ACT and SAT: What you need to know


While researching colleges and building your college list, you’ve most likely heard the terms ACT and SAT. But even if you’ve heard about them, you might still have questions. That’s OK! We’re here to tell you what you need to know about the ACT and SAT.

What are the ACT and SAT?
The SAT and ACT are standardized tests that assess the knowledge and skills you’ve gained in high school and measure your readiness for college. (They’re sometimes referred to as “college entrance exams.”)

The ACT is comprised of multiple-choice tests in English, mathematics, reading, and science. It also includes an optional writing test.

The SAT is comprised of tests in three areas: reading, writing and language, and math. Most questions are multiple-choice, but some math questions ask you fill in your answer instead of selecting one. The SAT also includes an optional essay-writing component, which may be required by some schools.

Whether you take the ACT or SAT, you earn points for the questions you answer correctly (points are not deducted for incorrect answers), so be sure to answer every question!

You may have also heard about SAT Subject Tests. These are multiple-choice exams in specific subject areas, including English, history, mathematics, science, and languages — and you can choose which test to take based on your academic strengths and interests.

Remember: You should always review the admissions requirements for each college you plan to apply to, so you know which test (or tests) to take.

Why do you take the ACT or SAT?
ACT and SAT test scores are an important part of the college admissions process — but we want you to know that they’re not the most important part (we’ll get to that in a minute!).

Both tests measure what you’ve learned in high school — like how to solve problems in your math classes and how to read and analyze books in your English classes, for example — so your scores give admissions counselors a good idea of how prepared you are for college. And that helps them make admissions decisions.

BUT, your test scores are only one part of your college applications. You’ll also provide your high school transcript (your classes and grades), extracurricular activities, recommendation letters, and application essays. In fact, according to colleges, the classes you take and the grades you receive are often the most important — and most accurate — reflection of who you are as a student.

Did you take classes that challenged you? Did you consistently receive high marks in your classes? Did you steadily improve your grades from one term to the next? These show admissions counselors that you worked hard and put forth your best effort in the classroom.

You should also know that some colleges require you to take one of these tests, while others don’t. Be sure to check the admissions policies of the schools to which you’re applying.

When do you take the ACT or SAT?
You’ll take the SAT or ACT in your junior or senior year of high school. Each test is offered on multiple dates, both in the fall and spring.

It’s important to know when the application deadlines are for the colleges to which you’re applying: Be sure to choose a test date that will give you enough time to get your scores to those schools. Check out the complete list of SAT and ACT test dates and registration deadlines.

Some students may opt to take the SAT or ACT more than once. For instance, they may take it in the spring of their junior year and again in the fall of their senior year. However, you’re not required to take it multiple times.

How do you prepare for the SAT and ACT?
High school is your best preparation for the SAT and ACT: Take those challenging classes. Work hard in the classroom and study hard at home. Practice your reading and writing skills. Establish good study habits.

But, what else can you do to get ready? Here’s what we recommend:

Take the pre-tests
For the SAT, it’s called the PSAT; for the ACT, it’s called the ACT Aspire. In either case, you’ll take these tests in 10th or 11th grade, usually with your classmates during school hours. By taking these pre-tests, you’ll gain valuable test-taking experience.

Get to know the test
For both the ACT and SAT, sample tests are available for you to review online or in study guides (You can find these guides in your local library, bookstore, or high school counselor’s office). That way, you’ll see what each section of the test looks like, so there are no surprises on test day. And if your friends or family members have taken the test, ask them what they thought about it!

Practice, Practice, Practice
We strongly recommend you take at least one practice test before taking the SAT or ACT. By practicing, you will become more comfortable with test’s format, including the number of questions and how much time you have to complete each section. Practice tests also give you a good sense of what you know and what you might need to review: Maybe you’re good to go with the math section, but you need some extra time practicing vocabulary.

Check out these great online resources:

The College Board has partnered with Khan Academy to offer free, online SAT preparation, including interactive problems and video lessons. And, this spring, ACT will offer free, online preparation with their new ACT Academy.

The College Board and ACT provide valuable test preparation resources on their websites, including sample test questions, short quizzes, and full practice tests.

Tips for Test Day

  1. Get a good night’s sleep! When your mind and body are rested, you’ll feel alert and ready to crush that test.

  2. Get your supplies ready... the night before. You'll need your admission ticket, identification, calculator, No. 2 pencils, and erasers. Have them packed and ready to go, so you're not scrambling to find them the morning of your test.

  3. Know where you're going. Review the directions to the testing center the day before, and give yourself extra time to get there. It's always best to arrive early!

  4. Eat a healthy breakfast and eat a nutritious snack. And don't forget your water bottle! Your body needs energy to stay focused and on task during the test.

  5. Be confident. You’ve worked hard in school. You’ve practiced for the test. You’ve got this!

Additional Resources
Take advantage of all that we have to offer! With MyCoalition, you can store important high school documents and files in your digital Locker, ask for input from trusted family and friends, and even apply to schools with one easy-to-use application.

And be sure to check out these helpful articles over at BigFuture by The College Board:

Read about how colleges use the SAT and ACT

Learn about the role of the SAT and ACT in your college application

Find out how to prepare for the SAT




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