Prioritizing your SAT or ACT Prep for Maximum Benefit on the Test and Beyond

When preparing for the ACT or SAT exam, one of the questions we address most frequently is which section(s) to prioritize to maximize the ACT or SAT Score.  Is it better to work on the lowest section scores or to focus on areas where performance is already strong?

I love this question.  Not only is it important for practical reasons, but it also gives us a chance to exercise other important skills. This question is really a specific instance of a more general dilemma:  Should I focus on my weaknesses or play to my strengths?  When you put it like that, it’s easy to see how important it can be to be able to answer that question – not just in the context of SAT or ACT preparation, but generally.  The ability to prioritize accurately is as close as we humans get to a superpower.

Moreover, the best answer can change month-to-month or even week-to-week.  That’s both a great reason and an excellent opportunity to practice answering that question effectively, again and again.

In other words, answering this question is one of the many ways we can turn ACT and SAT preparation into a training ground for vastly more useful skills.

This post is the first in a series in which I’ll go over the various factors involved in making this decision – not just the first time, but every time.  I’ll start by providing a few tips that are specific to the SAT and ACT.  Then, I’ll zoom out to cover more general scenarios and show how this process can help you beyond the test.

Part 1: Which Section of the ACT or SAT exam challenges you the Most?

Answering this question starts with understanding the challenges you face and the skills you have at your disposal.

For the SAT and ACT exams in particular, a good starting point is to know the kinds of questions you’ll face in each section.  With that in mind, let’s start with a quick recap and overview.

The SAT has four main sections:

  • Reading (52 questions, 65 minutes)

  • Writing & Language (44 questions, 35 minutes)

  • Math – no calculator allowed (20 questions, 25 minutes)

  • Math – calculator allowed (38 questions, 55 minutes)

The ACT also has four main sections:

  • English (75 questions, 45 minutes)

  • Math (60 questions, 60 minutes)

  • Reading (40 questions, 35 minutes)

  • Science (40 questions, 35 minutes)

Each test also offers an optional essay and may include an experimental section, but those don’t matter for this discussion.  I’ll cover why that is, as well as the big difference in time-per-question on the SAT vs. the ACT, in future posts.

What’s important here is the content breakdown.  Both the ACT and the SAT exams test roughly the same content.  There are differences in how the content is tested, but those differences don’t matter much when considering which sections to prioritize. You can see these differences in any ACT or SAT practice test.

The Reading sections of the ACT and SAT exams are very similar.  Each section has several passages of text that are clipped and edited from real books, articles, and speeches.  Each Reading passage has several multiple-choice questions associated with it.  Answering Reading questions correctly requires you to have read the passage – and the questions and answer choices themselves – very closely.

The Math sections of the ACT and SAT exams both cover content up to a level that most students reach in precalculus.  You can expect some foundational math, lots of algebra and geometry, and a few questions on more advanced topics like trigonometry.  Both the ACT and SAT Exam mix straightforward math problems with sophisticated word problems.

The SAT’s Writing & Language section and the ACT’s English section are, for all practical purposes, differently sized and paced versions of the exact same thing.  Like the Reading sections, they are based on passages that are clipped and edited from other writings.  Some of those edits include intentional errors in grammar, word choice, sentence order, and so on.  Multiple-choice questions in the English and Writing & Language sections are about how to fix and improve those errors (or recognizing when no correction is needed).

The ACT has a Science section whereas the SAT does not.  However, the SAT does include the same kinds of questions peppered throughout its Reading and Math sections.  With extremely rare exceptions – only 1 or 2 questions, and only on the ACT – these questions are not about testing your knowledge of science facts.  Rather, they are about drawing logical conclusions from graphs, tables, and descriptions.  Again, both the SAT and the ACT exams include these questions; the main difference is that the ACT has a whole section just for them whereas the SAT includes them in multiple sections.

Given all of that, there are basically four main classes of content you’ll face:

  • Reading comprehension

  • English language mechanics (grammar, semantics, etc.)

  • Math

  • Scientific reasoning

Part 2: Frequently Asked Questions about how to approach these challenges

Here’s a quick breakdown of how to get started on each of those kinds of content.

How should I tackle scientific reasoning questions?

I’m putting this category first because it’s easiest to know what to do with.  If you’re preparing for the ACT and the Science section just freaks you out, then you might want to focus on it a bit.  A little familiarity and a few simple tricks can wring a few easy points out of it.   Otherwise, don’t worry about this question type.  The skills you’ll gain by working on other sections are likely to improve your abilities on these question types anyway, so you’ll probably be able to pick up a few points for free.

How should I improve my reading comprehension?

For most people, Reading usually takes the most work to improve.  Usually doesn’t mean always, but it’s surprisingly safe to assume this will apply to you unless you have evidence to the contrary.

One option is to prioritize this section, but work on high-yield strategies that will pay off elsewhere on the SAT or ACT: using process-of-elimination, comparing answer choices two-at-a-time, marking up the passages and questions intelligently, and so on.

Another option is to simply leave the Reading section for last.  You can practice the aforementioned high-yield strategies on other sections – like the Writing & Language, English, and Science sections – and then use them to get a head-start on your Reading prep.

Whichever option you choose, practice the Reading section without time limits at first.  You need to train your mind to pick up on the kinds of details and concepts that the ACT and SAT are interested in.  Once you’ve done that, you can pivot to working on speed.

Is English or Math easier to improve?

This depends on you.  There’s a lot involved – your skills, your preferences, the work you put in, and so on – and the reality can be surprising.  The best thing to do is usually to try working on both and see how it goes.

For example, if you’re inclined toward Math, you might feel that English skills are difficult territory because they don’t seem as systematic or “objective” as Math is.  That may be true in general, but both the ACT and SAT exams select rules of grammar and style that are as predictable as math.  You might find that your penchant for the systematic makes the SAT’s Writing & Language section or the ACT’s English section very math-like.

On the other hand, if you’re verbally inclined, you might find Math too esoteric or complicated.  Again, that’s arguably true.  However, both the ACT and SAT exams present surprising numbers of problems you can just reason through using processes that may not feel very math-like.

Again, the best way to decide is to try both.

When should I shift my attention to another section?

Ideally, you should work mainly on one section until you are consistently able to get the score you want in that section with the normal time limit.

If you don’t know what score you want – for example, if you’re just trying to get the highest possible score – look out for when your improvement on one section starts slowing down, and make your move at that point.

There may be times when you just get stuck for a few weeks and your performance and score don’t move.  If that happens, shifting to a different content area can help keep you moving.  It can also give you some ideas for when you return to that troublesome section.

Is it more important to raise the composite score or to improve weak section scores?

If you’re taking the SAT, imagine scoring 750 in Math and 500 in Reading and Writing, for a total of 1250. Now, imagine scoring 600 in both sections, for a total of 1200.

If you’re taking the ACT, imagine scoring 34 in Math and 22 in each of the other sections, for a composite score of 25.  Now, imagine scoring 24 in all sections, for a composite score of 24.

In either case, which is the better outcome: the higher composite score or the more even section scores?

Again, it depends.  What matters for the colleges or universities you’re applying to?  Which scenario fits better with the rest of your application?  Which is more in-line with your own personal goals?  Which is most feasible for you?  Advice from your college counselor, teachers, and a test prep tutor can be key here.