Tag Archive: SAT

Despite all the SAT vs ACT pages, it remains one of the most FAQ. The short answer is if you like Superman better, go ACT. If you like Batman better, go SAT. Ok, I am (mostly) kidding. There is no short answer; you’ll need to do a little research. The table provides a quick overview. The text below it is for students who know the basic differences, but still feel unsure which will be better for them.

English, Reading, Math and Science Writing, Reading and Math
Essay is optional * Essay is mandatory
No penalty for wrong answers 1/4 point penalty for wrong answers
Higher level math but straighforward More conceptual math
Passage types are in predictable order Passage types are not in a set order
Slightly higher time pressure Slightly lower time pressure
Fewer, longer sections Several shorter sections
Colleges may focus on composite score Colleges may focus on area scores

* – ACT essay is optional, however some specific schools do require it. You should go HERE find out if the colleges you are applying to require it BEFORE you take the ACT.

ACT – If you are especially good at math and science, and specifically weak in reading and writing, you may want to go for the ACT – you can excel at 2 out of 4 instead of 1 in 3. The ACT essay topics are often easier to write about, and more latitude is given to the student in how to respond to the prompt.

SAT – If you are especially good at reading and writing, and specifically weak in math you may want to go for the SAT – you can excel at 2 out of 3 instead of 2 in 4. The SAT essay topics are a little dry, and there are stricter guidelines for responding to the prompt.

The best possible way to be sure, though, is to go ahead and try taking a practice test for each one. Many schools offer practice tests. If your school doesn’t, you can find an online or downloadable test, or buy The Real ACT Prep Guide and The Official SAT Study Guide both of which contain actual previous tests. If your ACT score is higher, or the two are about the same but your lower ACT area scores are in things you feel sure you can improve in, go for the ACT. If your SAT score is higher, or the two are about the same but you aren’t sure how much you can improve in the weaker areas, go for the SAT.

Common statements you’ve probably seen that I disagree with:

  • “The SAT has much more vocabulary.” This seems true on the surface, because the SAT has sentence completion questions. But the ACT requires a strong vocabulary to perform well on the Reading, and even on some of the English and Science.

  • “The ACT Math is harder.” This also seems true on the surface, because it does go up to a higher level of math. However, the ACT math questions are more straightforward – SAT math questions are much more conceptual. On the ACT, you may well hit problems you don’t know what to do with – and you’ll probably know that. On the SAT, you are far more likely to think you have correct answers only to realise later you forgot to consider some element of the problem.

  • “Everyone who is good at science should take the ACT instead of the SAT”. Again, seems true on the surface. I know I keep saying that, but so many misconceptions become popular precisely because they are believable on their face. ACT science is not about remembering and using all the detailed equations, terms and processes you learned in your science classes. It is about applying logical, scientific thinking. You won’t need to remember the atomic weight of Ag, or what Ag stands for. If you did well in forensics, psychology or sociology and have a good sense of what goes into a solid experimental design and how to read data, you can do VERY well on the science section even if you didn’t do great in biology, chemistry or physics.

   So why are Superman and Batman in here? Superman is very strong, honest and direct. He also runs around saving the world. So I associate him with the ACT – it tests to a higher level, in a straightforward way, and covers more area. Batman, however, well… World’s Greatest Detective. He patrols a smaller area, but more than makes up for not being superhuman by using his intellect to think things through and make them work to his advantage. If you want something you can punch through, go ACT. If you want something you can out-think, go SAT.


How Doth the Little Crocodile

How doth the little crocodile Improve his shining tail, And pour the waters of the Nile On every golden scale! How cheerfully he seems to grin, How neatly spreads his claws, And welcomes little fishes in With gently smiling jaws! – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

There are tips for selecting an individual tutor here. However, so many people still had questions about selecting a large company, that it seems to merit its own entry.


Places that do not use real SAT tests to measure your child’s initial scores and improvement. Anyone who doesn’t take a baseline isn’t really willing to measure your child’s improvement. Anyone who uses their own tests to measure improvement can easily mislead you. Think about it – I could write a subtly harder test for your kid’s first one, and then write an easier one to ‘measure their progress’ – wow, they went up! 🙄 Also, make sure your kid times themself on each section – shortchanging a kid on time (or giving them extra for a progress test) is another sleazy way to inflate improvements.

Places that make jaw-dropping claims like ‘We can get any kid to a 2400’ or ‘Our average student score is 2300’ or ‘Our average score gain is over 300 points!’. Noone is THAT good with every single student and even if they were, not every student can get that much out of tutoring. I could easily claim to have an average of 300 points gained. I could LIE. Or I could choose not to include students who didn’t ‘complete their program’ and then just not do the last session with any kid I don’t think will make 300 (that way I don’t have to include them in the average). I could walk them through the exact test I plan to use to ‘measure their progress’, getting them a 300 point gain based on the fact that we JUST went over that whole test together. I could also just turn down any kid I don’t think can get a 300 point gain (and thereby turn down a ton of kids who really need help).

Places that are not willing to refund any of your remaining money if you bought a package and then decide to discontinue tutoring. Again, noone is right for every student. Honest people and companies know that, and will refund some of your money if you decide to opt out. Please note, this is not about getting a refund on tutoring you received; it is about getting ‘unused’ money back on a package deal you chose not to complete. Likewise, rule out any place with a ridiculously long advance notice clause for calling out (over 48 hours).

Places that put a heavy emphasis on ‘tips and tricks’, especially those claiming that every student should always answer every question, that there are predictably easier and harder test dates, or that all colleges superscore . There certainly are tips and tricks to test prep, but a place that is pushing that element is essentially saying to you “I can’t help your kid learn much about how to actually do the problems, but I can say some cool-sounding things that will falsely inflate their confidence!”. And all of the specific ones listed are untrue – any company that is serious about test prep knows that and will not mislead yoru child just to create a false feeling of knowing some inside secret.

I RECOMMEND (meaning there may well be exceptions to some of these):

One on one tutoring over any group or class situation. That said, if you are going for a class, save yourself a ton of money and check out classes at your local library or community colleges. They are almost as good as “big name” classes at a fraction of the cost. If you read that and think ‘it’s worth much more money to me to get even a slightly better result’ then just get the 1 on 1 tutoring, which offers the best possible results. Big name + group setting = not worth it.

Asking for specific details on how the program might be fine-tuned to make it especially useful for your child as an individual.

Consistency in tutors – you want your child to be dealing consistently with a few people, not meeting someone new every session.


Your child is increasingly uninterested in going. I don’t care how much they hate the added burden of test prep, you should be seeing some signs that they are getting used to it and getting something out of it.

Your child has taken a few progress tests and the scores aren’t going up.

Your child says ‘I don’t understand (or can’t do it) the way my teacher explained it and they told me there is no other way.’ There is NOTHING on those tests that can’t be handled in different ways and a quality tutor will be able to deliver.

Your child has a tutor they don’t get along with, and you are being told there is noone else for them to be placed with. A large company should have a decent staff size and be able to provide you with other options. My one caveat to this is ACT Science – this is an area almost all test prep companies are chronically short-staffed on and there may really be only one qualified instructor per location.

You are being told that your child’s lack of progress is because they aren’t doing their homework. Sure, doing the HW will get an even greater improvement BUT the bulk of your kid’s improvement should be coming from their direct instruction. Places that are promoting themselves offering classes to ‘debug’ your kid’s self-completed work are usually very over-priced for what you are getting from them and often quite ready to blame your kid if there isn’t a lot of progress.


Don’t expect anyone to make an outright guarantee. We know you want one. But there are a lot of variables that go into the final results and we aren’t psychic. As for places that do offer guarantees, that almost always boils down to one of three things – your provider will offer more free classes if the goal isn’t met (more of whatever failed probably won’t have much value to you and your kid is probably running out of time), your provider has clauses that will put the blame on the student to avoid making good on the guarantee (don’t put your kid through this) or your online provider is taking advantage of the fact that you will not be able to track them down or force any sort of accountability. A solid smile and a hearty promise may feel better than an explanation about being realistic but believe me, you want the company whose director is willing to be honest and risk losing your business rather than lying to get you in the door.

Don’t immediately panic if an *early* progress test doesn’t show much change. Many kids focus so hard on trying to get one area or strategy right that they slip a little elsewhere. Once those kids get the hang on doing the right things more naturally and combining it with the skills they already have, they often really explode into a great score gain.

Don’t reject information about how your child is not performing the needed work during the session, or is not applying what they’ve learned to their progress tests.

Don’t balk at a reasonable advance notice clause for calling out (48 hours or less). That person or company already lost the ability to put another student in that time slot, and in situations with little or no notice, the tutor may well have made a long commute, only to find out they’ve come in for nothing. It is absolutely reasonable to be charged a call-out fee.

Don’t insist your child only ever have one tutor. Most places have different teachers who excel in different areas, so that rotation may mean they want your kid with the best possible reading tutor, math tutor and writing tutor on different days. Tutors who truly excel at all areas of both tests are few and far between 😎

SAT and ACT Resources and Links


The Official SAT Website     The Official SAT Study Guide

Official SAT Raw Scores to Scaled      Official SAT Scores to Percentiles

SAT College Search   Official Sample SAT Questions

The Official ACT Website     The Real ACT Prep Guide

Official ACT Raw Scores to Scaled     Official ACT Scores to Percentiles

Which Colleges require the ACT Essay?  Official Sample ACT Questions


Gotham Tutoring’s Blog

Excellence For College’s Blog

SelectPrep’s Facebook Page

Sheldon the Word Nerd’s Website

Lennox Tutoring (MCAT)


Why don’t you offer more detailed advice? I provide general information (and try to correct dangerous misinformation) about SATs. ACTs, and college admissions. I am not here to provide free in-depth test prep advice.

I don’t know whether to take the SAT or the ACT or both! I do not recommend trying to prep for both at the exact same time. They are very different tests. To get a better idea which one might be right for you, please check out my Superman vs Batman blog entry.

Why don’t you have more big company books on here? Most aren’t a good match to the actual content, and even ones with decent content often have questionable advice and explanations. If you want to self-prep, I strongly advise that you stick with the real thing.

Ok, but aren’t there less known books that have great information? I am sure there are. I’ve been using a combination of official books and my own materials for many years now and have not had any real reason to seek additional resources. That said, if you think your book is just amazing, you are welcome to send me one and I will review it in detail and help promote it if it’s really, really good.

If I paypal you the money, can you tutor me online? Sorry, I am old-fashioned and strongly prefer to only tutor students I can meet with face to face.

  You’re worried about the essay on your upcoming SATs. Maybe you haven’t done well with class essays. Maybe you write great essays, but only when you have plenty of time to do them right. Maybe you’re worried about being able to come up with great examples, or using enough high level vocabulary words. I hope that I can reassure you that the SAT essay isn’t as big of a deal as you think it is.

   First and foremost, understand this. Your essay is not being judged primarily on what is great about it. It is being judged primarily on what is wrong with it. This is not the time to take risks trying to really wow anyone (save that for your college app essay!). This is the time to crank out a solid, well-structured essay and make sure you doublecheck for things like grammar errors and redundancy (if your essay prompt was about whether or not we need to be competitive to succeed, make sure you didn’t use the word competitive 18 times). And always keep in mind that the essay is only worth about 30% of your writing score – most of your score comes from the multiple choice. You *could* bomb the essay completely and still get an above average score on the writing overall if you did well on the MC questions.

   Commit to a position. You are going to want to waffle, because they ask questions where both sides have obvious merit and darnit, you want them to know you are smart enough to realise that! DON’T. It’s a trap. The assignment is to pick a side and defend it – just do it. You don’t even have to pick the side you agree with personally. If the other POV seems easier to write about quickly, do that.

   Using higher level vocab words is a good idea, but only use ones you are completely sure you are using correctly. If you feel uncertain, stick with a medium level word you feel more confident about. Ex: You’d like to use the word sanguine. You know it means something like confident, optimistic or comfortable. So you write “I felt sanguine the next day.” But sanguine isn’t generally used without referencing what you feel sanguine about. If you know that, make sure you apply it and write a sentence like “I felt sanguine about taking my SATs.” If you don’t, you are better off saying “I felt optimistic the next day”.

   Don’t get too stressed about coming up with 3 great supports (don’t get me wrong, if you can do it, go for it!). The college board has provided examples of essays in the 10-12 range that didn’t have 5 paragraphs and 3 supports. But there is a balance of quantity and quality – if you are going to use 2, make sure those 2 are the crown jewels of examples.

Is that all there is to it? Not by a long shot. This entry isn’t about all the wonderful things you can do to really master the SAT essay. But I do hope it has been enough to show you that you don’t need to panic 😉

These are good tips for choosing a tutor, but I cannot guarantee you will get a winner using them, or that you won’t pass on someone who would have been great. Looking for tips on choosing a tutoring company? Check out my How doth the little crocodile blog entry.


  • Do they offer a free diagnostic test from a previous actual SAT test? If you happen to have an existing PSAT or SAT score you are comfortable with using as a baseline that’s fine. But if they don’t offer to help you get a real baseline score first, don’t even meet them. Noone can tell you how much your child has improved without a reasonably accurate idea where they are starting from.

  • Are they willing to explain some problems to you directly, or to your child with you present? If the answer is no, don’t even meet them. Saying “I don’t want to hand out hours of free tutoring or special approaches I use” is fair. Saying “I cannot think of *anything* I can demonstrate to you for free isn’t/

  • Are they trying to convince you they can guarantee a massive increase in a few hours of tutoring, or that they can get any student to a perfect score if you purchase enough hours? Don’t even meet them. Test prep doesn’t work well in just a few hours – you’ll either be disappointed, or discover you are being set up for a ‘oh, I guess we need to do more’ routine. Score gains depend on a lot of factors – noone can get every student a perfect score. Both of these scams usually involve putting the blame on your kids for either not ‘getting it fast enough’ or ‘not trying hard enough’. Don’t put your child through a guilt trip just because someone didn’t want to be upfront about what it would cost and what to expect.

  • Is there any suggestion that you can’t back out once you’ve paid a set program fee? Don’t meet even them. NOONE is the right tutor for every child, and the only ethical thing to do in that situation is refund the remainder of your money.

  • Are they claiming that all students should always answer every question, that they know the secret to which test dates are supposedly easier, or that all colleges superscore? Don’t meet even them. None of those is true and any tutor who doesn’t know that isn’t even trying to stay informed. They just want flashy simplifications that will create a feeling of insider knowledge and magic trick.

Ok, you’ve found one promising enough to meet. SHOULD YOU HIRE THEM?

  • After hearing them explain a few things, ask yourself two questions. Do I believe this person understands the material? And, do I believe they can explain it clearly to my child? We have all had teachers who were clueless and we have all had teachers who were very knowledgable, but didn’t have the ability to communicate effectively with their students. You want someone who can deliver on all levels, non-negotiable. If they don’t make you feel that way, don’t hire.

  • Can they explain what materials they intend to use and why? If not, don’t hire (and frankly, I’d be leery of anyone who isn’t using The Official SAT Study Guide or The Real ACT Prep Guide as a major resource for practice material).

  • Can they explain how they will adapt the tutoring to your child as an individual? Bear in mind, the details will change as they get to know your child better. But they should be able to give you something more specific than “Oh, I always gear it toward the student.” If they can’t, don’t hire.

Great! You’ve found someone who comfortably meets all these criteria. The tutoring seems to be going well, and you feel confident it is helping. But you’re wondering what to look out for along the way, signs that things are even better than you had hoped, that you’ve hit the tutor jackpot. SHOULD YOU BE JUMPING FOR JOY?

  • Does your child enjoy their sessions? No, I am not kidding. If they have had 2-3 sessions and you aren’t seeing any signs that your child is enjoying it at least a little bit, you may want to reconsider your choice in tutors.

  • Does your child seem less nervous about the prospect of taking the real test?You should be seeing their confidence increase.

  • Is your child sharing things with you about the sessions that they think are interesting or showing other signs of deep processing? Did they talk about a great tip they learned? Something interesting in a passage they read? Maybe it’s not even something they mention; you just start to notice they are using a higher level of vocabulary naturally or that their other grades are improving.

These, my friend, are excellent signs that your child is getting a great deal out of their test prep tutoring!


Welcome to Gotham Tutoring’s SAT blog 😀

I will be using this blog primarily to discuss specific SAT and ACT issues. If you are looking for general advice, it’s out there in abundance and I don’t intend to rewrite all of it. If you find a lot of conflicting information on something, please let me know and I will try to help you sort it out. Blogging is a new venture for me and I’ll be editing a lot. I would appreciate it if you didn’t link to any articles until you know from me that they are ready.