Regional College Access Center

The SAT, ACT and other tests

Amy says: I get really nervous when I take tests, and the SAT was a big deal. So on top of studying the material, I wanted to get ready for the experience of taking the test.

I must have done like twenty of those practice tests in the back of the SAT study guides. I even sat at the kitchen table with a pencil and pretended like it was the real thing. I also took the PSAT, which was probably more helpful!

What is the SAT?

The SAT is a college admissions test accepted by almost every institution of higher education. The SAT tests your knowledge and understanding of math, reading and writing through multiple choice and essay questions.

Students typically take the SAT during their junior and/or senior year of high school. You can take the SAT more than once. Colleges and Universities use the SAT as just one of the factors that determine whether to admit you.

In case you were wondering, the letters "SAT" don't actually stand for anything. They used to stand for "scholactic aptitude test," and later for "scholactic assessment test," but not any more.

Click here: SAT info and practice test.

How can I do my best on the SAT?

The SAT is partly a test of knowledge, and partly a test of reasoning ability. You can prepare for it by engaging with your schoolwork and taking challenging classes. You can also prepare for it by learning informally, outside of school. Pursue hobbies. Read books, newspapers and the web. Watch movies. All of these activities can be educational as long as you approach them thoughtfully and with curiosity about the world we live in.

Of course, it's also a good idea to study the content on the test and familiarize yourself with the format and question types. Take a trip to a bookstore, or to your town or school library, and pick up one of the hundreds of SAT practice books available. If you know that you need extra help in one or more subjects, look into getting a tutor. Many libraries and schools offer free SAT help, including tutoring.

Nothing prepares you like practice, and there's a great way to practice taking the SAT: take the PSAT. The PSAT is a version of the regular SAT test that you can take early¯usually as a high school sophomore. We strongly encourage you to take the PSAT! It will help you get used to the test format, and it will help decide how you can best spend your time studying for the real thing.

If you're looking to save some money, look for fee waiver opportunities at the website of The College Board, the organization that administers the SAT.

One more thing: Pay attention to the test dates and deadlines! You don't want to pay a late fee to take your test... let alone missing your window altogether.

What is the ACT?

The ACT is another widely recognized college admissions test. The ACT assesses your "college readiness" in the areas of English, math, reading and science reasoning. There is also an optional writing component. You'll want to check out the schools you are interested in to see if they require the writing portion.

Like the SAT, the name ACT doesn't actually mean anything. It used to stand for "American College Test."

How can I do my best on the ACT?

Just like the SAT, pay attention to the test dates and deadlines. Preparing for the ACT will be similar to preparing for the SAT. You need to engage in homework and challenging classes. You will also want to familiarize yourself with the test format and sample questions. The ACT website has good, free resources to help students prepare for the test.

Which one should you take?

This depends mostly on the schools you plan to apply to. Some schools only accept one test or the other, but many now accept both. It is most important that you prepare yourself well, whichever test you decide to take. You can even opt to take both, and submit the scores that you prefer!

The Princeton Review breaks down the differences between the SAT and ACT on their website. They publish study guides for both tests, so they know what they're talking about. Here are some highlights:

ACT questions tend to be more straightforward.
ACT questions are often easier to understand on a first read. On the SAT, you may need to spend time figuring out what you're being asked before you can start solving the problem. For example, here are sample questions from the SAT essay and the ACT Writing Test (their name for the essay):

SAT: What is your view of the claim that something unsuccessful can still have some value?
ACT: In your view, should high schools become more tolerant of cheating?

The SAT has a stronger emphasis on vocabulary.
If you're an ardent wordsmith, you'll love the SAT. If words aren't your thing, you may do better on the ACT.

The ACT has a Science section, while the SAT does not.
You don't need to know anything about amoebas or chemical reactions for the ACT Science section. It is meant to test your reading and reasoning skills, based upon a given set of facts. But if you're a true science-phobe, the SAT might be a better fit.

The ACT tests more advanced math concepts.
The ACT requires you to know a little trigonometry, in addition to the algebra and geometry you'll find on the SAT. That said, the ACT Math section is not necessarily harder, since many students find the questions to be more straightforward than those on the SAT.