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Preparing students and parents for the Mathematics SAT and ACT

In high school many students (and their parents!) begin to consider college. A major part of the college application process includes performance on standardized exams such as the ACT and the SAT. In particular students can be nervous about the mathematics portions of these exams. This document contains ideas for talking to parents and students about the resources available to them as they navigate these issues. Keep in mind that the format of the SAT has changed since you and your students' parents may have taken it.

Things you can do

  • Include a letter home to parents about the ACT and SAT in your “first day of class” documents.
  • Talk to other teachers for ideas.
  • Visit your school's college-advising counselor for materials and information on any activities s/he may be planning throughout the year.
  • If none are planned then consider organizing a parent/student night on the issue of standardized exams. You can develop an informational slideshow, pass out application materials and pamphlets and do some sample math problems together. Consider working with other content teachers such as those in the English and science departments.
  • You can also discuss these issues in parent conferences or during the school's parents' night.
  • Have sample problems available for students to browse in your room.  (See Preparing students for standardized tests).
  • Encourage students to determine which exam is best for their college interests. (Some colleges prefer ACT, others prefer SAT, many accept both). Campus counselors are a great resource for this. They can also help students navigate the application procedures, including issues of special needs.

The Tests



  • ACT: http://www.act.org/path/secondary/ includes information for secondary educators and has further links targeted for students and parents.
  • Calculators are allowed but not required and all problems can be solved without one. In fact, if your students are not accustomed to working with a calculator they might find it simpler to not use one on the exam. See the website for certain restrictions, but in general basic 4-function, scientific and graphing calculators are acceptable. Calculators that are built into personal organizers and laptops are not OK, and neither are specialized ones such as those with built-in computer algebra systems like the TI-89 or TI-92 types.
  • On test contents see http://www.actstudent.org/testprep/descriptions/mathcontent.html for specific mathematics content by percentage of questions asked in the exam. There are 60 multiple-choice questions and students have 60 minutes to answer them.
  • Students should answer every question, as there is no penalty for guessing.


  • SAT: http://www.collegeboard.com/splash includes links for educators, students and parents.

  • Calculators are allowed and even recommended by the College Board, although all problems can still be done without one. Similar restrictions as with the ACT apply.

  • On test contents see http://www.collegeboard.com/student/testing/sat/about/sat/math.html for mathematics-specific information.

  • Students should guess if they can eliminate any possible answers. Also guess on the “grid-in” mathematics questions as there is no penalty for guessing on these.