The Ultimate Guide to Studying for the SAT & ACT

An impressive score on the SAT or ACT might mean the difference between your safety school and dream school. To optimize the choices of colleges and financial aid rewards,  every student should aim for a high score on either or both exams.

What subjects are covered on the SAT and ACT?

The SAT covers three sections–Critical Reading, Math, and Writing. The ACT has up to five sections–English, Math, Reading, Science, and an optional writing section.

In what format will the questions and answers be?

On the SAT, most of the questions will be multiple choice, but you will also be required to write an essay and complete 10 math problems with student-produced answers. For specifics on the structure, read here. On the ACT, the questions on all of the sections except the writing section will be multiple choice. For specifics on the format, read here.

What will I have to write about in the essay portion of both the SAT and ACT?

The essay portion on both tests will ask you to write a well-developed response to a question asking your point of view. It is best if you spend some time reading the assignment carefully and thinking about how to frame your answer. Don’t try to simplify your answers, but take the time to develop them fully. Use examples from what you have already learned in school as well as real life experience.

How do I know if I should prepare for the writing portion of the ACT?

Some schools require scores for the writing portion while other schools do not. If you are applying for one or two specific schools and you know they do not require the writing, then you don’t need to worry about preparing for this section. If you are not sure the requirements for a school or plan to send your ACT scores to several schools, it is probably safest to take the written portion.

How can I practice for the English portion of the SAT and ACT?

Studying vocabulary will help you do better on the English tests. Make flash cards, study with a friend, and incorporate new vocabulary words into your everyday language. You can also find some online help as well. The ACT also has a reading comprehension section. You will not be required to know anything other than what is provided in each portion of the test. To best prepare for this section, you should sharpen your attention to detail and make sure you read the passages carefully.

How can I best prepare for the math on the SAT and ACT?

On the SAT, the math questions start easier and get progressively harder. The test does not require any math theories you have not already been taught by tenth grade, but will require you to rely on your critical thinking skills. You can find some practice questions at this site. ACT math questions also rely on critical thinking skills and will only ask for theories and computations that are typically taught through eleventh grade. For ACT practice questions, you can go here.

Can I use a calculator during the real SAT and ACT tests?

You may use a calculator during both the SAT and ACT, so be sure to use one while you study for the exams as well.

What can I expect on the Science portion of the ACT?

The science portion is based on all the science you should have learned through your high school career including biology and earth sciences. You should make sure you are familiar with data representation such as graphs and tables, research summaries, and recognizing and analyzing hypotheses. Relying on your reasoning skills will help you with this section. If you want to sharpen your reasoning skills, try this podcast designed to help reasoning skills for the LSAT.

Should I take practice tests?

Yes, taking practice tests under similar conditions as you can expect on test day will help prepare you for the format and time constraints of the real test, thereby helping to eliminate any surprises. Practice tests also help you learn time management during the test so you don’t get caught short when the time limit has expired.

Where can I find free practice tests?

Searching on the Internet will turn up plenty of opportunities for practice tests. Some free tests are available at ProProfs along with other SAT study aids such as study guides, flashcards, quizzes, and more. For ACT practice tests, you can go to sites such as Number2.com.

Should I guess on the questions I’m not sure about?

The SAT counts off points for wrong answers, so you should not randomly guess if you are not sure about the answer. The ACT does not count off for wrong answers, so guessing if you are not sure will only improve your chances of getting points for the question.