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Decoding the ACT

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The SAT is due for an overhaul in the spring of 2016. But there will be no such changes for the ACT. Still, much mystery surrounds the ACT. Here’s
a breakdown:

• There are four primary subject areas: English, math, reading and science. There’s only one section for each subject on the test, and all questions are multiple choice.

• The optional writing section comes in the form of an essay taken at the end of the exam. Still, the score in this part doesn’t factor into the overall composite score.

• The highest overall composite score is a 36. The highest score for each section is a 36. The composite is calculated by averaging the four sections together.

• There is no penalty for guessing, so students should never leave a question unanswered. 

Granted, a 36 doesn’t sound nearly as cool as a 2400—or even a 1600 (the maximum score on the SAT when it changes next year). But keep in mind that every point on the ACT composite is equivalent to about 60 points on the current SAT. And consider this: One point in the English and math sections is earned with about two to three correct answers; in the reading and science sections, it’s one to two correct answers. 

So what exactly is the difference between the SAT and ACT? In short, the SAT is a test where enough time is given but the questions are presented in completely unfamiliar ways. Whereas, with the ACT, not enough time is provided, but the questions are presented in familiar ways. 

Here’s a summary of ACT sections:

English (75 questions, 45 minutes): Most similar to the SAT writing section, this section focuses on students’ mastery of grammar and rhetoric. Portions of a passage are highlighted, and students must either choose the best edit or answer a question about that section.

Math (60 questions, 60 minutes): While the SAT doesn’t cover material higher than the basics of Algebra 2, the ACT encompasses Algebra 2 and some foundational “trigonometry.” (Quotation marks because there are only four questions out of the 60 that cover trig—and two of them usually involve sine-cosine-tangent, which most students cover in geometry.)

Reading (40 questions, 35 minutes): Read a passage. Answer questions. There is no vocabulary component. But don’t celebrate just yet: Time wise, this is the most rigorous section. Students must read four page-long passages and answer 10 questions about them—in just 35 minutes.

Science (40 questions, 35 minutes): The most misunderstood section on the ACT. Skills often used in science classrooms—interpreting tables, graphs and data—are the keys to this section. All of it may incorporate scientific terminology, but students don’t need to know anything about, say, chromosomes, earthquakes or electrical circuits.

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