Introduction to the SAT and ACT

UCPG 32017-08-02T22:25:44+00:00

In the previous chapter of the Ultimate College Prep Guide, we discussed how course rigor can make your student’s transcript stand out. Admissions counselors like to see students take full advantage of the opportunities available to them by taking a variety of challenging classes.

In this chapter we’ll dive into one of the oldest parts of the college admissions process: the standardized test. We’ll discuss how colleges view the SAT and ACT, how to choose which one to take and whether or not you should be taking the optional essay section.

Then, we’ll talk about what makes a SAT or ACT score “good” and what your student can be doing to reach their target score.

Here’s what you’ll learn in this chapter:

Why do the SAT and ACT matter?

Simple answer: because they’re required. Next!

Ok, so it’s not quite that simple, but it’s still mostly true. While it’s interesting to note that as of early 2017, 925+ colleges and universities in the US don’t use ACT and SAT scores to admit students, that is still less than 20% of the 4,724 total colleges and universities in the States. That means if your student is interested in applying for even one of these colleges and universities that make up 80% of the total, including the more prestigious Ivy League schools, they are required to take one of these standardized tests.

Decades ago, the original SAT and ACT were created to be uniform exams that provided a standard baseline for those applying to college. They have since evolved greatly since their original form, but one thing hasn’t changed: they provide a baseline for colleges to view candidates.

In the past two chapters, we’ve discussed how important every factor is to your student’s application, and while standardized testing may not be the most exciting part of the process, it is still, in most cases, a required component. Focusing on the tests and picking which one is the best fit for your student will help maximize their chance of presenting the best application possible.

Is your child better suited for the SAT or ACT?

Before we address the question of whether your student should take the SAT or ACT, make sure you’re familiar with what each test covers and what makes them different.

The New SAT includes sections on reading, English, math (calculator and no calculator) and an optional essay. The test is three hours long with an additional 50 minutes for the essay.

The ACT includes sections on reading, English, math (calculator), science and an optional essay. The test is two hours and 55 minutes long with an additional 40 minutes for the essay.


Make the decision based on your unique student.

To determine which test is the best fit, consider these questions about your student:

  • Would your student benefit from more time per question? When you break down the time per question for each exam, you actually have significantly more time per question on the SAT than the ACT. This is particularly true for the Math sections:
    • The ACT is 60 questions in 60 minutes. That’s one question every minute.
    • The SAT is 20 No Calculator questions in 25 minutes and 38 Calculator questions in 55 minutes. That’s 1 minute 15 seconds for each No Calculator question, and a whopping 1 minute and 26 seconds for each Calculator question.
  • Does your student consider Math a strength? The Math section of the new SAT is noted to be slightly harder than that of the ACT. The Reading and Writing sections of both tests are about the same level of difficulty.
  • Does your student consider Science a strength? The ACT is the only test with a section dedicated specifically to Science. This can either highlight a strength, or camouflage a weakness, depending on your student.

Sometimes it comes down to your student’s situation to influence your exam choice.

  • Is the SAT or ACT more popular in your area? Does your state require either test as a statewide exam? Naturally if one exam is required, it makes more sense to spend time studying for one your student will have to take.
  • Has your student already taken one? How did it go? If it went well, that’s great! If not, it’s time to consider if maybe trying the other option is a good choice. It all depends on your answer to the next question.
  • Does your child have the appropriate amount of time to prep for the test they want to take? Studying for a completely new test takes a lot more time than working on weak areas of a test your student already has experience with. Make sure they aren’t signing themselves up for something they don’t have the time to prepare for.

We realize that test prep is not only time-consuming, but also expensive. Your student should be on the lookout for free SAT and ACT resources available to them to help prepare for the exams as well as test prep services that may have free partnerships with your area.

Make the Decision Based on Experience

The most definitive way to figure out which test is best for you is to take a practice test of both and see which you do better on. You can compare scores with an ACT and SAT conversion chart.

If your student does have the chance to take a practice test of both the SAT and ACT, they should think about these questions to judge how they felt about each test:

  • Which exam felt more intuitive? Which method of thinking came more naturally to your student? Sometimes one approach just makes more sense based on the way a student normally solves problems.
  • Which exam felt more straightforward? Similar to the first question, but applies more to questions where the student may have to think a bit more, but overall they still make sense. The logic flows in a way that makes sense and the student is able to make the necessary connections to solve the problem.
  • Which exam do you feel allows you to most efficiently show off what you are capable of to the colleges you are applying to? Does one exam test skills that your student feels more confident in or values more? You want to make sure they’re taking the exam that highlights their strengths.

Keep in mind that if your student does decide to take both exams, make sure they’re aware that they are quite different. Because of how they’re designed and the aspects they’re meant to test, the SAT and ACT require very particular approaches to answering their questions. They should be studying for each test separately and spacing them out. Studying for both at the same time will only lead to mix-ups and confusion.

And don’t worry if your student feels like they need to retake the exam more than once. More colleges will superscore and only look at your highest scores!

Should You Take the Essay Portion of the Test?

Now that the essay portion of both the ACT and the new SAT are optional, your student has an important decision to make. The first question to ask is: do the schools your student is planning to apply for require the essay portion? You can refer to the official SAT and ACT sites to answer that question.

Of course, your student should make the decision for themselves. There are a few factors we recommend considering:

  • PRO: It may give a slight competitive advantage. Particularly if a school “recommends” taking the essay, your student can stand out from the crowd.
  • PRO: It’s handy to have if your student decides to apply to more schools. If your student decides last minute to apply to a school that requires the essay, then this won’t be a factor preventing them from applying to a dream school.
  • PRO: If writing is a strength, it can play in your student’s favor. If your student is stronger at writing than other sections, such as math or science, the essay can show off more of your student’s strengths.
  • PRO: It may be necessary if your student is considering a transfer in the future. If your student is interested in transferring to a school that requires the essay in a year or two, having the essay already completed will facilitate that.
  • CON: The essay makes the test longer. It adds 50 more minutes to the test time for the SAT and 40 more minutes for the ACT.
  • CON: The essay costs more. It adds an additional $11.50 fee to the SAT and $17 to the ACT.
  • CON: Your student’s study time will increase. As with any section of the exam, your student should dedicate some time to prepare for it to make sure they do well.

It all comes down to what factors matter the most to your student. The essay should help your student show an aspect of their skill set that isn’t evident on the rest of the exam.

What Is a Good SAT Score? What Is a Good ACT Score?

You need a study plan to hit your best SAT score. But before your student can design that plan, they need to know how to figure out what their ideal score is. The best starting place is to look up the range of desired scores for the school your student is interested in attending.

To give a general idea of how students throughout the US perform, the SAT and ACT release official national distributions. These distributions are given in terms of percentiles. These percentiles are a measure of the percentage of students who have a score at or below that number. For example, if your score is at the 75th percentile, that means 75% of students have a score that is the same or below yours.

The SAT National Score Distribution is given in terms of the Nationally Representative Sample Percentile and SAT User Percentile – National (in parentheses).

Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Math Total
590 (620) 580 (610) 1160 (1220) 75th Percentile
510M (540) 510 (530) 1010 (1080) Average
430 (470) 440 (470) 880 (950) 25th Percentile

Nationally Representative Sample Percentile

The Nationally Representative Sample Percentile is a weighted representation of a sample of 11th and 12th grade US students that DOES NOT take into account whether students would typically take the SAT or not.

(SAT User Percentile – National)

The SAT User Percentile – National is a weighted representation of a sample of 11th and 12th grade US students that DOES take into account whether students would typically take the SAT last in 11th or 12th grade. This number is higher, but is also a more accurate depiction of how competitive your score is among college applicants.

The ACT National Score Distribution gives a breakdown of national distributions for each section as well as the total cumulative score. These scores are taken from high school graduates from 2014-2016.

English Math Reading Science Total
24 24 25 24 24 75th Percentile
20 19 20 20 20 Average
15 16 16 17 16 25th Percentile

Remember, these are national distributions that just give you a general idea of how all students throughout the US perform. The score your student should be targeting depends on the schools they’re interested in attending.

In the next chapter we’ll give some examples of score ranges, but for now we cannot stress this enough: your student’s score DOES NOT NEED to be in the 99th percentile or higher to get into their dream school (or even a top school). We’ve provided a conversion chart below for reference if only scores for one test are provided.

ACT to SAT Conversion Chart

This conversion chart has been adapted from College Board to give you an idea of how the New SAT and ACT scores match up. Some schools may only give a range for one but accept scores from both exams. Having an accurate conversion will make sure your student has an idea of where they stand.

New SAT to ACT Conversion Table

ACT Composite Score New SAT Total
36 1600
35 1560-1590
34 1520-1550
33 1490-1510
32 1450-1480
31 1420-1440
30 1390-1410
29 1350-1380
28 1310-1340
27 1280-1300
26 1240-1270
25 1200-1230
24 1160-1190
23 1130-1150
22 1100-1120
21 1060-1090
20 1020-1050
19 980-1010
18 940-970
17 900-930
16 860-890
15 810-850
14 760-800
13 720-750
12 630-710
11 560-620

How Do You Get a Good SAT or ACT Score?

Knowing the material is no doubt the best way to do well on an exam, but as with anything in life, there’s more to it than just being smart. There are strategies that can help your student ace the SAT and ACT by making sure they don’t get caught by time constraints or tricky questions.

We suggest to first start by taking a practice exam and finding the topics that need work. If your student has already taken the SAT once, they can refer to the provided college board readiness benchmarks in their score report. They should focus on the topics where their score falls in the yellow or red areas of the graph. These are the areas your student has not yet demonstrated proficiency and has room for improvement.

SAT Score Report

Once your student knows what topics to focus on, they can start creating their study plan. Here are some strategies to keep in mind while studying for and while taking the exam.

General Test-Taking Strategies

While the SAT and ACT are different in terms of some of the topics covered and strategies of thinking, there are some strategies that can be applied to both. Let’s start with strategies to keep in mind while preparing for both exams.

1. Take a real practice test. This means an official College Board Practice Test or any other practice test released by the official test company. This will ensure that your student’s practice materials are high quality, which will greatly increase their chances of doing well on the exam. This will also familiarize them with the structure of the test and how to answer the questions on the answer sheet. For example, some of the SAT Math answer sheet can be a bit unusual for those who aren’t familiar with the structure.

Answer Sheet

2. Understand the WHY. It isn’t enough for your student just to read the answer explanations or memorize the correct answers of questions they got wrong. They need to fully understand the concept that was being tested for that question so that they don’t make a similar mistake again. Suggest that they curate a study sheet of concepts to learn based on section, then come back to this study sheet often to make sure they fully understand each topic.

3. Pay attention to all questions your student guessed on, not just those they got wrong. Sometimes a lucky guess will result in a correct answer, but this might not be the case on test day. Your student should ask themselves: Why did I guess that answer? They should be able to confidently say why that answer choice was right before moving on — and not just because the answer sheet said so.

4. Work towards eliminating careless errors. These are often the questions that are most annoying for students to get wrong because they know they could’ve gotten them right. The best ways to avoid careless errors are:

  • Pace yourself. Make sure your student isn’t rushing through questions, but that they can recognize when they are spending too long on a question. Advise them to move on first so that they aren’t crunched for time later, but to make sure that they mark the question so they can come back to it.
  • Understand what the question is actually asking. Particularly for the math sections, the questions can be a little tricky. Make sure your student is reading carefully and pays attention to when a question, for example, asks for the answer in seconds rather than minutes.

5. Have a study plan — and stick to it! The only way to improve is to put in the time and study. Help your student curate a plan that works for them and then help make sure they stick to it.

While taking the actual test, there are a few strategies that can help ease any test anxiety and keep your student from losing time to a difficult question or making a simple mistake.

1. Don’t be afraid to guess on answers your student really doesn’t know. Both the new SAT and ACT have no penalty for guessing so rather than getting stuck on a problem, just put down a guess first and then come back to it.

2. Manage your time. The worst feeling is running out of time because you spent too long stuck on one question. Make sure your student is keeping track of their time so that they get a chance to answer every question.

3. Read the Writing and Reading passages differently. Each section tests a different skill. Have your student read up on the specific skills tested in each section so that they know what skills to be using in each section to succeed.

4. Double check efficiently but also effectively. When double checking a problem, your student should be solving the question in a different way to make sure they aren’t just making the same mistakes over again. When reading a passage, think about it from a different angle to see if that makes more sense within the premise of the question.

Test-Taking Strategies for the New SAT

The New SAT has been designed to align more closely with what students are likely to see in class. With that comes more definite strategies to help your student ace the SAT.

1. Practice “vocabulary in context”-type questions. Now that “pure vocabulary” questions are gone, the focus will not be on memorization but rather being able to use context clues to determine what a word means. Have your student read more advanced literature and use context clues to define any word they don’t understand to help practice for these questions.

2. Understand how to pick apart elements of an essay. For the Essay section of the New SAT, students will be given a fully-written essay and asked to evaluate certain elements of the essay. This may include finding the main argument, identifying the evidence used to support it, and articulating the structure used to organize the essay.

3. Answer every question. We mentioned this before, but as it’s a new feature of the New SAT, we figured we should emphasize it. There is no penalty for guessing so make sure to at least guess for each question! Advise your student to mark the ones they aren’t sure about and then come back to them once they’ve worked through the whole section once.

Test-Taking Strategies for the ACT

There are a few aspects in which the ACT differs from the SAT. Here are a few important things to keep in mind while preparing for one or more of the six ACT test dates.

1. Spend time to really study and understand the more advanced math concepts. The ACT requires students to really know and understand topics such as trigonometry, imaginary numbers, advanced geometric shapes and logarithms. Make sure your student isn’t waiting until the topic is covered in school to start studying — this may not give them enough time to truly master the topic before the exam.

2. The science section is actually testing how well your student can synthesize given information. It does not actually require any in-depth science knowledge at all. All they want to see is that your student can accurately read a graph or chart, then take the information they’re given to determine an answer. Make sure your student practices reading different types of graphs so they’re prepared for any example the exam gives.

3. Understand how different perspectives relate to a topic. For the Essay section of the ACT, your student will be given a set of three perspectives and asked to pick one and support their choice. Understanding how each way of thinking relates to the topic will help your student develop a stronger argument supporting their choice and why they didn’t choose the other two options.

4. Be aware of the time constraint. There is less time per question on the ACT than the SAT so it is more likely that your student will be affected by the time constraint. Make sure they find a time-management technique that works for them and put it into practice.

How Can Test Prep Help You Ace the SAT and ACT?

While we won’t deny that we think test prep courses or tutoring are the best way for students to prepare for the SAT and ACT, we recognize that not everyone feels that way. But to make our case, here are a few reasons we think test prep is a worthwhile investment to help your student reach their target score.

Test Prep makes the study process all about the student. These services have the resources and expertise to help design a course and study plan that is unique to your student and targets their weaknesses, so that students can focus completely on getting the material down.

Prep services can provide more high quality practice materials. By tailoring practice questions to target areas your student needs more work, your student can spend time on the topics that matter.

Test Prep helps keep your student accountable. Having an instructor who makes sure your student is doing practice tests under real conditions will give them the chance to experience the exam in an atmosphere as close to test day as possible.

Prep services will curate a study plan that fits your student’s needs and schedule. On the flip side, they will also keep your student accountable so that they stay on schedule and will be ready for the test when test day rolls around.

Study Hard, but Study Smart

Studying for the SAT and ACT can be both a daunting and seemingly complex task. While we do believe that 100 hours is the magic number in terms of how long a student should spend studying for the SAT, there is a “smarter” way to study. Rather than just taking practice test after practice test and simply reading the answer explanations, your student should be focusing on the areas that need work to make the most of their time.

By following these test prep strategies, your student can design a study plan that works for them and make sure that they’re hitting the topics that matter.

In the next chapter, we’ll break down the best way to help your student decide which colleges to apply for. We’ll provide examples of factors to consider including type of college, GPA and test score ranges, and financial situation. By curating a list of colleges that fit your criteria and interest your student, you can make sure you’re spending your time and money applying to the right places.