In order to be able to compare students from different education systems worldwide US universities often demand that applicants attempt one of two standardised tests, either the SAT or the ACT. Some universities do not require either of these but most of the famous ones will, including all the Ivy League institutions and the likes of MIT, Stanford, Georgetown, Duke etc. The most famous two universities that don’t require SATs/ACTs are NYU and Wesleyan but you can find a list of other ‘test optional’ universities here.

Both the SAT and ACT have been criticised as educationally worthless but their merit is in the comparability they provide and for the moment they are a necessary evil so we will take them one at a time.


The SAT is run by an organisation called College Board, an American private non-profit company set up to expand access to higher education. College Board is extremely wealthy with revenues of $200,000,000+ dollars and a profit of $62,000,000 in 2013. In 1926 it began administering the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test), the current SAT, redesigned in 2005, takes 3 hours and 45 minutes. Possible scores on the SAT range from 600 to 2400, combining test results from three 800-point sections: Mathematics, Critical Reading, and Writing.

From May 2015 in the UK, College Board will use a redesigned version of the SAT. The exam will revert to the a 1600-point scale, the essay will be optional, and students will have 3 hours to take the exam plus 50 additional minutes to complete the essay.

The cost of sitting the SAT can be found here. Registration for the test is here. Further details about the make-up of the SAT 1 (the Mathematics, Critical Reading and Writing test) can be found here. Many universities also demand at least one and often two SAT subjects tests. These are one hour long and cannot be done at the same time as the SAT 1, although several can be done in one sitting, further information on these can be found here.


The ACT (short for American College Testing) is the other form of standardized test accepted for college admission in the US. It was first administered in November 1959. The ACT is divided into four multiple choice subject tests: English, mathematics, reading, and science reasoning. Subject test scores range from 1 to 36 and the composite score is the average of all four tests. The ACT has seen a gradual increase in the number of takers and in 2011 the ACT surpassed the SAT for the first time in total test takers in the US although the SAT remains the most popular course for overseas students. The wikipedia page has lots of useful information on the test include stats on the number of students who get each score level each year. You can sign up to take the test here and the company’s website is here.

Preparing for the tests

There are a host of ways to prepare for either the SAT or ACT ranging from the cheap and cheerful to the supremely costly. Before you begin to spend money though it is worth having a go at one or both of the tests to see how good you are without revision.

Mock ACT test
Mock current SAT test
Mock questions for the new SAT test

There are also some decent apps that allow you to practise your SAT/ACT skills. Here’s the SAT one and the ACT one from the Apple iStore, and an ACT and SAT one for Android users.

If you are ready to move on to revising in earnest then the SAT have partnered with the Khan Academy to produce a series of video tutorials to prepare students for the new SAT. (They also have material for the current SAT here with practise papers). Here’s a sample…

The Khan Academy also has material on the ACT but it is not as all encompassing. Youtube can be a great resource for test preparation but not everything on there can be trusted so it is not wise to base all your revision on free youtube videos.

  • For the SAT
    The classic book is the College Board’s own Blue book, the one for the old SAT can be found here and the one for the new SAT is here.
    For SAT Subject tests there are individual books and an overall guide. Again there are College Board books and books from other publishers. The overall guide can be found here.
    And the following subject guides are available, with links to our recommendations: History | Maths I & II | Spanish | Biology (both) | French | Chemistry | English Literature | German | Italian | Physics | LatinAway from the test specific provides there are a host of other books on the SAT and performance from those with full marks to those who tried to get full marks. We particularly like Debbie Stier’s ‘The Perfect Score Project’, one woman’s attempt to get the Perfect Score in order to help her son. Spoiler – she doesn’t manage but there is lots of insight into test prep along the way.
  • For the ACT

    You might be surprised to learn that there is a similar gamut of material on the ACT beginning with their own products and then materials from Princeton Review, Dummies, Kaplan, Barron’s and lots of smaller publishers. With no subject tests for the ACT most products are focused on the ACT itself and we recommend their own book and the Princeton Review’s list of questions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s