Breaking down the SAT and ACT: Which is for you? Part 2

By Jenn Cohen

The ACT and The SAT. The two are very different tests, and preparation for one is not necessarily preparation for both.

Section SAT ACT
Critical Reading (SAT)/Reading (ACT)

70 minutes

Sentence Completions

19 questions

Passage Reading

48 questions on seven passages of varying lengths

35 minutes

Passage Reading

40 questions on four passages (Prose Fiction, Social Science, Humanities, Natural Science)


70 minutes

Numbers & Operations, Algebra, Geometry, Data Analysis/Statistics/Probability

54 questions (including 10 student-produced responses)

60 minutes

Pre-Algebra (Numbers & Operations, Probability, etc.) Algebra I & II, Geometry, Trigonometry

60 questions

Writing (SAT)/English & Writing (ACT)

60 minutes

25-minute essay

49 multiple choice (identifying sentence errors, improving sentences and improving paragraphs)


45 minutes

75 questions on grammar/punctuation and style/organization


30 minutes

Essay optional, but generally required by selective colleges

Science Not tested

35 minutes

40 questions on seven passages, including tables/graphs/charts

Most students should plan to take the SAT or ACT for the first time in their junior year. Select the test date that fits your schedule, not necessarily the one when everyone is taking it! While the May and June SAT dates, and the April and June ACT dates are the “traditional” times for juniors taking the test, don’t rule out earlier dates, especially if you are in accelerated math or English classes in school. Test dates near the end of the school year compete with AP exams, finals and social commitments. Consider the January and March SAT’s and the February ACT instead. Winter and/or spring break is a great time to prepare without the stress of school. Even better, complete your test prep over the summer before junior year and take the October SAT or the September or October ACT. A little knowledge goes a long way in selecting which college admissions exam is right for you. Make a decision as early in junior year as possible, then get to work. With good preparation (and maybe a little luck), a student can be finished with college admissions testing well before senior year!

How to find great test prep for every budget

So what is “great test prep?” Every student is different and what works for one could be a disaster for another. Here’s a few of the pros and cons of the three major prep options:

Prep Format Pros Cons
Self-preparation (books and/or self-paced online courses)

Reasonably priced, ranging from free to around $200

Flexible timing for busy students

Student may not be able to really understand mistakes or remediate weak areas

Self-discipline required

Traditional test prep course

Moderately priced, ranging $300-$1000

Widely available and offered at convenient times/locations

Easy to find


Reliably teaches test strategy and techniques

Quality varies widely

Official SAT or ACT books/materials are the gold standard, but many courses don’t use them

Class environment can be distracting/intimidating

Hard to get specific questions answered

Individual tutoring

Price varies — average range is $50-$150/hour

Individual attention allows remediation of weak subjects in addition to test strategies

Most personalized option

Especially desirable for students with special needs/athletes/students in the arts

May find tutors who work with specific populations

Flexible scheduling

Can be very expensive with top tutors charging $300 or more per hour

Harder to find quality tutors — have to do more legwork

Requires more planning — good tutors may be booked well before a test date

While these are general categories, in reality students don’t have to commit to only one form of test prep. Tutors may reduce their hourly rate to work with two or three students at a time, so consider grabbing a couple of friends and negotiating. Students who want to primarily self-prep with books can hire a tutor for a session or two to get their questions answered, or even ask a tutor to develop a personalized self-prep plan for them. Even those taking a class can supplement their learning at home. If a class doesn’t use official SAT or ACT materials, students can still use those resources at their discretion. So get creative and generate a plan that works for your student!

So what are the best ways to find great prep? Asking parents, counselors and friends is a terrific place to start. But don’t stop there. Take to the internet! Sites like College Confidential and Twitter chats like #campuschat and #collegechat can yield great ideas. Many tutors now work online, so you don’t necessarily need to limit your search to your geographic area. Online options are particularly appealing for students needing a specific niche (i.e. athletes, special needs), or for those who live in rural areas or other countries, where tutors may not be readily available.

Overwhelmed yet? It may seem that there are as many choices out there as there are students. Making a good decision takes time, so start the process early. Procrastination can hurt the end result, so don’t do it! Any prep plan requires time and effort, and desirable tutors and classes may already be fully booked well before you need them. Even if your student doesn’t need or want to begin immediately, get prep on the calendar well in advance to reserve your first choice.

A quick poll of some of the best minds in test prep (aka tutors, teachers and parents) garnered some terrific tips:

  • Have a goal score in mind when seeking out prep options. The farther you are from where you want to be, the more you should be prepared to invest.
  • Visit the class you’re considering or have a short introductory session with a tutor. For courses, remember that the company is most likely showcasing its best teacher; others may not be as competent.
  • Rank your options before considering price. Go with the highest quality prep you can afford from the beginning. You could end up paying more in the end if you go cheap (read: ineffective).
  • Remember that prep is an investment that could reap rewards in terms of scholarships. Spending more on a great tutor now might pay off later.
  • Score increase “guarantees” are marketing ploys. Promises of big point increases in only a few weeks/sessions are also warning signs. Score improvements come from hard work and building skills, not “secret” strategies!
  • Students will almost always be expected to do homework to see real results. If you can afford a tutor who will do all the work with your student, terrific, but for most, homework is necessary.
  • Regular monitoring of progress is essential to document areas that still need work.
  • When asking other parents for recommendations, focus on whether their student’s scores improved rather than discussing actual numbers.
  • Keep your student’s individual needs in mind. That might mean finding a tutor who works with students with learning differences or opting for a math specialist to help with a geometry weakness.
  • Ask how many class hours are devoted to instruction vs. practice tests. Remember that a mock SAT takes several hours to administer. Be aware that some companies will count testing hours toward the total course hours.
  • Practice tests are useful only when a student is given the opportunity to learn from them. Practice without analysis and correction of errors is wasted time.
  • Ask for references from real people. Websites plastered with “quotes” from “actual students” don’t offer reliable input.
  • Look for tutors who are interested in making you a better student overall. You’ll get better value if your test prep time improves your knowledge, study skills and mental toughness.

The most important thing is finding the right prep for your needs. One size absolutely does not fit all. So do a little legwork and you’ll almost certain reap big rewards. Good luck!

Many thanks to Akil Bello, Nancy Berk, Eric Clark, Claire Griffith, Elizabeth King, Jon Siegelman, Theresa Smith, and Debbie Stier for their input.

Jenn Cohen is the is the owner of Jenn Cohen Tutoring. She has 15 years of experience as an SAT/ACT tutor, specializing in ADHD students.