College Application Booster​®: High School Seniors, Get ahead on your college application!

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The Complete Guide to the SAT and ACT

A high ACT or SAT score is the foundation for a strong college application. This comprehensive guide answers frequently asked questions regarding the ACT and SAT—including the most up-to-date information regarding the Digital SAT—and offers flow charts to help students choose the right testing option for them!

Should you take the ACT or Digital SAT?

While many schools have become flexible with their standardized test requirements since the start of the pandemic, admissions data have shown that students with high test scores are more likely to get into selective schools that consider standardized test scores. Keep in mind that there are a few schools that require standardized tests, such as Dartmouth, Georgetown and MIT, and also a few schools that are test-blind and will not consider test scores, such as the UC system. Since colleges that consider standardized test scores will accept both exams with no preference for either, you should choose to focus on one exam. Multiple factors can be used in determining whether a student should take the ACT or the SAT. Knowing where a student’s strengths lie is the most important factor to take into account when making this decision.

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Have you taken ACT or SAT practice exams?

Yes

Use an SAT/ACT score conversion chart to compare the two scores. When deciding between the two exams, students should consider choosing the exam on which they initially scored higher.

No

Visit College Board or ACT.org to find free practice exams.

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Do you feel confident in reading and interpreting graphs and tables?

Yes

The ACT includes a science analysis section that tests students’ ability to analyze and interpret graphs and charts. If you have strengths in data analysis, then the ACT may be the correct choice for you.

No

The ACT includes a science analysis section that tests students’ ability to analyze and interpret graphs and charts. The SAT does not include a science analysis section, though its Verbal section tests some data analysis. Overall, if you are less confident in data analysis, then the SAT may be the correct choice for you.

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Are you a fast or slow test taker?

Fast

The ACT asks many more questions than the SAT. If you feel confident about answering questions quickly, you should consider taking the ACT. 

Slow

The ACT asks many more questions than the SAT. Many students feel less rushed when taking the ACT, so if you are worried about timing and pacing, you should consider taking the SAT.

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Do you have good test-taking endurance?

Yes

The ACT has four sections: English (45 min), Math (60 min), Reading (35 min), Science (35 min) and lasts longer than the SAT, which also has four sections; two Reading/Writing modules (32-min each) and two Math modules (35 min each). If you feel confident taking a longer test, then you should consider taking the ACT, which takes about one hour longer than the SAT.

No

The ACT has four sections: English (45 min), Math (60 min), Reading (35 min), Science (35 min) and lasts longer than the SAT, which also has four sections; two Reading/Writing modules (32-min each) and two Math modules (35 min each). If you feel more comfortable taking a shorter test, then you should consider taking the SAT.

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Have you taken Pre-calculus or Algebra 2?

Yes

The math questions on the ACT cover topics in trigonometry and pre-calculus, which gives students an edge if they have taken these classes in school. If you have taken and mastered the material taught in these classes, consider taking the ACT.

No

The math section of the SAT does not cover as much pre-calculus as the ACT and asks fewer questions about trigonometry. If you have not yet taken these classes, consider taking the SAT.

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Would you rather answer more difficult questions about shorter reading passages or simpler questions about longer passages?

Shorter

The digital SAT provides one short paragraph per question and underlines the evidence in the question when necessary, so students don’t have to devote time to wading through an entire multi-paragraph passage. However, the questions posed on the SAT tend to be more challenging and analytical.

Longer

ACT reading questions tend to be easier because they are straightforward and often pulled verbatim from the text, but you do still need to read and hunt for evidence in entire multi-paragraph passages.

Summary: While the two tests assess slightly different subject matter and skills, the most important thing is that students feel confident and comfortable with the exam they have chosen. These exams are comparable in overall difficulty, and colleges view them equally, so there should be no external factors affecting students’ choices. See the table below for a summary of the differences between the two tests:

SAT

 

  • Sections: Reading and Writing, Math
  • Math Level Needed: Algebra 2
  • Question Number: 98 Questions
  • Length of Test: 2 hours 14 minutes
  • Scoring: Out of 1600

ACT

 

  • Sections: English, Math, Reading, Science
  • Math Level Needed: Pre-calc
  • Question Number: 215
  • Length of Test: 3 hours
  • Scoring: Out of 36

How do you determine your goal SAT or ACT score?

Your goal score will depend on the colleges that you are applying to. Many colleges post the middle 50% (25th to 75th percentile) SAT and ACT score range of admitted students on their websites. You should aim to score in the middle 50th percentile of scores posted by your top choice schools.

KEY TIP

Keep in mind that colleges aren’t looking for perfect scores; they want to see how proficient you are compared to other students. If you score a 750 and not an 800 on an SAT section, that does not mean your application won’t be strong. Your scores are an important aspect of your application, but they do not dictate the quality of your whole application.

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Which schools are you interested applying to?

Top

Top Schools (Ivy League, Stanford, MIT): If you are interested in applying to top schools, you should aim to score 1500+ on the SAT or 34+ on the ACT. However, you should still visit college pages and aim to score in the middle 50% of scores for admitted students at a particular college. Of course, the higher the score, the better

Selective

Selective Schools (Amherst, Bowdoin, Tufts): If you are interested in applying to selective schools, you should aim to score 1400-1490 on the SAT or 31-34 on the ACT. However, you should still visit college pages and aim to score in the middle 50% of scores for admitted students at a particular college. Of course, the higher the score, the better.

Less Selective

Less Selective Schools (Michigan State, Bucknell, Syracuse): If you are interested in applying to less selective schools, you should aim to score 1300-1400 on the SAT or 28-31 on the ACT. However, you should still visit college pages and aim to score in the middle 50% of scores for admitted students at a particular college. Of course, the higher the score, the better.

When should you take the SAT or the ACT?

Testing timelines are unique to each student and are highly dependent on a number of factors including grade level, how much improvement needs to be made, and the quantity of time a student can dedicate to studying each week. Students should consider signing up for 2-3 test date, as many students increase their scores after their first sitting.

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Have you taken the SAT or ACT practice exams?

Yes

Compare your goal score to your practice test score to determine how much improvement you need to make. The difference between the two scores will dictate how much studying and preparation will be necessary.

No

Visit College Board or ACT.org to find free practice exams. You should take at least one diagnostic test to find out how you’re scoring and how much you need to improve your score. This information will dictate how much studying and preparation will be necessary.

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How much improvement would you like to see?

300+ SAT, 9+ ACT

If you are aiming. to increase your score by 300+ SAT/9+ ACT, you should plan to study consistently for 6 months or more (about 7 hours a week). If you are not able to set aside time consistently, consider extending the 6 month timeline or consult the tutoring department for a tailored plan.

200+ SAT, 5+ ACT

If you are aiming to increase your score by 200+ SAT/5+ ACT, you should plan to study consistently for 4-6 months. If you are not able to set aside time consistently, consider extending the 4-6 month timeline or consult the tutoring department for a tailored plan.

100+ SAT, 3+ ACT

If you are aiming to increase your score by 100+ SAT/3+ ACT, you should plan to study consistently for 2-4 months. If you are not able to set aside time consistently, consider extending the 2-4 month timeline or consult the tutoring department for a tailored plan.

50+ SAT, 2+ ACT

If you are aiming to increase your score by 50+ SAT/2+ ACT, you should plan to study consistently for 1-2 months. If you are not able to set aside time consistently, consider extending the 1-2 month timeline or consult the tutoring department for a tailored plan.

Satisfied with Score

If you are consistently scoring in your target range, choose a testing date and register for the exam online.

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Have you registered for the SAT/ACT?

We recommend signing up for 2-3 test dates as soon as you have determined your testing timeline, as many students’ scores increase after their first sitting.

Yes

Great! Mark the date in your calendar and consider signing up for 1-2 additional test dates.

No

Monitor registration dates and when you find one that suits your timeline, register! We recommend registering as soon as possible because testing sites can fill up quickly. You can find ACT registration here and SAT registration here. Follow each website’s respective instructions for registration to secure a spot. Some students are eligible to receive SAT and ACT free waivers, as well as some free test preparation materials, If you think you might be eligible, click the links to learn more about the criteria and application process. If you qualify, the easiest way to request accommodations for the SAT/ACT is to work with your school guidance counselor.

How should you prepare for the SAT or the ACT?

No matter how you learn or which test you’re planning to take, the key to reaching your goal score is practice and repetition. Students should work to build up their strengths and improve their weaknesses. Testing and retesting can ensure that students master the content while also familiarizing themselves with the types of questions that are asked and the best strategies for answering them.

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What year of high school are you in?

First Year

Most young students will not have learned the topics that are tested on standardized tests in their classes in school, so testing during the first year of high school can be intensive and unproductive. However, as students start to learn these topics in their classes, they can take steps to make future test prep easy and efficient. One way to prepare is to take the PSAT or pACTpre-standardized test exams that can give students an idea of what the actual tests will look like. Taking challenging classes and building a strong foundation in English and math will set students up to succeed when they do begin studying. Additionally, reading across genres (outside of required reading) is especially important for succeeding on the reading sections on either exam. And, of course, developing healthy study habits and working on time management skills will benefit students in the long run.

Sophomore

Although most sophomores have not yet mastered all of the topics assessed by the exams, students can begin to reinforce topics they have covered and begin to familiarize themselves with material they have yet to study. One way to prepare is to take the PSAT or PreACT– pre-standardized test exams that can give students an idea of what the actual tests will be like. As sophomores, students should continue taking challenging classes to build a strong foundation in English and math. Additionally, reading across genres (outside of required reading) is especially important for success on the reading sections on either exam. And, of course, developing healthy study habits and working on time management skills will benefit students in the long run.

Junior

Junior year is the year most students feel comfortable and prepared to study and sit for the test, as they have covered the majority of material in class and are beginning the college application process. After choosing a test and goal score, the most effective way to study is through practice and repetition. Students should review all of the content assessed by the exams and practice applying formulas and understanding pertinent rules. In addition, students should apply this content and take practice exams to familiarize themselves with the questions and timing of the tests. Additionally, reading across genres (outside of required reading) is especially important for success on the reading sections on either exam. If you are looking for more information about hot to prepare for the SAT or ACT, check out our comprehensive guide

Senior

By senior year, most—if not all—of testing subjects should have been studied in class. After choosing a test and goal score, the most effective way to study is through practice and repetition. Students should review all the content covered on the exams and practice applying formula and understanding pertinent rules. In addition, students should apply this content and take practice exams to familiarize themselves with the questions and timing of the test. Additionally, reading across genres (outside of required reading) is especially important for success on the reading sections on either exam. Is is especially important for seniors to consider how much time they need to devote preparing college application and extracurricular activities as they determine how much time they can dedicate to test preparation.

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Do you learn best through studying textbooks or through teacher or peer guidance?

Books

Consider buying SAT or ACT test prep books. The books very in terms of teaching style, difficulty, and strategies offered, so we recommend trying a few different books or doing some research to determine which option would be best suit your needs.

Teacher

Consider in-person or online prep courses and tutoring if you learn best through interaction and instruction.

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Do you need more structure and motivation or more flexibility?

Structure

Tutoring can be a good resource if you require a more structures learning environment. Tutors can provide structure and guidance and help reinforce good study habits.

Flexibility

Prep books allow students to self-pace and study anywhere, anytime. However, students studying with prep books should feel confident in their ability to discipline and motivate themselves. In addition, these students should establish a timeline before starting to make sure they allow themselves enough time to practice and review each topic.

Z

Test Day Checklist

FAQs about the digital SAT can be found here, and the ACT, complete checklist and FAQ can be found here. We recommend that students go through the checklist both when registering and prior to the exam to ensure that they bring all necessary materials.

ACT Checklist includes: calculator, no. 2 pencils, valid photo ID, an acceptable watch, admission ticket, etc.

SAT Devices: Students can take the digital SAT Suite on a laptop or tablet. They can use a personal device or a school-issued device. They will need to complete an exam set-up if you choose to use a personal device.

What should you do after you take the SAT or the ACT?

Although the challenge of taking the exam is over, there are still a few actions that you might need to take depending on your testing plan, potential score, and college list. Answering the following questions will help you determine whether you may need to test again or if your scores are ready for submission.

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Will you superscore?

While it’s preferable to send one score, there are certain policies in place that can allow you to present your score in a flattering way through superscore or score choice. Be sure to check each college’s policies regarding the cores they accept.

Score Choice

You get to decide which test scores to send, meaning that if you did not do as well as you hoped on a test, you might not need to share its results. This option does vary from school to school, so please check each school’s individual score submission policies!

Superscore

The composite score that results from your best scores on each section across multiple test dates. The ACT automatically calculates your super score after the second test date, and it will never be lower that your single composite score from one test. The benefit of superscoring is that it allows one to showcase the best of their abilities in one score. This option does vary from school to school, so please check their individual score submission policies.

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Are you confident that you achieved a score within the range of your goal score?

Yes

If you achieved your goal score and do not plan to sit for the test again, you can begin the process of submitting your official test scores!

No

If you feel you did not achieve your goal score, you have a few options. First, both tests offer a cancellation policy. Regardless of whether or not you decide to cancel, we recommend that students sign up for additional testing dates as most students feel more comfortable taking the exam and improve their score after their first sitting.

SAT: If you feel you didn’t do your best on the SAT, you can cancel your scores, but you need to act quickly! The College Board’s policy states that you must cancel no later that 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time of the Thursday following your test date. You can cancel your score at the testing center the day of the test of by filling out the official form from their website. Please note that for the SAT, you cancel your scores without seeing them.

ACT: The ACT score cancellation policy is a little more flexible, even if you do not cancel, you can have the scores removed from your record after the exam is graded. To remove ACT scores from your record, you may request a form from their official website. If, when registering, you requested that the ACT share your scores with certain schools, keep in mind that you must submit the cancellation request by the Thursday following your testing day so that the scores are no longer sent. Are you planning on applying to a test-mandatory school or test-optional school? We recommend researching the policy put forth by each school on your college list, since schools have different requirements for submitting official test scores.

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Are you applying to test-mandatory or test-optional schools?

Test-mandatory

Most schools that require test scores will allow students to self-report their scores on the Common App and will only require an official score report if the student is admitted and decides to matriculate; however, we recommend researching the specific score submission policies put forth by each of the schools on your college list.

Test-optional

The score submissions policies will be similar to those of test-mandatory schools. When deciding whether to submit a score to schools that do not require standardized test scores, check to see where your score falls with respect to the standardized test score ranges for admitted students. Generally, if your score falls in the middle 50% or above, you should submit it. If it does not, you should apply without a test score.

Standardized Test Dictionary

E

Test-mandatory: Colleges with test-mandatory policies require that SAT and ACT scores be shared as a part of the application process. Most schools will allow you to self-report your scores on the premise that you share the official report if you are admitted and decide to matriculate. Please research each school on your college list to see which score submission policies will apply to you!

E

Test-optional: Colleges that are test-optional allow the applicants to decide whether they want to submit any SAT or ACT scores as a part of their application. If you do send your scores, they will be reviewed with your application; if you choose not to share your scores, it will not be counted against you. If you are deciding whether or not to share your scores, we recommend that you check to see where your score falls with respect to standardized test score ranges for admitted students for each of the schools you are considering applying to. Generally, if your score falls in the middle 50% or above, you should submit it. If it does not, you should apply without a test score. Please research each school on your college list to see which score submission policies will be applying to you! 

E

Test-blind: Schools that have test-blind policies will not review or consider a student’s SAT or ACT scores, even if shared, as a part of the application process. Please research each school on your college list to see which score submission policies will be applying to you!

E

Score Choice: you get to decide which test scores to send, meaning that if you did not do as well as you hoped on a test, you might not need to share the results. Please keep in mind that score choice refers to composite scores, not individual section scores. This option does vary from school to school, so please research each school on your college list to see which score submission policies will apply to you!

E

Superscore: the composite score that results from your best scores from each section across multiple test attempts. The ACT automatically calculates your super score after the second test date, and it will never be lower than your single composite score from one test. The benefit of superscoring is that it allows students to showcase the best of their abilities in one score. This option does vary from school to school, so please research each school on your college list to see which score submission policies will apply to you!

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