Greetings Students and Families!

This blog is the second of my two-part series on the content and format of the SAT I and the ACT exams. You’ll find Part I here.  Part II provides the information you need about the ACT.

Before jumping into exam format, let’s address a few key questions on your mind.

When should I prepare for the SAT/ACT?

As a college counselor, I advise my high school sophomores (2022) and juniors (2021) to dedicate a portion of their summer preparing for the required tests that are a part of your upcoming college applications.

The College Board and ACT organizations schedule exam dates throughout the calendar year. Whether you’re preparing on your own or working with a tutor, finding a 4 to 8-week window for dedicated and disciplined SAT/ACT preparation can be a challenge for most high school students who enjoy a busy extracurricular calendar on top of the demands of their classes. Take advantage of your summer break when SAT and/or ACT preparation can be a priority.

Students should take the exam when they have mastered the content.  In my earlier blog I cautioned that students shouldn’t take their SAT/ACT format until such time as Algebra II has been completed.

What’s the last exam date I can take in order to submit required scores on my college applications?

Seniors applying regular decision (RD) can generally submit exams taken as late as December of the fall of the senior year.  For students applying early decision (ED) or early action (EA) or to many of the state public universities, the last available test date is often October of the fall of the senior year.

PLEASE CHECK the admissions page of each university on your radar. On that page, there’s a check-list of all college application requirements – including required standardized tests (SAT/ACT, SATII subject test, AP/IB), the number and types of acceptable recommendations (teacher, GC, employer?), transcripts, portfolio requirements and college-specific and even major-specific college application requirements.

The Impact of Scheduling SATII subject tests on the SAT vs. ACT choice:

Another scheduling concern involves SATII subject tests that may be required by colleges on your radar. These exams are scheduled on the same dates as the SAT 1. If you are applying to highly selective colleges requiring Subject tests and/or focused on test-flexible institutions (see below), you’ll want to consider taking an ACT over an SAT leaving more flexibility in dates for testing. If you prefer the SAT format over the ACT format and know that colleges on your radar require SATII subject tests, you’ll need to allocate time to take your SAT during the fall or winter dates.  SATII subject tests are best completed in proximity to AP exams – May and June testing dates.


In  COLLEGE ADMISSIONS PLANNING TIPS: TESTING – SAT ACT SUBJECT TESTS AP – WHAT’S REQUIRED  , I shared information on the exams that may be required for your college applications and the overall college admissions process. Your college advisor should assist you in creating an appropriate testing schedule as part of your college admissions plan.  In addition, your college counselor should coordinate with your SAT/ACT tutor to create the best times within your academic calendar to schedule your exam preparation and actual test dates ensuring you are well prepared for any and all exams including:  SAT/ACT,  SAT II Subject Tests and any AP/IB/AICE exams.  TIMING IS EVERYTHING!

I also had previously noted that it’s important to ensure that test preparation provides the necessary consideration of any student-specific learning disabilities & testing accommodations.

I’d again like to aim to reduce some of the stress you might be facing and redirect you to a website FAIR TEST listing universities that deemphasize the SAT/ACT in the college admissions process. There are also many test-optional and test flexible universities.  Test flexible campuses allow the student to replace the SAT/ACT with subject based exams including SAT II Subject Tests and AP exams.  DON’T WORRY! There are now more than 1000 Accredited Colleges and Universities that are less focused on the ACT/SAT Scores to Admit Substantial Numbers of Students into Bachelor-Degree Programs.   

In my video, you’ll learn a bit more about the types of required standardized testing  ACT vs. SAT

    What’ including on the ACT?  What to expect?

The ACT, like the SAT is one of two college entrance exam formats -both are accepted at all universities that require an entrance exam. It’s your choice – although students will generally prefer and/or excel on one format over the other.

The complete ACT exam format is described here in the ACT organization’s 337-page Technical Manual. Chapters 2 and 3 discuss the exam format in more details than you’ll need to know.  Let’s boil this information down into digestible content.

The ACT is a multiple-choice test exam comprised of four distinct parts: Science, Mathematics, Reading, and English.  Similar to the SAT, the exam can be taken without or without the optional Essay/Writing section.  Students do not often know where they’ll be applying at the time they are sitting for the exam and for this reason, you should take all the elements of the exam, including the optional essay writing section.

In contrast to the SAT, the ACT format has always been designed to assess skills or knowledge that should have acquired in the classroom.

There are four distinct parts of the test, each is scored 1 to 36 points and the optional essay is scored from 1 to 12.  The exam with essay takes 3 hours and 35 minutes to complete with rest breaks between sections. (Students with approved testing accommodations including extra time or distraction-free testing are seated separately and provided a longer exam format.)

Summary – Length and timing

Science  35 minutes to answer 40 questions including questions on data representation, research summary questions and conflicting viewpoint analysis.

Math  60 minutes to answer 46 questions on elementary & intermediate algebra, coordinate and plane geometry and trigonometry.

Reading 35 minutes to respond to 40 questions on paragraphs covering prose fiction, humanities, science and social studies.

English 35 minutes to respond to 75 questions on usage mechanics and rhetorical skills analyzing paragraphs on a variety of content.


Information is presented in tables, graphs, research summaries or “conflicting viewpoint passages” on a variety of topics including chemistry, physics, biology and earth/science.  The section isn’t aiming to assess content knowledge but is focused on assessing the student’s reasoning skills.  When the content is familiar, students are more comfortable with this section of the exam.

Some of the questions require interpretation of data as presented in a chart or table or a similar research summary. Other questions present multiple hypotheses and opposing viewpoints where students analyze the conflicting viewpoints on scientific content.

It’s important that students who don’t consider STEM to be their best subjects don’t shy away from the ACT as this section really doesn’t require nor test scientific knowledge directly.  Students of all interests and intended college majors can do well on this section of the exam.


In contrast to the SAT, where part of the math section doesn’t allow for calculator usage, the ACT permits a calculator to be utilized for all sections of the math portion. Of the 60 multiple-choice questions, the exam is designed to assess problem-solving skills.

One set of questions explores reasoning through questions on basic functions of real and complex number systems and work on integers, exponents, vectors and matrices.

Knowledge of basic and advanced algebra will be tested through questions on algebraic expressions, linear and polynomial equations, and exponential relationships. Some of the problem solving will involve solving real-world context making the questions more relatable.

A solid understanding of Geometry (i.e.- solve for missing values), functions (i.e. arithmetic sequences) and basic statistics and probability are also needed to comfortably manage the content of the math section of the ACT.   Overall, there is little if any difference between the math of the SAT and ACT – the emphasis on some topics and the types of questions differ ever so slightly. That said, my experience tells me that students seem to have a strong preference for one format over the other.

Overall, whether you are taking the ACT or SAT format, it’s important to have completed the relevant portions of your high school mathematics curriculum that relate to the content coverage. Typically, this is an Algebra II or Trig class. Likewise, advanced students who are many years “ahead” in mathematics may truly need a refresher in geometry content. For example, a junior in Calculus will have taken geometry as many as three years ago- and this content isn’t related to the cumulative sequence of content in algebra I/II, trigonometry, pre-calculus and calculus courses.

There are 40 questions designed to assess reading comprehension and reasoning skills on four sections.  Within each section, there are two shorter passages and one longer passage across a variety of topics including social studies, natural sciences, literary narrative, and the humanities.

The College Board aimed to mirror the ACT in its recent revision of its exam.  The ACT has been praised for the variety of pieces and relevancy of subject matter.  For example, the literary narratives include contemporary and well-known memoirs and short stories. Social studies and natural science pieces are based on content students will have encountered in a typical high school curriculum.


This section of the exam has two categories including: Usage/Mechanics and Rhetorical Skills. There are five essays/passages followed by a sequence of multiple-choice questions to assess the student’s use of standard written language.  Students are evaluated on their knowledge of grammar and usage, punctuation, sentence structure organization/logic, style/tone and strategic presentation.   This is one section of the exam that tutoring can be invaluable and content learned that for many students hasn’t always been taught (directly) in middle or high school.

Regardless of which exam format you’ve decided to take, it’s important to know the materials you’ll be tested upon and feel well prepared for your scheduled exam day.  Your test preparation is unique and the approach you take (individual prep, one-on-one tutoring or small classes) should reflect your motivation, abilities and family budget.  If you need some guidance in reviewing options for exam preparation that will fit your circumstances, please reach out for a conversation.

Do you know what exams are required?  Do you know when to prepare and when to best take your exams (SAT, ACT, SATII Subject tests, IB, AP, AICE)?

Does your student have an Educational & College Admissions Plan? Are you on target?

Schedule your Educational & College Planning Assessment

collage advisor Bonnie R. Rabin with a client


Juniors – Class of 2021  – PSAT

The PSAT isn’t something to be terribly concerned about because this exam serves very little purpose beyond qualifying an exceedingly small number of high performing students as National Merit Finalists.  Please don’t fret about this exam.

The PSAT score isn’t reported in your college applications.  However, if you are an 8th to 11th grade student, the PSAT is often and acceptable standardized test to submit for any competitive collegiate summer programs. Those applications are due November to February.  If you need guidance for recommendations that will help you discover or deepen an academic interest, or increase your chances of college admissions acceptance, please reach out for a conversation.


My students include aspiring STEM, Business, Pre-Med, Pre-Law, Visual & Performing Arts & Humanities majors. I provide college counseling in-person in Boca Raton, Florida and online throughout the US – working with students across all academic levels. Whether your dream college includes your state public flagship including the University of Florida or the University of Michigan , or you’re aiming for an Ivy League or a small liberal arts college, every student should have a college plan aiming towards universities that are the “right fit” for you.  Learn more and schedule your  Educational and College Admissions Planning Assessment– Build your COLLEGE PLAN TODAY!



Bonnie Rabin, PhD

Professor Emeritus

Cornell University Florida Alumni Rep.

Educational & College Admissions Consultant

30+ Years Experience

College Admissions Assistance & Academic Advising

Serving Clients In-Person in South Florida & Remotely Nationwide

561.509.0021  or  833-MY-ESSAY






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  • College Admissions & Financial Aid Tips: SAT, ACT, AP, IB and AICE exams ?!!
    College Admissions & Financial Aid Tips: SAT, ACT, AP, IB and AICE exams ?!!
Bonnie R. Rabin, Ph.D.
Educational and College Admissions Consultant
Professor Emeritus  –
Cornell University Alumni Rep
In-Person South Florida (Boca Raton)   561.509.0021
Boulder Colorado     720.737.9944
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