High School 2 College

October 31, 2018

How Often Should I Take the SATs or ACTs? Which Test Should I Take?

First let me answer a question that parents often ask: What’s the difference between the SAT and ACT – and which should my student take?

In a nutshell, the SAT and ACT are both college entrance exams, and ALL colleges in the United States (yes, even the Ivy League schools) accept either equally.  They want you to take whichever shows you in the best possible light.  All the colleges also know that there’s very little difference between the tests.  Academically-inclined students do well on both.  Students who are struggling academically will do poorly on both.  So it really comes down to which style you prefer.

Before I discuss which of these tests any given student should take, what about the schools that no longer require either test?  Parents often tell me that they’ve heard that students can just skip the tests.  That’s both true and false.  There are some schools that require neither, but there are more schools that require that you take the SATs or ACTs.  I think students who take neither test will regret having to narrow their school search exclusively to those schools that don’t require either.  Some of the schools that say they don’t require the SAT or ACT do require two or more SAT Subject Tests.  Some of the schools that don’t require any standardized tests require students to submit a few graded research papers or critical analysis papers from class, or they require several application essays.  If you decide not to take any tests, choose a few schools that don’t ask for tests and read their admission websites very carefully.  You may change your mind.

If I’ve convinced you that you’ll have to take either the SAT or ACT (or both), which one should you take?  In general, here’s a comparison:


  • more time per question in every section
  • more reading per question in every section (including math!)
  • reading questions can be fairly subjective (requiring interpretation)
  • math includes a section where calculators are prohibited
  • math includes questions that require you to figure out the answer yourself (not multiple choice)
  • five reading passages, usually including reading from 1900 or earlier


  • less time per question – speed is a signficant factor
  • math is a bit more straightforward – fewer logic questions, less reading
  • reading questions are straightforward and clear, but again, speed is a factor
  • calculator permitted in all math sections
  • all math questions are multiple choice
  • four reading passages, with most passages contemporary writing
  • includes a separate science section – knowledge of school-taught science only required for 2 of 40 questions but ability to analyze graphs and charts critical


Typically, students who excel in English and Social Studies do a bit better on the SATs, and students who excel in Math and Science do a bit better on the ACTs.  Slower readers can do well on either test if they are decisive about answering questions (can you decide quickly what the answer is, or at least decide you don’t know and move on to the next question?).

But how can you know for sure?  Some students sit for at least one SAT and one ACT to see which they prefer.  But you can find out the same information by buying the ACT book by the ACT organization or downloading for free the student guide which contains one complete test (starting at page 12 of the booklet).  Take the test TIMED (each section must be timed precisely because that’s the challenge of the ACT, even if you don’t take all sections on the same day.  Then try the SAT by buying the College Board SAT book or downloading a test for free (download a paper test).  Again, time each section, even if you don’t take all the sections in one sitting.  

About half of my students do precisely the same on the SATs and the ACTs.  Some decide to continue with the one test that feels more comfortable, but others decide to take both tests.

So how often should you take each test?  That depends on you.  Some students say, “I’ll practice as much as necessary and test as often as necessary to get the best possible score.”  Others say, “I’ll show up once a week for tutoring, but don’t expect me to do any preparation at home.  I’ll take one of the tests once or perhaps twice, but whatever I get will have to do.”  Which is closer to your feeling?

Most students are between those extremes.  If that’s you, you’ll probably find that you want to either take one test three times (either SAT or ACT) OR take two SATs and two ACTs.  Experts suggest you should expect to test at least twice, but you can test four or more times if you want.

Given that most students apply to most if not all of their college choices by mid-October to take advantage of the boost that applying early provides, you should plan on completing your testing by the summer after junior year at the very latest, but by June of junior year if possible.  (But you will be able to test once more senior year if necessary.)

So the prime times for most students to take SATs are

  • December of junior year
  • March of junior year
  • May of junior year
  • August before senior year

And the best times to take ACTs are

  • December of junior year (a different Saturday than the SATs)
  • April of junior year
  • June of junior year
  • July before senior year (but they’re not given in New York, so you’ll need to go to Connecticut or New Jersey to take them)

There are other test dates, both for the SAT and the ACT, but these are the most popular because they fit into the application cycle the best.

If you need help preparing for either test, you know where you can find me!

Good luck!





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