ACT & SAT Test Preparation, Practice Tests and Other Concerns

The ACT test or SAT test is very important when you are seeking admission to college. Most students who assume they can go into the ACT/SAT test unprepared, soon learn that preparing would have helped them do much better. The ACT and SAT are both predictable tests and structured in a way that allows you to learn methods of determining the correct answers to questions. This takes working hard at preparation and using practice tests to become familiar and comfortable with the test. Preparing thoroughly will build your confidence. Because of the importance of these tests to your future, you should take advantage of the preparation opportunities available to you. The following questions and answers are designed to help you in this process.

What Are the Differences between the SAT and ACT?

While the two tests are similar, there are distinct differences in them. The SAT primarily tests reasoning and verbal abilities. It is basically an aptitude test. The ACT is more of an achievement test. It demonstrates what you have learned in your classes. It also helps you better understand career options in which you would have the greatest interest. Here is a summary of major differences between ACT and SAT.

  • Areas Tested
    • ACT: Consists of up to 5 components: science, math, English and reading with an optional writing test.
    • SAT: Comprised of only 3 parts: math, writing and critical reading.
  • Number of Sections
    • ACT: 4 sections on the test (5, counting the optional writing test).
    • SAT: 10 sections on the test.
  • Time Allowed for the Test
    • ACT: 3 hours and 25 minutes (includes 30 minutes for the optional writing test).
    • SAT: 3 hours and 45 minutes
  • Reading/Critical Reading
    • ACT: Contains reading comprehension passages; vocabulary is not tested.
    • SAT: Called “Critical Reading.” Contains reading comprehension and sentence completion questions; vocabulary is tested.
  • Math
    • ACT: Counts 1/4 of overall score. Test covers Algebra, Geometry and Trigonometry.
    • SAT: Counts 1/3 of overall score. Test covers basic Geometry and Algebra II.
  • Science
    • ACT: Tests science reasoning, including analysis, interpretation, problem solving and evaluation.
    • SAT: Science is not included on the test.
  • Essay (Writing)
    • ACT: The last section of the test with 30 minutes allowed for completion, but it’s optional and not included in the composite score.
    • SAT: The first section of the test with 25 minutes allowed for completion; it counts 1/3 of the overall score.
  • How Test Is Scored
    • ACT: Each of the 4 sections on the test receives a score of up to 36. The total composite score is the average of the 4 section scores producing a total possible of 36.
    • SAT: There are 3 scores of up to 800, 1 for each of the 3 sections, producing a total possible score of 2400. In 2006, the total possible score was changed from 1600 to 2400.
  • Penalty for Wrong Answers
    • ACT: There’s no penalty for wrong answers.
    • SAT: There’s a penalty of -1/4 point for a wrong answer on most questions.
  • Sending Scores to Colleges
    • ACT: If you’ve taken the test more than once, you decide which scores to send to colleges at which you are applying.
    • SAT: All of your scores will automatically be sent to the colleges for whom you’ve requested them unless you use “Score Choice.” It lets you choose to send SAT scores by date of the test and SAT subject test scores by individual test taken to colleges, subject to each college's individual practice. For more information, see the website:

What Are Some of the Most Common Trouble Issues Students Have on the Tests?

The first issue you face is deciding which test to take: SAT or ACT. There are few definitive answers in the SAT vs. ACT battle. Researching what the colleges in which you are interested have done in the past in regard to using test scores to determine which students to admit is, perhaps, the best guide to help you decide which test to take, whether to take both tests, how many times to take the test(s), and how many scores to submit.

Feeling stressed when taking tests is another issue with which you must contend. Being thoroughly prepared can help solve this problem. Analyze what triggers your anxiety. Is it time constraints, difficulty focusing under pressure or letting a difficult problem torpedo your concentration? You can attack the problems in a systematic way, if you recognize the things that bother you most.

Major trouble issues are created by not preparing for test day. Have everything you plan to take with you on the day of the test ready to go the night before. Get 8 hours of sleep that night, and get up in time to dress in a way that promotes a good mindset, eat a good breakfast and be at the test site 20 minutes early. Last minute searches for necessary items, lack of sleep and rushing into the testing room sloppily dressed, hungry and hurried can derail any student’s performance on the test.

See the section of this document entitled “How Should I Best Manage My Time While Taking the Tests?” for suggestions on how to wisely manage your time during the test.

sat for college

When Should You Start to Prepare for the Tests?

Since both tests are so important because of their influence on college admission, the best time to begin preparation is just as soon as possible. The rule of thumb in preparing for these tests is: “The more preparation done – the better.” Students who aspire to become a National Merit Semi-finalist should begin preparing for the SAT by June before the 10th grade. Ideally, everyone should begin by the summer before the 11th grade to prepare for either the SAT or ACT, but the summer before the 12th grade is the absolute latest to begin preparation.

Key Study Strategies

Both the SAT and ACT evaluate students based on their knowledge in the areas that the test covers. Here are some suggestions and strategies that can help you be sure you have sufficient knowledge in each area.

  • Critical Reading/English: Read the advanced materials that are suggested in the study guide you use to prepare. Developing the habit of reading sophisticated material early on will have enormous benefit for you. It will build vocabulary, improve memory and improve your ability to summarize. Study vocabulary and try to add new words into the language you use every day. As you read, do so carefully, training yourself to pay attention to detail.
  • Writing: Developing an essay template is the easiest way to be prepared for the essay during the SAT and the optional writing on the ACT. Have in mind some basic building blocks, like an interesting quote, rhetorical questions and a possible introduction. Having a tried-and-true format will make it possible to write well. Be sure to practice writing essays in 25 minutes for the SAT and in 30 minutes for the ACT.
  • Math: The 3 best suggestions are drill, drill and drill. Students who tirelessly practice their math skills make the best scores. Understanding the math concepts and then practicing how to solve the different kinds of problems seen on prior tests result in a mastery of the math section and a good score. Both the SAT and ACT math questions require use of critical thinking skills. During preparation, be sure to use the same calculator that you will use on the test. Make sure it is in good working order right before the test. Have fresh batteries in it, but take extras, too.
  • Science: On practice tests, be sure you develop the habit of thoroughly reading each question and the data included with it. Read the question carefully, making sure you don’t miss any part of it. Don’t let obscure wording distract you; finding the core question makes it much easier to answer correctly. Strengthen your knowledge of basic graph reading and associated concepts. Be sure you know calculations and conversions in the American and metric systems. Sometimes, this section has similar questions grouped together. If one question gives you a problem, skipping it temporarily and going on to the next one can be helpful. Something you realize while answering the second problem may help you answer the previous question correctly. Practicing such methods of approach during your study will make them come to mind quickly when you are taking the actual test.

Where Can I Find Practice SAT & ACT Tests?

There are many sources for SAT & ACT practice tests.

  • Many books for SAT, such as 11 Practice Tests for the SAT & PSAT, 2011 and The Official SAT Study Guide, which is published by the College Board, and for ACT, such as Cracking the ACT and The Real ACT Prep Guide, which is published by ACT, Inc., can be purchased at your local bookstore or online. Use at least two books for your preparation. One should be an official guide published by the testing organization, and one should be an “unofficial” guide.
  • There are companies available in most communities that provide SAT and ACT test prep tutors for individuals. They use practice tests to help prepare you.
  • Check online for websites that prepare students for the SAT and ACT by providing free practice tests. There is sometimes no requirement to register or create a username and password. The questions are prepared by test preparation professionals.
  • For a fee, there are group courses available that teach strategies and techniques for doing well on both tests. They often include proctored practice exams and extra help in your weakest area.

When Are the Test Dates?

SAT & ACT test dates are as follows:

Test Date Test U. S. Registration Deadlines

Remainder of 2010–2011:

  • May 7, 2011 SAT & Subject Tests April 8 April 22
  • June 4, 2011 SAT & Subject Tests May 6 May 20
  • June 11, 2011 ACT May 6 May 20


  • September 10, 2011 ACT August 12 August 26
  • October 1, 2011 SAT & Subject Tests TBD TBD
  • October 22, 2011 ACT September 16 September 30
  • November 5, 2011 SAT & Subject Tests TBD TBD
  • December 3, 2011 SAT & Subject Tests TBD TBD
  • December 10, 2011 ACT November 4 November 18
  • January 28, 2012 SAT & Subject Tests TBD TBD
  • February 11, 2012* ACT January 13 January 20
  • March 10, 2012 SAT Test Only TBD TBD
  • April 14, 2012 ACT March 8 March 23
  • May 5, 2012 SAT & Subject Tests TBD TBD
  • June 2, 2012 SAT & Subject Tests TBD TBD
  • June 9, 2012 ACT May 4 May 18

* No test centers are scheduled in New York for the February test dates.

How Should You Best Manage Your Time While Taking the Tests?

It is important that you use the time you have for each part of the SAT or ACT to your best advantage. There are a number of things you should do to accomplish this. Some of them go back to your prep time; others are during the test itself.

  • Be sure you know the amount of time allowed for each section of the test you are taking.
  • Make sure the practice tests you use simulate the actual testing experience as closely as possible. The more accustomed you are to the time constraints you have to deal with on test day, the better prepared you feel. Get a copy The Official SAT Study Guide or The Real ACT Prep Guide: The Only Official Prep Guide from the Makers of the ACT, depending on which test you are going to take. The test questions in these books are actual questions from prior tests. Their materials will be most similar to the kinds of questions that will be on your test. You really need to understand the flow of the test, so you can develop skills for managing your time during the test.
  • Remember, everything you can do prior to the test to ensure that you arrive as relaxed and prepared as possible will add to your successful performance on the test.
  • Arrive early enough for the test that you have plenty of time to get everything ready, so you can begin answering questions immediately when the test begins. Be sure you return promptly after any breaks.
  • Read questions carefully the first time. Trying to save time, cutting corners by reading too quickly, may cause you to misinterpret questions and choose an incorrect answer. At the least, it will waste time if you have to go back and reread the question. At the worst, your misinterpretation will cause you to choose a wrong answer.
  • When you realize you don’t know the answer to a question, go on to the next one. Wasting time on a question for which you don’t know the answer may prevent your getting to later ones that you can answer correctly. After you have answered all the questions you can, go back to as many of the ones you skipped as time permits.

How Should You Answer Questions If You Are Uncertain of the Answer?

When you don’t know an answer, what should you do? Should you guess, or not?

  • On the ACT, deciding whether or not to guess is no problem. There is no penalty for wrong answers, so giving your best guess is not going to hurt your score, and it may help it.
  • On the SAT’s “Grid-In” math questions, there is no penalty for wrong answers. The odds against a random guess on a grid-in question being correct are huge, but you have nothing to lose, unless you waste time needed elsewhere.
  • For the majority of SAT’s multiple choice questions, this issue requires more analysis. The scoring for these questions gives 1 point for a correct answer, 0 points for no answer, and -1/4 point (in other words, deducts 1/4 point) for a wrong answer. If you cannot eliminate any of the 5 choices for the answer and, consequently, your guess would be completely a random one, don’t guess. The odds of guessing correctly are too small. Leave the answer blank. If, however, you can eliminate some of the answer choices, because you know they cannot be correct, the odds of a correct guess improve sufficiently to make it worthwhile. The more choices you can eliminate, the more the odds of your answer’s being correct improve. The generally-accepted rule is: “If you can eliminate even one of the question’s answer choices, you definitely should guess.” This website gives a detailed explanation of why this is true:

Re-taking the Test

Not only can you retake the SAT or ACT, you are encouraged to do so. This is true for those who do well the first time, as well as those who didn’t score as well as they hoped. Retaking the test often results in a slightly, or even significantly, higher result than the first time. The SAT governing body is on record as having recommended that students retake the test.

Be aware of “Score Choice”

Those who retake the SAT should be aware of “Score Choice.” Until 2008, all of your SAT scores would be sent to any college to which you applied. “Score Choice,” introduced that year, is a feature that allows students who take the test more than once to send just their highest score with their college application. The score-reporting guidelines of each college to which an application is sent should be checked, because the guidelines can vary from one institution to another. “Score Choice” is not an issue with multiple ACT scores, because you can select which score or scores are sent to a college.

psat tests

Retaking the SAT or the ACT because of test-day distractions

Distractions on test day may cause you to get a lower test score than you would have in a more appropriate environment. Disturbances, such as a proctor’s chatting with a friend or an unexpected, prolonged noise, can cause a you to be distracted and not perform as well as you would have otherwise. If you feel that your test score was affected by unnecessary distractions, you should send an e-mail to the College Board detailing what occurred. You should also retake the test.

How Long Does It Take to Get Scores Back?

There’s no short answer to this question. This information can help you find the answers to questions about receiving your scores.

What Is Considered a Generally Good Score?

The easy answer to the first question for either test is, “A good score is one that gets you accepted by the college you want to attend,” so the “good score” depends on where you want to attend. On the SAT, the average score is about 1540. The perfect score is 2400, so the average is 64.167%. On the ACT, the average score is 20. The perfect score is 36, so the average is 55.56%. Keep in mind that class rank, major, essays, recommendations and other factors are also important for college admission.

Estimates of scores needed for admission to some top schools:

University Minimum SAT Minimum ACT
Harvard* 2200 31
MIT 2200 31
NYU* 1950 29
Princeton* 2200 31
Rice* 2200 30
Stanford* 2200 30
U of Colorado (Boulder)* 1850 23
U of Houston 1500 21
U of Texas (Austin)* 1850 26
UCLA* 2050 27
USC* 2050 29

*These universities require the ACT Plus Writing, when you submit the ACT.