The ACT and the SAT are tests every high school student knows about. You might have been told they’re long, intimidating tests that will make or break your future, but that isn’t necessarily true. These exams may have a factor in college admissions, but they won’t end your career as a student. In fact, they might just launch it.

Most four-year colleges require either an ACT or SAT score. Some are more flexible with these rules than others, and schools that don’t require these scores do accept them. Because of these requirements, it’s likely you will take one or the other during your high school career. With that in mind, the next questions are which test should you take, how can you prepare, and what should you expect?


The ACT and the SAT aren’t that different. They are both standardized tests that measure high school students’ preparedness for college. They are said to be equally difficult and take about the same time to complete.

Rather than choosing between them, take both! This can open up college and scholarship opportunities that would be limited by taking one or the other, as all colleges accept SAT and ACT scores and some colleges require one of the tests.

Some students do better on one test than the other. If you only want to take one, determine which you think you’re most likely to do best on. The content covered is where they differ. SAT has more emphasis on math. ACT puts more emphasis on verbal skills and has a science section.

  • Scoring
    • SAT Scale (610-1600)
    • ACT Scale (9-36)
  • Timing
    • SAT is 3 Hours + writing portion
    • ACT is 2 Hours 55 Min + writing portion
  • Sections
    • SAT has 3 sections (4 tests) + essay option
    • ACT has 4 sections + essay option
  • Subjects
    • SAT covers Math, Evidence-Based Reading, and Writing
    • ACT covers Math, English, Reading, Writing, and Science

ACT & SAT Dates

The ACT and the SAT both hold about seven tests throughout the year.

SAT dates change yearly, but they always take place on Sundays. For those who cannot participate on Sundays due to religious observances, a test is held on the Saturdays before the posted test dates as well.

ACT dates work similarly, falling on either a Saturday or a Sunday. The ACT usually has more test dates in the Fall (August & September), than the Spring.

Registration deadlines also vary. Each test that is to be administered will have a registration deadline. Registration for SAT dates are usually due about a month before each test date. ACT registration can be anywhere from a week to a month before a test date. Late registration is acceptable, usually allowed up to a week before an exam, but will come with additional fees.

ACT & SAT Test Prep

When should you start test prep?

Students should begin test prep in their Sophomore or the summer before their Junior year. Prep courses can start up to 8 to 10 weeks before the test, and individual study can start even sooner.

When you’ve completed your test prep take the test as soon as possible. This will make it so you are more likely to still remember the information you learned while prepping.

Test Prep Materials

Planning on taking the ACT or SAT? Check out these prep materials:

Prep Books

Free Practice Tests

The ACT and SAT also offer online prep, which can be ordered by your school or organization. With the online prep course, students will be given access to personalized learning paths and a free mobile app to practice at any time. Teachers and administrators are able to monitor performance with the Administrator’s Dashboard.

Similarly, you can find in-person prep courses and private tutoring options near you.


The PSAT/NMSQT®, or The Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, is an exam that tests qualification for a National Merit Scholarship. Students take the PSAT as a sophomore or junior, and in special cases, as a freshman. Juniors who earn high enough test scores can be awarded a National Merit Scholarship for college.

The PSAT is not a prerequisite for the SAT. However, it is an opportunity you will want to take advantage of. PSAT scores are automatically sent to several scholarship programs and organizations and are used by the College Board to connect students that might fit them. The PSAT can also give you more practice for the SAT and ACT. The PSAT provides reports that can give an idea of where they are and help test-takers understand where they can improve.


Both the ACT and SAT have optional writing portions. Some colleges no longer require or recommend it. Check your desired school’s requirements first before skipping this section.

ACT Essay Scoring

Two trained readers will use an analytic scoring rubric to grade four areas on a scale of 1-6: Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions. These four areas will be calculated to a rounded average composite score for a total of five scores you will receive. The two readers’ scores will then add up their individual scores for each area to become a scale of 2-12. These scores will be simplified and you will receive a score ranging from 1-6.

SAT Essay Scoring

Two different people will read and score your essay on a scale of 1-4 for three areas: Reading, Analysis, and Writing. The two readers’ scores will be added to become a scale of 2-8 for each area. The SAT has no composite score. 

Essay Writing Tips

  • Stay Objective – Objectivity is key to essay writing. Essays require evidence to support an opinion, and while personal feelings can be useful in conveying an argument, they cannot carry the essay on their own.
  • Keep it Tidy – Your essay should be clean and easy to read. Try to have a clear line of thought and don’t ramble. Use proper grammar and punctuation and avoid run-on sentences.
  • Use Paragraphs – Don’t write one large clump of text. This can make your essay hard to read and leave your argument unclear. Organize your main points into paragraphs.
  • Cite Examples – Support is one of the foundations of your essay. Use examples to support your points and overall strengthen your argument.

Check out these sample essay questions and example essays during your test prep to know what will be expected of you.

If you plan on taking the SAT and/or ACT, remember that you get out of it what you put into it. All of your practice and preparation will pay off. Take what you’ve learned here and apply it to your planning, and do your own research to ensure you’re as prepared as you can be. Good luck with your exams!

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