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Should I take the SAT or ACT test? What’s the difference between the SAT and ACT? How much time should I spend doing test prep?

Get the answers to these questions and many more that real students and parents have asked us about preparing to succeed on the new SAT and ACT. [5 minute read]

SAT tutoring test prep FAQ Initia Education

Q: “Do I get a break to eat a snack?” A: “Yep, about halfway through the test… Just don’t eat during the test.”

What’s the difference between the SAT and ACT?

The new SAT test (since March 2015) is now more similar to the ACT test structure and types of questions. The timing varies, however. Here’s how the two tests compare:

TEST ATTRIBUTE SAT ACT
Reading Section 52 questions in 65 minutes 40 questions in 35 minutes
English and Grammar Section 44 questions in 35 minutes 75 questions in 45 minutes
Science Questions Data analysis questions are in the Reading section 40 questions in 35 minutes in a single Science section of six passages
Math Sections 58 questions in 80 minutes over two sections:
Without calculator: 20 questions in 25 minutes
With calculator: 38 questions in 55 minutes
60 questions in 60 minutes
Math Free Response Questions Yes: 13 that are not multiple-choice None (all questions are multiple choice)
Graphing Calculator Allowed Yes, only in one section (see above) Yes
Timed Essay 50 minutes; argumentative essay based on three different perspectives on a central issue 40 minutes; analysis of author’s argumentative writing
Essay Optional? Yes; more about the essay below Yes
Test Duration? 4 hours including the essay 4 hours including the essay
Score Scale 800 maximum for Reading/Writing and Math sections; 1600 total maximum 36 maximum for each section; 36 maximum “composite” score (average score)

Is the ACT more challenging in math and science?

Both tests cover similar math topics: pre-algebra, algebra, geometry, and a lesser amount of algebra-II and trigonometry.

The SAT now has data analysis questions similar to the Science questions of the ACT. The good news is that the questions test your ability to read and interpret graphs and tables, not your recall of science facts or your ability to solve tricky problems involving calculations. Think of the ACT Science section as a reading comprehension test about science topics.

Okay, that doesn’t sound so bad, but how should I choose which test to take?

The ultimate way to choose the test you prefer is by taking a full, timed practice SAT test and ACT test to see how you really perform under the time constraints. If you have a better gut feeling about one format over the other, we recommend sticking with the test you like better.  Your mindset and confidence play major roles in how you perform, so take the time to choose wisely.

Download sample tests and questions at the College Board SAT site and the official ACT site.

Should I take a practice test at home, a library, or sign up for the actual test to see how I do?

If you know you’ll time yourself accurately—or get help from a parent in timing you—then completing practice tests in a quiet place at home can give you a fair benchmark of your current performance level. If you prefer having an instructor proctor your practice test(s), contact us and we can help you. Look for local free practice tests as well but make sure that their tests are official SAT or ACT tests for an accurate test experience.

What’s so important about the SAT and ACT?

Their importance really depends on the colleges and universities to which you’re considering applying.  Admissions offices weigh a variety of student factors such as rigor of high school courses, (i.e., AP and honors classes have more weight), personal statements, and standardized test scores, (e.g., SAT, ACT, Subject Tests).

In general, many schools weigh your GPA, rigor of classes, and standardized tests more heavily than other factors.  However, some schools place more value on students’ qualitative factors such as extracurricular activities, interviews, or unique skills.

UCLA Royce Hall

How do you gain admission to a competitive school like UCLA? Aim high and aim early!

Do some universities prefer one test over the other?

The vast majority of universities will accept either the SAT or ACT.  Few schools explicitly prefer one test format over the other.

When you set your personal SAT or ACT goals, consider the tier of colleges you’re aiming for, check out their freshman profiles, and note the test score ranges and GPA’s of admitted freshmen.  Use that data to sort your schools into three tiers: Reach, Target (AKA Good Fit), and Safety.

Does the SAT or ACT measure intelligence or IQ?

There’s a large body of research showing no significant correlation between these test scores and students’ intelligence nor whether they will succeed in college.  Students’ GPAs show work ethic while test scores show how well a student performed on that particular test.  We’ve known plenty of students who had moderate test scores who gained admissions to top schools based on the overall strength of their applications.

For example, I helped a figure skater who was homeschooled yet took advanced foreign language classes at the local community college and had wonderful experience teaching younger skaters.  Her SAT scores were relatively modest (around 1200 out of 1600) and math was a struggle for her, but guess where she went to school? Cal Berkeley!

So what do these test scores really say about me?

Your test scores tell college admissions officers how much you dedicated time and energy to preparing yourself. If you focus on what you learn during each moment of your test training, you’ll gain better results rather than only focusing on the end result of the scores themselves. Be mindful about what you learn and how you’re improving yourself.  Enjoy each moment of the journey!

I get it—I’ll prepare but how much time should I spend preparing?

Test prep is an outcome-based process: You set your goals and train yourself until you achieve your goals. Then celebrate!

Now, some instructors and companies may advise a certain number of weeks, but we’ve found that every student has a unique timeline based on other important priorities such as school tests, sports, and other activities.  You might get the score increase you want after a few weeks of prep.  Or you may need to distribute your practice over a semester.

How to Design Your Optimal Test Prep Plan:

QUESTION ACTION TO DO
How competitive are your target schools? Look up the schools’ freshman profiles for admitted freshmen test scores.
What’s your current performance level? Take a timed practice test.  Use your PSAT score as a rough benchmark.
How motivated are you to gain admission to those schools? Write specific goals in SMART Goal format to energize yourself and establish exactly what you will achieve.
How much time do you have available to do test prep on your own, with a study buddy, or a coach/tutor? Review your existing schedule.  Find the windows of time that you have available to study.  Make at least 2 hours per week available.
Are you struggling with maintaining top grades in your classes? Focus on your classwork first. Learn how to learn and study efficiently using techniques like speed reading and mnemonics. Once you’re earning top grades, allocate time to test prep.
Do you have a special diagnosis, IEP, or 504 plan that affects how you learn and study? Learn how to get special test accommodations, such as additional time, from the SAT or ACT sites.  You’ll need to submit signed documentation from a health or psychological professional verifying your particular situation.
How are your standardized test-taking skills? Register for an upcoming SAT or ACT to measure your actual performance.  Practice about six to eight hours, then take another practice test to measure your improvement.
Do you prepare well on your own or are you pressed for time and would benefit from working with a coach or tutor? Know thyself honestly! You’ll always benefit from learning from an expert who fits well with your learning style and personality.  If you prefer a class setting, look for a format that you like. If you prefer working one-on-one, contact us for a free consultation. At the very least, you’ll learn what you can do right away to get ahead.

I have questions you haven’t listed here!

Ask us anything! We’re here to help so feel free to email, call us, or comment below. Visit us on Facebook to ask questions and check out our tips and videos.