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What To Expect When Taking The SAT & ACT Exams

Student's hand filling in answer sheet on desk.

There’s a lot of pressure for students to perform well on the SAT and ACT exams.

Each test measures the skills at the heart of education that are necessary for succeeding in college. These exam results have a major impact on which programs your teen will be accepted into, what scholarship are available, as well as other opportunities—so it’s important students know what to expect and prepare effectively.

Doing well on the test isn’t about being lucky; it’s about proper preparation.

Read on to learn more about the SATs and ACTs, what’s to be expected on each exam, and how your teen can prepare.

What The Exams Will Be Like

Before The Exam

Going into the SATs or ACTs, your teen will likely feel some anxiety. He or she will feel the nervous energy of the room and may have a hard time relaxing. That’s completely normal and to be expected—it doesn’t mean he or she is unprepared or going to do poorly.

Remind your teen he or she has prepared for this! Encourage him or her to take deep breaths and repeat positive affirmations, like “I am prepared, I am smart, I am capable” a few times.

Entering The Exam

After signing in and entering the testing room, your teen will take a seat. He or she will spend some time filling out identification forms before the proctor will explain the rules of the exam and answer any questions.

While Taking The Exam

Your teen should not flip through the question booklet or skip ahead while taking the exam—students must stay on the section being working on. If a proctor sees your teen jumping ahead he or she can cancel your teen’s score.

After Finishing The Exam

Once your teen is finished, he or she can only leave once instructed to. After leaving the testing room, it’s important that your teen doesn’t discuss exam questions with others in person or online. Scores can be cancelled if a student shares questions, so your teen should keep that information to him or herself.

What Students Should Bring To The SATs and The ACTs.

There are a few items that are mandatory to bring in order to write the test and others that will be helpful to bring.

Mandatory Items To Bring

  • Printed Admission ticket
  • Photo ID that meets requirements
  • No. 2 pencils with erasers
  • Calculator that meets requirements

Helpful Items To Bring

  • Snacks and water (for breaks during the exam)
  • Extra pencils
  • Extra calculator batteries
  • A watch (make sure it doesn’t make noises or have an alarm)

What to Expect From The SAT

Students have 3 hours (or 3 hours, 50 minutes if writing an essay) to complete the exam. The exam is scored on a scale of 400-1600. Students will be tested on 3 subjects and an optional essay.


The reading section of the SAT will ask students to analyze 5 passages. Passages include classic works, U.S. founding documents, selections about social science, and sciences like biology or chemistry.

Writing and Language

All questions are multiple choice and based on a number of passages. Students will be required to read these passages and find ways to improve or fix them.


Math questions will be divided into two portions: one which students can use a calculator and one which they can’t. Questions will focus on algebra, problem-solving, data analysis, core calculation principals, geometry, and trigonometry.

Essay (optional)*

If a student chooses to write an essay, he or she must read a passage, explain how the author uses persuasion, and support his or her case.

*Some colleges do require students to write this essay for specific programs. Students should contact their colleges of choice to confirm.

What to Expect From The ACT

Students will have 2 hours, 55 minutes (or 3 hours, 40 minutes if writing an essay) to complete the exam. The exam is scored on a scale of 1–36.


Five passages will be presented, accompanied by multiple choice questions. These questions will test skills in word usage and rhetoric. Students should brush up on punctuation, grammar, sentence structure, and writing organization skills to do well on this section. Spelling and vocabulary will not be tested.


All questions are multiple choice and test algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. Students can use a calculator on all questions. Students will have to answer concise, equation-based questions, scenario questions, and questions in a set where they must answer multiple questions about the same prompt.


Students will have to read 10 short form or long form passages and answer multiple choice questions about them. Passages will be prose fiction (similar to a short story), text about social studies, humanities, and natural science.

Science Reasoning

The science section of the ACTs tests critical reasoning skills rather than strict science fundamentals. Students will be required to read graphs and visuals and extract data and reading passages.

Writing (optional)

If a student chooses to write an essay, he or she will be presented with a passage about a controversial issue. The student will then read and analyze three different perspectives on that issue, present a personal opinion, and compare and contrast these perspectives with his or her own opinion.

The SATs and ACTs Are About Proper Preparation

The trick to doing well on these standardized tests is taking the time necessary to prepare. That means preparing a study schedule long in advance and committing to it. Many parents also enroll their son or daughter in an exam preparation course. GradePower Learning offers SAT and ACT preparation courses that provide students with the tools to achieve the scores they want.

Related Resources

How To Study For The SAT & ACT Exams
How To Overcome Test Anxiety
How To Stop Procrastinating And Start Studying

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