Preparing for the SAT/ACT

While the number of “test optional” colleges increases each year, most schools still require incoming freshmen to take either the SAT or ACT.  Still others require students to take SAT II–or SAT Subject–tests, which are offered in a variety of subjects.  The first step in preparing for the tests is to decide which one to take (though many high school students take both).  An overview of each test follows.


The redesigned SAT will debut in March 2016. (The PSAT, which students typically take in the fall of junior year, will also change beginning in October 2015.)  Its format will be as follows;
  • 65-minute, 52-question Reading test comprised of 5 long passages, some with charts.
  • 35-minute, 44-question Writing and Language test comprised of 4 passages.
  • 25-minute, 20-question Math section (no calculators allowed)
  • 55-minute, 38-question Math section (calculators allowed)
  • 50-minute Essay (optional, but most colleges will require it)

In addition to its redesigned format, the content and focus of the SAT will change significantly (and will more closely resemble the ACT).  The biggest changes include:

  • Reading:  The questions in the new reading section will emphasize identifying evidence.  In responding to questions about a reading passage, students will have to answer questions, then identify which piece of evidence best supports their answer.  The redesigned reading section will also ask students to infer information from graphs and charts, then revise sentences to reflect that information.
  • Math:  The math topics covered will be narrower, but more challenging. The new SAT will emphasize linear and polynomial algebra, include some trigonometry and statistics, and go light on geometry.
  • Essay:  The essay will no longer ask students to respond to a broad writing prompt. Instead, students will be presented with a roughly 700-word essay and be required to analyze the author’s effective use of evidence.
  • Scoring:  Following in the footsteps of the ACT, the new SAT will not subtract points for wrong answers.
  • Vocabulary:  The new SAT no longer requires students to demonstrate their knowledge of sometimes obscure vocabulary words via “Sentence Completions.”  Instead, it asks them to choose definitions for commonly used words based on how they are used in context.
  • Test prep:  The College Board, which designs and oversees the SAT, has joined forces with Khan Academy to provide free, online test prep for the SAT.  This partnership will mean that all students will have access to high-quality test preparation.


The ACT includes four sections–English, Math, Reading and Science.  With the introduction of the redesigned SAT in March 2016, the differences between the tests will greatly diminish.  Only the ACT, however, has a Science section that involves challenging reading passages and reading/interpreting charts and graphs.  The test is organized as follows:

ACT Multiple-Choice Tests
English Test Content                   Number of Items
Punctuation 10
Grammar and Usage 12
Sentence Structure 18
Strategy 12
Organization 11
Style 12
Total 75
45 minutes
Mathematics Test Content         Number of Items
Pre-Algebra 14
Elementary Algebra 10
Intermediate Algebra 9
Coordinate Geometry 9
Plane Geometry 14
Trigonometry 4
Total 60
60 minutes
Reading Test Content                Number of Items
Prose Fiction 10
Humanities 10
Social Studies 10
Natural Sciences 10
Total 40
35 minutes
Science Test Content                         Number of Items
Data Representation 15
Research Summaries 18
Conflicting Viewpoints 7
Total 40
35 minutes

The Best Ways to Prepare for the Tests

Know before you go.  Whether you opt for the SAT or ACT, it pays to familiarize yourself with the test’s format.  There are many online resources and test-prep books, so peruse before you choose.  The best books are The Official SAT Study Guide published by The College Board and The Real ACT Prep Guide by the makers of the ACT.

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