Greeting Students and Families!

I hope you’ve enjoyed the initial blog in my multi-part series on all things related to testing for your college applications

My series covers :

WHAT DO YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT TESTING??All families have many questions about testing

  • What’s the difference between the SAT and ACT?
  • What’s required for college applications?
  • What does “Test Optional” mean exactly?
  • When should a student prepare and test? How many times can you take the SAT/ACT?
  • When and how to send scores? What’s Score Choice and Super Score testing all about?
  • What Scholarships are related to my test scores? Is there a minimum score for state plans such as the Florida Bright Futures Scholarship?
  • Under what circumstances should we focus on subject tests and AP/IB/AICE exams over SAT/ACT scores in our college application?
  • How does early college planning increase chances of college acceptance by integrating the high school curriculum with the timing and required admissions exams such as SAT subject tests?

Which format: ACT OR SAT?

All colleges will accept either test format. Students are encouraged to explore both exams and take a practice test at home under test conditions. If you’re working with a test preparation service/tutor, you should expect an assessment of testing formats with customized test preparation based on YOUR STUDENT’s needs.

*** If your student finds the ACT acceptable, I prefer the ACT simply for a logistical reason. SAT dates in May and June should be reserved for SATII Subject tests. These subject exams are required at many of the more competitive colleges and the best time to take these is immediately following AP exams/end of the school year. Also, SATII subject tests can be submitted in lieu of SATI scores at test-flexible institutions.
SATII subject test content- outside of mathematics and foreign language may be difficult to retain over the summer- history becomes history – so please aim for May/June for those exams- a great choice for Humanities and Business school students.


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 n the ACT’s 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 timingScience 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.


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.

ENGLISHThis 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.

Best wishes for an absolutely meaningful and enriching 2020-21 and a Happy & HEALTHY Holiday Season


Bonnie R. Rabin, Ph.D. Educational & College Admissions Consultant

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