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College entrance exams: choosing and preparing

Most colleges require either the SAT® or the ACT® as entrance exams for admissions—they’re used to measure your readiness for college and to award merit-based scholarships. You’ll usually take a college entrance exam in 11th or 12th grade, but some students take them earlier or multiple times for practice. Here’s some info to help you decide which test is right for you as well as how to prepare.

SAT vs. ACT, what are the main differences?

  • Subjects: Both tests include math, reading, and a variation of English or writing and language. The ACT test also includes a science section. The number of questions per subject or section also varies by test. 
  • Calculator policy: The ACT allows calculators for all math questions. The SAT only allows for some questions.  

How long do the SAT and ACT take?

Both tests are around 3 hours. If you decide to take the writing or essay section, the time increases by about 50 minutes.

When can you take the SAT and ACT?

Both tests are offered nationally 7 times a year: 

  • SAT: August, October, November, December, March, May, and June, with school day administrations in the fall and spring for participating schools 
  • ACT: September, October, December, February, April, June, and July.  

Do colleges prefer one entrance exam over the other?

Both entrance exams are accepted by all US colleges and many international colleges and universities. While schools generally don’t have a preference on which test is better, you should research your school to make sure the specific test is accepted before investing your time and money.

Studying for the ACT or SAT

You can find study books with practice tests and online test prep resources available for both the ACT and SAT—some resources are free. You can also partner with a coach or tutor, or take test prep classes to help maximize your success with whichever of these entrance exams you decide to take. Get a head start with these resources:

  • Kaplan: Test prep led by a team of teachers and backed by a higher score guarantee—at a lower price for Fidelity users. 
  • ACT: Learn about the ACT test prep solutions and more. 
  • SAT: Take full-length practice tests and access other college planning resources with College Board. 

Practice exams

Some middle and high schools may give practice versions of the entrance exams, such as the preACT® 8/9, PreACT, PSAT/NMSQT, PSAT 10, and PSAT 8. You aren’t required to take these before the ACT or SAT. They're meant to give you an idea of what to expect when you take the real test.

What is the PreACT test? 

The PreACT gives 10th grade students practice taking the ACT test. If you take the PreACT, you’ll get a score for their PreACT test and a projected future ACT test score. This gives you greater opportunities for college recruitment and scholarships if you choose to share your scores with college and scholarship agencies.  

While simulating the ACT testing experience, the PreACT is a shorter test covering 4 subjects: English, math, reading, and science. Schools can choose when to administer the test to its students. 

What is the PreACT 8/9 test? 

PreACT 8/9 is an early indicator of college and career readiness. It helps educators, students, and parents identify areas of academic strength and opportunity. The test gives students in grades 8 or 9 a predicted score for both PreACT and the ACT. Available through your school, PreACT 8/9 can be delivered to students between October and June. 

What is the PSAT/NMSQT (Preliminary SAT/National Merit® Scholarship Qualifying Test)? 

The PSAT/NMSQT is practice for the SAT, with sections and questions following the same format. Top performers can qualify for scholarships and recognition from the National Merit Scholarship Program. It’s usually taken by 10th or 11th graders. The primary test day for the PSAT/NMSQT is in mid-October, with an additional Saturday date and alternate test date a bit later. 

What is the PSAT 8/9 & PSAT 10 test? 

The PSAT 8/9 is often a student’s first experience with the SAT, with similar question types. It’s a low-stakes test, meaning colleges and scholarship programs will never see the score, and is used to identify sections where you might need some extra studying. It's intended for 8th and 9th graders. Schools can choose when to administer the test. 

The PSAT 10 familiarizes you with the types of questions you’ll see on the SAT and PSAT/NMSQT, offering an indication of how you’ll perform on those tests, highlighting academic strengths and weaknesses. It’s intended for 10th graders and only offered in the spring. Schools can administer the PSAT 10 roughly anytime during 2 testing windows. 

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This information is general in nature and provided for educational purposes only.