College Bound: A Look at the SAT vs. ACT

January is the last time high school students can take the current version of the SAT. With much speculation about the new SAT, which will launch March 2016, students and families are questioning how they can prepare for the new test, whether or not they should take the new SAT v. the ACT and how scores from the new SAT will be interpreted by colleges and universities.

Swampscott resident John LaPlante, a former teacher and corporate lawyer who is now the head of learning at Testive, an online adaptive software that prepares students to take the SAT and ACTs, is here to offer answers to these lingering questions. 

1. SAT vs. ACT: What should students take?

When considering which standardized test to take, juniors in high school should consider both. Many students think they need to take the SAT because science isn’t their strength, but if they look at the ACT they’ll notice that the science section of that test does not require any scientific knowledge, but instead tests a student’s ability to interpret data and understand scientific reports. Other students may not realize how much they already know or how fast they can learn the materials necessary to succeed on standardized tests.

Both tests can feel overwhelming, but this is particularly true with respect to the “new” SAT, since many questions still remain about question difficulty, scoring, and how schools will interpret scores when it launches nationwide in March 2016. For this reason, I would recommend taking the ACT for current juniors.

2. What are the biggest differences between the old SAT and the new SAT, which will take effect in March 2016? What is the best way for students to prepare for the changes?

The new SAT is becoming more like the ACT. There are two big changes with the new test. First, there will only be two sections, as opposed to three, as the reading and writing sections will be combined into one section called evidence-based reading and writing. The math section will be broken down into two parts, one of which students can use a calculator and one of which they cannot. Second, the College Board is reverting back to the 1600 point scale as each section will be scored between 200 and 800 points. Smaller changes include the elimination of sentence completion questions (obscure vocabulary) along with the quarter point penalty for wrong answers. Both of those are very positive, student-centered changes.

The current version of the SAT will be offered through January. For those students unable to take the current version, the best approach to prepare for the change is to familiarize yourself with the format of the new test. There is a full-length practice PSAT available online, as well as four full-length SATs, and students should take advantage of these resources, along with other practice materials in order to prepare. Taking a practice test under testing conditions – in a quiet spot, timed – is a great way to learn what you may or may not need to do to prepare for the real thing.

3. How far in advance should students start preparing to take the SAT and ACT and why?

Students who cram in a number of practice tests just days or weeks before taking the SAT or ACT often see minimal improvement – and sometimes a decrease – in their test scores. The greatest benefit in terms of preparation for these tests is consistent work over time. For the best results, students should begin preparation at least three months out from the date in which they’ll be taking the test. 

4. Do students have to take the PSAT to do well on the SAT?

There is no requirement for students to take the PSAT before the SAT. However, there is a benefit to doing so. There is a myth that the PSAT is much easier than the SAT. The reality is that the PSAT is very similar to the SAT but has fewer questions. The difference is that the PSAT doesn’t offer an essay section, which is required now but will be optional on the new SAT. Also, the PSAT does not include some of the more challenging math questions.

5. What are some tips that you can provide to students and families who are juggling busy schedules? Where should test prep fit in?

It is recommended that students make test preparation part of their daily routine. Students should sit down with their parents and take a hard look at their schedules to find approximately 30 minutes a day, four to five days a week, to do some practice questions and take the time to really learn the material. You can get a lot of questions practiced if you make it a habit. This is important because standardized tests are part of a students’ college application that they can improve in a very short time if they put in the work. Even doing just 5 to 10 questions a day for 90 days is the equivalent to conquering 450 questions - or rather three full practice tests – which can go a long way in helping to boost scores significantly.

6. What are colleges looking for the most? Why are standardized test scores important?

The bottom line with standardized tests is that colleges and universities very rarely have a set score that they require as part of the admission decision. Rather, most schools admit students within a certain range of scores for the SAT and ACT, which provides admissions officers both flexibility as well as certain boundaries when evaluating applicants. Other schools use standardized test scores as a way to determine how they will allocate scholarship money. For students who may have struggled academically their freshman and sophomore years, doing well on a standardized test shows they have matured or are capable of doing advanced work.

7. How should students prepare the night before and morning of taking their SAT and ACT exams?

The night before taking the SAT or ACT, students shouldn’t do any work. If they feel it necessary to review something, they can look over a past practice test and reread the answers to questions they got wrong. It’s important to not stress about it – remember, you made it this far – execute what you know!

Make sure to plan ahead. Know where you are going and how you are getting there. Pack your ID, a water bottle, your calculator, No.2 pencil and a spare battery for your calculator. Get plenty of rest and eat a good breakfast.  You’ll do great!

8. If a question or section of the exam seems too hard or overwhelming, what should students do?

It would be very unlikely that an entire section of the SAT or ACT would be too hard for any student who has practiced. In both tests, the questions usually go from easy to most difficult. If you start to feel overwhelmed, take a step back and look at all the questions in that section before trying to answer them. If you think some questions will take you longer than others to answer, skip them and go back to the easy ones you feel confident about and make sure you get the ones you know right. Instead of stressing about what you can’t do, make sure you did what you can do correctly. Don’t let the test take you – you take the test and take it on your own terms.

9. How do students know whether they should take the SAT or ACT more than once? Will colleges look poorly upon students who take tests multiple times?

A student shouldn’t be satisfied with his or her score until they reach that median range for their choice schools. Taking the SAT or ACT more than once will not hurt your chances of getting into school. In fact, some schools participate in a super scoring system where they’ll take your best score from each section from multiple tests to create a final score for you. Sometimes it takes students two to three rounds of taking a test to reach that comfort zone and that’s okay; however, three attempts is typically the cut-off. Many students take both the SAT and ACT if they reach a blocker and feel like they can’t progress any further with one test.

10. How should students decompress after taking the SAT or ACT?

After completing the SAT or ACT, it’s important for students to completely forget about it. This mentality should also be applied while a student is taking a test. When you complete a section, it’s done, it’s over with! The best piece of advice for students that day is to forget the test ever existed and treat yourself to something fun. For parents, it’s okay to ask how the test went but they should hold off on asking any other more in depth questions.


A former teacher and corporate lawyer, John LaPlante, 45, of Swampscott, has more than two decades of experience preparing students to take standardized tests as a private tutor. Today, he works as the Head of Learning for Testive, an intuitive online tool that combines people and technology to help students unlock their potential and increase their SAT and ACT scores. For more information, visit

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05 Oct 2015

By Boston Parents Paper