SAT & ACT: Frequently Asked Questions

Each year of high school is filled with important touchpoints on a student’s high school journey.

One of the most significant milestones of all takes place during junior year.

Yes, we’re talking about the SAT and the ACT.

These standardized tests are a rite of passage for students as they prepare for the college admissions process. Our philosophy at Signet is that the more students know about what to expect, the better chance they’ll have at planning ahead for success.

So without further ado, we’re here to answer all the pressing questions students and their families typically have about the SAT and ACT.

How are the SAT and ACT different?

Both the SAT and ACT cover basic reading, writing, and math skills that students are expected to acquire in high school. The SAT is scored out of 1600 while the ACT is scored out of 36.

Relative to the SAT, the ACT has:

  • a lower average reading level
  • more demanding timing (more questions to answer in less time)
  • a separate science section (mostly reading comprehension based on charts and graphs, not actual science)

Relative to the ACT, the SAT has:

  • a higher average reading level (more difficult reading passages)
  • more reading throughout the test, including in the math and writing sections
  • more switching between types of problems (for example, there are charts and graphs in the writing section)

Does it matter which test students submit to colleges?

Colleges don’t care one iota which test a student submits. Truly, they don’t care! Parents are always surprised to hear this answer, but the reality is that both tests are simple standardized measures that colleges use, and each one is weighted equally high.

Trust us, our experienced team of admissions consultants have served on admissions committees at Brown, Colby, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Wharton, Oberlin, Michigan, NYU, Stanford, and other elite institutions. Our experts know firsthand how admissions officers read applications, and the cold hard truth is that they don’t prefer one test over the other.

How should students choose which test to take?

Although we recommend selecting just one test to focus on, we also strongly suggest considering both exams rather than simply choosing the test you’re more familiar with. The best way to choose between the ACT and SAT is to do diagnostic testing for each exam.

A diagnostic test is a full-length practice test done under realistic testing conditions. If students are taking the diagnostic test on their own, they should be sure to use official tests distributed by The College Board (SAT) or ACT. Take the tests at the same time of day and ideally the same day of the week (Saturday morning often works well), but NOT on the same day!Based on the diagnostic score as well as how your student felt while taking the exam, they can then make an informed decision about which test to choose. Our Guide to SAT/ACT Preparation has a complete breakdown of how to evaluate diagnostic exams.

What’s considered a “good” SAT or ACT score?

We encourage students to remove the words “good” and “bad” from their vocabulary entirely. Instead, we advise them to consider how their SAT or ACT results align with their personal goals. This process begins with setting a target score so they have a clearly defined goal to work toward.

When students set a smart target score based on reasonable expectations, it helps keep them motivated. It also helps counteract any perfectionist tendencies they may have.

How should students set their target score?

While it’s not a perfect formula, the best way to determine a target score is to start with your student’s college list. (If your student doesn’t have a college list they feel confident about, our Guide to College Admissions can help.)

Nearly all colleges publish the average test scores for admitted students each year. Your student can average together the test scores from the top schools on their list to set a baseline target score for themselves.

If your student scored on the higher end of that average range, that’s wonderful! But if they fell short of that range, they have two options: adjust their college list accordingly or consider a second, or even third, sitting of the exam.

How much time should students commit to studying for the SAT or ACT?

We’re all about transparency at Signet, so we want to put this front and center: when we see students for SAT/ACT tutoring, we recommend that they commit at least 2-5 hours per week to test prep, preferably over at least 2-3 months.

For some students, optimal results take 6+ months. This, to be sure, is a daunting task. But with the right strategy, it can be done successfully and with relatively little stress.

When should my student plan to take the SAT or ACT?

We advise students to plan for two test sittings in their junior year, ideally one in late fall/winter (Dec-Feb) and one in early spring (Feb-April). First sittings can be nerve-wracking, and students often score significantly better the second time around without much additional effort. This timeline not only gets standardized testing out of the way before finals and AP exams, it also allows students to get additional help and test again in late spring or summer if needed. Students should be committed to either the SAT or the ACT for both test sittings.

What does a good SAT or ACT test prep plan look like?

Once a student knows which test they will be taking, when they’ll be taking it, and what score they’re targeting, it’s time to sit down and start studying!

We highly recommend planning out the entire test prep schedule in advance, all the way up to the first exam date. This ensures students have enough time to cover all of the necessary material and avoids last-minute cramming sessions, which are much less effective for learning and retaining knowledge.

A good test prep plan should look something like this:

  • 2-5 hours per week of dedicated test prep. 30-45 minutes per day is ideal for most students, but for some, more intensive studying three days a week or on weekends works better.
  • A structured curriculum that assigns specific times for working on each test section.
  • Clear goals for each week, as well as for each study session. A clear goal looks like, “This week I’ll focus on memorizing geometry formulas and spend 2-3 hours practicing flashcards. Next week I’ll move on to writing practice, and I’ll spend 4-5 hours on that.” Write these goals down and stick to them.
  • One to three full-length, timed practice tests taken under realistic conditions.

When do students need outside help studying for the SAT or ACT?

Self-preparation is ideal for students who are self-motivated, organized, and score fairly well on their diagnostic test. But if your student needs assistance with accountability or wants a high score gain, they could benefit from taking a class or working with a one-on-one ACT or SAT prep tutor.

Students can expect average score gains of 50-80 points on the SAT or 1-2 points on the ACT with the help of a class. Larger score gains of upwards of 200 points on the SAT and 4 points on the ACT are possible, but will require herculean efforts and, more likely than not, the help of a dedicated tutor.

What does “test optional” mean?

SAT and ACT cancellations during the height of the pandemic accelerated a trend known as the test optional movement. When a school goes test optional, it means that applicants aren’t required to submit standardized test scores to be considered for admission. Some schools are taking these measures on a 1-3 year basis, assuming they will be temporary. Others, however, are choosing to go test optional permanently.

(It’s important to note, however, that test optional schools will still consider scores if applicants choose to submit them. So if an applicant’s scores are strong, it’s likely that their chances of admission could improve.)

Should students still take the SAT or ACT even if the colleges they’re targeting are test optional?

With the option to forgo standardized testing entirely, many students and their families wonder if they should still take the SAT or ACT.

For now, Signet recommends carrying on with test prep and standardized testing for almost all students. Why? Because if a student has strong test scores to submit, those scores can give them a boost in the admissions process. We’d hate for students to miss out on attending their dream school if submitting their SAT or ACT score could have made the difference.

Will the SAT and ACT be in-person this year?

During the height of the pandemic, many unlucky students experienced the chaos of canceled test dates and limited seats at testing locations. Students were required to wear masks and follow standard safety precautions during in-person testing.

With COVID cases surging across the United States once again, students and their families are left wondering what to expect from this coming year of standardized testing.

The simple answer is that there’s no way of knowing for certain what the 2021-2022 SAT and ACT will look like. For now, students should plan for in-person testing, while being sure to follow along with any safety updates from their chosen testing center.

Ready to dive into SAT or ACT prep? Start by taking a free Signet Practice Test. Our unique offering guides students through key decisions, helps them focus on the right content areas, and provides a structured plan specific to their needs, strengths, and weaknesses. Contact us today for more information!

Picture of Sheila A.

Sheila A.

Sheila Akbar is President & COO of Signet Education. She holds a bachelor's degree and master's degree from Harvard University and two doctoral degrees from Indiana University. She joined the team in the summer of 2010, bringing with her a wealth of experience teaching SAT, ACT, GRE, literature, and composition in both one-on-one and classroom settings.

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