation unfamiliar to many high school students. The ACT Science section also boasts the toughest time limit for any section in either test, squeezing 40 questions into 35 minutes. If you are doing well in English, math, and reading but struggling in science, you may prefer the SAT over the ACT.
Time is a bigger challenge on the ACT than the SAT, so students who hit a wall in their speed may benefit from going with the SAT. While most students typically are able to finish the ACT English section, the other sections (Reading, Math, and Science) are much more time intensive.
(If you have a score report to look at, here’s an easy way to spot timing issues: Look for a string of wrong answers or omits at the end of a section.)
Before switching tests for timing reasons, consider spending a few practice sessions training for speed. One useful tool is a stopwatch with a lap timer, which can be used to measure how long it takes to complete each problem. This is a great way of building a sense for how long an average question takes to finish, as well as an intuitive feeling for how long is too long to spend on a single question.
If the ACT time limits are still too harsh, then it may help to switch to the SAT.
The single easiest way to increase your overall test score is to take advantage of superscoring. Superscoring allows you to mix and match your best section scores from different sections of the test. For example, I could combine my best reading score from March with my best math score from April for a higher score than I received on either test by itself.
Almost all colleges will superscore the SAT, but only a handful of colleges will superscore the ACT, and their requirements can be irregular and unpredictable (for example, Georgia Tech does not consider the ACT Science or Reading, only the English, Math, and Combined English/Writing score). Thankfully, there’s an easy way to find out. If you have a particular college in mind, just check their undergraduate admissions page and search for their SAT/ACT policies. If you haven’t figured out where you’re applying yet, the SAT is a safer bet in terms of superscoring.
Struggling with high-level math
Some students switch to the SAT because they struggle with higher-level math. Neither test’s math section is universally more difficult than the other, but the ACT covers material which is usually reserved for higher-level math classes such as pre-calculus and trigonometry. There are usually a few ACT math questions per test involving concepts like SohCaoToa, the law of sines/cosines, the quadratic formula, and logarithms. Again, these aren’t necessarily harder than SAT math questions, but they are concepts which some students haven’t had a chance to learn yet.
(Don’t forget: College Board has just announced some new changes to the SAT, including a revamp of the math section to include higher-level math concepts just like the ACT. This will only affect students in grade 9 or lower during the 2013-2014 school year).
The ACT also requires a little bit more memorization in the math section. Whereas the SAT contains small geometry cheat sheet at the front of each math section, ACT math expects you to know all of your equations.
If ACT math has just too much new and unfamiliar material, switching to the SAT might help.
Why switch to the ACT?
Preference for straightforward questions
The questions on the SAT are generally less straightforward than those of the ACT, especially in the SAT math section. For students who prefer slightly less complicated math involving higher-level content, the ACT may be the better test.
Struggling with vocabulary
Unlike the ACT, the SAT dedicates a portion of each reading section to vocabulary questions. These vocabulary questions are often the hardest part of the SAT reading, partially because it’s tough to expand vocabulary in a short amount of time.
With my students, I use a two-pronged approach: First, we work with vocabulary flash cards and exercises. Second, we learn to approach the questions strategically so that the student doesn’t need to know every word. You can anticipate the correct word simply by looking for clue words in the sentence (logic words like “although” or synonyms/antonyms).
We shouldn’t jump ship at the first sign of trouble; try the above before giving up on vocabulary. But if SAT vocabulary is just too hard, know that the ACT is always an option.
Most colleges require students to take the SAT/ACT essay, regardless of the test. However, the ACT essay is optional, making the test appealing for students who under perform on standardized test essays.
BE CAREFUL! Many colleges require the essay even though it’s technically optional. If you take the ACT without the essay, you won’t be able to apply to those schools without retaking the ACT.
Feeling disrupted by SAT organization
Some students test better when the test is more predictable. Unlike the SAT, every ACT has the same four sections in the same order. Every ACT reading section is the same length and categorized into the same four topics. Some students find this comforting compared to the SAT’s erratic arrangement of ten sections.
Some students like to know that when they’ve completed the English section, they’re done with English for good. Some students like to get in the zone and would rather deal with fewer, longer sections than more frequent, shorter sections. For these students, the ACT is the better test.
Most students are capable of adapting to either organizational style. It is only in rare cases that either test is significantly disruptive to a student’s test-taking ability.
SAT II subject tests
One of the best selling points of the ACT applies mainly to high-performing applicants. Competitive schools, such as the Ivy League, often give you the choice of submitting an SAT and two subject tests or just the ACT. In this case, the ACT is the far simpler option, and potentially easier for a student who struggles with SAT II subject tests.
Most colleges don’t require subject tests, but if they do, you might be able to skip them by switching to the ACT instead.
One lower test result for the SAT or ACT is not necessarily a reason to switch tests. It’s tempting to feel that jumping from one test to the other will solve all of your test-taking problems. In reality, the SAT and ACT are more alike than they are different, and the preparation for each is about 90% identical. If after taking a couple of tests, the scores still aren’t where you want them to be, it might be worth switching.