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SAT & ACT Prep


The two standardized tests for college admission are the SAT and ACT. We tutor all areas of both tests, and we're deeply familiar with the particular challenges and benefits that each test offers. Here are some of the questions we hear most frequently from parents and students.


What’s the difference between the SAT and ACT?

Both the SAT and ACT are divided into four test sections with an optional essay. While there is overlap in terms of the core content tested, there are some significant differences. Overall, the ACT Math places a greater emphasis on math formulas and classroom concepts, while the SAT emphasizes problem solving and critical thinking. The ACT Reading tends to be more literal and straightforward than the SAT Reading. As a whole, the ACT provides far less time per question than the SAT, making the sections in that test much harder to finish. Lastly, there is a “Science” section on the ACT whereas the SAT tests only Reading, Grammar and Math.

How long is the SAT?

The SAT is 3 hours long (3-hours and 15-minutes with breaks). If you choose to take the SAT with optional essay, the test takes 4 hours.

65-minute reading (52 questions)

35-minute grammar (44 questions)

25-minute math without calculator (20 questions)

55-minute math with calculator (38 questions)

(50-minute optional essay)

How long is the ACT?

The ACT is 3-hours long (3-hours and 30-minutes with breaks). If you choose to take the ACT with optional essay, the test takes 4 hours.

45-minute grammar (75 questions)

60-minute math (60 questions)

35-minute reading (40 questions)

35-minute science (40 questions)

(30-minute optional essay)

Why is there science on the ACT and not on the SAT?

While we cannot tell you precisely why the ACT includes “science” and the SAT does not, we can tell you that the science on the ACT is not very “scientific.” Although students may benefit from knowledge of science or an interest in science, this section is really about interpreting data in the form of graphs, tables, and illustrations.

How do I figure out if I’m an “SAT person” or “ACT person”?

We recommend that students take at least one official SAT and one official ACT before committing exclusively to either test. Normally our students begin by taking a diagnostic SAT test. Occasionally students or their parents prefer to start with the ACT. Either way, students devote specific time and practice to one test, including tutoring sessions and regular full-length timed practice tests. After students take their first official SAT, we transition to weekly ACT prep. Once a student has taken his or her first official SAT and ACT tests, we are able to determine which test suits that student best. In many cases it becomes obvious to our tutors quite early in the process.

When should my child take his/her first official SAT or ACT?

We recommend that 11th graders sign up for either the December or March SAT as their first official test, as long as they’re able to devote enough time to prepare in the summer or fall leading up to their official test date. If you’re planning on taking the December SAT it’s obviously beneficial to utilize the summer months to prepare ahead of this test. That said, we have many students who begin their preparation in August and take their first official SAT in December. If students prefer to start with ACT prep, we recommend either the February or April ACT as their first official test date.

What happens after students take their first official test(s)?

Although students will experience strong, and even sometimes incredible, progress, it’s important to note that students do not typically score their highest on their first official SAT and ACT tests. However, the first official tests are vital in helping students get familiar with the test, the environment, the pacing, and the overall experience. Not surprisingly, students feel much more confident and relaxed when taking their second and third tests. That said, we always have students who score extraordinarily high on their first official SAT and ACT tests.

What should I know when registering for my test?

When registering for your SAT and ACT tests, make sure you sign up for tests “with essay,” which is what most colleges require or prefer. IMPORTANT: make sure to also sign up for the “Question and Answer” (for SAT) and “Test Information Release” (for ACT) when offered for your test dates. These services provide students with a copy of their actual test booklet as well as a detailed score report. This is a tremendous tool for students (and tutors) to see which questions were answered incorrectly and whether the mistakes were careless or fundamental. For the SAT, the “Question and Answer” service ($20) is available for the August, May, and October test dates. For the ACT, the “Test Information Release” ($20) is available for the April, June, and December test dates.

What is “score choice” and “super score”?

Students today have the advantage of “Score Choice” on the SAT. Score Choice allows students to send only the SAT scores they want to send to colleges. Colleges will then combine the highest scores from each part of submitted tests to reach what’s known as a “Super Score.” So, let’s say a student scores very high in Reading on the March SAT… That student can then focus on the Math sections on subsequent SAT tests, knowing that he or she has a high Reading score essentially “in the bank.” The super score not only alleviates intense pressure for students, but it also helps students maximize time and effort during the tutoring and testing process.

Many parents and students ask: Do colleges super-score the ACT? The answer is “yes” AND “no.” Some colleges do and some don’t. As you begin scheduling your ACT, SAT, and SAT subject tests, it’s important for students to review the admissions pages on college websites to find out which tests each college requires and how the tests are evaluated.

What are SAT subject tests?

In addition to the SAT and ACT, some colleges will ask or “highly recommend” that you submit scores from two or three SAT SUBJECT TESTS. These are timed multiple-choice tests that cover specific academic subjects. There are currently 20 SAT Subject Tests, including U.S. History, World History, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Math Level 1 and 2, English Literature, French, Italian, and Spanish, along with many others. Each test is one hour. A student may take up to three subject tests on any given test date. We usually recommend that students space out the test dates and take no more than two Subject Tests on any given test date. Subject Tests “with listening” are generally offered once per year (November).

Whether scores are required or “highly recommended” at the college(s) where you’re applying, we advise students to prepare adequately and take Subject Tests that 1) you’re most confident taking and 2) cover material you’ve recently studied. Therefore, students should consider taking SAT Subject Tests as early as their freshman or sophomore year. While it’s always a good idea to demonstrate strength in Math, Science, and a Foreign Language, you should take the subject tests that highlight your specific academic strengths. If possible, it is also a good idea to factor in your future degree or major, particularly if you’re planning on entering fields such as engineering, medicine, or finance. Some selective engineering and business programs require Math Level 2.

Can I skip the SAT Subject Tests?

First, you should check if the college(s) to which you’re applying require or recommend SAT II subject tests. It’s also worth mentioning that some colleges (including Boston College, which asks students to submit their SAT scores as well as scores from two subject tests) will accept a student’s ACT score in lieu of both the SAT and SAT subject tests. This is obviously a great option for students who score disproportionately better on the ACT than the SAT, or students who have limited time to prepare for both the SAT and the SAT II subject tests. Regardless, it is important for students to know in advance the tests that their prospective colleges recommend or require.


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