Pillars of Test-taking Wiz-dom: #1

This is the first in a series of blogs about the Six Pillars of Test-taking Wiz-dom which provide a solid foundation and unifying principles for SAT and ACT test prep.  I developed them in 1995, when I first left Kaplan as an area director and started my own test prep business by consulting for schools and writing SAT and ACT test prep materials.  My incentive for developing a set of organizational and foundational principles for students was a comment I frequently heard from students, “There are so many Kaplan strategies that I have a hard time remembering them.  I need a way to organize them into a few, simple, all-encompassing rules that will help me organize everything I need to learn.”   As a result, when I wrote my first book about SAT and ACT prep, I started by defining the habits of expert test takers.  I came to call them the Six Pillars of Test-taking Wizdom.  Here’s the first one.

Pillar I: Use the Structure of the Test

The first lesson in my SAT and ACT prep program draws a parallel between taking the tests and playing a game.  If you think about it, the list of similar characteristics will astound you.  One of them is that games and tests each have their own, unique formats or structures.  Whenever you learn a new game, the first thing you learn is the layout or format of the game board or playing field.  You learn about the objective of the game and the scoring system.  You need to know the rules and directions.  In short, before you begin, you need to know about the game’s structure and getting ready for the SAT and ACT is no different.

Almost all colleges and universities will accept either your SAT score or ACT score for admission; yet, the two test structures vary dramatically.  Perhaps one of the tests gives you an advantage over the other because its format is friendlier to you personally.  Based on over twenty years of personal  experience and a study conducted in a large school district, I’ve concluded that the majority (about 2/3) of students get approximately corresponding scores when they take both tests.  Of the other 1/3 of students, about 1/2 of them (or 1/6 of all test takers) score significantly higher on the SAT and and equal number of students do better on the ACT.  What accounts for some students doing better on one test rather than the other?  The structure of the tests play an important role.

Let’s consider just a few of the differences.  The ACT math section has 60 questions that you have to do in 60 minutes and they are all multiple-choice questions.  You have to memorize all the formulas and equations that are used to answer questions on the test and the questions are not organized from easy to hard as you go through the math section.  There’s no penalty when you make a mistake.  On the other hand, the SAT has three math sections that have a total of 54 questions you have to do in a combined total of 70 minutes.  (So, you have a little more time per question on the SAT.)  Ask yourself, “Would I rather do all the math in one section and get done with it or would I rather have the math broken up into separate sections interrupted by Reading and Grammar or does it even matter?”  The SAT gives you all the geometry formulas you need for the test.  Would that help you?  The SAT organizes the questions from easy to hard.  Could that help you?  There’s a penalty when you make a mistake on a multiple-choice question.  There are 10 bubble-in, fill-in-the-blank, student-produced response questions out of the 54 SAT questions.  (There’s no penalty for missing one of these 10 questions.)  Could they help or hurt you?  In short, there are considerable differences between the structures of the two tests.  Do you think either the SAT or ACT test structure is advantageous for you?

Let’s consider the Reading tests.  Like math, the ACT has only one reading section and puts all four reading passages in one section which is a 35-minute section with 40 questions that each have 4 multiple-choice answers.  The SAT has three sections that have 19 Sentence Completion questions (that aren’t on the ACT) and 48 reading passage questions (with 5 answers each) to do in 70 minutes.  There are 4 short, 2 medium, 1 long, and 1 paired passage on the SAT.  These are big differences.  Students more frequently complain about not having enough time on the ACT than the SAT.  This could be true because the ACT has passage line references for only about half of the questions while the SAT has references for almost all of the questions making it easier to go back to the passage to find the appropriate section to answer the question.  As with math, do you think either the SAT or ACT  structure is advantageous to you?

While there are other differences between the two tests, I think I’ve made my point: the structures of the tests are quite different.  You owe it to yourself to decide if you have a marked advantage on one over the other.  Regardless of what you might think, I recommend you try both tests.  You can either take them for real or you can get free sample tests from your counselor.  Take the tests under timed conditions and as close to actual testing circumstances as possible and then compare your scores.  Do you have a substantial head start (2 ACT points one way or the other) on one or the other?  If so, obviously you want to focus on that test to improve your score.  However, if you don’t have an advantage, my experience is that it is easier to raise an SAT score than an ACT score.

Best of luck on the tests.  If this information was helpful, pass it on to your friends.  If you have questions, feel free to send me an email.

The Wizard


About Bob Alexander

Bob has been a professional educator starting with teaching biology, becoming a school administrator, and then working as an education lobbyist in Washington, DC. He got his start in national testing by becoming a consulting test writer, later joining Kaplan as a director, and finally starting his own business in 1995. He has written numerous books, consulted for school districts and colleges, developed his website and been featured on a DVD set. He offers SAT and ACT prep classes and tutors individuals and small groups of students in central Florida.
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