If you’re heading to college, you’re almost certainly going to take the ACT or SAT at least once. I’d like to set the record straight on a few things so that we can all minimize unproductive time and effort, especially in light of the fact that most students take these tests during school years that are already very busy.

On preparation

ACT/SAT preparation is a big industry encompassing a wide range of options. I don’t think that “low quality” providers are terribly common, but I do think that it’s important to match a provider to your needs, because there is a wide range, and fit matters. There are three issues in particular that come up around ACT/SAT prep that I think are worth calling out:

  1. On variable depth: Lots of ACT/SAT prep is done by those who did well on the tests themselves but whose teaching experience (and, sometimes, incentive to ensure student success) can vary widely. If you are unaware, this can cause problems. If you are savvy about it, though, this can be an opportunity to get what you need for less money overall. 
  2. On score bands: What you need to improve your score is not only affected by what kind of person you are. It’s also affected by where you are on the score curve. For example, tell me where you are scoring, and I’ll tell you whether vocabulary, grammar rules, reading style, or attention management are probably costing you the most points on the verbal sections of these tests. Some teachers are aware of this and some aren’t; some specialize in a narrow score band and some don’t. But whenever I talk with a parent for the first time, I note whether they have considered this important part of the decision process. 
  3. On the grapevine: It’s great to be well-connected! Just be aware that Suzy’s great tutor may or may not have actually been a great tutor. Maybe she was just great for Suzie. (This is also why I encourage tutors to be selective about whom they take on. “Taking all comers” is good in the beginning, but it isn’t a good long-term plan for most.)

Basic pro facts

Here is some “inside baseball” about these tests. Most of the pro tutors I know are delighted when clients have already considered these ideas:

  • No school cares which test you pick. Really. (If you have a reputable college counselor telling you otherwise, then please trust that you’re in a very specific and unusual situation.) So just pick the one you do best on (see below), or pick the one whose test date happens when you need it to, and move on. 
  • There is no “penalty for guessing.” Neither test currently assigns negative fractional points for incorrect answers. Which is unfortunate, because you’d be better off if they did. This video helps to explain why that’s true (even though it may seem “obviously” false). The punch line is: without “penalty” points, you’re forced to spend the last minute of your testing time bubbling in random answers to whichever questions you haven’t yet answered. 
  • Most students will get comparable scores on the two tests. Of those who do better on one or the other, it’s a 50/50 chance which one you’d do better on (see also “subjective preference” below). The best way to determine whether you are a student who does better on one or the other is to take one of each in comparable circumstances and compare the two scores using a concordance table from either organization. 

That said, if you believe that taking both tests is not in your best interests (e.g. because you have very limited time), then here are some rules of thumb:

  • If you read especially slowly (e.g. have a tested learning difference, esp. low processing speed) then the ACT is going to penalize you extra hard for it. Prefer the SAT.
  • If you are considered a linear thinker and/or your primary school strategy is to “grind it out,” then the ACT is going to be more in your wheelhouse. The ACT lends itself better to simply learning all the material and techniques, then delivering on test day. Prefer the ACT. 
  • Conversely, if you are considered a good test-taker and/or your primary school strategy is to wing it, this suggests a preference for the SAT, which remains slightly more gameable in this way. Prefer the SAT.
  • Crucially, most students express a subjective preference for the ACT. This is not to be confused with “most students do better on the ACT,” which is simply not true; scores are normed to reflect percentile rankings. 

This last point might be worth expanding a bit. 

In other words, schools aren’t looking at your raw scores per se; they’re looking to see whether you did better than most others. The all-too-popular canard that “the ACT is better for most students” is not only wrong, it betrays a deep misunderstanding of the whole situation. The score is normed across all test-takers. That preference, therefore, gets normed out of the score. In other words, the ACT “feels better” to everyone else too, and so thanks to the norming that happens across this particular zero-sum game, it’ll all come out in the wash. 

And let me emphasize: the best way to select is to take one of each test in comparable circumstances, and then to compare the two scores using a concordance table from either organization. 

As I say to students who are ready to hear it: the hard truth here is that you’re not here to have a good time; you’re here to get a job done, and that means a good score. So don’t let your preferences guide your decision unless they are likely to affect your outcome. Your score is the thing to focus on. Structure your preparation (and your test selection) in the way that will lead to the outcome you want. 

This framing helps put a more human face on the underlying mathematical truth about the way these tests are scored, and on the need in life to be able to jump through the occasional tricky hoop.

Some thoughts for top students

If you’re in the top tenth or so of students (i.e. if you test at the 90th percentile or higher), then the game is a bit different for you, since it’s no longer about being able to solve problems that few others can. Instead, for you, it’s about not making avoidable errors.

In other words, as you move to the top of the curves, these tests go from being winners’ games to being losers’ games

Let me unpack that a bit. The people who score in the middle of the pack — say, an SAT 1200 or an ACT 21 — are playing winners’ games, where doing better relies on getting more problems right. By contrast, the people who score at the top of the pack — say 1400+ on the SAT or 28+ on the ACT — are playing losers’ games, where doing better relies on just performing consistently while others make mistakes.

This means that beyond a certain point, the winning strategy shifts from trying to get more right, to trying to make fewer unforced errors.

This is where preparation passes outside the realm of what most of us think of as fact- and tactics-based “test prep” and into softer skills adjacent to psychology, habit formation, and self-awareness.

I created a short (ten minutes maybe?) free mini-course on this called What Am I Missing? that you are welcome to give to anyone you’d like, and to take yourself. It gets into more detail than comfortably fits here.

Consider the long game

Parents, please take an uncomfortable moment to consider the unlikely scenario where the student wins admission to a school that’s hard enough that they wind up dropping out. Now consider the less dramatic but much more common version: the school is hard enough that they wind up needing continued help throughout their undergraduate years and even beyond. (These do happen; I’ve seen both first-hand.)

My point is that we’re all working together here to execute a successful launch. This means both success and actual launch.

One of the ways this can positively affect SAT/ACT prep for active parents and their kids is the explicit recognition that a bad run at these tests can in many cases be a very positive milestone in the long run. There’s nothing like an unexpectedly difficult run at an important test to challenge expectations and catalyze a bit more self-awareness. After all, if the SAT/ACT is hard enough to shake you up, what does that say about every test you are going to face over the next four years?

Now is the time to either downshift or step up. It is absolutely possible to gain new knowledge, to gain new skills, to try on new perspectives, to embody new strategies, to experiment in the service of self-improvement. 

You’re about to do that for four years. Why not start right now? 

But again, you have to see this as a long game in order to get these long-term benefits from these immediate disappointments.

A historical side-note

Originally, the SAT was an aptitude test and the ACT was an achievement test. 

  • The SAT has its origins in trying to assess which enlisted soldiers were officer material (and which didn’t belong in the army in the first place). I.e. assessing undemonstrated potential
  • The ACT, by contrast, has always aimed to assess what material a student actually knows, as a fraction of the material that the student is supposed to know. 

In other words, the SAT tried to determine how capable you were in general, and the ACT tried to determine whether you’d already learned what you were supposed to have learned by then. The tests have evolved over time (mostly with the SAT drifting towards the ACT), but there are still some shadows of their origins in their modern incarnations. 

Radiolab did a great series on this and a few related issues. But please note: it sometimes gets almost as dark as it is consistently fascinating.

Other quick links

  • I do SAT and ACT prep professionally, especially for high scorers. My buddy Ted Dorsey (of Wes & Ted’s Excellent Conversation) does even more, and across a wider range of student types. My former company bodsat.com has some very good programs that I helped design. You can call any of us, and if we aren’t the right fit for you, we’ll steer you in the right direction.
  • I know a lot of specialists who can help in various ways, and I see connecting people as an important (and enjoyable!) duty. If you need specific help, let me know what you’re looking for and I’ll do my best. And if you’re a fellow professional, please get in touch to let me know what you do best, so that I can help connect you with families who need it.
  • I mentioned my quick, free mini-course “What Am I Missing? earlier. I’m linking it here as well: wescarroll.com/waim. Feel free to explore it, and to share it.

Quote of the week, from an adult student:

”I missed this one because I (stupidly) assumed that…”

Don’t be so hard on yourself, sister. Assumptions are just shortcuts that didn’t ace their job. I would say that you jumped to a conclusion, didn’t notice that you’d jumped, and so you didn’t think to question it. Happens to the best of us. Let me help you up, dust yourself off, and let’s try again, hey? Right on.

Improvement means being wrong a lot. That’s not stupidity. It’s just the “cost of doing business” when you’re trying to get better.

The key bit is that you examine why that unhelpful assumption was poised for you to grab onto in the first place. It was probably there for (what used to be) a good reason. Re-assessing the reasoning, and possibly re-visiting your conclusion, is a very helpful way to keep no-longer-helpful habits and assumptions from continuing to re-assert themselves.

Last words

Hey, thanks for showing up here. I hope you found it helpful, or at least interesting.

I’m [email protected], I read all feedback personally, and I really do care whether this was helpful, and how I can make it better next time around.