Standardized testing is stressful for many students and parents because it has such high stakes. At many U.S. and international universities, test scores are a major factor in admissions decisions. After years of diligent coursework and academics, it’s hard to imagine a student’s future being decided by one session on a Saturday morning. But the reality is much less frightening. But taking a standardized test like the SAT or ACT doesn’t have to be stressful and scary.

The Facts About the SAT and ACT

The tables below summarize the format of the SAT and ACT, so you can have some background about the two different tests.

The SAT
Sections Time Questions Time per Question Points
Reading 65 min 52 75 sec 800
Writing 35 min 44 ~48 sec 800
Math (no Calc) 25 min 20 75 sec 800
Math (w/Calc) 55 min 38 ~87 sec 800
Essay (optional) 50 min 1 50 min 2-8 (3 areas)
TOTAL 3 hr 50 min (with essay) 154 (+1 essay prompt) 1600
The ACT
Sections Time Questions Time per Question Points
English 45 min 75 36 sec 36
Math 60 min 60 60 sec 36
Reading 35 min 40 52 sec 36
Science 35 min 40 52 sec 36
Essay (optional) 40 min 1 40 min 2-12 (4 areas)
total out of 12
TOTAL 3 hr 35 min (with essay) 215 (+1 essay prompt) 36

 

Choosing Which test to Take

Many families and students struggle with choosing the best test for them and often take both. Since it’s hard work preparing for either, picking one and focusing on it can help you do better and reduce stress. Here are a few tips to help you choose:

  • Take free practice tests for both without preparation, and choose the one at which you do better. Since the formats of the tests are sufficiently different, choosing one this way can be simple and effective. Many test-prep coaching centers offer regular practice tests, so look around in your region. You can also do this at home, as long as you’re honest about timing and conditions. Both the College Board (which administers the SAT) and the ACT offer free practice tests online, which you can download and print.
  • The Khan Academy, in partnership with the College Board, offers excellent free online help with preparing for the SAT.
  • For some students who struggle with timed tests, the SAT can be better since the average time you have per question is higher.
  • If you need accommodation for the test, check carefully with your counselor and both the College Board and the ACT. The two can be quite different in the accommodations they offer to individual students. And make sure you start early since the process of requesting and receiving accommodations can take a significant amount of time.

Tackling the SAT and ACT

How to Prepare for the SAT and ACT

  • Start Early: The most important tip on preparing for standardized testing is to start early. It’s best to start no later than the fall of junior year, which will give you enough time to practice and gain the speed you need to ace the test.
  • Choose One Test: Practicing and preparing for both tests is both time-consuming and counter-productive. Use our tips to choose one, and then stick to it.
  • Create a Timeline and Stay Disciplined: If you start early, you can develop a standardized testing timeline and take the tests twice to give you the best chance of success. Most universities want only your best score or will “super-score” the tests (that means they will select the best scores you achieved in each section).
  • Get Expert Coaching If You Can: One-on-one tutoring can help you raise your scores (for example, by about 150-200 points on the SAT). If you can afford it, this can help a lot. If you can’t, there are many free resources, but you’ll need to be more disciplined in setting a strategy and sticking to it.
  • Read extensively: Nothing helps more with reading tests than a practice of reading. Read the news, on well-written sites like the New York Times, and you’ll find the English sections of the SAT and ACT will seem easy.

The SAT and ACT are less important than they used to be, but they are both still very important in the admissions process. Following a structured, disciplined approach can help you ace the test you take.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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