Tips to Help You Rock the SAT or ACT

By David Bell

Taking the SAT or ACT is usually not a pleasant experience. However, since most colleges expect you to take one of these tests, you want to be well prepared. Here are some answers—based on my experiences tutoring and leading ACT and SAT workshops—to frequently asked questions about improving performance on these tests.

HELP! – Should I take the SAT or ACT?

There are similarities and differences between the SAT and ACT, so you should familiarize yourself with both tests.

Similarities include:

  • both are multiple choice tests (though the SAT does include a few “grid-in” questions)

  • neither penalizes you for guessing;

  • both tests are about three hours long;

  • each test has four sections that will always appear in the same order and in the same format

Important differences include:

  • the ACT has 40% more questions to answer in the same amount of time;

  • the top score on the ACT is a 36 and on the SAT, a 1600;

  • the SAT has 2 math sections and the ACT only 1;

  • only the ACT has a “Science” section.

How do I know which is better for me?

We recommend you take 2-3 practice ACT and SAT tests—including at least one of each under simulated test conditions—before deciding which one is better for you. After taking a number of practice tests, most students have a clear preference. Once you have decided which test is right for you, focus your preparation on that test only. Practice makes – well, maybe not perfect, but certainly much better! You absolutely can improve your performance—in many cases, dramatically—through practice.

What is my “target” score?

The answer is: It all depends. As noted above, the scoring system for the two tests is very different. More importantly, students have different aptitudes and different college goals. Your target score will depend on the competitiveness of the colleges to which you are applying, your innate test-taking ability, and most importantly, your willingness to put in the time to get ready for the test. A good way to get a sense of target scores for a range of colleges is to go to the colleges’ websites, or simply to do a search for “Median ACT Northwestern,” for example.

How do I prepare for the test?

It is rare for a student to simply show up and ace the test, so once you have settled on “your” test, plan to spend at least 2-3 months getting ready. Set up a study schedule and block out the time you are willing to devote to getting prepared. You may find it helpful to work backwards from the test date in organizing your schedule. You should plan on doing test prep at least 2 days a week. Once you have set aside time, do your best not to let anything interfere with it.

Your preparation should be based on identifying your strengths and weakness and then focusing on improving upon your weaknesses. In other words, learn from your mistakes and tailor your future practice to where you are weak, not where you are strong.

How can I measure my progress?

You can think of progress this way: You are trying to raise your “floor” and raise your “ceiling.” In other words, there is a range of likely scores each time you take the test, and you want to see that range – from the bottom (floor) to the top (ceiling) – steadily trending up. Progress in test-taking, like progress in anything else you work at, is rarely linear, so don’t get discouraged if your scores occasionally go down. It’s the overall trend that you are interested in! If you put in the time and learn from your mistakes, you almost certainly will see improvement.

As you strive to improve, you also may find it helpful to think, not simply in terms of “raw score” or “scaled score,” but instead think, “Okay, how many more questions do I need right to get on this section of the test to go from a my current score to my target score. Often students are amazed to find that just a few more correct answers per section can get them over the bar.

Remember, your SAT or ACT score is only one piece of your college application.

Finally, remember that colleges look at a variety of factors in addition to your test scores, including your grades, recommendations, outside activities, and other factors. A good SAT or ACT score can help, but it usually is not determinative of whether you will get into the college of your choice. And your SAT or ACT score definitely is not a measurement of how smart you are, how well you will do in college, or even how kind you are to small children and animals!

Study hard and good luck!

Dave Bell, who organizes ACT and SAT workshops for area high schools and not-for-profit organizations, can be reached for answers to your questions at

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