Preparing for the ACT and SAT

Preparing for the ACT and SAT

Understanding college entrance exams, 6 tips you need to know, and a story about ice cream.

Of all the topics At The Core talks about with college-bound families, test taking (preparing for the ACT and SAT) usually tops the list as a hot button topic. Parents want to know how their student should prepare for the ACT and SAT exams. They need direction, and we have some valuable tips to share. (We have more to share than can be presented here. We created our ACT/SAT/PSAT Ultimate Family Guide to help families build their knowledge about these tests and create a successful strategy to tackle them.)

What are these tests anyway?

The ACT is administered by ACT, Inc. (, and the SAT is administered by the College Board ( Both are standardized tests designed to assess “college readiness.” They are used by most (but not all) colleges as one piece of information in their college applications process.

The chart below compares the two exams–their similarities and their differences.

ACT SAT (through Feb. 2024) New SAT (beginning in March 2024)
Sections English Reading
Writing (optional)
Evidence-based Reading and Writing
Scoring 1 to 36 Total score: 400 to 1600 Total score: 400 to 1600
Time 2 hrs 55 minutes (without writing)
3 hrs 35 minutes (with writing)
3 hours 2 hrs 14 minutes
Penalty for wrong answers None None Adaptive Testing – questions in second module of each section will be determined by answers in first module
Reading and writing Two sections – Passage based grammar and four reading passages Five reading passages in 65 minutes – multiple questions per passage Two sections
One question per passage
Each section will take 32 minutes and has 27 questions
Math One 60-minute section
Arithmetic, Algebra 1 & 2, Geometry, Trigonometry
Calculators allowed
Two sections totaling 80 minutes
Arithmetic, Algebra 1 & 2, Geometry, Trigonometry
Calculators allowed in one of the two sections
Two sections
Each section will take 35 minutes and has 22 questions
Calculators allowed
Essay Optional – 40 minutes Discontinued Discontinued
Test Question/Answer Report Test Information Release (TIR)
Available December, April, June test dates
Question and Answer Service (QAS)
Available October, January, May test dates
Cost $68.00 no essay
$93.00 with essay
$32.00 TIR Report (after test day $40)
$16.00 QAS Report
Format Paper on national test dates
Paper or online for state testing (same questions for either format)
Paper on national test dates
Paper or online for state testing (same questions for either format)

How do colleges use these test scores? And what does ice cream have to do with it?

The tests are built to measure the college readiness of high school juniors and seniors, before they apply to colleges. A college-bound student’s score is submitted to universities that the student is applying to, along with their actual college application.

The college application decision is based primarily* on:

  • Test scores
  • GPA
  • High school coursework and rigor

 * Many other factors are also considered, but these three are widely noted by universities as the top three.

Why did we mention ice cream? You can think of a college application as an ice cream sundae. A bit strange…but bear with us.

Imagine the application itself is the bowl. The ice cream (the largest part) is the coursework and GPA. The hot fudge sauce is the test scores. Other things like extracurricular activities, jobs, letters of recommendation are the sprinkles. And finally, the college essay is the cherry on top-pulling the sundae all together. Each ingredient is important, including those test scores.

Could your family use help creating a custom testing game plan? Register for a Private Consultation to get your questions answered.

Do colleges even need test scores anymore?

A growing number of colleges will allow a student to apply without submitting any ACT or SAT scores.  These schools are called “test optional,” and a full list is kept here: The number of these colleges increased due to COVID.

However, be aware that colleges may still request test scores for merit scholarship purposes or specific majors. In addition, most students will STILL apply with a test score. A strong test score will impact the strength of that application. When a student applies “test optional,” all other parts of their application become more important.

Read more about test optional by clicking here.

6 final tips to know about the ACT and SAT exams:

  • Scores are in the student’s control. The student decides which score to send, to whom, and when. (There is a fee for sending score reports.)
  • Virtually all colleges will accept either the SAT or the ACT. They are not fussy about which test is reported. Students can take both early to see which they prefer.
  • Younger students are not prohibited from taking the tests for practice. Be sure they understand that they will see material they might not have seen before.
  • Take each test on a testing date when you can order the “extra score report” – called the Test Information Release for the ACT and the Question-and-Answer Service for the SAT. (The QAS will no longer be available once the SAT switches to digital.)
  • Consider testing at a site other than the student’s home high school if they would be more comfortable not to be among their peers.

Understanding how these tests work, their purpose, and the tips to help your student succeed can go a long way to less stress during this testing experience for your student.


Updated 8/2023

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