How to Prep for the SAT and ACT

Female student holding pencil and examination paper
Madeleine Karydes
Madeleine Karydes

Madeleine attended UC Berkeley and double-majored in English and Media Studies. She is now an integral part of the Empowerly team.

You’ve registered for the ACT or the SAT—now what? Time to study, of course! Starting out can be daunting, but with some simple study tips, you’ll be ready for test day.

Learn The Test Format

For each test, you need to know what the sections are, and how many questions to expect. For the ACT and SAT, the sections are timed separately. Being familiar with the format of the test will help alleviate stress on the big day. So, let’s break that down…

ACT sections

The ACT contains multiple choice questions in the following four subjects:

  • English: 75 questions, 45 minutes
  • Math: 60 questions, 60 minutes
  • Reading: 40 questions, 35 minutes 
  • Science: 40 questions, 35 minutes

In addition to these multiple choice sections, you also have the option to take the ACT Writing exam. For this section, you write one essay in 60 minutes according to the prompt you are given. Note: the essay is scored separately, so it’s not a part of your composite score.

SAT sections

The SAT has multiple choice questions in the following three subjects:

  • Reading: 52 questions, 65 minutes
  • Writing and Language: 44 questions, 35 minutes 
  • Math (which has two sections):
    • No calculator: 20 questions, 25 minutes
    • Calculator allowed: 38 questions, 55 minutes

Like the ACT, the SAT also has an optional essay section. It’s one essay prompt and you have 50 minutes to write your answer. Again, like the ACT, the essay does not count towards your overall score, but some schools still request it. Check with your high school counselor to see if the schools you are applying to require an essay.

Study The Facts

Of course, you need to know the material to score well, too! You may want to consider a test-prep course that is geared toward the test you are taking. These courses often give you time and practice with the skills you need. Your college admissions counselor can help you choose the best course for your preparation journey.

There are also plenty of study materials available online. For starters, you can go straight to the test company themselves:

Aside from specific test prep materials, we also recommend students focus on their classwork. Ultimately, these tests are intended to test your mastery of the subjects you’ve studied so far. The material you cover in your classes will help you be ready for your exams. Join a study group for the subjects you find more difficult. There are also suggested reading lists to beef up your vocabulary.


Take full-length, timed practice tests. This will help you gain true familiarity with the content of the tests (as well as get a feel for timing). Your high school counselor can help you find local test-prep courses that offer practice tests. Alternatively, you can take SAT practice tests online. Even if you’ve taken the PSAT, you should take a full-length SAT practice test in order to get ready.

The ACT also offers full-length practice tests online. There isn’t a “P-ACT,” so you should definitely do plenty of practice on your own.

After your practice exam, take note of any challenges you encountered, and work on strategies to overcome them next time. Did you run out of time during the math section? Hit the books harder in that subject. Were you hungry and unfocused before the end? Eat a bigger breakfast next time. By correcting your issues during the practice, you will set yourself up for success when the real test day arrives.

Find Support

Studying for the ACT and SAT can feel overwhelming, but you are not alone. Consider setting up a college counseling appointment to get expert guidance and to set a goal for the score you want to achieve.

Questions? Let us know!