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You’re looking for information about how to prepare for the ACT or SAT, maybe you’re not even sure what the tests are, maybe you’re not sure whether you have to take both, or either. You’re in the right place!!

Sometimes starting something is the hardest part. The advice on these pages will guide you as you prepare for the ACT, give you SAT tips, help you decide which test to take, or whatever it is you need. Written by an expert tutor, this is the place you’ll get the advice you’re looking for.

Here’s some key facts to help you begin to prepare for the ACT or SAT. Both are standardized admissions tests that you need for most (but not all) American universities. Some universities outside the US will accept an ACT or SAT score with your application if you already have one, but it’s not advised to take either test just for that purpose. If you are resident in the US, but applying to an international university, it may be assumed that you have a test score, and therefore you may be expected to report one. Always check the admission requirements of all the universities you are applying for.

Standardized means that the tests are statistically weighted so that each score is supposed to be equivalent and doesn’t depend on the test paper you took or the date you wrote (this process is sometimes called ‘bell-curving’, although the score distribution on the ACT and SAT is not necessarily bell shaped).

The ACT is scored on a 1-36 scale, while the SAT is scored on a 400-1600 scale.


The big question – will I get in to school xyz?

The big question – will I get in to school xyz? published on

I get asked this question literally all the time!!! Here’s the thing. Obviously you want to know that, but the only way you’ll know for sure is to apply and see if you get in! I’m going to rephrase the question for you. It should be “how do I know which schools I should apply to?”. This is a question I can answer!


There are a lot of different schools in the US. There are small schools, large schools, private, public, tech focused schools, arts focused schools, schools in cities, schools in the middle of nowhere as well as a bunch of different curricula and approaches to learning. There’s also a wide variety of financial differences, athletic considerations and religious influences between different schools. There is a huge variety in schools: much more than in the UK, where I grew up, and in Canada, where I now live. So there are a lot of options. The best way to navigate these is with a college counsellor. They will be able to find a school that suits you, that you can afford and that you can get into. I don’t really know a lot about this, because what I do involves helping raise your grades and test scores so that you can get to your dream school. If you can find a counsellor, then do. They might be in your school if you’re in the US, but internationally, you might have to find a private counsellor. Try looking through HECA, NACAC, or OACAC. I can’t emphasise enough the wealth of knowledge that a good counsellor will bring to your application!


If you’re doing this on your own, here’s two really important points:

  1. Firstly, almost every school publishes a profile of the last class that they admitted. Here’s Caltech’s, for example. It’s usually called the class profile, or the admissions profile. This is where you can see how your grades and test scores measure up to the last class. If you fall within the ranges they give, then great. If you’re significantly below, don’t apply unless other parts of your application are really amazing, or you have proven and documented extenuating circumstances (e.g. illness affecting a year’s GPA).
  2. You should make a shortlist of 4-8 schools that you want to go to. Two of them should be schools you have a long shot at getting into, but still a chance (your ‘reach’ choices). Two of them should be schools whose admissions profile you fit into perfectly. And two should be schools where you think you can get into no problem (‘safe’ choices). An admissions counsellor will help you make this list and take into account a bunch of other factors (they call this ‘fit’ – how the school suits you).

There’s my super short admissions guide – I hope it helps you!

How not to be distracted by the answer choices!

How not to be distracted by the answer choices! published on

Here’s an interesting problem I encountered around a month ago. I think I’ve just figured it out, so I thought I’d share it with you. It mainly applies to Reading and Science sections.

second guessing ACT SAT reading improve score stop guess

This is the situation. You know the tests (ACT and SAT, same applies to both) are sometimes a bit strange. You know they’re trying to trick you. So you’re prepared to think about ways that the answer that you initially want to go for might not be the right one. You find yourself justifying all the answer options, and then you’re not sure which to pick. Is this you?


I find that students who do this tend to do quite well – getting around 75% of the questions right. But they find it hard to progress from there, as there’s so much second-guessing going on.


Here’s how it typically plays out in lessons: I’ll set my student a reading passage, then we’ll mark it and find that he or she got 2 or 3 questions wrong. They’ll be questions about whether someone in the passage would agree with a statement, or how they feel about something. My student will give very good justifications for 2 or even 3 of the answer choices – and I’ll agree with them! But to me, there’s one choice that clearly stands out as the correct one. I’ll explain why to my student, and it will make sense to them – but he or she won’t be able to get by themselves. The answer choices can be so confusing.


This is a very common problem – but I think I will have something that will help.


If I really need to demonstrate this point to a student, I give them a reading passage with all the answer choices blanked out (this works with nearly all the questions). Then they just have to write their answer. They almost always write something that’s very close to one of the options, and they have no trouble identifying it. You should try this yourself! At the very least, when you read the question, don’t look at the answers straight away (maybe cover them with your hand) – think about what you think first and then decide. I am confident that this will help you overcome the second guessing and indecision!

Why you should write the SAT or ACT more than once!

Why you should write the SAT or ACT more than once! published on

I strongly recommend writing the test more than once (ideally 3 times), to maximize your chance of getting your best score. Think of it like this:


You might give up after 2 attempts, because your score dropped, but really your average score is closer to your first test. The one you actually want to submit is your third test, but you need to know where that score falls on your personal scale before you decide whether to write again or not.

In my experience, students’ test scores vary around their mean score. So let’s say your mean ACT score is a 27. The first time you write, you get a 24. Then a 26, followed by a 28, then a 27. You need to know what your mean score is, otherwise you won’t know what your highest possible score could be. Each test is different, so one test could suit you more than others for a totally random reason. If you only write once and get a 28, that could be your highest possible score, but statistical variation in the test could get you a 30 the next time you write.

Also, you’re more likely to be motivated if you’re only 2 points away from the score you need to get into your dream school. The other thing about only writing once is that students who are doing this are usually doing it on their last possible test attempt, which means added pressure – if you write more than once, you always know you have another chance, which really lowers stress levels in a timed test!

One of my students, Allen, wrote the SAT twice, with only a month in between. He didn’t do any work in between because he was studying for end of year exams, but his total score improved by 100 points. This isn’t a huge difference, but it’s worth giving up a Saturday morning for! There are two possible reasons for this: either one particular test happened to suit Allen more than the other, or studying for his school exams helped his score as well.

Some people think that admissions officers are expecting you do get a great score first time around. This isn’t true – achievement takes perseverance, and I’ve heard admissions people say that they may even look positively on multiple test attempts if the student improved. This might not be true in all situations, but it certainly is in some! Be warned though. There’s nothing to gain from writing a test 5 times. Don’t keep writing the test and expect things to improve when you haven’t done anything in between. Generally, a large number of test attempts is not looked on favourably. There’s a balance to be struck, and two tests attempts is a good idea for almost all students.

I took a diagnostic test – what do I do with the results?!

I took a diagnostic test – what do I do with the results?! published on


Many people start off their prep by taking both tests, or a diagnostic test. If you’ve done this, this article will help you work out how to interpret your results. I know that many diagnostic tests provide some interpretation of their results, and some guidance about which test you should take based on your results, but here’s what I would say to you if you’re trying to interpret your diagnostic test, or your scores on a practice ACT and SAT.


What even is a diagnostic test?

Diagnostic tests are basically shortened versions of a real test. They contain all the same types of questions as the real tests. Some companies sell these as the introduction to their prep schemes. This is definitely a good idea, but you should also know how to get the most out of the test.

A warning: My biggest concern about diagnostic tests or just taking both the SAT and ACT without studying is that there are many things that can cause your score to be a poor reflection of your potential score if you’re unprepared for the test. You could forget a small formula, for example. You could miss the point of a whole passage just because it wasn’t what you were expecting. Mistakes like this will make your 4+ hours writing the tests completely useless. You should absolutely definitely familiarize yourself a little with the tests (2-4 hour study on each one) before you rely on a score from a diagnostic test. This is not common advice, but I strongly believe in it, and it’s what I do with all my students.

Some pointers for starting your study:

  • Look at the summary sections for the ACT and SAT.
  • Know how much time you have! Be aware that the ACT reading and scientific reasoning are tough on time
  • Practice ACT Scientific Reasoning. It’s different to anything you’ve seen before. If you’re trying to figure it out in the middle of your diagnostic, you’ll do worse than if you know about it beforehand
  • Get some formula sheets for the Math sections – or make one from your math notes. You need to know things like slope of a line, area of triangles, sine and cosine law etc
  • Expect data based reasoning on the SAT Reading. It can be a little weird the first time you see it, but you’ll get used to it


I’ve already taken the diagnostic, what should I do?

Firstly, compare your scores. I’ve got an article that nicely explains the College Board’s concordance table (currently the only thing that you can use to compare scores). You should note that the ACT has officially disagreed with this document, but right now it’s the only thing out there that compares the ACT with both the old and new SAT.

If you score much better on one test than the other then your decision is easy. I would define ‘much better’ if your ACT score is more than 3 points higher than your converted SAT score, or if your SAT score is more than 80 points higher than your converted ACT score. If, like most students, the difference is not that large, then you really need to consider which test you prefer, or which you’d find easier to study for.

If you’ve found this helpful, I suggest you read my comparison of the ACT and SAT to give you more information.

How to finish the ACT Math section

How to finish the ACT Math section published on No Comments on How to finish the ACT Math section

Many students struggle to finish the ACT math paper. This is either because they run out of time, or because they can’t solve the more difficult problems. One good way to get around that is to aim to complete only part of the paper. This is a great strategy if you’re aiming for a math score in the 20-30 range. If you want above a 30, you need to attempt all the questions (you can probably get away with 2 or 3 guesses).

Here’s a strategy for getting to a 21: You need to get roughly half the questions right.

  • First 30 minutes: Aim to answer questions 1-20. Count the number of questions you have to skip, and put a * by any questions that you’re unsure of.
  • Next 20 minutes: From questions 20-45, try to answer 15, plus the number you needed to skip from the first 20. This means you’ll have answered 35 questions without guessing any. Fill in the bubble sheet with what you have so far.
  • Last 10 minutes: Go back to the * questions, see if you can finish any.
Here’s a strategy for getting to a 25: You need to get about 38/60 to get this score.

  • First 30 minutes: Work through questions 1-30. Count the number of questions you have to skip, and put a * by any questions that you’re unsure of.
  • Next 20 minutes: Focus on questions 30-60. If you read the question and have no idea, cross through it. If you can solve it, but it’s taking too long, put a * by it and come back to it later. Don’t forget that although the questions go in order of difficulty, there are sometimes some easy questions at the end of the test. Don’t write of questions 55-60, you may be able to do them. Fill in the bubble sheet with what you have so far.
  • Last 10 minutes: Go back to the * questions, see what you can do.
Here’s a strategy for getting to a 30: You need to get approximately 50 questions right. This means you need to attempt almost the whole paper.

  • First 20 minutes: Do questions 1-30. Work at a steady pace, don’t rush. If you can get this bit right, you have a huge time bonus for the harder questions. It’s essential that you practice this a lot so that you know what pace enables you to do 30 questions in 20 minutes.
  • Next 20 minutes: Tackle questions 30-50. You’re now working at 1 minute per question. If you have to skip any, replace them with questions from 50-60. For example, if you skip questions 37 and 42, you need to do questions 51 and 52 instead. Put a * by any you think you should come back to.
  • Next 10 minutes: Investigate questions 50-60. See what you can do. If there’s any that you don’t have a clue about, put a line through. Also fill in your bubble sheet in this time.
  • Last 10 minutes: Go back over your * questions. Anything you can get here is a bonus, because you’ve already answered 50+ questions.

What’s your timing strategy? Is it working for you?

How can I improve my reading comprehension?

How can I improve my reading comprehension? published on No Comments on How can I improve my reading comprehension?

Reading comprehension is hands down one of the hardest areas in which to improve your score. You’ve been building your reading skills since age 4/5, so you can’t do much in 2 months to make a difference! If you’re only looking for a small score improvement, or you’ve got more time, you can probably make some difference. I don’t mean to be discouraging, but you must be realistic about what you can achieve or you will end up demoralized and possibly wasting your money too!

books reading study skill practice comprehension ACT SAT
Is this you?! The more you read the better.

For a short term fix (something you can do in less than a month), see this post. For a more long term target (2 months – 1 year), try these suggestions.

  • Set yourself reading goals. You might want to complete a certain book, a certain number of books, or read newspaper or a magazine (anything where the articles are longer than 500 words, or most of a page is good practice). Good places to look for articles like the ones on the ACT/SAT are magazines like The Economist, National Geographic, or comment/opinion sections in the newspaper. My personal preference for news articles is The Guardian.
  • Discuss what you read with someone. If it’s a book, look at discussion of it online, or talk about it with a friend who has read it. Look at what you found interesting, what you think the meaning is, any symbols or metaphors in the book.

I know that these strategies sound difficult to apply, and also quite generic, but in my experience, students who read because they enjoy it always do well on reading comprehension. To me, saying you don’t like reading is like saying that you don’t like breathing!

Top 10 Reading Comprehension Strategies

Top 10 Reading Comprehension Strategies published on No Comments on Top 10 Reading Comprehension Strategies

Here are my favourite strategies for reading comprehension. This applies to the SAT, ACT, PSAT and most standardized tests.

Know how you’re going to approach the passage. Here are some suggestions. Which one you choose depends on whether you struggle to finish in time or not.

  • Skim read the passage, then answer the questions. If anything takes longer than 30 seconds, come back later. With this strategy, you should have time t the end of the test, so go to the passage that you best understood from your skim reading.
  • Read the questions first, underlining parts of the passage that are specifically referred to in the questions (e.g. first or fourth paragraph, lines 23-25).
  • Read in detail then answer the questions. This is the ideal strategy, and it is the easiest way to achieve a high score, but it will only work if your reading skills are up to scratch.

If you’re trying to improve your score, try a new strategy. Do 3 practice tests using it before you evaluate whether or not it is better. If it’s working for you, continue to practice using it. Don’t try a new strategy on test day – you’re almost guaranteed to do worse!

Look carefully at how specific the passage is and compare it to the level of detail in the answers. You should try to pick the closest match. For example, there are often two answer choices that say the same thing, but one is more general. Pick the one that’s closer to what the passage expresses.

Practice skimming and stating the main idea/title. Learn to identify the point of the passage by finding a thesis in the introduction or conclusion (this won’t always work, but it does about half the time).

Learn to recognize the question types:

  • What is the main point of the passage/paragraph?
  • What does this small detail mean? Where in the passage was the following detailed mentioned?
  • Inference: What would the author most likely feel/say about about the following hypothetical scenario?
  • Vocabulary: What does this word or phrase mean in the context of the passage?
  • Purpose: is the text persuasive, informative, an account, a dramatization, a discussion etc? (This often isn’t the actual questions, but it is implied).

Always be able to reference evidence in the passage for each answer that you choose. Don’t make assumptions that can’t be backed up by the passage. There is usually a wrong answer choice that relies on you doing this.

Make list of your mistakes and why you made them. Also remember to take up questions that you’re not sure about (put a star by them when you’re doing the test).

Train yourself to be faster. First, do a completely passage by reading it fully and answering the questions. Compare the time you took doing this to the time it should take (8.5 minutes for the ACT). Gradually reduce your time by 30 second increments until you can do a passage in 30 seconds less than the time you actually have.

For the ACT, the passages always come in the same order, so you might know that you always do worse on one particular one. Do this one either first (to ensure your full attention on it) or last (to focus on doing well on the others). Try this both ways around so that you know what works best.

Before reading the answer choices, come up with your own answer to the question. Cover them up with your hand, then uncover them and pick the closest one.

If the two passages are related, think about how. Spot specific lines that refer to the other passage, or points of similarity or difference between the two passages.

Know when you’re going to fill in the bubble sheet. I suggest after every passage.

There are actually 11 things in here, but I just couldn’t cut it down to 10!

Should I use a tutor to help me prepare?

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books tutor study ACT SAT

Here are my top reasons to get a private tutor for the SAT or ACT, and how to find a good one.

Reasons why you should get a tutor:

  • I have a score below 21 on the ACT or ~1090 on the SAT. These are the average scores, and they are also considered a minimum benchmark for entry (depending on the school). You’ll struggle to get into most schools with these scores because the indicate that you might not be able to cope with the challenging material in at least some areas of your course. A tutor can identify your weaknesses and help you to fix them. In this situation, a good tutor will teacher you for the test as well as improving your educational skills generally – which your score is suggesting is necessary!
  • I don’t think I’ll be motivated to study. Being accountable to someone else for your work could be the motivation you need. If you always leave studying until the last minute and you find yourself pulling all-nighters to study, bear in mind that you can’t do that for the ACT or SAT. Again, a tutor will help you develop this skill so that you can apply it later.
  • I need to improve my score by a big margin (5+ points on the ACT, 300+ points on the SAT). A tutor can identify what you specifically need help with. Be careful with anyone who guarantees you a score increase, especially if they haven’t worked with you. I’m not talking about people who offer money back if you don’t get a score increase – this is just a selling tactic, and it’s based on the average student. You should be careful if anyone promises that they can certainly improve your score before you’ve told them what your score currently is, or how long you’ve been prepping. It’s not always possible to make a guarantee like this!
  • My score in one section is a lot worse than my score in the other sections. Again, you have one or two specific weaknesses, which is the perfect situation for a tutor to work with.


As with any approach to preparing, make sure you allow enough time to make improvements – at least 6 months. A good tutor can really help you, especially if you struggle in school, but you’ll get best results over time.


How to find a good tutor:

Go on a recommendation! This is by far the best way to find a good tutor. Ask friends and family, or find a few businesses and google them. Ask teachers, older students, school counsellors – anyone who will give you an honest opinion.

If you can’t get a recommendation, book a lesson and see how it goes. A good tutor should have a plan for your preparation. It shouldn’t be set in stone, because you also want it tailored to you. Ask ‘what do you normally do to help students prepare?’.

A good tutor won’t force you to set a schedule that you don’t want, or can’t afford to keep to – for my students, 2 hours every 2 weeks is the minimum I will see them for (otherwise we just don’t have enough time to cover everything we need to, so it ends up being a waste anyway). If they suggest a schedule that you don’t like, ask them why. They should be able to give a good reason.

If you have a specific budget, be upfront about it. If I know that a student is willing to spend $2000 on tutoring but no more, I can come up with a plan that works around that and makes best use of our time. If they don’t tell me that they have a budget, but just quit after a certain number of lessons, I will plan differently, and they won’t get the best out of the time they pay for. A tutor should be able to accommodate a reasonable budget.

For students outside the US, a tutor is also a good idea, as they will know the differences between your curriculum and the US curriculum (trust me, the difference is significant even for Canadian students). They may also be a valuable source on information about taking the test, subject tests and other parts of your application that you won’t get help on in school.

Comment if you have questions or suggestions!

Choosing the right way to prepare

Choosing the right way to prepare published on No Comments on Choosing the right way to prepare


There are so many different options available to you that it’s hard to know where to start! I’ll hopefully help here by outlining the different method, and pros and cons of each. Maybe you have a year to prepare, maybe only 2 months. Your two main considerations are your goal (target score), and how long you have to reach it.


5 most important facts to bear in mind:

  • No method is going to produce results instantly
  • The more tailored your program is, the quicker you should see results
  • You need time to practice. 4+ months is ideal
  • Be realistic about your target score


Most of your improvement will depend on you – be motivated and study!

It's a key choice ... ha ha ha.
It’s a key choice … ha ha ha.


Going solo: If you know you’re pretty motivated, and you won’t have trouble committing to 4 hours work per week when you’re not accountable to anyone for it, this is probably the route for you. There are loads of great online resources and practice books that you can use. This method is obviously the cheapest, but the results depend entirely on you, so make sure you’re being realistic about your goals. If you have less than two months to prepare, if your target score is more than 10 points away on the ACT or 400 on the SAT, you’ll find it hard to hone your skills that much by yourself in a short time. This is also not the route for you if you’re scoring below a 21 on the ACT or 1000 on the new SAT.


Private tutor: This is probably the most expensive way to prepare, ranging between $100-$1000 per hour. Look for someone with experience, and get recommendations from friends and family. Good tutors can survive solely on word of mouth.  A tutor is best if you haven’t got long to prep – they can show you the areas you need to work on most quickly and will have access to resources that you won’t on your own. A tutor is probably the best way to get you through a large score gap too – more than 10 points on the ACT or 400 points on the new SAT.  I would also use a tutor if you are scoring under a 21 on the ACT, or under 1000 on the new SAT. In this score range, you’ll have a tough time assessing your weaknesses on your own, and a group course could be pitched too high. You may have a specific weakness in one area (for example reading), so a tutor can help you with that outside of the test as well.


Group prep course: These are great ways to get a general introduction to the test. There are some big name companies which will give you a pretty good return for your money. I would choose this route as a compliment to solo prep – don’t expect one of these course to get your all the way to your target score (if it does, consider aiming a little higher!). I have never taken one of these courses, but I’ve spoken to several students who have, and they usually come out with an improvement. Typically, their next step is to go to a tutor, either to improve in one specific area, or to push up their composite by 2-3 (ACT) or 50-100 (SAT) points. It usually works, and they come out with the score they want.


Online prep: I’ve never taken one of these courses – but I’ve seen several extracts from different course materials and been on the receiving end of their marketing materials a lot! I think these courses are good for the motivated student, and also you should probably treat them like group courses. They should be part of your prep program, not the whole thing. When you’re choosing a course, make sure you know exactly what you’re signing up for (including whether there is a refund period). Get a recommendation from a friend, or look for online reviews that prove that the program gets results. There are some companies that have fancy marketing but poorly designed programs which don’t reflect the tests. Also make sure that they do what they say they do in terms of personalizing your program to you: some companies say they will do this, but don’t. You might as well buy a $20 practice book in this case. Online prep also needs you to be highly motivated on your own, since you’re not accountable to anybody. If you think you can handle this, then that’s good.


Let me know your experience about various prep methods below!


4 things to avoid

4 things to avoid published on

Here are my 4 big no-nos for your test prep. These are things I wish my students would avoid!

  1. Don’t leave your test prep too late! It sounds obvious … but ideally you should start working for the test about 4-6 months before you want to write it. You’ll need more time if your score is a long way below where you want it to be (more than 5 points on the ACT, more than 300 points on the new SAT). It’s very rare that someone is good at the tests straight away, and contrary to popular belief, universities don’t look down on multiple attempts at the tests. You need to give yourself time to get where you want to be. Remember that the school only sees your scores; they don’t know whether you did 2 weeks of prep or 2 years! If your goal is to get a certain score, give yourself enough time to achieve it – it’s as simple as that!


  3. If you have left it too late (and I’m defining ‘too late’ if you haven’t looked at the test properly and it’s less than 1 month away), don’t panic! At this point, the best thing you can do is get some outside help – a good tutor can still do quite a lot with only one month. Look here for my tips on choosing a tutor. If that’s not an option, make a plan to motivate yourself into preparing for the test and make sure you have practiced each section separately, corrected your wrong answers and written the entire test in one sitting before you write the real test.


  5. Planning to write the test only once is a big no. Most students will do better on their second opportunity. So don’t leave it until the last test date available to you! If you’ve already written the test and you still have time, you should consider writing again too. The only exceptions here are if you get a perfect or nearly perfect score, or if you’ve written more than 3 practice tests (from the College Board or the ACT – not a prep book), and your score on the day is by far your highest one. There are all sorts of factors that go into your actual score – probably the most significant are your personal ‘form’ on the day (if you haven’t slept well, you’re stressed out in the test, general panic or just not knowing what to expect), and statistical variation on the test. I strongly believe that you should write more than once – here’s why. If you write the test and you’re really really sure of where you want to apply, and your score is way above this one, then maybe you don’t have to write again either.


  7. This one may be the most important. Don’t cram your prep into a month. Most of what’s on the the tests is skill based, not content based. This is the opposite of school exams, and it means that intense study in the week before the test won’t do much for your score, unlike in school exams. The best thing to do is 2-3 hours prep per week for 4-6 months before the test. This means that you will developing those critical reading, grammar, math and writing skills over that length of time (remember that you’ve actually been learning all of these since you were born – it does take that long!). You can’t cram some facts and wing it on the test – you need to have the skill basis to start with. On the plus side, you probably won’t be doing much more work in the week before the test. Certainly no crazy all nighter before the test – this will definitely hurt your score!! Just make sure you know your math formulae, and you can relax and do normal Friday night stuff.

How do I know whether I should take the ACT or the SAT?

How do I know whether I should take the ACT or the SAT? published on

How should I choose whether to take the SAT or ACT?

First things first: despite what you may have heard, it doesn’t matter to colleges whether you take the SAT or ACT. All schools accept either test, and neither test is preferred (some schools are also test-optional – check out their website admissions pages). Some schools are not accepting the SAT for students applying in 2017, because of the format changes, but this won’t be a permanent move. A few schools accept the ACT instead of subject tests, so that’s worth knowing too, before you make the decision.

Neither test is actually easier, but some suit different students differently. There are some key facts that make a difference between ACT and SAT, however. As a rule of thumb, the SAT is better for strong Math students, because half your score is Math based, compared to a quarter of your score on the ACT. The ACT is better for strong readers, because the Reading and Scientific Reasoning sections both rely heavily on fast and accurate reading comprehension. Don’t make the decision just on that basis though, there are other factors.


take the SAT or ACT questions choice decide prepare study
It’s a big choice!


Here are the factors that help my students to decide whether to take the SAT or ACT:

The ACT… The SAT…
Only asks vocabulary questions in context, and usually less than 2 per test The new SAT will not test vocabulary, except in context, like the ACT (the old SAT did).
Contains a science section – you do not have be studying science to do well on it, it’s more about drawing conclusions from information. I’d call it ‘data-based reasoning’ Contains data based questions in Math, Reading and Writing & Language (basically everywhere!).
Has 4 sections plus optional essay at the end Has 4 sections plus optional essay at the end
Total test time is 3 hours 25 minutes Total test time is 3 hours 30 minutes
Extensive documentation needed to get testing accommodations such as extra time Accomodations often approved automatically based on what you get at school
Has one math section Has two math sections, making up half your score
Essay is 40 mins to discuss a “current issues” type topic, based on perspectives given (new structure as of Sept 2015) Essay is 50 minutes to analyse a persuasive text.
One math section, for which you can use a calculator Two math sections, one without a calculator
Requires you to work very quickly for the reading and scientific reasoning sections Has a much more generous time limit for reading comprehension, although you do have an extra passage to read. Also the passages are slightly harder – of the 5 passages on the SAT, usually 2 or more were written before 1900.
Contains more curriculum based math – some of the questions will look more familiar to you Contains much more data/statistical math than the ACT.
No penalty for getting wrong answers, so you should fill in every circle on your bubble sheet. Also no penalty (note that this is a change from the old SAT).


You might already have an idea of which test you prefer, based on reading about the difference between ACT and SAT. To really know for sure, you should get a practice test for each, and take the SAT or ACT under timed conditions and compare them. Diagnostic tests work for this too, but they are often made by prep companies, so they are variable in quality, and never as good as the real thing. They also may be shorter than the real test, meaning that you’re less likely to feel the test fatigue that you do when your take the SAT or ACT for real.

If you’ve done this, and got results from both tests, you can read about how to compare them here.


Here are the main points I would ask my students to consider when choosing whether to take the SAT or ACT:

  • Did you prefer the timing of the ACT or SAT? You can only really know the answer to this question if you’ve done the full tests. For the ACT, the reading and scientific reasoning sections (third and fourth in order) must be completed at a fast pace. This means that you’re working faster at the end of the test, which may not be ideal for you. On the SAT, the reading is first, and takes 65 minutes. Math is at the end of the test.
  • Do students in your area mostly take the SAT or ACT? In some places, most students take the ACT, whereas in other areas, it’s the SAT. If, because of where you live, you have easier access to help on one test or the other (tutors, prep programs run at your school, or just friends to ask for advice), that is important to consider in your decision.
  • Which test did you enjoy more? You’ll do better on the test you feel more confident with. You’ll also be more motivated to study, especially if you’re doing all your prep by yourself.
  • Math represents half the SAT, but only a quarter of the ACT. If you’re a strong mathematician but aren’t so good at reading fast, the SAT is a good test for you. If you can read fast, but your math isn’t so strong, the ACT is better for you. ACT reading is quite well correllated with ACT science (as opposed to science scores being similar to math scores, as you might expect).
  • Writing and Language (SAT) is virtually identical to English (ACT). So you have to do that regardless – it shouldn’t be a factor in your decision to take the ACT or the SAT!
  • Although the essay portion represents a big difference between ACT and SAT, I wouldn’t make it a factor in your choice. Usually essay scores do not matter as much as the test score itself, because universities have lots of other ways to assess your writing ability.


Don’t spend too much time picking a test. Some people just write both to see which they do better on. There’s nothing wrong with this, it just takes more time. If you are going to decide on one test, bear in mind that the ideal timescale for prep for either test is 6 months or more, so make sure you’ve made your decision at least 6 months before you plan to write the test for the first time. I said first time because I strongly believe you should write a standardized test more than once to maximize your score. Here’s why.

Good luck in your choice!! Comment below and let me know how you decided whether to take the ACT or the SAT.