Sharpen Those #2 Pencils: Preparing for the SAT and ACT Exams

Homeschooled or traditionally schooled, most high school students have one thing in common: their dislike of the college entrance exams. To strong test-takers, they may simply be an inevitable annoyance; to others, they seem to have the power to permanently define one’s higher education path and perhaps even a future career. While the reality is rarely so extreme, homeschooled students need to be aware of how to approach these tests, since college admissions staff often place more emphasis on tests and less on homeschool-generated transcripts.

The SAT® and ACT® exams are the major players in the college admissions testing arena. SAT Subject TestsTM, as well as the PSAT/NMSQT®, also come into play during the high school years. Both the SAT and ACT tests have changed since the publication of my book Homeschooled and Headed for College. To keep you up to date, I am offering the full text of my newly revised chapter, “Sharpen Those #2 Pencils: SAT and ACT Exams…and the Rest of the Tests.” Feel free to read this and share it with others as a “free sample” of my book. In addition to providing information about the components of each test, this 20-page chapter describes how to register for the tests, how the tests are scored, and most importantly, how to prepare for them. The chapter also reviews other testing programs such as AP®, CLEP®, and high school equivalency exams.

The SAT, in particular, has undergone major revisions, launching its new version in March of 2016. The total achievable score is 1600, based on a score of 800 on each of the two main sections (Math and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing). Evidence-Based Reading and Writing is further divided into a Reading section and a Writing/Language section. Additionally, students may take an optional timed essay section.

The Reading section contains passages representing content areas such as literature, humanities, history, science, U.S. “founding documents,” and career information. Some of the passages also contain charts, graphs, and tables. Students are asked to interpret, analyze, and use evidence to answer multiple-choice questions on these passages as well as on the data sources presented. Vocabulary is tested within the context of reading passages rather than as standalone multiple choice questions as was the case in former versions of the SAT. Additionally, the vocabulary words tested are words that are encountered in the “real world,” rather than obscure, esoteric words.

The Writing/Language section asks students to read a passage in which various grammar, punctuation, and usage errors have been embedded in some of the sentences and then to perform an editing task. Logically sequencing sentences and paragraphs, interpreting information from graphs and tables, and editing a portion of the passage to make it consistent with graph information comprise several tasks in this section.

The Math section of the SAT includes algebra, problem solving and data analysis, advanced math (involving more complex equations and functions), and college- and career-relevant geometry and trigonometry. On some portions of the SAT, calculators are permitted; other portions are calculator-free. Additionally, most of the problems are multiple choice with four answers to choose from, but several are “grid-ins” where students must supply answers.

In the 50-minute timed essay section, students read a passage and then analyze the techniques the author uses to persuade the reader of his or her point. The student is not asked to agree or disagree with the author’s position, but rather to carefully examine strategies such as use of evidence, skillful diction, logical reasoning, appeals to emotion, and other elements that help the author build and express his or her argument. Though this section is optional, it is a good idea for students to take it, because some colleges and scholarship programs require or recommend it.


The SAT Subject Tests are one-hour tests offered in approximately twenty subjects such as English, mathematics, world languages, science, and history. While some colleges require them for admission, most others simply recommend that students take them to strengthen the overall application. Colleges requiring the Subject Tests typically ask students to take two or three different tests and may specify one or two tests in particular. For instance, a college may require one test in math or science and one in the humanities. Check the websites of a few potential colleges during the student’s freshman or sophomore year so that you can plan which subjects should receive heavier study in order to prepare for these tests.

Some colleges require more Subject Tests of homeschoolers than they require of other students. While this may not seem fair, the reasoning is that colleges desire to gain a clearer picture of the student’s capabilities by asking for additional test scores. Subject Tests may also help homeschooled students clear requirements for specific subject areas on their applications to certain universities (the University of California is one such example).

Subject Tests are usually taken at the end of the sophomore and/or junior year so that scores will be available for college applications in the fall of the senior year. However, freshmen may take these tests, too, and seniors often take them in the fall, as long as the score reporting dates coordinate with college application deadlines. Students should take the exams as soon as possible after completing applicable courses so that the material is fresh in their minds. One, two, or three Subject Tests may be taken on a given test day, but the Subject Tests may not be taken on the same day as the full-length SAT exam.

Scoring of Subject Tests is similar to that of a single section of the main SAT exam, with a perfect score being 800. Preparatory books are useful as students study for Subject Tests. The Official Study Guide for All SAT Subject TestsTM,, published by the College Board®, is one such book, but many others are available from test prep publishers.


The PSAT/NMSQT, administered each October, is an optional test that can be taken by high school sophomores or juniors to prepare for the actual SAT exam. Officially, the test is called the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test when it is taken during the junior year. The College Board and the Corporation cosponsor the test to provide practice for the SAT exam and to establish eligibility for the National Merit Scholarship program.

Like the SAT exam, the PSAT/NMSQT measures reading, math, and writing/language skills (however, there is no essay). Students who take the test can discover where their strengths and weaknesses lie as they continue to prepare for the SAT exam. The NMSQT exam is only one of many tools for preparing for the SAT exam, since a student can also take practice SAT exams at home before tackling the real exam. The most pertinent feature of this exam for high-achieving students is its role as the qualifier for the National Merit Scholarship. Only the junior year (eleventh grade) scores will qualify the student for the program.

The total achievable score for the PSAT/NMSQT is 1520, based on a maximum of 760 in each of the two sections, Math and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing. The PSAT/NMSQT scoring is structured to roughly predict the student’s SAT score. Since the SAT is more difficult, the PSAT/NMSQT scoring has a maximum of 1520 rather than the SAT’s top score of 1600. Theoretically, then, a score of 1400 on the PSAT/NMSQT approximates a score of 1400 on the SAT if the SAT had been taken that day. Presumably, by the time a student actually takes the SAT, he or she will score even higher, since several months of additional learning will have taken place. Additionally, the PSAT/NMSQT score report includes a “Selection Index,” used as a qualification for the National Merit Scholarship competition. Cutoffs for Semifinalist status vary by state. For full information, check out both the College Board website and the National Merit Scholarship Corporation website.


The ACT test, offered by ACT, Inc., is another widely used college entrance exam, with statistics showing that the number of students taking the ACT has surpassed the number taking the SAT. ACT tests contain multiple-choice sections covering English, mathematics, reading, and science.

In the English section, students are asked to recognize errors in grammar and usage and to choose answer responses that provide the clearest and most correct sentences. Some questions also involve understanding the main idea of a passage and assessing whether the author has made his or her idea clear.

The mathematics section presents questions in pre-algebra, elementary and intermediate algebra, coordinate, plane, and three-dimensional geometry, and trigonometry. All questions are multiple choice, and a calculator may be used on all questions.

The ACT reading section asks students to read four passages in various genres (fiction, humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences) and to answer questions relating to main ideas, vocabulary in context, details about the text, and inferences drawn from the material.

Unlike the SAT exam, the ACT includes a separate science component. In this section, students are asked to use reasoning skills to interpret the results of experiments described in the form of text, charts, and graphs, and also to project or predict further experimental results by examining the charts and graphs. One section asks students to answer questions based on “conflicting viewpoints” (two or more scientists’ hypotheses on a given concept or situation).

Finally, an optional 40-minute timed writing test measures students’ essay writing skills by raising a controversial issue, providing brief statements illustrating three perspectives on the issue, and asking the student to choose a position and defend it with logical reasoning.

Scores are provided on the exam as a whole (composite) and also on each of the four skill sections and the optional writing section. Test scores for the four multiple-choice sections range from 1 to 36, and for the optional essay section, scores range from 2 to 12.


While both the SAT and ACT exams are widely used for college admission, a few differences set them apart. As previously noted, the ACT includes a science section testing scientific critical thinking, while the SAT does not. In lieu of this separate science section, several groups of questions in the reading and the writing/language sections of the SAT (and, of course, in the math section) include charts, graphs, and tables, and some reading passages deal with scientific topics, so the differences between the two exams are not as marked as one might think.

With both exams, the essay writing component is optional but should be taken if a particular college requires it. Early on, a student will probably not know which colleges he or she will apply to, so it is wise to plan on taking this optional essay section. The 50-minute writing task on the SAT will appeal to students strong in rhetorical analysis of an author’s techniques in nonfiction, while the 40-minute ACT essay will appeal to those skilled at analyzing a complex topic and arguing for one perspective while acknowledging other valid perspectives on the issue.

The mathematics section of the SAT includes a data analysis component, while the ACT does not. As a result, the SAT is heavier on algebra and data analysis and lighter on geometry and trigonometry when compared with the ACT. For the ACT, math questions require memorization of certain common formulas, while the SAT provides these formulas at the beginning of the section. The SAT has “calculator” and “no-calculator” sections, while the ACT allows calculator use on all math questions. The SAT asks a number of questions known as “grid-ins” which require a student to fill in an answer; the ACT math section is 100% multiple choice.

After investing sufficient study and practice, your student might consider trying a full practice test for both exams, since some students score significantly higher on one compared to the other. Results of this practice test will guide the decision of which test to focus on.

SAT, ACT, PSAT/NMSQT—the alphabet soup of standardized tests can appear shrouded in stress-producing mystery. By visiting the websites of these test makers early and often, college bound students can become familiar with what they will be up against during the last half of high school. From there, they can gather useful information that will translate to a fruitful season of test preparation.


The following trademarks are held by their respective organizations. None of these organizations were involved in the production of, nor do they endorse, this article.
College Board®, SAT®, AP®, and CLEP® are registered trademarks of the College Board.
SAT Subject TestsTM and The Official Study Guide for All SAT Subject TestsTM are trademarks owned by the College Board.
PSAT/NMSQT® is a registered trademark of the College Board and the National Merit® Scholarship Corporation.
ACT® is a registered trademark of ACT, Inc.



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