Q: The SAT has changed!! What should we do?!

A: The SAT transitioned to its newest format in March 2016 and, according to the College Board, the test has changed to better reflect the high school curriculum and be a better indicator of college readiness. Just as before, the content of the test covers the essentials of reading, math and writing.

We always recommend students begin by taking a practice test in both the SAT and the ACT. We’ll use the indicators from both exams to help you and your family decide which test would be a better fit. Prior to the change, most students scored very comparably between the SAT and ACT and that still holds with the new exam.

We believe (as it was true before) that there are positive and negative aspects of both exams based on the individual strengths and weaknesses of a student. Most students will be able to take a practice exam to help determine which test will best suit their strengths.

Q: When should my student take the SAT or ACT?

A: Over the last few years, the timeframe for students taking their standardized exams has shifted earlier and earlier. We’ve seen many sophomores take practice tests as early as December to determine when they should start. Getting a head start on prep can be hugely beneficial for many students. In particular, if your son or daughter is advanced in his or her schoolwork and knows that junior year is going to be both demanding and busy, it might be worthwhile to try to take tests before junior year begins. Additionally, if your student struggles and will need to review and solidify his or her academic foundations, starting early can alleviate a lot of stress and give students ample time to shore up their basic skill set. Most typically, our students begin work in the fall of their junior year, targeting their first SAT or ACT between December and March. For students beginning work in the middle of their junior year, we prepare students to be ready to take their first SAT in March or May, or the ACT in April or June. For our students who join us at the end of their junior year, we’ll target the first SAT or ACT in June, with many students taking their second or third exams in September or October (if needed).

We make decisions together based on your specific goals in combination with your student’s practice test scores. Your tutor will keep you informed about your student’s progress to help you make the right decision about the appropriate test dates.

Q: Should my student take the ACT or the SAT?

A: Though most of our students score comparably on the two exams, every once in a while we find that a particular test will align better with a student’s strengths. If you would like to get a sense of whether or not the SAT or ACT would be more appropriate for your son or daughter, we can have your student take both diagnostics and have one of our staff members review the scores with you to help decide on the best possible course.

Of course, you don’t have to choose; you can target both exams. The strategies and content that we teach are applicable to both the SAT and the ACT, and all of our tutors are trained to teach both exams. Many of our students work with us for one exam in through the fall and winter and make a seamless transition to prepare for the other exam in the spring.

As with all things that concern admissions, it’s important to check the websites of the colleges your student is considering to check their individual admissions policies.

What’s the difference between the two, anyhow?

A: I’m sure you’ve heard all sorts of things about this—things like: The ACT is more like the stuff you learn in school, and the SAT tries to trick you! Or, the ACT is easier! Or, the SAT is easier!

Here is the truth: The SAT and ACT are very similar exams. Both exams combine content learned in school with natural reasoning abilities. Each sets out to assess a student’s ability to read and interpret data using the knowledge acquired during a student’s academic career.

Parents and students are often told that the ACT is more geared towards classroom learning than the SAT. The fact that the ACT contains a separate “science” section contributes to a good portion of misinformation. The section itself is approximately 99% data interpretation and requires little knowledge of classroom science subjects. A test-taker might encounter 1-2 questions on the science section that won’t be answered in the passages and require outside knowledge, but the majority of the information is right in the test. With the 2016 SAT re-design, this type of data interpretation is now tested in both exams. Overall, the truth is that the tests are incredibly similar and generally test the same skill sets while varying most in timing and format.

Here are major format differences between the two tests:

SAT (2016)



1600 Total Points:

Evidence-Based Reading & Writing section will be worth 800 points and the Math section will be worth 800 points

36 total composite points:

English, Math, Reading, and Science scores will each range from 1-36.  Composite ACT score is the average of your scores on the four sections; ranges between 1-36

Differences in Format 5 sections total, (including optional essay):

  • Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Test: 65-min reading section 35-min writing section
  • Math: 25-min no-calculator section, 55-min calculator section
  • Essay (optional): 50-min section
5 sections total, (including optional essay):

  • English:  45-min section
  • Math:  60-min section
  • Reading:  35-min section
  • Science:  35-min section
  • Writing:  45-min essay (optional)
Is there a penalty for wrong answers? Nope. Nope.
Do you get Score Choice? The College Board offers score choice. However, many colleges will request all of your scores. It’s always best to check the college websites to be sure. The ACT offers score choice but many colleges will request all of your scores. You may remove an entire test date from your record.
Difficulty Levels The math section questions are in order of difficulty; the other sections are more randomized. The math section questions are in order of difficulty; the other sections are more randomized.
Math Levels                                                                                                                              

Arithmetic, algebra I and II, data analysis, functions, geometry, trigonometry

**Some Formulas Provided**

Arithmetic, algebra I and II, functions, geometry, trigonometry

**No formulas provided upfront, some may be included in the questions**

Q: I’ve heard the <insert month> test is easier than the <insert month> test. Is this true?

A: Nope. No matter what month or test date you fill in to this question, the answer is still no. Both the ACT and the SAT go to painstaking lengths to ensure that each test is of the same measured difficulty. The number of seniors vs. juniors also makes no difference—the curve isn’t a normal curve like the tests you take in school. The test makers do everything they can to make sure that your scores are as accurate as possible.

Q: What is the PSAT/NMSQT? Do I have to take it? Does it count for anything?

A: The PSAT/NMSQT is essentially a shorter version of the SAT. The PSAT is comprised of two Math sections (a calculator and no-calculator section), and two Evidence-Based Reading and Writing sections. It is given only once a year, in October.

Though some high schools require it, the PSAT is typically optional. However, even though it’s optional, taking the PSAT is a great idea. It gives all students the opportunity to practice in a real testing situation and provides an accurate sense of a starting score. You’ll also receive detailed feedback on your student’s strengths and weaknesses. And, there’s no pressure: if you do poorly, it doesn’t matter—colleges never see these scores.

The PSAT can count for one thing, though: the National Merit Scholarship program. Juniors scoring around the 97th percentile of the PSAT scores in their state will get a National Merit Letter of Commendation. Those students scoring in the 99th percentile of PSAT scores in their state will qualify as National Merit Semifinalists. These are great things–they look wonderful on college applications and may help your student get scholarships. Just a quick note: only juniors can qualify for a National Merit commendation.

As of 2016, the PSAT is offered in grade-specific iterations. Sophomores will be offered the PSAT 10 and students in both grades 8 and 9 will be offered the PSAT 8/9. Scores for these exams are not entered into consideration for National Merit.

As students start with A-List, they will spend most of their time working through The Book of Knowledge in order to learn the content and our strategies for the test. If your student begins before the PSAT in October and might be a good candidate for National Merit, we’ll be able to help him or her prepare with the practice materials that have already been released by College Board.

Q: What about the SAT Subject Tests?

A: Check the admissions section of your target colleges’ websites. Many colleges do not require SAT Subject Tests but the majority of the most competitive colleges will require 2-3 SAT Subject Tests. One major advantage of the ACT is that some colleges will permit you to take it in lieu of the SAT and the SAT Subject Tests. If you are required to take the SAT Subject Tests you can take all of them on one test day and fortunately they’re only one hour long. Choose the subjects that best match up to your A levels or IBs.