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SAT or the ACT? That is the question?

There are now more total test-takers than ever before, this year over 4 million students will sit for the ACT and SAT. But, the ACT has gained ground. Historically administered strictly in the mid-western and southern parts of the country where the test fee is paid by the state, the ACT is now taken commensurately with the SAT on the east and west coast. It is also more common for competitive students to take both. Last year, half of the freshman applicants at The University of Virginia submitted both tests. But which one should your child prepare for and take first?

I cringe when I hear, “we are going to take the ACT, since his SAT scores are so low,” or “my daughter’s guidance counselor says “try” the ACT since your SAT score is low.” I am asked frequently as to what the differences between the two are. The ACT has gained a slight market share over the SAT because it seemed a friendlier test with no penalty for wrong answers, having an optional essay, and being shorter in duration. But now that the SAT has been overhauled last March there is only one real difference, which students, educators and parents fail to recognize.

I have been evaluating students for 30 years and the single most important test taking skill is being able to read efficiently. Sure, maturity, focus, and aptitude are important, but nothing beats a speed reader. Especially on the ACT, where the clock is the test taker’s biggest foe; and the number one complaint, even from the best students is “not having enough time!” So the first thing I look at when studying a students’ profile is the PSAT/SAT evidenced based reading score. If that is low (550 or below) the composite ACT score may be average at best. Not that average is a bad thing, but there is definitely a strong correlation with college survival rates and reading scores. If I had it my way every student would need a 650 on the SAT and /or 30 on the ACT reading section to gain college admissions. This would not only raise college retention rates but hedge our precious college tuition dollars. I would then feel more confident in tackling the arduous ACT, with its more demanding reading section, reading based science section, and reading based English section.

On the contrary, the avarice reader, the student who might miss her bus stop because she is so deeply invested in one of the three non- school related novels she is reading this month, may be a better bet taking the ACT. This personality type also “holds the bat a little tight,” whereby anxiety may be an issue. The ACT is more black and white, so from a processing standpoint anxiety is less likely to obscure critical thinking nor cause fixation, which causes the eyes to stop, hindering fluency and speed. The bottom line is a strong reader is a strong test taker. Especially when taking the ACT. The reading based sections on the ACT and SAT take more time to address and improve. So be proactive with low reading scores. Use the PSAT and PLAN tests as harbingers of what the SAT and ACT scores will be, make sure your kids are doing their summer reading and utilizing their text-books daily. The New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal have great articles that would serve great examples to a potential test-taker. In summary, the remedial reader should take the SAT first and then sit for the ACT. Samuel P. Alfonsi Jr. M.Ed is the director of College Bound Learning Center in West Chester, PA.

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