Updated: March 20, 2020

The SAT and ACT

You've Got Questions, We've Got Answers

So you're gonna be a high school senior? You've come a long way, worked hard, met lots of cool kids, enjoyed extracurricular activities, and just shy of one year from now are planning to begin college. Only one (alright, maybe two) things stand in your way, both are three letter words that could quite possibly send chills down your spine or induce a state of shock. The SAT and ACT. Gasp. Gulp. Shiver.

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Still reading? Whether you opt to complete one or both of these tests, they are truly unavoidable if you plan on attending college. Maybe it's only a week before your exam is set to launch (if so, you just might be left waving your optimal score goodbye) or maybe you have a full year to prepare, but for better or for worse, the time to begin preparing is now.

What is the difference between the SAT and ACT?

While both exams explore your reading, writing, and math skills, the ACT also looks at your performance in science. Though the subjects may overlap, each test focuses on different material and requires a different approach. The ACT is primarily content based so it requires a slightly more methodical approach. Typically, as far as the ACT is concerned you either know it or you don't. It is less about problem solving and more about facts. The SAT, in contrast, focuses on your critical thinking and problem solving abilities. It is less about concrete information than it is about your ability to approach problems and develop efficient and successful solutions. Essentially, the two are the difference between a data entry position and marketing a product to clients. The latter allows you slightly more flexibility to develop a solution rather than relying upon a fixed solution.

Does it matter which test I choose to take?

In theory, no, but it really depends on what school you are looking at attending. Most universities don't have a preference, however some will specify which score they would like to see and if they want you to take both exams. It would be wise to look at that schools you are considering and find out a bit about their criteria so that you can obtain both scores if necessary. Both exams can be taken multiple times, though some schools weigh your lower grades with the higher ones. Colleges might also choose to "superscore" your tests by taking your highest section scores from your multiple test attempts. This is more common for the SAT than the ACT.

Preparing for Your Exam

Preparation is important, but if you didn't get the head start studying that you had hoped for, it is still better to have a late start than no start at all. There are many different components that are important in preparing yourself to take the test both mentally and physically. The stress of testing and of being preoccupied by the test can affect how you perform on test day. By preparing yourself for the exam methodically in the months prior to testing, you will relieve this building tension as you gain confidence in your abilities and in all of the information that you have taken in and synthesized throughout high school.

Take your current classes seriously

Just because it's your final year of high school is no excuse to slack off. The information in the courses offered during your senior year is just as valuable for the test as what you learned in previous years. By making the most of your final year of classes you are preparing yourself for the ACT/SAT whether you feel like it or not. If you have devoted time and energy to your classes throughout your high school career, it will pay off on test day. It is important to understand that everything that you can learn is information that you can draw on during your exam. Your mind is your only cheat sheet, so wiggle in as much information as possible.

Take a test prep course

If there is enough time before exam day, you should consider taking a test prep course. While there is a limit to how high each individual can score, you will increase your chance of reaching that limit if you have taken a course and are prepared for some of the questions and the format that you will encounter on the day of the test. Usually a fee accompanies a test prep course, however, if you are planning on attending a school that requires unusually high scores on either exam, it is a necessary option.

Complete a practice exam

Most guidance counselors have practice SAT and ACT exams available in their office. Pick up one of each and spend a weekend working on them. Check your answers and when you encounter a question that you are not familiar with, consult with your teachers. Teachers and guidance counselors are eager to see their students succeed on exams, and as such, they will be more than willing to give you the advice and answers that you need. For more resources and other versions of practice questions, fish around online. There are many credible sites that offer test prep work for free.


Reading is important because it will slowly expand your vocabulary. Most English teachers, if you ask, would also be willing to give you a list of books that they feel would be helpful for you on the exam. Reading has many unseen benefits, all of which will assist in your performance on the day of the SAT/ACT. Also, because vocabulary is one of the hardest things to increase your knowledge of quickly (unless you have a photographic memory, of course) reading a specific selection of books would be a more efficient way of learning some of the words that may appear on your exam. Not only does each sentence provide you with a context for the definition of a word but the book itself will solidify images and descriptions that may help you on the test.


Pull out those wide-ruled spiral notebooks from previous years that are collecting dust in your attic; they contain important information that will help you on the exam. Many of the math and science problems that you will encounter on the test are derived from formulas that you have already studied. Revisiting these formulas will help you refresh your memory and recognize what type of answer the question is looking for more quickly.