Top 12 Things Homeschool Parents Need to Know About the SAT and ACT
By Dr. Kuni Beasley
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #107, 2013.
Useful advice for taking those fearsome college entrance exams
First Impression. The more competitive the college, the more test scores
are used to separate the GREAT students from the good students.
Use the SAT & ACT Websites.
There is a
50-point difference on the SAT between students who use the website and those
who don’t (out of 800 maximum points)! For the ACT, there is a 5-point
difference (out of 35 maximum points). As a minimum, we recommend a thorough
trip through the websites, including taking the practice questions.
Not Academic Tests. The PSAT, ACT, & SAT are not academic tests. They are
tests of reasoning ability and problem-solving ability. Until recently, the SAT
published on their website that the SAT was a test of “Reasoning Ability.” The
ACT is not much different.
When to Take the Tests. Take the tests early and often. Start in middle
school. Take the PSAT in October and take one SAT and one ACT for experience
once a year. In grades 9 and 10, take the PSAT in October and one SAT and ACT
each semester. Junior year, take the September ACT, the October PSAT, and the
October SAT. Continue to take the SAT and ACT until you get the score you need
for admissions and/or scholarships. Senior year, repeat the same sequence until
you get the score you need.
Myths & Truths. There is so much misinformation. Make sure you know the
facts about taking the tests!
PSAT/NMSQT. The Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying
Test is administered in October for juniors. Technically, it is a practice for
the SAT and the qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship. Its
effectiveness for SAT practice is pretty lame. The only practical function of
the PSAT is the National Merit Scholarship competition.
Testing Universe. The college testing universe is divided into two camps:
The SAT is from the College Board in New York City, with actual test
development by the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, NJ. In addition to
the SAT, they produce SAT subject tests, Advanced Placement Program (AP) exams,
PSAT/NMSQT, and the College Level Examination Program (CLEP).
The ACT is from American College Testing in Iowa City, Iowa. In addition to
the ACT, they provide the EXPLORE test for 8th and 9th graders, the PLAN test
for 10th graders, Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) processing,
and NCAA Eligibility processing.
Test Components. Here’s what’s on these tests.
The PSAT is a mini version of the SAT, with two 25-minute Reading sections,
two 25-minute Math sections, one 30-minute Writing Skills section, and no essay.
It takes about 2½ hours, plus administrative time.
The SAT has four elements and 10 sections: Math (three sections; two 25-minute
and one 20-minute), Reading (three sections; two 25-minute and one 20-minute),
Writing (two sections: one 25-minute and one 10-minute), Essay section (25
minutes—included in the test), and an “Experimental” section (Math, Reading, or
Writing section). (The “Experimental” section is inserted for research purposes.
The test creator uses it to pre-test questions for future tests, to determine
their difficulty level. Students are not scored on this section, but you don’t
know which section it is, so you can’t skip it.) It takes about 4 hours, plus
The ACT has four sections plus an optional essay: English (45 minutes), Math
(60 minutes), Reading (35 minutes), Science (35 minutes), optional Essay section
(30 minutes). It takes about 3 to 3½ hours, plus administrative time.
The Truth About Essays. The essay is included in the SAT and optional on
the ACT. You need to know if your student even needs the essay score. Many
colleges believe the essay grading is flawed, so they use only the Math and
Reading scores in admission and scholarship qualification. Check with the
colleges you are considering to see if they require the essay.
Test Prep Strategies. Most prep courses provide a quick test intro or
try to re-teach high school. Neither of these have the effect of a real
test-taking program. We recommend taking the test several times to gain “test
maturity,” then undertaking a program that teaches specific test-taking skills
(we have one of the best).
Bad Test Practices. When a student asks what to do to prepare for the
SAT or ACT, the typical answer is “Practice.” Although this is a sound response,
it begs the question: “Practice what?”
The Week of the Test.
Here’s your general guidance:
- Review 1–2 hours/day Mon–Thurs.
- Drive to the testing site before the test. Know your route!
- Get your Test Registration form.
Night Before the Test
- Eat a light dinner.
- Bathe. Set clothes out.
- Get into bed by 10:00.
- Put the registration, your ID, a snack, 6 pencils, and 2 calculators in a
plastic bag and tape it to the bedroom door.
- Park your car close, with an easy way to get out (don’t get blocked in),
and make sure the tank is filled.
Day of the Test
- Up at 6:00! Hydrate: drink 16 ounces of water.
- Have a light breakfast.
- Dress in light, loose, layers.
- Get there early.
- Turn your cell phone OFF. Better yet, leave it in the car.
For more details, visit
and request the free,
lengthier report, “12 Secrets Parents Need to Know About SAT and ACT.” While
there, also pick up the free report, “Secrets Parents Need to Know About
M.O.N.E.Y. for College.”