Preparing for the SAT and ACT: Why and How You Should Do It

Standardized tests can help you get into the college of your choice, but they are not like ordinary school tests and require preparation far in advance.


After a year of change and cancellations for all things academic, the 2021-2022 school year appears to be one of relative stability for the two big, standardized college admissions tests—the SAT and ACT. There are more tests scheduled in more places than last year, and early reports are of fewer cancellations.

This is good news for students of Foreign Service families, for whom navigating the college application and admission process is always difficult, but who had real challenges just being able to take the PSAT, SAT or ACT last year.

Many colleges have kept, at least temporarily, the “test optional” status of the SAT and ACT—meaning students can choose to submit scores, but students who do not won’t be penalized in the admissions process. Some schools, most notably the University of California, are “test blind”—they will not consider SAT or ACT scores at all in the admissions process.

But even when a college does not require or will not consider test scores, it may use scores as an alternative method of fulfilling minimum requirements for eligibility or for course placement after you enroll.

To Take, or Not to Take?

Whether or not to take a standardized test is something all prospective college students must decide. For most international and other students, with the exceptions listed below, the answer is yes.

If you are applying only to schools where the SAT/ACT will not be considered (such as the University of California system), then no.

If you are applying only to test-optional schools and you’ve taken a practice test and your score would be weak relative to the rest of your application—then no.

If you have not completed Algebra 2 (or the equivalent), it’s probably best to wait to take the SAT or ACT until you have done so.

The international test dates are different for the ACT and SAT.

For everyone else, taking the test will give colleges more information about you and allow them to more reliably compare you with the rest of the applicant pool. If your current school doesn’t have a long track record of sending students to the colleges to which you are applying, you may make it easier for colleges to accept you by taking the SAT or ACT.

Which Test—SAT or ACT?

The two tests have many similarities: each has four sections and lasts approximately three hours plus breaks. Both tests have a Grammar/usage section (called “English” on the ACT and “Writing and Language” on the SAT), a Reading section and a Math-with-calculator section. The ACT has a Science section (no SAT equivalent), and the SAT has a Math-without-calculator section (no ACT equivalent).

The SAT has dropped the written Essay section; the ACT has an optional Writing section, administered after the multiple-choice sections, where students have 40 minutes to respond to a topic prompt and three perspectives on the topic.

Here are some differences that might help you decide which test to take:

  • The ACT is faster paced (less time to answer each question), but its questions are simpler and more direct. If you can answer questions quickly and don’t want too much complexity, take the ACT.
  • Take the SAT if mental calculation is a strength. The SAT Math section is split into a calculator-assisted section and no-calculator section. (The ACT allows a calculator throughout.) Paradoxically, you should also take the SAT if you have real difficulty remembering basic math formulas—only the SAT has a “cheat sheet” included as part of the test.
  • If you can write well on demand, and the colleges to which you are applying accept the Writing score from the ACT, you may want to take the ACT.

Some other considerations may matter in your individual circumstances:

  • The ACT for international students is only administered online, while the SAT is paper only.
  • To practice using the ACT online test tools, you must have Google Chrome.
  • There are more international SAT sites (roughly 5,000 in 189 countries) than international ACT sites.
  • The international ACT is a little more expensive than the SAT.

The ACT is faster paced (less time to answer each question), but its questions are simpler and more direct.

The international test dates are different for the ACT and SAT. Registration deadlines are typically 28-30 days ahead of the test, with a two-week late registration (for a fee) period. Full information is on their websites ( and

The most straightforward way to determine which test is better for you is to take a full-length practice test in both, and compare scores. A rough but accurate comparison formula is:

(Composite ACT Score x 40) + 150 = Combined SAT Score.

Example: (28 [Composite ACT Score] x 40) + 150 = 1270 (Equivalent Combined SAT Score).

If you take practice tests in both, pay particular attention to the ACT Science score—the higher it is relative to the rest of your ACT score and SAT score, the more likely you’ll score better on the ACT.

These Are “College Readiness” Tests

Both the SAT and ACT are tests designed to predict “college readiness,” not content knowledge. Both tests are significantly different than most, if not all, school tests. That means you have to learn unique skills for taking these tests, and you might possibly have to unlearn those skills that may help you on school tests but hurt you on a time-compressed, complex standardized test.

Let’s examine the unique challenges and the techniques you can use to meet them.

1. The tests are long—175 minutes on the ACT, 180 minutes on the SAT, plus breaks.

Technique—Atomize the test; that is, break each section into its smallest parts.

For the ACT, each English passage has 15 questions and should take about 9 minutes. You have 1 minute for each math question. The four Reading passages each have 10 questions, and each passage should take 8-9 minutes. The six Science sections each have six or seven passages and each passage should take 6-7 minutes.

The Reading sections of both tests are entirely multiple choice, and a typical question will have two clearly incorrect answer choices, one tempting answer and one correct answer.

The SAT is less time-constrained, although the passages are longer and the math questions often more complicated. Each Reading passage has 10 or 11 questions and takes on average 13 minutes. The Writing and Language passages have 11 questions and average 8-9 minutes each.

Math-without-calculator questions average 75 seconds. Math-with-calculator questions have a little more time—roughly 86 seconds per question.

You will want to use your breaks—eat, drink, use the bathroom, close your eyes and do some deep breathing, notice and relax any areas of tension in your body and, above all, stand up and move around!

2. The tests are (almost) all multiple choice.

Technique—Use your pencil (SAT) or pencil and online tools (ACT) to attack and eliminate answer choices.

The Reading sections of both tests are entirely multiple choice, and a typical question will have two clearly incorrect answer choices, one tempting answer and one correct answer.

The people who write the test do not want any calls from students questioning their work, so they make sure the correct answer is definitively correct and the incorrect answers have something definitively wrong with them.

Since three of the choices are wrong, attacking the answers—figuring out what’s wrong—is the correct strategy (this is different from the “defending of interpretations” you often do in English class).

In the Reading section, since three of the choices are wrong, attacking the answers—figuring out what’s wrong—is the correct strategy.

Ways to attack: Does your choice answer exactly what is being asked? Does it contain extraneous information? Is it too extreme?

All the multiple-choice questions in the Reading and Math sections of both the SAT and ACT have, at minimum, two parts: A “question stem,” which includes the actual question to answer along with additional information that may be needed to solve it, and four or five “answer choices,” each designated by a letter that matches a bubble on the answer sheet.

In the ACT English and SAT Writing and Language sections, most of the questions have no “question stem”—just an underlined portion of the text and three alternatives to the underlined portion. Read those “no question stem” answer choices vertically, and mark the differences; you can figure out what concept/grammar rule the question is testing, as well as eliminate obviously wrong answers.

The ACT offers two online tools to help you clear away obviously wrong answers: Answer Masker and Answer Eliminator. Using the tool and clicking on the answer choice either makes it disappear (Masker) or puts an X through it (Eliminator), leaving it readable.

Play with the two tools so you can use them quickly—it will help you navigate the test.

Attack the answer choices on the ACT Math and Science sections, as well. Estimate, apply rules of arithmetic and use the differences in answer choices to eliminate many answer choices. Three (Science) or four (Math) “wrongs” make a right!

3. The reading material is unfamiliar and/or presented in an unusual format.

Technique—Mark the questions before reading the passage.

On the SAT Reading test, mark in the passage any line or paragraph references mentioned in the question stems. Mark the “paired questions” (unique to the SAT—two sets of answer choices for the same question stem) so you can answer them efficiently.

To organize your test prep, have the tools you need on hand, so it’s easy to follow a daily routine.

On the Writing and Language section, draw a line between the question stem and its corresponding number in the text.

On the ACT Reading test, look at the questions first, as well. The computer text replaces line references with highlights, and you can use the highlight function to identify key words in the question. Use the flag function to identify questions you want to answer first or avoid.

4. The math questions are in order of difficulty and not sorted by content.

Technique—Do the test in your own personal order, not the order the test makers give you.

On the SAT Math section, before you answer any questions, skim through the entire multiple-choice section, marking each question N (for now), L (for later) and X (for never), depending on your personal preferences. With practice, you can do this in five seconds (or less!) per question; it will give you an efficient guide.

Top Test-Taker Tip—Since the Grid-In sections of the SAT Math test are open-ended and often more complicated, do them before the multiple choice.

On the ACT, you can skim the questions first and use the “flag” function to identify questions you want to answer first—the “Now” questions. Then use the navigation function to isolate those and move through them efficiently.

How Best to Prepare

Start with a goal: That on the day you take the test, you will have a thorough understanding of both the content knowledge that you will need to answer questions and the test-taking strategies to answer those questions quickly and accurately. So any plan will include learning (or relearning) content and learning how to take a timed, multiple-choice test of college readiness.

You’ll be practicing taking the test well and being so fluent at those test-taking strategies that you can use them consistently, quickly and accurately over three hours and in multiple subjects.

For both tests, practicing even 15-20 minutes a night will help.

To organize your test prep, have the tools you need on hand, so it’s easy to follow a daily routine. Two simple steps: First, you will need practice tests, and the best practice questions are from actual SATs or ACTs.

The Official SAT Study Guide (ISBN 978-1-4573-1219-9) contains eight actual SATs, including answer sheets. Those same tests are available on the College Board website, but unless you can print for “free,” the book is cheaper and more compact.

For the SAT, do your actual test practice on paper, since the College Board is still committed to traditional pencil and paper testing.

Second, sign up for help and daily progress. At, you can get a College Board account, the CB app and a Khan Academy account (good for content review). You will stay up to date, get a daily practice and vocabulary, and have access to Khan Academy’s content library. You can scan your test practice sheets and get them scored through your phone.

By contrast, the ACT for international students is only given online, and only through a proctored test center (no at-home tests!). By creating an ACT account (, you will have access to two free ACT online practice tests.

Use the ACT “untimed” practice tests to get very comfortable with the interface and the tools. Play with each of the tools to see how you can best use them. The Answer Eliminator and Flag tools are particularly useful for using your test time efficiently.

Save the timed test for two or three weeks before your test date. The Official ACT Study Guide (ISBN 978-1-119-68576-0) includes five practice tests, so it is a relatively low-cost way to get content. The ACT has partnered with Kaplan Test Prep for a variety of fee-based preparation options.

Start by taking a practice test (in your preferred test, or both tests if you want to determine which to take), get it/them scored and use the scoring guide to see what content you need to learn (or relearn).

In general, the more time you have to study before the test, the more content you can learn. Learn or relearn content first. Then apply the content while you practice the taking of the test closer to your test date.

Pack everything you need the day before. Leave for the test site earlier than you need to.

If you can, don’t study alone. Grab whatever resources your school offers, and see if they will help you start a study group or class if none already exists. (Not only will you study more and better, but you will also add a nice line to your college application—colleges love students who start things!)

For both tests, practicing even 15-20 minutes a night will help. That’s enough time to do two-three ACT Science passages, two ACT Reading or English passages, or one third of a Math section. On the SAT, it’s the time you have for two Writing and Language passages, 1+ Reading passage, a Math-with-calculator Grid-In section, or 8-10 medium-difficulty Math questions. If you have time, stretch out the practice sessions as you get closer to the test.

Practice is just that: test-taking practice. The only score that matters is the actual test score, not practice scores. Try different ways of taking each section to see what works best for you.

About two weeks before the test, take another full-length practice test. Keep this one as close to actual conditions as you can. The last week should be reviewing math formulas and tables, figuring out how you will navigate each section, and getting plenty of sleep.

Test Day Is Here

Pack everything you need the day before. Bring extra pencils and batteries for your calculator, if needed. Bring more food and water than you think you need. If possible, don’t bring your phone.

Leave for the test site earlier than you need to. Remind yourself of your hard work and how well prepared you are. Answer every question—there’s no guessing penalty! Then stick to your plan for three hours and get your best score.

While many top colleges have test optional or test blind admissions procedures, most students can help themselves by targeting a test and date, working a study plan and getting an ACT or SAT score that strengthens their application at their target schools.

David Huemer is the founder and owner of Your College Strategies, LLC, an academic tutoring firm for middle and high school students with an emphasis on SAT, ACT and SSAT prep. A graduate of Columbia College in New York, he spent 30 years on various trading floors in New York and Chicago before founding YCS in 2011. If you have questions about this article or the SAT or ACT in general, he can be reached at