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How to Get Started with Test Prep

Posted on July 25, 2017 at 9:40 AM

Every summer I am bombarded with questions from parents of rising juniors about how to get started with Test Prep. They often ask how they can determine if the ACT or SAT is the better test for their child?

Which Test to Take

As a tutor and coach, my first response is to provide a brief overview of the differences between the tests and ask targeted questions that may help us understand the student’s strengths and challenges. Sometimes, but infrequently, a simple history of the student's profile will point us to the more logical test to pursue. More often, it is best to consider having the student take a full-length (without essay) ACT and SAT sometime over the summer months.

Each test is roughly 3-1/4 hours, so this is a reasonable time commitment. One caveat with this approach is that the ACT is a speed test. Students may benefit from an introduction to specific strategies on how to approach the Reading and Science sections in particular. Further, students may want at least a week’s time to practice techniques and pacing on individual passages in Reading and Science before taking a baseline mock test.

Here is a brief summary of the key differences between the SAT and ACT:

• The SAT is more conceptual, abstract, and think-outside-the-box

• The SAT provides a student almost 40% more time per question

• The New SAT has only 8 released College Board practice tests as of July 2017

• The ACT is more executional than conceptual

• The ACT is a speed test and favors fast readers and processors

• The ACT did not take a complete overhaul similar to what the SAT did, so a student may have access to over a decade of previous ACT tests for test prep

• The ACT has a Science section that is unlike any section of the SAT. It primarily tests a student’s ability to accurately and quickly read and interpret graphs, charts, diagrams, and tables of data in the context of science, with up to 1/3 of the passages covering content areas that the student has not yet been exposed to


The SAT and ACT today are much more aligned in the content tested than they have ever been in the past. However, as shown above, the two tests have vastly different formats. Each test-maker is continuing to make small shifts in content. It appears more challenging today to achieve a top score in the 98-99th percentile in either test than it was five to ten years ago.

If your student takes a baseline test of each test, it is important to score in detail, compare sectional percentiles, and ask the student for his own impressions and preferences of the test. Some students may feel more comfortable working on speed to improve; others may prefer learning content and strategies with the more conceptual test. Either way, you should choose a test prep tutor who can glean all of the valuable information from both baseline tests. A detailed analysis of misses can pinpoint the areas of greatest score improvement opportunity and can provide a roadmap for test prep.

More Decisions

Making the decision to pursue one test over the other is just the first step in the process. Even though most students will decide that they would rather prep for only one test, some may decide to pursue prep for both tests, allowing real test scores to determine a narrowed path down the road. This is just the beginning of the decisions to make in the test prep journey.

The next decision is choosing target test dates and backing into a schedule for test prep. This process is highly individualized, depending on a student’s math status and her extracurricular schedule. I recommend starting early when a student has completed at least Algebra2 during sophomore year.  Starting early offers greater options.

Keep in mind the QAS and TIR dates

I also encourage a student to consider the test dates when it is possible to order a copy of the test, its answer key, and the student’s answers. For the SAT, this is called the Question-and-Answer-service (QAS), and for the ACT, it is the Test Information Release service (TIR). The QAS is available for the October, March, and May test dates. The TIR is available for the December, April, and June test dates. It may be invaluable to receive this information back following a first or second test. Keep in mind that many students take up to three tests before they have achieved their goal scores.

Good luck!

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