How to Pick the Best Course Load for the SAT & ACT 


If there is a “rite of passage” in high school, it’s probably the SAT or ACT. These tests are an integral component of the college application process, right next to high school GPA in terms of importance. Students get a glimpse of these tests when they take the pACT and pSAT as early as Sophomore year, and these exams are on the mind of every parent looking to successfully guide their student through on the test-taking journey.


A key to success on the SAT or ACT is to prepare your child slowly throughout their high school career.

Taking the right types of classes in grades 9-11 significantly helps.

In other words, picking classes that allow your student to “study” over the span of three years, so that the material on the SAT or ACT is not new to them. Before we can discuss what a high school course load should look like to prepare for the SAT or the ACT, we need to compare and contrast the composition of the two tests. 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 minutes3 hours 35 minutes
Evidence-Based Reading52 multiple-choice questions

65 minutes

  • Passages topic are literary fiction, social sciences, natural sciences, and historical documents (usually 1 set of paired passages)
  • Vocabulary in context and understanding charts/graphs
  • Analysis of arguments and evidence
40 multiple-choice questions

35 minutes

  • 4 passages always in the following order: prose fiction, social sciences, humanities, natural sciences
  • Literal comprehension of what is explicitly stated or implied
  • Recalling or locating specific details from the passage
Writing and Language Arts44 multiple-choice questions

35 minutes

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

  • Grammar, vocabulary in context, and rhetoric
  • 5 passages total
Math58 multiple-choice questions

80 minutes

15 multiple-choice and 5 free-response questions with No Calculator (25 minutes)

30 multiple-choice and 8 free-response questions with Calculator (55 minutes)

  • Linear equations/inequalities, systems of linear equations/inequalities, graphing linear equations/inequalities (33%)
  • Ratios, proportions, percentages, units, and probability (29%)
  • Equivalent expressions, quadratic and non-linear equations, graphing quadratic and non-linear functions (28%)
  • Area, volume, lines, angles, triangles, circles, right triangles, trigonometry, unit circle (10%)
60 multiple-choice questions

60 minutes

  • Pre-Algebra (20-25%)
  • Elementary Algebra (15-20%)
  • Intermediate Algebra (15-20%)
  • Coordinate Geometry (15-20%)
  • Plane Geometry (20-25%)
  • Trigonometry (5-10%)
  • Statistics & Probability (8-12%)
1 essay

50 minutes

  • Read an argument and analyze how the author builds a persuasive argument
1 essay

40 minutes

  • Writing prompt describes an issue and presents three perspectives
  • Present a logical argument for your own perspective and relate it to at least one of the given 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
  • Only 10% of questions will require scientific background knowledge


In summary, the SAT and ACT are most similar in their Math and English/Writing sections. There are, however, three major differences: the ACT is significantly faster, the ACT has a Science section, and the styles of the questions in the Reading sections test different skills. Now, we can discuss what kind of course load can set your student up for success on these tests.



English Language Arts

Your student’s English classes will help prepare them for both the Reading and the Writing & Language sections. Make sure that their classes are teaching them about the following topics:

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



Students tend not to have much choice when it comes to their math classes. As they move through math, try to make sure that they have a strong foundation in the following concepts:

  • Solving and graphing linear equations and inequalities
  • Solving and graphing quadratic equations and non-linear equations
  • Plane geometry fundamentals, especially angles, circles, and triangles
  • Essential math skills (typically learned by 8th grade), especially ratios, proportions, percentages, and probability


While it is not critical to take Trigonometry or Pre-Calculus for the SAT/ACT, students who are aiming for exceptionally high scores will want to know concepts like SOHCAHTOA, the unit circle, inverse trigonometry functions, trigonometry identities, and more.

Science (ACT only)

The ACT Science section does not test science knowledge – the focus is on scientific literacy. In other words, being able to analyze and interpret data to draw conclusions. Classes like Biology and Chemistry are good preparation for the Science section, because they encourage students to consider experimental design and the scientific method. Your student should be proficient in analyzing and interpreting the following:

  • 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.

Want to talk about how to prepare for the SAT or ACT? We are here to help. Learn More and Schedule a phone conversation.



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