Ellen’s Choice: Pros and Cons of the SAT vs. the ACT

Back in the day, where you wanted to go to college dictated which standardized test you took. Colleges in the midwest generally required the ACT, while those on the coasts wanted the SAT. These days, the score conversions are commonplace enough that most colleges will accept either one. So how do you choose which one to take? Well, there are a few differences to keep in mind.


Most of the differences between the tests are matters of format. The SAT is comprised of ten sections ranging from 12 to 35 minutes each. The sections alternate between reading comprehension, math, and writing, and the whole test begins with a 25-minute timed essay. One of the ten sections is an “experimental” section, which is not scored as part of your test and is a chance for the test-makers to try out new ideas on a group of students. The ACT, in contrast, is four 75-minute sections, one for each subject. The ACT does not include an essay, but it does include a “science” section (which is actually more about reading graphs and charts than it is about science).

Because of this, a student’s ability to focus might lean them towards one or the other. A common problem for SAT students is not being able to finish each section in time or having trouble switching topics so frequently, so if that sounds like you, you might consider trying out the ACT. The ACT on average gives you less time per question, but by putting all of the questions of a given subject into a single section it gives you more time to get into the groove of the subject. This makes the ACT a better choice for students who need longer stretches of time to do good work, while students with attention problems might do better on the SAT where the constant subject-switching will keep them alert.

Another format difference is the style of the ScanTron sheet itself. The SAT’s questions have five answer choices, labeled A, B, C, D, and E, while the ACT’s questions have four answer choices that alternate between A, B, C, D, and F, G, H, J. The ACT’s system can make it easier to keep from accidentally bubbling in the wrong question number, since if you picked A as your answer and the bubble says F, you know you’re in the wrong line. However, having longer sections means there’s more chance of filling in the wrong lines in the first place, as you’ll be bouncing around the section for longer. Some books recommend figuring out your answers on scratch paper and then transferring them to the ScanTron in groups of five, which would help avoid that danger. However, it does complicate the workflow a bit. Overall, the ACT requires you to be a lot more organized in your time-management and workflow strategies, while the SAT does most of that for you by giving you shorter sections.


Overall, scoring well on the SAT is less about knowing the material covered and more about knowing the strategies behind finding the correct answer. The SAT is more of a logic test than anything else, but the ACT relies a little bit more on actual knowledge of the material. The ACT also covers a bit more material – ACT math topics range up through basic trigonometry, while SAT math only covers geometry and basic algebra. This makes it a bit easier to come straight at the problems on the ACT and treat them more like you would any other test in school, but you do have to remember more material, while on the SAT you can often figure out the correct answer without even knowing the material itself.

A quick note: The SAT is undergoing a huge redesign in spring of 2016, and one of the changes that has been announced is a move towards more knowledge-oriented test questions. This would make the material on the SAT closer to that on the ACT. Stay tuned for updates as the new test is revealed!


The SAT takes away a quarter point for each incorrect answer, while the ACT simply gives zero points for incorrect. In practice, this means that blind guesses are penalized on the SAT but are a valid last-ditch strategy on the ACT. However, this is another thing that will change in the 2016 redesign; the SAT will no longer penalize for guessing. But if you’re taking the test before then, it’s definitely something to keep in mind. Once again the ACT requires a bit more self-motivated workflow, as the best strategy here involves taking one last trip through each section in the last two minutes to bubble in all of your wild guesses. In a longer section it can be tricky to remember to save time for that.

In general the ACT leaves much more of the planning and strategy up to the student, while the SAT helps you along a bit through its format. My advice is usually to take a practice test for both and see how you do. Don’t just look at your scores, though – think about how it felt to take each test. Were you panicking at the end of each SAT section because you ran out of time? Then maybe the ACT is for you. Were you fuzzing out in the middle of the marathon ACT sections and having trouble staying focused? Then maybe you should try the SAT instead.

Also, since the point of taking these tests is to get into college, be sure to do your research. Check out the colleges you’re interested in and see what they require for test scores. Most will take either test, but it doesn’t hurt to be sure. Also, some schools will allow you to submit individual subject scores from different test dates (the math from March and the reading from October, for example), while others need one complete test score from a single date. Some schools will tell certain degree candidates up front that they don’t care about a certain part, like an engineering department not caring about the writing section or a school not looking at the essay at all. (The essay is a particularly good example of this, as most schools require an admissions essay anyway and some will only care about that one.)

I tutor both SAT and ACT prep, so if you’re in need of some assistance don’t hesitate to contact me!

WyzAnt Wants To Know: 5 Tips to Keep Tutoring Fun

What are your 5 outside the box tips that help make your tutoring lessons fun?

1. Have a sense of humor about learning.

I like to use humor in my tutoring, to keep students engaged and interested in the material. I’ve found that it’s easy to zone out during a lesson, and the classes I’ve retained the most information from myself have been ones where the teacher employed humor. In a writing class, a teacher explained the importance of context to spelling with the quip “You need to remember which witch is which, or you’ll suddenly have a lady with a black hat appear in your paper.” My high-school calculus teacher helped us remember the SOH-CAH-TOA trig function sequence by telling us a long joke about a native american who stubbed his toe and was advised by the village elder to “Soak-a-toe-a.” And later on, in a materials science class in college, our professor explained the molecular physics properties of a certain material with a joke about coal trying to rob aluminum by saying “This is a stick-up. Give me all your oxygen,” and the aluminum responding with “Yeah, you and who else?”

Not only are students more likely to retain information because they’re paying attention for the humor, but it also helps to keep the atmosphere in a session light. For me, learning is something to be enjoyed and to get excited about, and all too often people start to stress and become far more worried about their grades than about learning the material. If I can lighten the mood with a quip or a bad pun, if I can get that smile to cross the student’s face, then I’ve just associated learning and our lessons with a fun chat with a friend, and they’re more likely to come to future lessons with a motivation to learn.

2. Explain it back to me

One of my top strategies for working one-on-one with students is to have them explain a concept back to me. This works particularly well with math; if they know it well enough to explain it to someone else, then it’s not as much of an issue to remember it themselves. It also helps remind them of the upper-layer “concept” behind the process; saying “I need to do the Lowest Common Denominator thing” isn’t nearly as informative as “I need the denominators to be the same so I can add them, so I need to find a number that will divide by both of these denominators.”

I also use this strategy with SAT prep students; if they can explain to me how they would solve the problem, they’ve done the bulk of the work already. I frequently spend sessions taking an SAT student through a section of problems, not asking for the answer, but asking for “Explain to me how you would go about solving this one.”

3. Learn from your students and show that their opinions have value

I use this one a lot with English Literature students. In my opinion, there is no such thing as a wrong answer in Literature studies. If we’re discussing themes or symbols, I always encourage my students to chime in with anything they’ve been thinking about while reading, even and especially if I haven’t brought it up myself. I had a student last year, reading A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen, introduce the idea of a symbol I legitimately hadn’t even considered. She pointed out that in the third act, the Christmas tree – a definitionally useless ornamentation – was replaced by a lamp, a functional object. She connected this change to Nora’s changing mindset about becoming an adult and taking on the responsibilities of a human being. Nora was a useless ornamentation in the first part of the play, just like the Christmas tree, but now she’s seen the necessity of having a purpose. I was blown away by this quite articulate exploration, and I promptly encouraged her to delve deeper. By showing that I am willing to learn from my students, I let them know that their opinions have value and they should not feel self-conscious about sharing them.

4. Field Trips!

This one takes a bit of planning and doesn’t work with everyone, but if possible, I love to subvert the expected routine and take my student on a field trip of sorts. If it’s a nice day and I feel the student getting restless – why not work outside? If we meet up on Sunday and didn’t realize the library was closed – why not head to a nearby coffee shop and work there? If she’s studying Shakespeare and the local theater company happens to be doing a Shakespeare play, why not arrange an outing to see it? (or at the very least, let her know it’s happening and strongly encourage her to go)

5. See your students as people

I gave one of my students a little present two weeks ago. No special reason; I just felt like she’d been in a dreary mood the past few weeks and needed a little pick-me-up. Mid-November is always a tough time for learning; it just seems like Thanksgiving break will never ever come. Her eyes lit up, and she was motivated and happy for the rest of the week. One of my middle-school students had a birthday, and her dad canceled her lesson for that day so they could take her to the mall to get her ears pierced. The following lesson I brought her a birthday present – a pair of pierced-ear earrings. She stuck them in her backpack and flounced off with a broad smile on her face.

Sometimes, all a student needs is a little reminder that I know they’re a person with their own issues or excitements. I try to recognize that in my students, and keep an eye out for when they might just be having a rough week. Sometimes the student just needs an excuse to shake off the stress and get back to what they love. I can always tell with one of my students when she’s in a funk and doesn’t want to work, and usually I’ll indulge her with a few minutes of chatting about her favorite books.

6. Break down the authority dynamic

I just thought of another one, so consider this your bonus tip. I made a conscious choice when I started tutoring to come to lessons dressed simply in jeans and T-shirts. I always make sure I look presentable, but I don’t get dressed up to “business casual” or something similar when I tutor. This is deliberate, and is an attempt on my part to communicate a few things subconsciously.

First, I don’t want my students to see me as an authority figure in the same way that they see their parents or teachers. I would rather they see me as approachable, as a friend they can turn to with questions. I tell my students to think of me as someone who is here to help them, someone they can ask questions and run ideas past without having to worry about bad grades or punishments. I prefer to present myself on the same level as the student, here to help them figure something out, to share in their frustrations or confusions and see if I can shed some light on the problems they’re having. Dressing on the same level as them helps to communicate that.

A lot of times, especially with late middle-school or high-school students, the student-parent dynamic is already strained. I want to stay out of that dynamic, from the student’s point of view, as much as I possibly can. Often times, if a parent comes in with the student and chats with me about their performance before a lesson, I’ll listen and chat normally with the parent, while surreptitiously paying attention to how the student is reacting to their parents’ comments. (Oddly enough, parents will often talk to me as if their child isn’t present, or at the very least as if she can’t speak up for herself.) Then, once the parent has left and I’m alone with the student, I’ll turn to them and say, “So what do you think about that?” It’s natural for a parent to view their student as a child, even if they’re a senior in high school. I want the student to know that I see them as a responsible individual and am eager to hear what they have to say. My goal is for them to improve, so I want to hear what they’re not telling their parents. I want to be a friend who can help them with this, not yet-another-grown-up telling them what to do and what they’re doing wrong.

Second, I want to emphasize for my students that it doesn’t take a super-special person to be able to understand these topics, nor does it take special preparation to be able to execute them. You don’t have to get dressed up in a suit and heels in order to understand calculus; you just have to bring your brain and your desire to learn. If I can do it, so can you.