Taking the Fear Out of Standardized Tests

Find helpful tips on deciding which entrance exam you should take, along with a thorough comparison between the ACT and SAT, at CollegeView.com
Why should you take the ACT or SAT?

Four-year colleges and universities use these tests to determine applicants’ academic achievement and potential. As part of their admissions requirements, some colleges require applicants to have earned certain minimum test scores. Other colleges use test scores as indicators of academic ability when students’ grades are not high enough to meet admissions standards. ACT and SAT test scores also serve as criteria for numerous financial awards.

Should you take the ACT or the SAT?

Some colleges prefer one or the other exam; however, most colleges accept either. Check with the schools you’re interested in to see if they have a preference. If you haven’t yet decided on a specific college, you may want to take both exams.

If the colleges you’re interested in accept both exams, choose the one that will most favorably reflect your abilities. The chart below illustrates the major differences. To find out more, or to register online, visit www.actstudent.org or sat.collegeboard.org.

What’s the difference?





Six times/year

Seven times/year


Stresses grammar and usage, punctuation, and sentence structure

Questions test grammar, usage, and word choice





Up to trigonometry

Up to ninth grade basic geometry and algebra II


Questions drawn from four passages (may cover prose fiction, social science, humanities, and natural science)

Sentence completion, critical reading, and reading comprehension


Charts and experiments


Penalty for wrong answers



Calculators permitted

Yes (optional)

Yes (optional)



200–800 per section, combined for a total of 2400 possible


Basic fee $34
Optional Writing, $15.50

Reasoning Test: $49
Subject Tests: $22 registration plus $11-$22 per test

What is on the tests?

The ACT is made up of:

  • English (45 minutes)—75 questions relating to five prose passages (punctuation, usage and grammar, sentence structure)
  • Math (60 minutes)—60 questions covering algebra, geometry, and trigonometry
  • Reading (35 minutes)—40 questions that require students to draw conclusions from four prose passages representative of reading required in college freshman courses
  • Science (35 minutes)—40 questions that require students to analyze sets of scientific information (earth science, physical science, and biology are covered)
  • Optional Writing (30 minutes)—one prompt that asks students to write an essay explaining their point of view on a given issue

The SAT Reasoning Test is made up of:

  • Writing (60 minutes)—one 35-minute section, one 10-minute section, and a 25-minute student-written essay; questions cover grammar, sentence structure, and word usage
  • Critical Reading (70 minutes)—two 25-minute sections and one 20-minute section; questions cover reading comprehension and sentence completion
  • Math (70 minutes)—two 25-minute sections and one 20-minute section; questions cover algebra, geometry, statistics, probability, and data analysis
  • Experimental Section (25 minutes)—Each SAT exam will contain an additional 25-minute section for either Writing, Critical Reading, or Math. This section is not counted toward your score, but rather is used for planning future tests.

Some colleges require SAT Subject Tests as well as the SAT Reasoning Test. The Subject Tests fall into five general subject areas: English, history and social studies, mathematics, science, and languages. All tests are one hour, and most are multiple choice.

How can you prepare for the tests?

  • Take college-preparatory courses throughout high school. Students who succeed in advanced English, math, science, and social studies classes generally do well on both the ACT and the SAT.
  • Take practice tests.
  • Review prior test results. If you have taken the ACT or SAT before, you can request detailed score reports for an extra charge, which can help you learn from the mistakes you made on prior tests. Also, many schools give the PLAN to sophomores and the PSAT/NSMQT to juniors. The PLAN is published by the same company, tests the same academic areas, and has the same format as the ACT. The PSAT/NMSQT is published by the same company, tests the same areas, and has a format similar to the SAT. The original test books and detailed score reports are returned, at no extra cost, to the students who have taken these tests. It is a good idea to look closely at these materials and learn from your mistakes.
  • Get extra help in problem areas. High schools often offer tutoring sessions prior to the exams to help students who need some extra review. Preparation books are available at libraries and bookstores. And some private organizations offer test-prep courses; Kaplan is one such organization.

Preparing for college can be strenuous at times and having to take entrance exams can add to the pressure. However, a systematic, commonsense approach to preparing for and taking these exams will ensure acceptance, and maybe even financial aid.


This article was written by Sally Wood

Sally Wood is a freelance writer and editor from Marionville, Missouri. She worked as a high school counselor in the Aurora R-VIII School District in Aurora, Missouri, from 1980–2000.


  1. sharon gregg turner

    I am 56 years old and want to go to college to get a degree. Where do I start? How do I know what my options are?

    My strengths are english perhaps, my weaker areas math and history. I am thinking Dental Hygienist, Dr’s assistant or something along the healthcare line.

    I know I am moving to Jackson Mississippi in July. I had my own business for 20 years of interior design.

    Really need a stable income with benefits. Any and all input, ideas, suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you ,
    Sharon Turner

  2. negus khan

    Sharon, you should go to a community college, then transfer to a 4-year college.

    you are welcome,

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