Master Standardized Tests: The SAT and ACT

No three letters strike fear into the hearts of high schoolers more than S-A-T or A-C-T. But standardized tests don’t have to be scary! Many students initially worry that standardized tests reduce their applications to a single score – and not even one indicative of their skills! Yet in truth, you can choose between different test types, take tests multiple times, and even pull off your goal score with a consistent study plan and efficient strategies. 

There are two main standardized tests accepted by U.S. colleges: the American College Testing (ACT) and the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT). They have different scoring, formatting, and topics. Both are accepted by all colleges in the United States. The ACT tends to be more straightforward but requires students to work quickly. The SAT calls for stronger comprehension of concepts but is slower-paced. 

Compare the SAT and ACT

Writing & Language
Science Reasoning
Essay (optional)
Length3 hours2 hours, 55 minutes (without essay)
3 hours, 40 minutes (with essay)
Reading5 passages4 passages
ScienceNone1 Science section testing critical thinking skills (no requirement for advanced knowledge ) 
Data Analysis
Algebra I & II
Geometry, Trigonometry, and Data Analysis
Algebra I & II
Geometry and Trigonometry
Statistics and Probability
A calculator can only be used for certain math sectionsYou can use a calculator on all math questions
No essayThe essay will test how well you evaluate and analyze complex issues
How It’s
Scored on a scale of 400–1600Scored on a scale of 1–36
Cost$60 (U.S. cost; international costs vary)$66; $91 with essay (U.S. cost; international costs vary)

Before deciding which standardized tests to take, consider your strengths and weaknesses; each test has different focuses. Whichever test you choose, there will be ways to maximize your scores!

Also consider your colleges’ policies. Some schools are not requiring standardized tests due to COVID; others have not required them for some time. Other schools, such as the University of California system, will not consider scores at all, even if you send them in. 

On the ACT, the writing section is optional and not included in your overall score. The SAT recently discontinued their essay section. However, some schools require the writing score, so we recommend that you take it (as long as it’s available) to be prepared. 

When Should I Take the ACT/SAT?

It’s best to build your SAT or ACT schedule to allow for multiple tests and plenty of prep time to improve your scores. We recommend students plan to take the test three times.

Remember – creating an SAT/ACT schedule isn’t just about when to take the tests, but how to prepare. To get the most out of your preparation time, work with a TCD tutor; we can accommodate all schedules and offer a wide range of price points.

Our motto is “Plan your work, work your plan” – that is, lay out a strong road map for yourself, and put in the effort to make it happen! Our TCD College Admissions Guide details different example testing schedules depending on your needs, including an ideal timeline, a common timeline, and a “Life Happens” timeline.

SAT and ACT Prep Strategies

Whether you take the SAT or the ACT, our guidelines will help you do your best! To prepare most effectively, you should determine the approximate score you need in order to get into the schools on your list and then devise a strategy for reaching your goal score. Give yourself plenty of time – we recommend beginning prep during sophomore year. 

  1. Take a practice test of each so you know which is better for you. 
  2. Get a tutor and devise a study plan. 
  3. Identify what you need to work on and create a strong test prep strategy! 
  4. Determine what sections to submit. 
  5. Guess! There is no penalty for a wrong answer on either test, so make sure you fill in all questions before time is called. 

Score Reports

Sending in Score Reports: Most colleges require that students send SAT or ACT scores directly from testing services, i.e. College Board and ACT, respectively. There’s an option to send your scores on test day, but don’t do it; you want to wait to see how you do. When you decide which scores you want to send, you can do so through your online account. There are fees for sending score reports, but waivers are available. For more information on sending scores and waivers, check out the College Board and ACT websites.

Score Choice and Super Scoring: The SAT and ACT both allow you to choose which scores to send to colleges, and most colleges permit you to use it. “Score choice” allows you to pick which test results colleges see. You can pick and choose whole tests but not separate sections. For example, if your second test was better than your first, you can send in just scores from the second test. However, if you got 710 Reading/650 Math on one test and 700 Reading/720 Math on another, you can send in both full sets of scores. Admissions officers will usually help you out by considering 1430 to be your score! This is called super scoring.

NOTE: Not all schools will allow you to exercise score choice and not all schools practice super scoring. Check the policy of each school on your list to know how you should report your scores.

To learn more details on our tips and tricks on standardized testing, visit TCD’s College Counseling Guide also includes modules on other standardized tests including AP/IB exams, CLEP exams, English proficiency tests, TOEFL, and IELTS. 

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