Preparing for the ACT and SAT has come to inspire more dread in high school upperclassmen than the tedious college application process itself, and with good reason. While the ACT has become slightly easier than past versions, the increased difficulty of the SAT has resulted in a somewhat mixed landscape of college testing requirements, with most colleges opting to accept either exam, and others requiring all testing dates be reported or allowing ‘superscoring,’ which generates a composite score using the student’s best subject scores from all official testing dates.

While this might seem like an advantage, many top schools are instituting both: generating a super-scored composite for all applicants, but also requiring students to submit all testing dates. So, while taking either exam several times might increase your super-scored composite, it might be countered by your admissions committee seeing how many times you had to take the official exams to achieve such a score.

While the testing landscape continues to transform according to both test-maker and university needs, and with acceptance rates continuing to drop well below 10% for most top schools, students must put in more and more time prepping for exams like the ACT and SAT. Even as schools such as the University of Chicago drop the ACT/SAT requirement for undergraduate applications, many will continue to feel pressure to take these standardized exams in order to differentiate themselves from the record number of their peers applying to universities.

As a graduate student and long-time test prep tutor, the above really boils down to one central piece of advice: start planning early. This applies not only to your test prep, but to the entire undergraduate application process. Because of the varied requirement landscape, it is important that you scope out some of your prospective schools to determine their various testing requirements. Determine things like the following:

  • If you will need to have taken the SAT or ACT with or without the writing section
  • If the school uses superscoring and/or requires that all testing dates be submitted with the application
  • The average ACT/SAT scores or GPAs of recently admitted students
  • Any other information relevant to your decision – location, size, program availability, etc.

All of this information should be relatively available on most university websites, but keep track of your prospective school’s undergraduate admissions phone numbers, and don’t be afraid to give them a call during business hours with any questions about the application process. The front desks are most likely manned by paid undergraduate students who have recently and successfully been through the very process you are now undertaking.

While the logistics and technicalities of the testing and application processes can be tedious, planning ahead for the content of the ACT and SAT will require even more time and patience. The first step should be a full-length, timed practice exam. Full-length exams are readily available online and in prep books, along with relevant scoring guides. Some tutoring services or individual tutors might offer diagnostic reports which can give you greater detail on your initial scores and knowing how far off you are from your goal will give you an idea of how much prep time you need to invest.

There are some key differences between your typical high school exam and the ACT and SAT that will challenge students of all abilities. These represent the test-makers’ desire to test not only mastery of high school content, but readiness to take on the new challenges that college courses will present. In the English section, students are asked not only to recognize grammatical errors, but to choose among grammatically correct sentences differentiated only by aspects of style and convention.

In the Math section, students must be able to not only solve complex equations that are given to them but create the equations themselves given real world scenarios.  

In Reading, students must answer questions of comprehension along with ‘functional’ and ‘purposive’ questions, which require deeper, between-the-lines analysis that go to an author’s intent rather than just what is on the page.

Finally, in Science, students are rarely asked to recite previously learned scientific facts as is typical in a high school biology or physics class. Instead, they are provided with experiments and associated data and must draw their own conclusions rather than simply evaluating those of others. In at least one Science passage, students are provided with competing scientific hypotheses and must comprehend and interpret while critically evaluating strengths and corresponding weaknesses.

These differences lay out the ways in which the ACT and SAT are likely to be much more conceptual than the exams most high school students are used to. It is not that there is a certain curriculum that must be mastered, but rather students must demonstrate an ability to master new ‘curriculum’ on their own, using only those critical thinking skills that will be central to their success in the wide variety of undergraduate courses they are likely to find themselves in.

Because I’ve worked with students with mild to moderate ADD/ADHD, and because I’ve worked with students who seem to master the ‘little lessons’ in tutoring sessions but who are overwhelmed by the onslaught of concepts when alone with a practice test, I’ve developed a subject breakdown for each exam, so as to allow students to see the universe of possible questions and concepts that they will need to have a handle on. It includes a timing breakdown of each exam section, a ‘lesson list’ of the various concepts that are likely to be in play, and general strategy advice for each of the four subjects. It also includes a breakdown of suggested ‘timing exercises’ for each exam subject.

Ideally, having started prep early, students can use the subject breakdown and timing exercises to put in regular but brief practice. I suggest reviewing the subject breakdown for 10 minutes a few times a week, reciting aloud or mentally not only the concepts listed but the ‘rules’ that govern their use. This will eventually become second nature, and the bolded items can eventually serve as markers and reminders of the rules to remember, making the slew of possible concepts to be melded together in any given question somewhat more predictable and therefore more manageable.

While this is not a comprehensive list of concepts or topics that will be tested, it does represent the most common difficulties I have come across with students of all ability and motivational levels. As such it might be a beneficial resource for students looking for more than ‘tips and tricks,’ and it will be a continually evolving document that can be accessed using the following links: ACT Subject Breakdown & Timing Exercises, SAT Subject Breakdown & Timing Exercises. Please feel free to reach out with any comments, suggestions, or questions.


Andrew Kletzien is one of the top ACT and SAT tutors at MyGuru a boutique provider of 1-1 tutoring and test prep.

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