The SAT and ACT are two tests used by many colleges and universities in the United States to measure a high schooler’s readiness for college and to compare all applicants.

Almost everyone in high school ends up taking either the SAT or ACT at least once. Students often feel the stress of trying to reach a certain score to get into a particular college or receive scholarship money.

And one of the first things to decide is — should you take the SAT or the ACT?

Well, here’s your quickstart guide to the SAT and ACT to answer your questions and help you decide which test to take and the best way to prepare.

Your Quickstart Guide to the SAT and ACT

Who needs to take the SAT or ACT?

People who need to take at least one of these tests include…

  • Anyone in high school who is trying to get into a college or university that requires or gives the option of an SAT or ACT test score as part of the admission process. 
  • Anyone in high school who hasn’t chosen a specific college. Or decided on specific future plans, but think that college could possibly be an option at some point in the future. 

Even if college doesn’t seem to part of the plan right now, it’s still a good idea to take at least one of these tests at least once and here’s why.

It’s always better to be safe than sorry, and Algebra is like milk: if it gets left alone on the counter, it doesn’t age very well over time. In other words, the material covered on the SAT or ACT is probably going to be the freshest while you are still in high school.

  • Homeschooled high school students can also use one of these test scores to satisfy the yearly evaluation requirement in states like Florida, which allow this option.
  • One last group of test takers includes anyone trying to get scholarship money for college or other post high school education in trade schools. In Florida, Bright Futures is one state scholarship that requires a minimum SAT or ACT score for each level of awarded funds. 

When is the best time to take the SAT or ACT?

This depends a little on the strategy you are using to get your target score. Each test is offered seven times a year. It is usually best to take the test after covering Algebra 1 and Geometry, which is often during the spring semester of the student’s sophomore or junior year of high school.

It is also usually best to take the actual SAT or ACT after learning and practicing the strategies and taking multiple practice tests. Keep reading for more about the strategies and for links to practice tests.

How often should the SAT or ACT be taken?

It often takes multiple times of taking the SAT or ACT to get your target test score. Some high schoolers get their desired score the very first time they take it (woo hoo!), but they are the exception and not the norm.

Many colleges and scholarships will accept the highest composite Math score and Reading and Writing score taken from multiple tests on the SAT. This is called superscoring or Score Choice. At the time this was written, the ACT has not yet, but is planning to introduce the option of superscoring. 

Neither the SAT or ACT currently allows a student to only take a single section of the test. This means that the student will need to retake the entire test each time, but the super scoring will take the highest scores from each section on different test dates.

So, you probably want to take the SAT or ACT until you get your target or acceptable score, run out of money or patience, or figure out another way to get into college or earn that scholarship money.

What are the differences between the SAT and ACT?

The SAT and ACT are both logic and reasoning tests with four different sections taking a total of about three hours to take, without the optional essay.  There is no penalty for incorrect or skipped answers on either test.

But there are quite a few differences between the SAT and ACT. 

The SAT

  • The SAT has a section for Reading (with five passages), Writing and Language (covering grammar, sentence, and word choice), Math (no calculator), and Math (with calculator). 
  • The math sections have some formulas given, and the questions are a less straight forward in their wording than the ACT.
  • There are only 4 answer choices for each question, but there also grid-in questions in each math section with no answer choices given.
  • There is slightly more time per question and fewer topics tested on the math section compared to the ACT.
  • The SAT also uses charts and graphs throughout each section. It is based on a scale of 400 to 1600.
  • The College Board is discontinuing the optional essay for the SAT after June 2021.

The ACT 

  • The ACT has a section for English (similar to the SAT’s Writing and Language), Math (with calculator), Reading (with four passages), and Science Reasoning (reading charts and graphs). 
  • The math section has more Geometry questions than the SAT and the questions are a little more straight forward, but no formulas are given.
  • The math questions have 5 answer choices for each question, but no grid-in questions.
  • There is fewer time per question and more topics covered on the math section.
  • The ACT is based on a scale of 1 to 36.
  • The ACT offers an optional essay.

Most students do better on one of these tests and it is not always the same one as their siblings, friends, or parents.

Some students prefer to have the charts and graphs distributed throughout the SAT sections, rather than lumped into one section on the ACT. Other students prefer to be able to use the calculator on all math problems, which is only possible on the ACT. 

It is a good idea to take at least one practice test of both the SAT and ACT and then to focus on the test that you do better on until you get your target score. You will also want to check with any college that you are interested in to see which test scores they require or accept.

What is the difference between SAT and PSAT?

The PSAT/NMSQT is not the same as the SAT. The PSAT is a test that is used for the National Merit Scholarship during the student’s junior year (two years if on a 5 year high school plan). The PSAT is not used for college admissions or other scholarships like Bright Futures.

There are also PSAT 8/9 and a PSAT 10 tests that can be taken earlier than the junior year for additional practice.

The PSAT has shorter sections with fewer questions in each section. It is also based on a scale of 320 to 1520. It can be an indication of how well a student may do on the SAT without further studying since it is very similar to the SAT, but each section is a little less challenging than the SAT.

What are the dates and costs for the SAT and ACT?

The SAT is offered seven times each year on a Saturday in August, October, November, December, March, May, and June. There are usually alternate dates on Sundays for students who cannot take the test on Saturday for religious or other reasons.

The SAT currently costs $52 without the optional essay and $68 with the essay. Late registration or changes to a registration cost an additional $30.

When taking the SAT during the months of March, May, and October, you can also pay $18 to order a QAS (Question-and-Answer Service). The QAS will give you an online copy of the test you took. It will also include a guide with the correct answers and scoring information to help you review any missed answers.

The ACT is also offered seven times each year on a Saturday in September, October, December, February, April, June, and July. There may be alternate dates for students with religious convictions.

The ACT currently costs $55 without the optional essay and $70 with the essay. Test option changes or late registrations cost an additional $35.

The ACT offers a TIR (Test Information Release) during the months of April, June, and December. You can pay $20 to receive a paper copy of your test with the correct answers and scoring information in the mail. You can use this to review any missed questions.

Both tests have a normal and late registration deadline, as well as fee waiver criteria.

How do I register for the SAT or ACT?

Head over to College Board to register for the SAT,  which usually takes about 30 to 40 minutes. You will need a code for your high school, which is 970000 on the SAT for homeschoolers. You will also need a personal photo to submit for your admission ticket.

Register for the ACT at act.org, which usually takes 30 to 40 minutes. The code for homeschoolers on the ACT is 969-999. You will need a personal photo to submit for your admission ticket.

If you are taking either test for a scholarship like Bright Futures, you will want to send your SAT or ACT scores to at least one state college while registering. This will put your scores into the state system so they can be accessed and verified by the scholarship.

What is the best way to study for the SAT or ACT?

The best way to study for either the SAT or Act is to learn and practice certain logic and reasoning strategies. Both the SAT and ACT are logic and reasoning tests with a short time allowed per question, which make them very different from any other test taken in high school. 

This means that the best way to answer the questions on the SAT and ACT is not by reading each of the passages slowly and carefully and solving each math problem step by step. Strategies to do well on the SAT and ACT include skipping or scanning the reading passages, eliminating and using the answer choices, and using the evidence to locate the correct answers.

I teach and review these and other critical strategies with high school students to help them increase their score on each section and reach their target score. If you would like to find out more about SAT or ACT Prep sessions, please contact me.

Once you know the strategies, it is also important to use official practice tests to practice questions that are most similar to the actual test questions. Both the SAT and ACT have released official tests, which you can use to get your beginning score or to practice with to raise that score.

Here are few other good review resources I have used with students to review specific skills tested on the SAT and ACT:

Taking multiple official practice tests and analyzing and reviewing any incorrect questions is one of the best way to prepare for the actual SAT or ACT test.

So, now you know lots of information about both the SAT and ACT to help you decide which test to take.

Still have questions? Comment below or contact me. I’d love to chat more about your situation and how your high schooler can reach their target score!