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SAT/ACT Suggested Testing Timeline

Frequently Asked Questions - SAT/ACT

After working with over 1600+ students, we’ve seen it all! In the process, we’ve collected valuable information that will hopefully simplify the process. Knowing information about the tests is almost as important as knowing information in the tests! So here are the questions we’re most often asked:

  • Yes. It is now back to 1600 – there is a reading section and a writing section (grammar) that combine for the Verbal score that goes up to 800 and there are two math sections (one with a calculator and one without) that comprise the 800-point math score. 
  • The essay is last, optional, and does not affect the 1600-point score.
  • The ACT is an alternate to the SAT and is now accepted at more colleges and universities than the SAT. A perfect ACT score is a 36.
  • An average score is around a 21.
  • The test is about as long as the SAT—again, fatigue is a huge factor!
  • The SAT is four sections:  one reading, one writing (grammar), and two math.  There is also an optional essay.  Section length varies from 25 minutes to 65 minutes. Students do NOT lose points for wrong answers.  The scoring for the SAT is additive – a student gets a score out of 800 on the verbal section and a score out of 800 on the math section. Those two are added together and most colleges look at those sections separately as well as looking at the overall score out of 1600.
  • The ACT is comprised of four sections: English, math, reading, and science. There is also an optional essay. Section length varies from 35 minutes to 60 minutes. Students do NOT lose points for wrong answers.  Each section is scored out of 36 and the composite score is an average of the four sections (if a student takes the essay, that is not factored into the composite score).  Thus, the composite score is also out of 36. Most schools look primarily at the composite score; most do not have particular threshold scores for each section (a few do, especially for engineering programs – they will often have a math score threshold).
  • The best test is the one that shows your child's strengths. It's different for each child, even if from the same family! The easiest and least expensive way to tell is to check out books from the library which contain practice tests. After completing problems from each test, students usually have an immediate preference. And while comfort with a test does not always indicate on which test a student performs better, it's a good place to start.
Top Score? 36


Penalty for wrong answers? NO NO
How long does the test take? ALL morning (about 200 minutes) ALL morning (about 200 minutes)
Number and length of sections? 5 sections; each 30 minutes or more 4 sections, varying in time from 65 minutes to 25 minutes
Contains Reading, Writing, Math, and Essay? YES YES
Contains science? YES NO
Essay length? 40 minutes 50 minutes
  • Most students take the test they prefer twice during high school—once in the spring of junior year and once in the fall of senior year.
  • When planning your child's actual test schedule, make sure to leave time for an "off" day, i.e., if your student doesn't perform as well as expected, whether due to illness, distraction, or bad test environment, it's important to have a backup test date. Though this will mean the student will end up taking the test three times, it ensures that a bad test day won't have devastating effects.
  • Juniors who prefer the SAT should select a test offered in January, March, May, or June.  Once seniors, they should select a test offered in October, November, or December. Students register for this test at or through the high school guidance office.
  • Juniors who prefer the ACT should select a test offered in February, April, or June. Once seniors, they should select a test offered in September, October, or November. Students register for this test at or through the high school guidance office.
  • Some students prefer to take each test "cold," without any prep, to get a baseline score. Students then use these scores to determine which test will best suit them. Baseline tests should be taken in the fall of junior year to allow maximum time in the spring to succeed at their chosen test. Though it is your choice whether or not to submit these scores to colleges, keep in mind that some colleges are requesting scores from all test dates.
  • Some students prefer to learn on their own, either with paper and pencil or online practice. Another type of learner enjoys the camaraderie of a class setting, while still others prefer individual instruction.
  • In all learning environments, two things are crucial to student success. First, students should have a strong rapport with the teacher. Without this connection, studying for standardized tests becomes another chore. Second, students should use materials prepared by the company which makes the test, NOT the company offering the prep. This ensures students are practicing with actual test questions. It's analogous to sports: soccer players will improve if practicing on a basketball court, but not as much as they would if practicing on a soccer field!
  • Remember, students who practice under test conditions will do better on test day than students who don't. Similar to the example above, a soccer player who needs to play a 60-minute game would not benefit as much by scrimmaging for only 15-minutes, whereas a 60-minute scrimmage would be VERY helpful!
  • Some students prefer to concentrate prep into the month or two immediately prior to the test. These students want the information as fresh as possible and often do well in a class setting.
  • Others prefer meeting once or twice a month throughout the junior school year. Slow and steady fits this student best, though for others it seems to "drag" out the process.
  • Many parents have found greater success by letting their child choose the approach. Once the child has ownership of the process, parents have to do less cajoling, which is always a good thing!
  • Depends on who you ask and where their starting point is!
  • Some companies issue a practice test, and then judge improvement based on that score as the starting point. This method allows companies to market score increases of 300+ points. But if the practice test they offer is not made by the test-maker, it's not a valid comparison.
  • The most objective way to judge SAT progress is to compare an actual PSAT or SAT test score (before prepping) to an actual test score (after prepping). Though the ACT offers a pre-test, known as PLAN, most schools are not yet offering it. Students would have to take an actual ACT prior to prepping to judge progress accurately.
  • Nothing can replicate the stress related to sitting in a big room with hundreds of other test takers, so it's important to use genuine test scores for comparison. When using this method, most students only go up 30 points on the SAT and 1 point on the ACT. If a more-than-average increase is needed, then so is more-than-average studying!
  • Remember, colleges want to look good when ranked by third parties, such as magazines or websites. It is to their advantage to use your child's best scores.
  • For the SAT, most colleges combine a student's best score from each subject, even if the best score for each subject occurred on different dates. For instance, if a student scored highest in math and writing during the spring and highest in reading during the fall, most colleges would combine those three scores when evaluating a student's application. So even if colleges can "see" all test scores, they will usually use the best and not the rest!
  • For the ACT, colleges will only see the composite score (roughly an average of the four subjects) for the date you choose to send them. Unlike the SAT, students won't be able to keep a strong score in one subject in order to combine it with a strong score in another subject earned on a different date. The advantage is that one subject can be much weaker, but because it will be averaged, colleges will not know. The disadvantage is that one subject might be much stronger, but because it will be averaged, colleges will not know. (Can you believe this is how kids get into college?  There's got to be an easier way!)
  • It's difficult to give a broad answer to this question, as each college has its own way of factoring the SAT or ACT into the admissions process.
  • In general, great scores will always help an application, but probably not as much as students hope. The best approach is to maximize each part of the application.

Compare your percentile score from each. (In other words, you have to take BOTH to know.)

BREAKING NEWS! More colleges now accept the ACT than the SAT.

YES! About 33% of students score BETTER on the ACT!

NO! About 33% of students DON’T score better on the ACT. (The other third score about the same.)

YES!  How!

We recommend that almost all juniors take the March SAT and the April ACT.

Lots of reasons!

  • By waiting until March, it gives you seven extra months of math, vocabulary, and literature.
  • By taking it BEFORE May, you steer clear of AP exams, finals, and SOL’s.
  • There are only eight students per group, and the groups are created based on scores—this ISN’T a large, impersonal class. Instead, it’s a small study group targeted at your strengths!
  • Going straight to individual tutoring is like going straight to a surgeon! First, you need to go to a generalist to get the overview of what’s necessary.
  • View current course schedule

Obviously, there are a lot of things you need to know to successfully guide your child. If you’re confused, that’s good news…you have now officially completed step one of the standardized testing process! Having completed the most difficult step (the first one), you’re well on your way to success. You CAN get through northern Virginia’s test prep frenzy without losing your mind! More questions? Contact us.

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