What You Can Learn By Taking ACT or SAT Diagnostic Tests

At Pivot Tutors, we often get asked whether students should take the ACT or  SAT or both, when students should take their ACT or SAT or both, and how students should get started studying for the ACT or  SAT or both. Most of the time, the answer to all of these questions lies within a student’s diagnostic test scores. 

What is an ACT or SAT Diagnostic Test?

A “diagnostic” is a test that is given to a student prior to starting test prep in order to let the student know their starting score. For an effective diagnostic test, the student should take a retired official ACT or SAT  in a timed setting similar to the official ACT/SAT test date. Do not use a hybrid ACT/SAT diagnostic or an unofficial test as your baseline because often these tests do not fully reflect the students actual starting score. 


What can we learn from an ACT or SAT Diagnostic Test?

After taking both an ACT and SAT diagnostic test, we study the resulting test scores. These scores offer the student a baseline score. From this baseline score, we seek to create a personalized test prep plan for each student.  

Things we look for: Did the student run out of time in a section and have to guess? Are their errors scattered throughout the section or grouped within one passage? Is the student missing easier questions while getting the more difficult questions right? 

Reviewing a student’s diagnostic tests reveals quite a bit of information, such as whether students are most challenged by test pacing, test content, or specific passage or question types.

Baseline Score versus Goal Score

An important question to figure out when starting test prep for the ACT or SAT: What is your goal score? You can determine this by looking at the average ACT or SAT scores on the college admissions sites of universities you want to apply to. Taking a diagnostic shows you how close or far you are from your goal ACT or SAT score. It is important to set an achievable goal to strive for during test prep. 


We recommend taking both ACT and SAT diagnostic tests in order to help decide which test is best for you. The ACT is often seen as the more straightforward of the two tests, but the quick timing can pose a challenge for students. The SAT, while a bit more complex in question types, provides the students with more time. If a student is starting low on the SAT, it can be more difficult to bring that score up than it would be to raise a student’s score on the ACT, since the ACT is more predictable in its question formatting. In addition to comparing the scores, a student can also consider the experience of taking both tests in terms of pacing and overall comfort-level.

Strengths versus Weaknesses

In looking at the results of a diagnostic test, we can also start to see where your strengths and weaknesses lie in regard to a specific test’s pacing, sections, and even question types. For example, I’ve looked over a student’s ACT and SAT diagnostics before and seen that a student struggled in the ACT English and SAT Writing/Language section specifically with questions testing on comma rules, but the student was exemplary when it came to most other grammar rules. Noticing this allowed us to personalize the study plan to emphasize learning comma rules. 

Additionally, taking diagnostic tests in a setting mimicking the real ACT or SAT can show students how they handle sitting for such a long testing period, whether they experience testing anxiety, and where their content knowledge is lacking.

Deciding on Test Date

Selecting what test date to prepare for can depend on several factors: academic course load, level of math course taken, motivation for test prep, and familiarity with timed standardized testing. Additionally, the distance between your baseline score and goal score can be used to gage how much time is needed for test prep. Due to all of these variables, often, the best time to prepare for the ACT or SAT is summer before students’ junior years, gearing up for an August, September, or October test date. 


Ultimately, diagnostic tests are a tool to help students develop effective test prep study plans.  For more information on getting started or taking a diagnostic test, please contact us at info@pivottutors.com or 858-531-0508.

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