Tips to Prepare for the ACT and SAT Exams - What You Need to Know

We're honored this week to be presenting this guest blog from our friend Jordan Schanda, co-founder of ScholarPrep. Together with her mother, Christina, they developed ScholarPrep out of Jordan's personal experience with the application process and Christina's experience serving on scholarship boards where she noticed what students were doing wrong and how they could help.


Preparing for the ACT and SAT is an important part of the college prep process. Not only do these tests play a role in college acceptance, they are also a significant factor in winning scholarships.

There are two things every student needs to do to get started:

  1. Figure out if you need to take the ACT or SAT
  2. Make a test prep plan

Test prep can be stressful, but planning in advance will make it easier on students (and parents).

Do I need to take the ACT or SAT?

Determining whether you should take the ACT or SAT can be mind boggling and overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be! For some students, taking both exams can be beneficial, but that’s not always necessary. It’s important to check your potential college’s requirements and determine which may be needed.

What do the SAT & ACT have in common?

  • There is no penalty for a wrong answer.
  • Sections covered include: reading, writing/language(SAT)/English (ACT), math, and an optional essay.
  • Math section covers arithmetic, Algebra I & II, Geometry, and Trigonometry.
  • You will be at the testing site for 4-5 hours which includes break times.
  • Since they are standardized tests, they provide a direct comparison to other students; therefore, it’s important to obtain the best score possible.


  • The ACT is offered six times per year: February, April, June, September, October, and December. (Starting in 2018, ACT will offer a July exam bringing the total to 7 exams per year.)
  • Registration is required 5-6 weeks in advance.
  • Questions are random in difficulty.
  • This exam requires students to interpret data and trends.
  • Calculators can be used on all sections of math; however, formulas are not given.
  • Math sections are all multiple choice.
  • Reading levels are 9th-12th grade.
  • Reading passages are long: 700-900 words each.
  • The essay portion requires the student to evaluate, analyze and defend an argument.

Bonus Tip: The ACT is a good test for those who can work at a quick pace and are fast readers.


  • The SAT is offered seven times per year: March or April, May, June, August (new in 2017), October, November, and December.
  • Registration is required 4 weeks in advance.
  • Questions get more difficult deeper into the section of questions.
  • A calculator cannot be used on all math sections; therefore, a student must be good at mental math.
  • Data analysis is also tested in the math sections.
  • Formulas are given for the math sections.
  • Reading levels are 11th grade through collegiate.
  • Reading passages are somewhat long: 500-750 words.
  • The essay portion requires comprehension and does not require the student to form an opinion or make an argument.

Bonus Tip: The SAT is good for students who are not fast readers but can read between the lines and find tricky questions.

Test Sections Broken Down

Reading 4 passages; 35 minutes; 40 questions 5 passages; 65 minutes; 52 questions
English (ACT) Writing/Language (SAT) 45 minutes; 75 questions 35 minutes; 44 questions
Math 60 minutes; 60 questions 80 minutes; 58 questions
Science 35 minutes; 40 questions N/A
Essay 40 minutes 50 minutes
Total Time (not including breaks) 2 hrs 55 mins; 3 hrs 40 mins (w/essay) 3 hrs; 3 hrs 50 mins (w/essay)

Did You Know? Some higher education institutions wave classes based on standardized test scores. For example, if you score high in English, your freshman level English requirement may be waived due to you proving you have already mastered the requirements.

Costs of Exams

No Essay $42.50 $45.00
With Essay $58.50 $57.00
Late Fees $27.50 $28.00
Standby Fees $51.00 $46.00
International (Outside USA/Canada) $51.00 $35.00-$53.00
Test Date or Center Change $25.00 $28.00
Additional Score Reports $12.00 $12.00

Bonus Tip: Both tests have fee waivers available through your counseling office. If the costs are a burden to you and your family, visit with your counselor. Cost should not keep you from reaching your dream of attending a post-secondary institution.

Make a test prep plan

Students need to make a test prep plan early  in high school, including a goal to take the exam multiple times and complete the final test no later than December of their senior year (but ideally earlier). Taking the exams multiple times allows students to feel more comfortable with the exam. Being more comfortable means getting the desired results and getting into the college of their choice, while possibly having courses waived and earning merit-based scholarships!

You may be overwhelmed by all of the test prep materials and resources available and the price tags can sometimes be shocking! Luckily, the Internet and smartphone app stores are full of FREE resources to help prep for the big test day(s).

We have compiled this list of free resources just for you! Take advantage of practice tests, answer daily questions, and have a little fun on the apps while getting ready for the test that will open doors to the college of your choice!

Online Resources

Free Official SAT & ACT Practice Exams via PowerSource:

  • Four official ACT exams with answers at the end
  • One 8th-9th grade practice exam
  • ACT Practice Questions
  • ACT Question of the Day
  • Seven official SAT exams with answers, explanations and sample essay questions (no scoring guide available)
  • SAT Practice Questions
  • SAT Question of the Day

Bonus Tip: Download a FREE ebook to help you master 700 of the most commonly occurring SAT words here.

ACT Free Study Guide:

This guide offers everything to prepare you for your test day so you fully prepared without any surprises, other than the “real” questions of course.

  • A general preparation explanation and strategies for the ACT exams
  • What to expect on test day
  • How to take practice exams
  • Practice multiple-choice exams
  • Practice writing exam
  • Explanation of how to score the multiple-choice and writing exams
  • Sample answer document

Did You Know? The ACT offers a “Test Day Checklist” here to ensure you have all the documents, supplies, permitted drinks and snacks with you the day of the test. The SAT also has a guide on what to expect with the type of questions you will see on test day. Click here to see more details.


  • Guided, interactive and accessible resource with games if you don’t have a lot of time to sit and practice
  • Practice tests are available and include step-by-step breakdowns of each question
  • Customized study paths to help monitor progress
  • Take prequiz to get study path
  • Get strategy badge to know how to take the SAT/ACT
  • No guarantee scores will increase since it is 100% self-guided

Bonus Tip: This website provides notes and tips for the content covered before each section. It provides a great refresher and opportunity to take notes if you’re a visual note taker to help study.

Free Apps

  • Khan Academy
    • Android or Apple devices
    • Specific SAT prep
    • General videos to help on subjects of both ACT/SAT
    • Sample standardized tests
  • Magoosh ACT Flash Cards
    • Created by ACT experts to ensure you study the most commonly tested concepts
    • 216 flashcards on English, Math and Science concepts
    • Optimized for web, iPhone and Android
    • Spaced Repetition Technique (SRT) to help you focus on the concepts you are struggling with the most
  • Magoosh SAT Flash Cards
    • Improve your vocabulary with SAT flashcards
    • Master the 350 most important SAT words
    • Optimized for web, iPhone and Android
  • Magoosh ACT Lessons
    • Engaging and effective video Lectures by ACT experts.
    • 80+ lessons on English, Math, Science and Writing
    • Lessons on fundamental and advanced topics
    • Study on the go using your iPhone or Android
    • Thousands of students have improved their score with Magoosh
  • Daily Practice for the New SAT from the College Board
    • Sharpen your skills by answering a daily question and receiving immediate feedback
    • Exclusive, official reading, writing and language, or math questions
    • Hints offered if you need assistance
    • Explanations offered to assist learning from mistakes

Bonus Tip: Downloading all the apps can seem overwhelming. Create a folder on your smartphone or tablet to keep all test prep apps in one spot.

Next steps…

  1. Make a plan and create a reminder on your phone’s calendar or in your daily planner to review for the exam. Standardized tests play a key role in your future so it’s important to work to get the best score possible.
  2. Utilize the Academics and Testing section of your ScholarPrep Organizer to plan out your testing dates, record scores, and get organized for the college entry requirement. It’s always best to get all your ducks in a row and plan ahead of time! The exams will take an entire Saturday morning, so make sure you don’t have any conflicts when you sign up.
  3. The last two sections of your ScholarPrep Organizer can be used to create a checklist of sites you visited, utilized, liked, didn’t like and apps you downloaded but deleted if you felt they weren’t helpful for you. Take notes. Stay organized. Prepare for the big test day!

Do you have a plan when it comes to the SAT or ACT? Have you written all the registration deadlines and tests dates down? What test prep resources have you found helpful? Let us know in the comments below!