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Introduction to college entrance exams

Most four-year colleges require entrance exams as part of their admissions process, and some schools will use these test scores for determining merit scholarships. Students can choose between submitting ACT or SAT scores. The SAT and ACT can be intimidating, but with studying and preparation, they can also be a great opportunity to highlight your academic strengths.

Coming soon: Information about the Digital SAT!

The difference between the ACT and SAT

Overview The ACT test consists of four multiple-choice tests in English, mathematics, reading, and science, and an optional 40-minute writing test. The SAT is a multiple-choice, pencil-and-paper test created and administered by the College Board.

The SAT is comprised of two sections: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and Math. The Evidence-Based Reading and Writing is comprised of two tests, one focused on Reading and one focused on Writing & Language. The Math section is comprised of a single test with two components – a no-calculator portion and a calculator-allowed portion.

Time The ACT is 3 hours long (technically 2 hours and 55 minutes). Including breaks, the exam takes 3 hours and 30 minutes to complete. If you sign up for the optional essay (the ACT Plus Writing), the test clocks in at 3 hours and 40 minutes or just over 4 hours with breaks.


The SAT clocks in at 3 hours (3 hours and 15 minutes with breaks).
Components        English: 45 min; 75 questions

Math: 60 min; 60 questions

Reading: 35 min; 40 questions

Science: 35 min; 40 questions

Writing: 40 min; 1 essay

TOTAL: 175 min (215 min with Writing); 215 questions, 1 essay


Reading: 65 min; 52 questions

Writing and Language: 35 min; 44 questions

Math: 80 min; 58 questions

TOTAL: 180 min; 154 questions

Essay The test consists of one writing prompt that will describe a complex issue and present three different perspectives on that issue. It is a paper-and-pencil test. You will write your essay in pencil (no mechanical pencils or ink pens) on the lined pages of an answer folder that will be provided to you.


NOTE: as of September 2021 College Board has discontinued the optional SAT Essay as well as SAT Subject Tests.
Scoring Composite Score: 1–36 (average of four test scores)

English: 1–36

Math: 1–36

Reading: 1–36

Science: 1–36

Essay (optional): 2-12

STEM Score: 1-36 (science and math combined)

ELA Score: 1-36 (English, reading, and writing combined—only available to students who do all 3 sections)


Each section of the SAT is scored on a 200 to 800 point scale. Your total SAT score is the sum of your section scores. The highest possible SAT score is 1600.
Guessing No penalty for guessing; if you run out of time, you may guess the answer to the remaining multiple-choice questions.


No penalty for guessing; if you run out of time, you may guess the answer to the remaining multiple-choice questions.
Calculator Can use an approved calculator on all portions of the math section.


You can only use your calculator on the test portion labeled “Math Test – Calculator.” You may not use a calculator while working on the “Math Test – No-Calculator” portions or during the Reading and Writing and Language sections.
Reading There are four ACT reading passages of about 800 words each, always in this order:

  1. prose fiction
  2. social science
  3. humanities
  4. natural science

After each passage, you’ll answer 10 questions that test you on what was directly stated as well as what meanings were implied in the text.


You’ll have 65 minutes to read five passages (taken from literature, history, social studies, and the natural sciences) and answer a total of 52 questions. The questions will ask you to do everything from determining the meaning of words in context, deciding why an author included a certain detail, finding the main idea of a whole passage, comparing two passages, or even pinpointing information on a graph.
Math ACT Algebra

  • 14 pre-algebra questions based on math terminology (integers, prime numbers, and so on), basic number theory (rules of zero, order of operations and so on), and manipulation of fractions and decimals
  • 10 elementary algebra questions based on inequalities, linear equations, ratios, percentages, and averages
  • 9 intermediate algebra questions based on exponents, roots, simultaneous equations, and quadratic equations
  • Total: 33 questions

ACT Geometry

  • 14 plane geometry questions based on angles, lengths, triangles, quadrilaterals, circles, perimeter, area, and volume
  • 9 coordinate geometry questions based on slope, distance, midpoint, parallel and perpendicular lines, points of intersection, and graphing
  • Total: 23 questions

ACT Trigonometry

  • 4 questions based on basic sine, cosine, and tangent functions, trig identities, and graphing
  • Total: 4 questions
Math concepts that are tested on the SAT:

  1. Algebra I and II
  2. Arithmetic/Probability/Data Analysis
  3. Plane Geometry/Coordinate Geometry/Trigonometry

No Calculator: 25 min; 15 multiple choice questions, 5 grid-in questions

Calculator: 55 min; 30 multiple choice questions, 8 grid-in questions

Study tips

Take a practice test

Both the ACT and SAT websites have free and up to date sample tests. You can also find practice exams, and helpful SAT test prep and ACT test prep resources. Take the time to take a full practice test from beginning to end. If possible, have a friend or family member keep time and be with you during the test. Try to simulate a testing environment as closely as possible. Once you are done, you can mark the questions you have gotten right and wrong to calculate your score on each section. This is your working test score.

What score do you need?

Texas OnCourse has helpful information about SAT score ranges and how your score fits in with other test-takers.

To get some more detailed information, search for the average ACT or SAT score for the schools you hope to attend. How do they compare with your practice test score? This can give you some insight into how much you will need to study each section.

Set a schedule and stick to it

Sticking to a long-term goal is hard. Studying for the SAT/ACT is no different! It’s important to set times each week to study and stick to them! Put them on the calendar and, if possible, find someone to check in and hold you accountable.

Study a mix of everything

It can be tempting to focus only on the sections and topics you struggle with most, but it is important also to study and reinforce the sections that are your strengths.

Register for the exam

Registration deadlines for college entrance exams are usually about four weeks before a test. Make sure to apply in time!

Go to the SAT or ACT website and create an account.

If possible, select your high school as your testing center.  If your high school is not an option or is already full, look closely at the locations of other schools before you select an alternative site. You’ll need to know your high school code for the SAT and ACT (they are different codes).

You need to upload a photo of yourself for your registration ticket. This must be a photo of you because it is used to verify your identity.

Fee waivers

You will need to check with your counselor beforehand to see if you are eligible for a fee waiver. If you qualify for a fee waiver for entrance exams, you also qualify for an application fee waiver.

ACT fee waivers

  • School counselors can provide these fee waivers to you, but be sure to ask them!
  • You can receive a maximum of two ACT waivers.
  • Each waiver has an individual serial number and cannot be used more than once.
  • If you choose not to take the ACT on the requested date, you can change your registration for a smaller fee. Note that you must change your test date in advance in order to retain your fee waiver.
  • ACT provides information on who qualifies for a fee waiver.

SAT fee waivers

  • School counselors can provide these fee waivers to you, but be sure to ask them!
  • You can get up to two SAT test waivers and six SAT Subject Test fee waivers
  • Each waiver has an individual serial number and cannot be used more than once.
  • If you choose not to take the SAT on the requested date, you can change your registration for a smaller fee. Note that you must change your test date in advance in order to retain your fee waiver.
  • College Board provides information on who qualifies for an SAT fee waiver.


What are accommodations?

Accommodations include, but are not limited to, extra breaks between test sections, use of a computer, tests in Braille or large print and/or extended test time. Accommodations through your school, Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and 504 plans can be submitted to qualify, but will not automatically qualify you for accommodations on the SAT or ACT.

ACT accommodations

Accommodations for students with disabilities and English Learners are available on the ACT. When registering for the ACT online, there will be a question regarding accommodations. If you request accommodations, you will receive an email with further instructions, including an important form to submit to your school, giving the ACT permission to access your information. You need to work with an official at your school who will help submit your request. Learn more about ACT accommodations.

ACT Accommodations must be submitted by the late registration deadline for the ACT testing date. Approval usually takes 10-14 days, but it is a good idea to submit your request as early as possible, since requests that are not approved can be edited and resubmitted.

SAT accommodations

Students who have a documented disability that affects their ability to complete the SAT may submit a request for accommodations.

Visit the College Board website to find the forms to request SAT accommodations.

It is essential to start this process early because approval can take up to seven weeks after materials are received.

Test Day Tips

  1. Make sure that you get an ample amount of rest the night before.
  2. Eat a good breakfast!
  3. Bring snacks, water, a sweatshirt, an extra No. 2 pencil, and an eraser with you to the exam.
  4. Do some gentle stretching or exercise before the test and during breaks since you’ll be sitting for so many hours. Don’t overdo it, though!
  5. Read over your testing ticket to make sure you know the exact location, how to get there, and the room it is in. Do this BEFORE the morning of the test!
  6. Make sure to arrive 30-45 minutes before the test. Even if you are a minute late, you will be unable to test. This will result in losing your registration and fee waiver.
  7.  Bring proper proof of identification: driver’s license, school ID, state ID, passport.
  8. The name shown on your identification must match the name on your testing ticket. For example, if you have two last names, be sure that you include both when registering so that your ticket and identification reflect the exact same name.
  9. Triple check to make sure you have your testing ticket with you! If you do not have this, you will be unable to take the test. If you used a fee waiver and miss your test, you will not be able to use that fee waiver again.

Next Steps

Now that you know whether or not you need to take an entrance exam and which entrance exam might be best for you, let’s review how to write a great resume!

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