4 Ways Kids Can Prepare for the ACT or SAT


I recall dragging myself out of bed on a Saturday morning during eleventh grade and showing up to my high school holding two, sharpened No. 2 pencils. I had not put in any time preparing for those next few hours but was able to remain relaxed, remembering my 3.7-grade point average, as well as the fact that I was involved at school.

Flash forward just 13 years later, and the majority of my high school-aged students are completely consumed with raising their ACT or SAT scores, some even retaking the test five, six, or seven times, just so they can get into their dream school. GPAs, extracurriculars, and volunteer work no longer cut it, and regardless of whether or not this is “right,” it’s unfortunately today’s reality.

If your teen will be taking these tests soon you may want to encourage them to start their prep this summer (may as well keep those skills sharp during the break right?) There are a variety of ways students can successfully prepare for these tests; however, the following four steps are what I, as a former high school English teacher and now English tutor, encourage and regularly witness success in:

#1 Make a decision: ACT or SAT?

When I was in high school, everyone took the ACT unless they were planning to go out of state. That, however, changed in 2015 when the SAT’s New York-based administrator, CollegeBoard, won a contract to administer the test to public school students for free in Michigan. Since then, students still have the option to take the ACT but at their own expense. Colleges and universities are currently accepting either test score; nevertheless, many students find that they do significantly better on one test or the other since they are written differently:

  • Test Structure: ACT has five sections (English, Math, Reading, Science, and Essay, which is optional) where SAT has four sections (Reading, Writing and Language, Math, and Essay, which is optional).
  • Length: ACT is 2 hours and 55 minutes (without the essay) and 3 hours and 40 minutes (with the essay); SAT is 3 hours (without the essay) and 3 hours and 50 minutes (with the essay).
  • Calculator Policy: A calculator is permitted on all math questions on the ACT; however, some math questions on the SAT don’t let you use a calculator to solve them.
  • Scoring Scale: ACT is scored on a scale of 1-36 where the SAT’s scale is 400 to 1600.

Still clueless? Many of my students take timed, full-length practice tests in order to decide which of the two tests to take and/or focus their prep-work on.

#2 Figure out problem areas

Just like ACT’s former Explore and Plan tests, beginning in eighth grade, many students now have the opportunity to begin taking the Preliminary SAT (PSAT) at school. Upon completion, students will receive a score report from College Board with a breakdown of their strong and weak areas, as well as strong and weak skills. Another option, however, is to simply take a full-length practice ACT or SAT test at home. Although these can be found online, I would advise taking one out of an ACT or SAT Prep book (keeping in mind that these can be checked out at local libraries) since the majority of these prep books include skill names and answer explanations for each question, allowing students to not only know what they did wrong but also what specific area or skill they are struggling with.

#3 Practice

Although we’d like to assume what students are being tested on is what they learn in school, this is often not the case for a variety of reasons (future blog post?); with that said, once students have made a choice between ACT and SAT and are aware of what areas and skills they struggle with on their chosen test, it is time to practice. When it comes down to ACT or SAT Prep books, I am a big believer of going “straight to the source.” Since College Board developed and administers the SAT, I advise SAT students to either purchase or borrow College Board’s “The Official SAT Study Guide;” similarly, I tell ACT students to use study guides that are created by the makers of the test, such as the most up-to-date “The Official ACT Prep Guide.” Both texts not only include several full-length practice tests but a plethora of information and preparation exercises written by the test writers themselves. Still want more practice? I encourage SAT students to also visit satpractice.org, which is home to the free Khan Academy, a partner of College Board, and ACT students to visit act.org, but this one does have a fee.

#4 Take a prep course or work with a tutor

Once the first three steps are completed, if your student is still struggling (and you can afford it!), there are a variety of test prep courses, as well as tutoring options. Depending on your child, his or her needs, as well as how much you’re willing to spend, one option may be more favorable than the other.

Is your teen prepping for the ACT or SAT this summer? What have you found helpful for them?


  1. Great blog Danielle, thanks for sharing! It is full of very helpful information that all students and parents can benefit from.


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