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SAT and ACT: What's the difference? Which is better for my child?
The SAT Reasoning Test consists of 4 sections: in order, Reading, Writing and Language, Math without Calculator, and Math with Calculator. Students should answer every question. There are generally four answers (except for certain Math questions) to choose from, so even a guess gives you a 25% chance of getting credit.
The Reading test consists of 52 questions to be answered in 65 minutes. There are five passages or pairs of passages, each of which is followed by about 10 questions. Some passages, at least one in each test, are excerpts from writings that may be from as long ago as the era of the Founding Fathers; these will be particularly challenging for most students, so when you encounter one of those, you might want to skip over it and do the more contemporary readings first. A new feature of the SAT Reading section is what we call "follow-up" questions: these are questions that ask "Which choice provides the best evidence for the answer to the previous question?" We advise that you use the answers to the follow-up question to help you answer that previous question. Another new feature is the inclusion of graphs, tables and/or figures in some of the Reading passages; if these are present, there will be a question or two that will require you to interpret them.
The Writing and Language test format was taken pretty much lock, stock and barrel from the ACT. It is 35 minutes long and consists of 44 questions on grammar, structure, punctuation and rhetoric. There are four passages of 11 questions each; questions may refer to a particular underlined portion of the passage or to the passage as a whole. As with the Reading test, there may be graphs, tables and/or figures included in the passages; if these are present, there will be questions requiring you to interpret them.
The Math without Calculator test consists of 20 questions to be answered in 25 minutes; of these, 15 are multiple choice and the last 5 require student-supplied answers to be entered into a grid. Selected formulas are supplied at the beginning of the test. The questions are a mix of strictly computational questions and word problems; one of the hallmarks of the Math is that many questions require a deeper knowledge of the concepts than did the "old" SAT. Students who struggle with their academic Math classes report that the new SAT Math is more difficult by far than the old SAT Math
The Math with Calculator test consists of 38 questions to be answered in 55 minutes; of these, the first 30 are multiple choice and the last 8 are grid-ins. The same group of selected formulas is supplied on the first page of the test. Many of the questions in this section require students to interpret graphs, charts, tables and figures in order to solve the problems.
The ACT test consists of 4 sections: English (grammar and rhetoric), Math, Reading, and Science, in that order. It is a fairly straightforward test; the worst thing about the ACT is that it has a lot of questions to be answered in a fairly short time. But on the plus side, there is no penalty for guessing, so our advice is to pick a "guess" answer (for instance, "B / G") and use that answer every time you encounter a question you can't handle.
The English portion of the ACT asks questions concerning the correctness of the grammar and rhetoric in an essay. The Math section of the ACT covers more territory - Trig and other pre-calc topics are fair game - but it is much more straightforward than the SAT Math. The Reading section of the ACT contains four long passages, one of which may be a double (Passages A and B with two perspectives on the same subject) but the questions are generally more factual, less interpretive, and therefore, some would argue, easier. The Science portion of the ACT deals with interpreting scientific information presented in chart, graph and experimental results format; it requires very little formal science knowledge, but the better a student is at science, the easier this section will be for him or her.
CTG advises all our students to take both the SAT and the ACT tests. Now that both the SAT and the ACT offer score choice and students can decide which of possibly several sets of SAT and/or ACT scores to send to the colleges, there is no down side to taking both. Students who do well on the SAT usually do as well or even better on the ACT, so they have two ways to shine on their college apps. Students for whom the SAT is just a bit much to handle very often do better on the ACT, so they can choose to send just their best ACT scores. Every college in the country will accept either SAT or ACT scores.