Breaking Down the ACT & SAT Tests

November 26, 2011 Category: College Tips

Contrary to popular belief, not all students know what the ACT and SAT tests are. Sure, they’re heard of these exams but not everyone knows exactly what these exams consist of or what part they play when it comes to applying to colleges and universities. Unfortunately, many teachers assume this is common knowledge, which often leads to students smiling and nodding instead of really understanding what they’re preparing for. Students who need a crash course on these exams and would prefer to learn a bit more about them before taking the actual tests, will find the most basic information about the SAT and ACT outlined below.

The ACT Exam

Short for the “American College Testing Program,” the ACT is a traditional exam (pencil and paper), which takes 3 hours and 45 minutes to complete. There are four sections covered in the ACT: reading, science, math and English. The test is multiple choice. Students have the option of taking the written portion of the test, which involves writing an essay. This is not mandatory, however.

Below is the exact number and nature of the questions that appear on the ACT (each section is timed separately):

  1. English – 75 questions related to standard English and rhetorical skills (45 minute time limit)
  2. Math – 60 questions related to mathematics taught between grades 9 thru 11 (60 minute time limit)
  3. Reading – 40 questions related to basic reading comprehension (35 minute time limit)
  4. Science – 40 questions related to interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning and problem-solving (35 minute time limit)
  5. Writing (optional) – 1 essay prompt, which asks students to use their organizational skills to explain their thoughts and points in response to the prompt, using the standard high school essay format (30 minute time limit)

A student’s ACT score is calculated by taking the average of the four individual section scores and rounding it to the nearest number. The highest score a student can get is 36.SAT and ACT Tests

The SAT Exam

The Scholastic Aptitude Test or the SAT, as it is more commonly known, is one of the most important tests any student will take, especially if they plan to attend college after graduating from high school. Unlike the ACT, the SAT only tests students in two subjects: math and English. The test itself also takes 3 hours and 45 minutes to complete like the ACT but is broken up into 10 sections and is a combination of essay and multiple choice questions, including what is known as an “experimental section.” This latter section is a surprise for students, who won’t know what subject the experimental section will cover until they take the actual test.

Below is a breakdown of the sections, questions and time limits for the SAT (in no particular order):

  1. Writing – 3 sections consisting of 49 grammar questions and one essay question (60 minute time limit)
  2. Experimental – 1 section covering either math, reading or writing (25 minute time limit)
  3. Reading – 3 sections consisting of 19 sentence completions and 48 reading comprehension questions (70 minute time limit)
  4. Math – 3 sections consisting of 10 grid-ins and 44 multiple choice questions (70 minute time limit)

The SAT’s sections are scored independently from 200-800. From there, the average of all the sections is calculated, producing the overall score. The highest score possible is 1500.


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