Frequently Asked Questions – SAT/ACT

After working with almost 7000 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:


What is the ACT?

  • 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!

What is the difference between the SAT and the ACT? Is one better than the other?

  • 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 while a perfect SAT score is 1600.
  • An average score is around a 21.
  • The test is about as long as the SAT—again, fatigue is a huge factor!

How many times should my child take the test?

  • 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.

When is each test offered?

  • Juniors who prefer the SAT should select a test offered in  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 April, June, or July. 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.

What is the best way to study?

  • 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!

When should my child begin preparing?

  • 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!

How much will my child’s score improve?

  • 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!

If my child takes a test more than once, how will colleges decide which score to use?

  • 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!)

Can the SAT and/or ACT offset low grades?

  • 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.

How do I know which test is best for me?

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

Do all colleges accept the ACT?

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

Should I take the ACT?

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

Does this mean I DON’T have to take the SAT?

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

Can Mindworks help me do my best and how?

  • YES! How! We recommend that almost all juniors take the March SAT and the April ACT.

Why take March SAT and 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.

Why a small-group setting instead of individual tutoring?

  • 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.