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College Prep Exam Breakdown

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For those seeking higher education from a college or university, taking a standardized test is an almost-definite to be considered for admission. Students have two options to choose from: the ACT and the SAT. 

Surprisingly, the ACT is the most widely taken standardized college entrance exam in America, and has been since 2012, when it overtook the SAT. This role-reversing trend will likely continue for years to come.

Many view the ACT as less significant than its counterpart, with misconceptions that it’s taken by more students in the Midwest and the South than elsewhere in the country. The truth is, colleges consider these exams equally, yet this troubling myth still exists. 

The SAT is at a crossroads. It has been revamped for the second time in just over a decade, and is set to debut in March. The College Board claims that it’s a fairer and better test for students. But that doesn’t necessarily make it a good test.

As more students turn to the ACT, the SAT needed to adapt. As a result, the new version bears many similarities to the ACT. But what does this mean for students? Here’s what you need to know about each exam. 

The ACT: Overview

  • The maximum score is 36. Each point is equivalent to about 40 points on the new SAT.
  • The composite score is calculated by averaging the English, Math, Reading and Science sections. 
  • The Writing section—an essay—is optional and not included in the composite score.
  • There is no penalty for incorrect answers. Students running out of time and unsure about an answer should bubble in randomly and never leave blanks. 
  • It’s offered in February, April, June, September, October and December, with scores returned within a few weeks.

English

  • Answer 75 questions in 45 minutes.
  • Tests grammar (including punctuation), tense agreements, writing concisely, connecting clauses and so forth.

Math

  • Answer 60 questions in 60 minutes. This is the only section where the questions progress from easy to hard.
  • Students will need a grasp of Algebra 2. Only four of the 60 questions cover trigonometry and pre-calculus.
  • You can use a calculator for this section.

Reading

  • Answer 40 questions in 35 minutes. This is arguably the most difficult section to complete in the time limit.
  • Read the passage and answer subsequent questions.
  • Each passage is one page long with 10 questions per passage. Students must do both, in just eight minutes and 45 seconds for each passage, to complete everything. 

Science

  • Answer 40 questions in 35 minutes.
  • This section tests a student’s ability to read and interpret data from graphs, tables and figures. You don’t need to know any biology, chemistry or physics to complete this. 

 

The New SAT: What’s different

  • No more vocabulary. No need to memorize arcane words anymore. The new Verbal section consists of reading passages and editing grammar.
  • No penalty for incorrect answers. 
  • Revamped Grammar. This section now looks almost identical to the ACT English section. 
  • Graphs. Expect to see more data figures in both the Math and Reading sections.
  • Optional essay. A centerpiece of the SAT’s revamp a decade ago, it’s no longer mandatory. It receives its own score and is not incorporated into the composite 1600.

What’s the same

  • The Reading, Writing and Language section is scored out of 800 points.
  • Math is scored out of 800 points. There’s one section with calculator and one without.

Potential Drawbacks

  • Limited practice materials. College Board only released four full-length practice tests and partnered with Kahn Academy for lengthy—albeit free—educational prep videos. 
  • No established curve. The exam is still new, so those who take the exam in March have to wait until May, when the second set of test takers sit for the exam, to receive scores. 
  • It’s offered in January, March, May, June, October, November and December, leaving students applying early decision or early action less time to make choices with delayed score results. 
  • More challenging sections. Math problems will be more conceptual than computational, and word problems will also be harder. 
  • Uninteresting reading passages. The exam starts with one that’s an hour long.

THE SKINNY: It may sound great—enticing even—that the SAT has seemingly changed for the better. Before choosing, consider the differences in exams and the potential difficulties the new SAT presents in application logistics. Students are only required to submit either the SAT or ACT when applying to colleges—not both. For those focusing on the ACT, trying the new SAT is a reasonable option, especially with the new similarities. For students who decide to try it but don’t score well, colleges never need to see the results. Either way, play to your strong suits for the best results. 


Eric Karlan graduated cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania in 2009. He is a cofounder and co-director of Ivy Experience, a local test prep, essay consulting and academic tutoring company. Visit www.myivyexperience.com.

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