If you’re a junior in high school, there’s a strong chance you just received your ACT or SAT scores, both of which were released in the last two days.

With junior year creeping to a close, those who aren’t happy with their scores face a challenging array of questions: Should I jump ship on the SAT and try my hand at the ACT (or vice versa)? Should I sign up for a class? Seek out a private tutor? Switch tutors? Give up?

Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to these questions. So I want to discuss three hypothetical Baltimore students’ situations to highlight all the factors you should consider for the spring and summer. In this article, I’ll discuss “John,” a fictionalized junior at McDonogh.

John, McDonogh School


John’s an A/B student in mostly honors/AP classes. Because John’s strengths lie in math and science, he opted out of the honors English track. John got a 1200 on his PSAT last October (600 math and 600 verbal) and then took a prep class that lasted about two months before the January SAT.   He ended up with a 1270 on this last SAT, gaining 80 points in math and losing 10 points in the verbal section. He’s upset because he knows he’s smart enough to get a big score; kids with similar grades in his classes have scored at least 100 points higher.

John’s a speedy test-taker in school and a good test-taker at that. But he’s starting to think he’s moving too quickly on the SAT and making careless mistakes. Meanwhile, although he finishes the reading and grammar sections with plenty of time, he knows he outright guesses on several questions; there’s always a devastatingly dense reading passage that throws him off and grammar rules he’s not 100% sure of.

  1. John should try out an ACT diagnostic before signing up for either the SAT or ACT. He needs to find out if his speedy test-taking at school translates to the ACT, which forces you to work through more questions in less time than the SAT. If so, the ACT will likely be an easy choice. If his ACT diagnostic correlates to a higher SAT score than his last performance, and his best sections were the time-crunch sections (reading and science), the ACT is a definite go!
  2. John would likely benefit the most from one-on-one tutoring. His reading score may naturally jump by switching to the ACT because the passages and questions are less challenging. However, his English score (grammar) won’t budge significantly without a comprehensive run-through of how to tackle each concept tested. Additionally, because John wants to show off his strength in math, he’ll need a neurotic tutor who will leave no stone unturned in his search for concepts that continue to bug John. Thankfully, John is confident in his ability to do the combinatorics questions that are exclusively tested on the ACT math; McDonogh’s honors Algebra 2 class sufficiently prepares students for that topic.
  3. If he secures a good tutor, John should only focus on prepping for ONE TEST. It’s not worth it to become the Jack of all trades—colleges don’t favor applicants who submit both. They just correlate the performance in the same way you should when deciding which test to take.
  4. John should NOT listen to his parents who think the SAT is favored by colleges on the East Coast. It’s not (anymore)! The SAT and ACT are treated equally in college admissions.

In other words, John shouldn’t just do what his friends are doing. He should take his approach to prep seriously, and that starts with focusing on the right test.

We’ll focus on other fictionalized scenarios (taken from true-life experiences) of SAT score disappointment in our post next week.