Picking the Best High School Courses for the SAT or ACT 


The SAT and ACT exams are a “right of passage” when it comes to high school. The score on either test (you only have to choose one exam) is an integral component of the college application process along with a student’s high school GPA, letters of recommendation, and the entrance essay. Due to the important role of the SAT/ACT, it is at the forefront of any student’s mind, usually during junior year, who wishes to pursue higher education. These exams are also on the mind of every parent that has to “gently” (I use that term loosely) guide their child through the test-taking journey. 

The key to success on the SAT or ACT is to prepare your child slowly throughout their high school career by taking the right types of classes in grades 9-11. Essentially, “studying” over the span of three years so that the test isn’t such a life-changing event. Before we can discuss what a high school course load should look like to prepare for the SAT or the ACT, let’s break down the exams and compare each section. Below is a comprehensive breakdown of what is tested on each exam based on content, test structure, and timing restraints.

Total time (with Essay)3 hours 50 minutes 3 hours 35 minutes
Evidence-Based Reading52 multiple-choice questions

65 minutes

  • Passages are based on literature, historical documents, social sciences, and natural sciences
  • Vocabulary in context and understanding charts/graphs
  • Identifying evidence from the passage to support answer
40 multiple-choice questions                        

35 minutes                                                     

  • 4 sections (either 1 long passage or 2 shorter, paired passages) with 10 multiple-choice questions
  • Reading comprehension of what is directly stated or implied
  • Prose fiction, literary narrative, Social Science, Humanities, and natural science are the main topics
Writing and Language Arts44 multiple-choice questions

35 minutes

  • Grammar, vocabulary in context, and editing skills
  • 4 passages total with at least 1 containing a graphic like chart
75 multiple-choice questions                                        45 minutes                            

  • Questions based on grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, correct verb tenses and forms, pronouns, and rhetorical skills
Math58 multiple-choice questions

80 minutes

    -20 questions with No-Calculator (25 minutes)

    -38 questions with Calculator (55 minutes)

  • Algebra I and II, geometry, and some trigonometry
  • Linear equations, system, graphs, problem-solving and data analysis, manipulation of equations
60 multiple-choice questions                                     60 minutes                                  

  • Pre-algebra, elementary algebra, Algebra 1 & 2, geometry, and trigonometry
Essay (optional)1 essay

50 minutes

  • Read a passage and explain how the author builds a persuasive argument
1 essay – 40 minutes

  • Plan, write and edit an essay in response to one writing prompt
  • Take a position and defend it, address all perspectives, and explain relationships between perspectives 
ScienceNo science element40 multiple-choice questions                        

35 minutes 

  • Graphs, charts, tables and research summaries
  • Interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning, and problem solving
  • Biology, Chemistry, Earth/space sciences, Physics


As you can see, the exams have many similarities when dealing with format and content. The major differences between the two exams pertaining to timing (amount of time on each section) and the ACT has a science element. Now, we can move on to what course load your child should take their freshman to junior year of high school to be successful on these two assessments. 


SAT and ACT Course Load


English Language Arts 

English classes (usually offered in 9th and 10th grade) that focus on:

  • Reading comprehension
  • Vocabulary development
  • Literary devices
  • Grammar and punctuation
  • Rhetorical skills (decisions made about logic, order, coherence, and unity in writing)


Reading Comprehension

English and Language Arts classes that focus on writing a comprehensive book report while also touching on:

  • Reading challenging texts
  • Developing complex vocabulary 
  • Writing logical and cohesive reports (Rhetorical skills)


Math Classes to take for the SAT or ACT

Math classes that teach concepts such as: 

  • Pre-Algebra
  • Algebra ( I and II)
  • Geometry (I and II) 


While it is not critical to take Trigonometry and Calculus for the SAT/ACT, it would benefit your child to know some basic concepts, ratios, and equations from those mathematical topics to be better prepared for the exam. 

It is important to also note, some of these math classes are offered in grades 7-12. Studying for the SAT/ACT can begin as early as 8th grade Pre-Algebra. 


Science Classes to Take For The ACT

Classes that focus on Biology and Chemistry where the focus is also on understanding the sciences from an analytical point of view:

  • Graphs
  • Charts
  • Tables
  • Research summaries 
  • Scientific arguments

The general idea behind this high school course load is that the more you understand mathematics and general Language Arts principals, the better suited you are for the exam. Your child is not only preparing for the SAT or ACT but also gaining knowledge to be successful in their first year at college. 

If you would like more information on the SAT or ACT exams, check out the following blogs. 


Also, if you are having problems deciding which test is right for you, check out the following link.