We know many families have questions surrounding their student’s test preparation, and how test scores apply to their college applications. We’ve answered some of the most common questions we receive.

1. Aren’t the SAT and ACT essentially the same test?

In short, no. Although the two tests overlap in many ways regarding the concepts being assessed, those concepts are being tested in rather different ways. There are various nuances to each test, which is why we strongly recommend that students pick one test and dedicate time to building confidence in that test.

For example, while both tests have questions regarding math probability, the SAT tests this concept using two-way tables. The ACT, on the other hand, utilizes more word problems, and even goes on to test second outcomes, which is not tested on the SAT. 

2. How do the SAT and ACT differ from one another?


The primary difference between the two tests is the speed and pacing of the test itself. The ACT is a faster-paced test compared to the SAT. One might say that the ACT is a 100-meter dash (fast and more straightforward with its questioning, but if you trip you may not finish) while the SAT is similar to a chess match (more logical and nuanced, giving you more time to strategize and recover from challenges).


  • Reading - The ACT passages are typically more straightforward, but the test allows less time to answer each question (ACT: 53 seconds vs SAT: 75 seconds per question).

  • English/Writing & Language - This is the most similar to any of the sections. The ACT is faster-paced and longer (75 questions, as opposed to 44 on the SAT). Many of the same strategies, skills, and concepts learned can be applied to both. However, the ACT also includes some questions regarding “Goals of Writing” that are not included in the SAT.

  • Math - The SAT primarily focuses on Algebra. The ACT math is much broader, including more advanced Algebra II and Trigonometry concepts. Also, the ACT math concepts are more evenly distributed between Algebra, Geometry, and Trigonometry.

  • Science - The ACT has a dedicated section which consists of reading tables, charts, and graphs. The SAT has incorporated the testing of these skills into each section of the test. For example, the Reading, and Writing & Language sections of the SAT will each have graphs in some passages and will have questions requiring navigation and analysis of those graphs.

3. How do I know which test is more suited for my student?


The best way to answer this is to test your student in each. Then we can compare scores with the many online SAT/ACT concordance tables, and assess which test is best for your student. If results are similar, we recommend preparing for the test that the student feels more comfortable with taking.


Once a test is decided upon, we strongly recommend using resources specific to that test to prepare. Through repetition, your student will begin to recognize patterns in the question stems and the test’s nuisances, which will help to build confidence. Effectively, with consistent practice, your student will begin seeing every SAT (or ACT) as the same test, instead of a new beast to conquer each time.


4. When should I start preparing for and taking my tests?


After a student has completed Algebra II, we recommend they begin a committed test preparation process. The student will have, at that point, been introduced to about 90% of the math concepts for both the SAT or ACT. For most students, this is after their sophomore year, which will allow them to begin testing in the fall semester of their junior year.


For other students, we recommend that they either take their tests in spring of their junior year or, if more time for development is needed, in the fall semester of their senior year. Please be aware of application deadlines when signing up for a fall of senior year SAT/ACT.

5. How long should I study and prepare for each test?


We strongly recommend that 4 - 6 weeks is given, at a minimum, for initial test preparation, and then more time is dedicated to honing skills between each test. If students are looking to improve their scores in the SAT by 200+ or ACT 6+ points, then we strongly recommend that 10 - 12 weeks of preparation is set aside for those efforts.


6. Should I take the writing portion?


Most likely, no. There are approximately 30 schools nationwide who require the writing score, and that number is becoming smaller due to COVID-19. No school in the state of Texas requires it.

7. What’s a good SAT/ACT score for my student?

Each college has what we refer to as the “middle 50” for college testing requirements. This “middle 50” represents test scores that are above the 25 percentile and below the 75 percentile. For stronger chances of admissions and scholarships, we recommend that students have scores above the 75 percentile.


For instance, if a school has a “middle 50” of 1150 - 1350 SAT scores, then a score greater than 1350 would place a student among the top 25% in test scorers for his admissions pool, thus increasing the student’s chances of admission and receiving scholarships.

8. How has COVID-19 impacted college testing requirements?


First, there are fewer opportunities for seniors to test, so we strongly recommend that students take advantage of the earliest available testing dates. This will hopefully relieve some of the anxiety associated with this requirement.


Also, please check with your possible schools as some have gone to a “Test Optional” policy. Although some schools may employ a “Test Optional” policy, strong test scores can still increase a student’s odds for admissions and even scholarships.


9. What does “Test Optional” mean for an institution’s admission policy?


The term “Test Optional” simply means that students have the option of submitting applications without SAT or ACT scores, giving them a chance of being admitted as long as their applications are exceptional in every other respect, including high GPAs. However, these schools still actively consider SAT/ACT scores when students submit them, making standardized test scores an integral part of most competitive applications.


10. Should I still submit my scores if an institution uses a “Test Optional” policy?


If your scores are above the average score, then yes, we recommend submitting your scores. If an admissions officer at a “Test Optional” school sees two applications side-by-side with nearly identical GPAs, extracurriculars, college essays, and recommendation letters, and only one of these applications includes a stellar SAT or ACT score, it’s not hard to guess which application will come out on top. Additionally, many academic and merit-based scholarships require students to submit SAT or ACT scores as a decisive part of their applications.

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