SAT and ACT Prep Advice for the Changes Ahead

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The summer break is an excellent time for rising juniors to begin serious preparations for the SAT and ACT, as well as the PSAT. With schoolwork out of the picture, students have more time to prepare for these tests—outside of summer activities, of course. However, with the PSAT changing this October and the SAT changing in March of 2016, parents frequently ask us how they should focus their students’ studies.

Should their student focus on the ACT, current SAT, new SAT, or a mix of the three? Does it make more sense to only prepare for the ACT since it isn’t undergoing any major changes? Is it even worthwhile to prepare for the current SAT? Should they prep for the ACT now, and then work on the new SAT in January of 2016?

There are a few ways to answer these questions, but ultimately it’s about testing opportunities. In testing early and in different ways, students will be able to identify and target weaknesses in a timely manner. If students wait for the new SAT, then they are missing chances for improvement. In the end, universities and colleges are concerned with results, not how many times you take these tests. Students should take the ACT and both forms of the SAT as often as possible.

Rising seniors don’t have to worry about the new SAT, but should still take the current SAT and the ACT. Rising sophomores and freshmen will only have to worry about the ACT and the new SAT.

With Few Changes, the ACT is a Desirable and Sensible Choice

Last year, approximately 100,000 more students took the ACT than the SAT, and areas in the US that were once SAT strongholds saw a surge in ACT testing. Students often find the ACT to be more accessible than the SAT due to its straightforward format and scoring process. Plus, many of the changes being made to the SAT make it more like the ACT.

Pretty much all of what is tested on the ACT is tested on the SAT. As it stands now, the ACT tests grammar and usage (like SAT’s Writing), reading comprehension (like SAT’s Critical Reading), mathematics (tests a few more concepts than the SAT’s Mathematics section), and essay writing. Despite students’ expectations, the ACT’s Science Test, the only section of the ACT “different” from the SAT, does not test a student’s knowledge of science. Instead, the Science Test focuses on data analysis and reading comprehension—elements that are both tested on the SAT.

In other words, whatever prep work your student does for the ACT will benefit them on both forms of the SAT. Couple all of this with the fact that the only updates being made to the ACT this fall are new “readiness indicators” and an enhanced writing test, and you have a pretty strong case for focusing your studies on the ACT. In addition, a plethora of ACT prep materials and practice tests already exists, while materials for the new SAT and PSAT are in short supply (for now).

In the past, we advised that students focus on the SAT first, but the tables have turned. Students who are short on time should focus their efforts on the ACT and then complete some practice tests for the new SAT closer to March, ignoring the current SAT altogether. Students with more time should still center their efforts around the ACT but should also practice for the current and new SAT at the same time.

Tried and True Versus the New

Since the content and structure of the ACT and the new SAT are much more closely aligned, it can seem like the current SAT is pointless for rising juniors. Even the PSAT that juniors will take in the fall of this year follows the new format. So, why bother? The answer is twofold: 1) the current SAT provides an established method for identifying strengths and weaknesses (as does the ACT) and 2) the new SAT is not a complete departure from the old.

What is unknown is stressful and can lead to test anxiety and poorer scores. But parents and students understand the current SAT and, for the most part, know what it takes to achieve the scores they need. Thankfully, many students will have already learned all that the SAT covers before the start of their junior years (given that they’ve completed Algebra 2). It is feasible that a junior can start taking the SAT in October or November, giving them up to 4 chances to take the current SAT. That is up to 4 chances to identify and target areas that need improvement, which can put a student on the path to their target (or better) score.

However, because the new SAT shares many elements of the old, students should not feel like it’s a race against extinction. The new and old SAT test most of the same concepts and share passage-based reading and writing questions, word problems, computations, and the essay (albeit the new essay is analysis-based, while the old is a personal essay). The current SAT will let you see the level of difficulty and style of questions you will face with the new, and it can develop your test-taking endurance and strategies.

In a nutshell, prep work for the current SAT is beneficial and completed SATs before March are worthwhile. After all, if you get the score you need before March, then the rest of your high school career will be free from worry about these tests.

Suggested Timeline for Preparations (Junior Year)

The following schedules can be mixed and matched to fit your overall objectives for these tests. While the level of rigor and regularity of the schedule is up to you and your student, a lackadaisical approach is of no benefit to anyone. Keep your practice and review consistent and frequent, and complete full-length practice tests under the appropriate time constraints every few weeks.

  • ACT Prep Timeline
  • SAT (current) Prep Timeline
    • June 2015 to January 2016
  • SAT (new) Prep Timeline
    • August 2015 to February 2016
      • In early August, complete a full-length practice SAT (more practice tests should be available at this point)
      • Complete 1 full-length practice SAT every 2 months (1 each month if plenty of practice tests are available)
      • Schedule your first real SAT for early March (5th)
      • Other possible dates:
        • May 7th
        • June 4th

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