When should my student start to prep for the ACT or SAT?

Breakaway recommends that most students start to prep for the ACT or the SAT during the summer before their junior year.  By the end of sophomore year, most students have been exposed to many of the most frequently tested concepts on the ACT in the areas of grammar, reading, algebra I, algebra II, geometry and some trigonometry.  While most students will not have taken either an advanced chemistry or physics class by the end of sophomore year, it is important to note that the science section on the ACT does NOT test science knowledge, but rather a student’s ability to interpret charts, tables and graphs across a wide range of science topics and answer a series of questions about each.

A typical trajectory for a Breakaway student would begin in the spring of sophomore year, when the student first comes out to take a practice ACT and/or SAT exam.  Breakaway offers practice tests every weekend, and always offers both ACT and SAT exams.  Breakaway also offers extended time testing for students who qualify.

From there, students can enroll in a program of private instruction for the ACT or SAT, and work over the course of the summer to build their knowledge of the test and their understanding of how to take a standardized test more effectively.  We recommend that students then apply their work to a real ACT or SAT exam in the fall of their junior year.  With a good effort during the summer, students can reasonably expect to move their scores about four composite points, though some students will improve more and others may struggle to produce just a couple of points.

After the fall exam, students can then focus on their academic work and maintaining a strong GPA.  Breakaway then typically sees students return for second semester testing, either in late winter or early spring.  For students who attend Minnesota public high schools, an in-school ACT test will be offered either in February or in April, depending on the school district.  Preparation for these tests or any of the other national tests is recommended.

Finally, if after taking 2-3 tests during junior year, the student is not satisifed with his or her score, prep during the summer before senior year would be recommended.  For most students, the September ACT of their senior year is the last test they could take to use the results for early decision, early action or priority decision applications to schools such as the University of Minnesota or the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Breakaway’s team is always available to answer any questions you may have about the ACT, the SAT, when to test or what a program of prep might look like.  Please feel free to contact us today to discuss.

ACT or SAT: Which Test is Best for You?

The ACT and SAT are the nation’s two college admissions exams.  In 2023, approximately 1.9 million students took the SAT, while another 1.4 million to the ACT.  Despite a lingering misperception that the SAT is the test of choice for schools on the East and West Coasts, the ACT has made significant inroads on both coasts and is a great option for students from coast to coast.   Today, all colleges and universities which require standardized test scores from students gladly accept test scores from either the ACT or the SAT, and the schools are perfectly indifferent between the two tests.

When parents and students begin thinking about testing, ideally during their sophomore and junior years, the question “Which test is best for me – the ACT or the SAT?” often comes up.  With the dawning of the digital era of testing for the SAT on March 9, 2024, the two tests have never been more different.  As such, now more than ever, if your student is about to embark on the testing journey, taking practice exams for both the ACT and SAT makes good strategic sense.

By taking practice ACT and SAT exams, Breakaway can help students determine which test is best based on a concordance table that equates scores for the tests.  Breakaway offers full-length proctored practice exams every weekend of the year, and we always offer both ACTs and SATs.  You can click here to register your student for a Breakaway test.  There is no need to do a real ACT or SAT, as our practice exams use real ACT and SAT materials and can offer the same insights and information that a real exam can offer….without having your student take an exam before they are prepared.  To register for a practice test with Breakaway, please click here.

Below, please find some high-level information on each of the tests.  After reading this information, should you have any questions, please feel free to contact Ron Michalak, Breakaway’s founder and president, who can talk through the differences between the tests with you, and help you determine which test might be right for your student.    Ron can be reached at [email protected].


The ACT is a 3-1/2 hour test that is administered six times per year (September, October, December, February, April and June).  The maximum score on the test is a 36.  There is an “optional” writing section which is no longer required unless your student wants to apply to West Point.  Three times each year – in April, June and September– the ACT offers a “test information release” service, wherein students can order a copy of the test, their answers and the answer key for a fee.  Students have up to 90 days from the date of the test to order these materials.  Please click here to access the pdf you need to order the materials.

The ACT tests English grammar, math, reading and science.  Here is a summary of each section.


The ACT test begins with the English section.  The English section on the ACT is comprised of five passages and 75 questions – 15 questions per passage.  The student has 45 minutes to complete the section.  Students will be given sentences, parts of which have been underlined.  They will need to analyze the underlined portion and determine if it needs to be fixed, or not, and how it needs to be fixed.  They will also need to analyze the organization of the passage and determine if a reorganization of words in a sentence, or sentences in a paragraph is warranted.

English on the ACT covers “usage and mechanics”, which includes use of commas, apostrophes, modifiers, colons, fragments and run-ons, and something called “rhetorical skills”, which covers things like style, strategy, transitions and organization.  While students in most high schools in the U.S. today typically don’t receive much grammar instruction, Breakaway Test Prep offers a thorough review and instruction on the parts of speech tested on the ACT, including pronouns, verb tenses, subject-verb agreement, adverbs and adjectives, and much more.  We also address the rhetorical skills component by helping students understand specifically how to attack these types of questions.


The next section of the ACT is Math.  The Math section covers pre-algebra, algebra, intermediate algebra, plane geometry, coordinate geometry and some pre-calculus and trigonometry.  There are 60 questions in this section and the student has 60 minutes to answer them.

Calculators are permitted on this section of the exam.  You should make sure that your student’s calculator is approved for use.  Please check http://www.actstudent.org/faq/answers/calculator.html to learn more.

Roughly half of the ACT math section tests concepts from algebra: decimals and fractions, means, medians and modes, exponents, quadratic equations, functions, patterns, and arrangements.  The other half of the test focuses mostly on geometry and coordinate geometry: angles, triangles, Pythagorean Theorem, quadrilaterals, circles, solid geometry, equation of a line, perpendicular and parallel lines, and the distance and midpoint formulas.  Breakaway’s proprietary course manual includes sections on each of these concepts, as well as plenty of practice opportunities to ensure the student is well-prepared to deal with ACT math.

Finally, approximately 6-8 problems on the ACT will deal with advanced math topics, such as trigonometry, imaginary numbers, radians, trig identities, matrices, logarithms, terminal sides and three-dimensional geometric figures.  Breakaway’s thorough approach to test prep includes materials and practice opportunities on each of these concepts, ensuring that students are ready to take on this challenging section of the test.


The next section of the ACT is the 35-minute Reading section.  This section is divided into four reading passages, each of which is approximately 900 words in length.  Ten reading comprehension questions accompany each of the four passages for a total of 40 questions.  There are four categories of passages on the ACT: prose fiction, social science, humanities and natural science.  In this section, students need to comprehend information, retain details and make inferences based on information read.  Questions are both fact-based and inferential.

Arguably, this is the most time-constrained section on a significantly time-constrained test.  Strong readers tend to do well on this section, while students who have weaker fluency or comprehension skills can struggle.  Breakaway offers test prep instruction for both types of students, including time-management strategies and test-taking techniques to bolster performance.  Students are given plenty of practice and guidance on improving their approach to and performance on the ACT reading section.

Science Reasoning

The final multiple-choice section of the test is the science reasoning section.  In this section, students have 35 minutes to read six or seven passages and answer 40 questions.  Unlike the other sections of the ACT, which generally test students on material they have learned in high school, the science section of the ACT does not test the student on his/her knowledge of science.  In fact, about 90% of the material in the science section is not taught in most high school science classes.

Instead, what the ACT attempts to test is the student’s ability to analyze information presented to him/her in the form of charts, graphs and tables, and then answer questions based on that analysis.  The section has passages drawn from the four sciences – earth science, biology, chemistry and physics, and there are 5-7 questions per passage.  Like reading, this is a very time-constrained section due to the amount of work the student needs to complete in a relatively short period of time.

At Breakaway, we give students strategies and plenty of practice to help them improve their performance, better manage their time and help reduce the pressure they may feel.


The revised ACT writing section is a 40-minute exercise designed to assess the student’s writing skills.  ACT will present the student with a prompt on a contemporary issue such as technology, health care or censorship, and then offer three perspectives on the issue.  ACT will also include a series of questions that will “support writers as they develop and express their ideas in response” to the question.  Students will be asked to evaluate and analyze the given perspectives; to state and develop his or her own perspective; and to explain the relationship between his or her perspective and those given.

The writing section on the ACT is scored separately from the multiple choice portion; the ACT uses a 2-12 scale that has been in use since the writing section was introduced in 2005.

Breakaway prepares students for the essay by giving them a strategy and a structure to attack this section.  Through practice, constructive feedback from their instructor, and use of a proven essay structure, students are equipped with a game plan that drives their success.  An “8” is typically considered an acceptable score for any school to which the student may choose to apply.


There is no guessing penalty on the ACT, so students should make sure to fill in an answer for every question on the test.

The Digital SAT

Beginning on March 9, 2024, the College Board, the publisher of the SAT, will debut the an all new SAT exam.  The new SAT, which students will take on an approved device such as a laptop or Chromebook, will be a digital, adaptive exam, allowing the College Board to significantly shorten testing time by about an hour.  Longer term, the digital test should offer more flexibility in terms of days and times within which to test, but “out of the gates”, the digital SAT will only be offered on select national test dates like the current paper exam.

Similar to the paper SAT, the new digital SAT will be comprised of two sections: a combined reading/writing section and a math section.  Each of these sections will be further comprised of two modules or stages.  All students taking the digital SAT will receive the same first module.  However, once the student completes the first module, the test will determine which of two modules to administer next: a module that is more difficult or a module that is less difficult.  That determination will be based on the student’s performance on module one.

Here is an overview of each section of the test:

  • Reading/Writing stage 1: 32 minutes, 27 questions; Reading/Writing stage 2: 32 minutes, 27 questions
  • After completing the Reading/Writing portion of the test, students will get a ten-minute break
  • Testing resumes with Math stage 1: 35 minutes, 22 questions; Math stage 2: 35 minutes, 22 questions

In terms of content, the most significant change will be to reading/writing section.  The College Board is combining what were two separate sections into one section.  Instead of subjecting students to 600-700 word passages with 9-11 questions as on the paper test, the digital test will present a series of much shorter passages (25-150 words), each of which has just ONE question.  The reading/writing section will ask series of reading questions as well as grammar questions.

Math will be very similar to the current paper SAT, though a calculator can now be used on the entire test.

For students who have accommodations for testing, College Board will maintain accommodations and use the digital test for testing with extra time.

If you have questions about the ACT, the SAT and what might be the best test for your student, please contact Ron Michalak, Breakaway’s president, at [email protected] or at 612-216-5133.