ACT or SAT: Which Test is Best for You?

Since 2011, more students nationwide have taken the ACT than the SAT.  Despite a lingering misperception that the SAT is the test of choice for schools on the East and West Coasts, the ACT has made significant inroads on both coasts and is now the test of choice for students from coast to coast.   Today, all colleges and universities which require standardized test scores from students gladly accept test scores from either the ACT or the SAT, and the schools are perfectly indifferent between the two tests.

Given this, perhaps a more important consideration for parents and students is “Which test is best for me – the ACT or the SAT?”  Historically, that has been an easy question to answer.  Breakaway has recommended that students take both test in practice, and then use the results to determine which test provides a better fit for the student.  But with the redesign of the SAT in March 2016, that question is a bit trickier to answer.  Below, please find overviews of each of the tests, including some of their similarities and differences.

Additionally, students are welcome to take practice exams for both the ACT and the SAT.  Based on results, Breakaway can help the student determine which test is best based on a concordance table that equates scores for the tests.  After reading this information, should you have any questions, please feel free to contact Ron Michalak, Breakaway’s founder and president, who can talk through the differences between the tests with you, and help you determine which test might be right for your student.    Ron can be reached at [email protected].

The ACT

The ACT is a 3-1/2 hour test that is administered six times per year (September, October, December, February, April and June).  The maximum score on the test is a 36.  The test fee is $42.50. The “optional” writing section is an additional $16.00.  Three times each year – in December, April and June – the ACT offers a “test information release” service, wherein students can order a copy of the test, their answers and the answer key for $20.00.  Students have up to 90 days from the date of the test to order these materials.  Please click here to access the pdf you need to order the materials.

The ACT tests English grammar, math, reading and science.  There is also an optional essay, called the writing section.  In September 2015, the writing section was revised.  Please see below for more details on the new writing section.  Breakaway recommends students take the writing section, especially if the student is undecided about where he or she wants to attend college.  Many schools require the writing section, and a student cannot take the writing section alone; he or she must repeat the entire exam in order to do the writing section.

English

The ACT test begins with the English section.  The English section on the ACT is comprised of five passages and 75 questions – 15 questions per passage.  The student has 45 minutes to complete the section.  Students will be given sentences, parts of which have been underlined.  They will need to analyze the underlined portion and determine if it needs to be fixed, or not, and how it needs to be fixed.  They will also need to analyze the organization of the passage and determine if a reorganization of words in a sentence, or sentences in a paragraph is warranted.

English on the ACT covers “usage and mechanics”, which includes use of commas, apostrophes, modifiers, colons, fragments and run-ons, and something called “rhetorical skills”, which covers things like style, strategy, transitions and organization.  While students in most high schools in the U.S. today typically don’t receive much grammar instruction, Breakaway Test Prep offers a thorough review and instruction on the parts of speech tested on the ACT, including pronouns, verb tenses, subject-verb agreement, adverbs and adjectives, and much more.  We also address the rhetorical skills component by helping students understand specifically how to attack these types of questions.

Math

The next section of the ACT is Math.  The Math section covers pre-algebra, algebra, intermediate algebra, plane geometry, coordinate geometry and some pre-calculus and trigonometry.  There are 60 questions in this section and the student has 60 minutes to answer them.

Calculators are permitted on this section of the exam.  You should make sure that your student’s calculator is approved for use.  Please check http://www.actstudent.org/faq/answers/calculator.html to learn more.

Roughly half of the ACT math section tests concepts from algebra: decimals and fractions, means, medians and modes, exponents, quadratic equations, functions, patterns, and arrangements.  The other half of the test focuses mostly on geometry and coordinate geometry: angles, triangles, Pythagorean Theorem, quadrilaterals, circles, solid geometry, equation of a line, perpendicular and parallel lines, and the distance and midpoint formulas.  Breakaway’s proprietary course manual includes sections on each of these concepts, as well as plenty of practice opportunities to ensure the student is well-prepared to deal with ACT math.

Finally, approximately 6-8 problems on the ACT will deal with advanced math topics, such as trigonometry, imaginary numbers, radians, trig identities, matrices, logarithms, terminal sides and three-dimensional geometric figures.  Breakaway’s thorough approach to test prep includes materials and practice opportunities on each of these concepts, ensuring that students are ready to take on this challenging section of the test.

Reading

The next section of the ACT is the 35-minute Reading section.  This section is divided into four reading passages, each of which is approximately 900 words in length.  Ten reading comprehension questions accompany each of the four passages for a total of 40 questions.  There are four categories of passages on the ACT: prose fiction, social science, humanities and natural science.  In this section, students need to comprehend information, retain details and make inferences based on information read.  Questions are both fact-based and inferential.

Arguably, this is the most time-constrained section on a significantly time-constrained test.  Strong readers tend to do well on this section, while students who have weaker fluency or comprehension skills can struggle.  Breakaway offers test prep instruction for both types of students, including time-management strategies and test-taking techniques to bolster performance.  Students are given plenty of practice and guidance on improving their approach to and performance on the ACT reading section.

Science Reasoning

The final multiple-choice section of the test is the science reasoning section.  In this section, students have 35 minutes to read six or seven passages and answer 40 questions.  Unlike the other sections of the ACT, which generally test students on material they have learned in high school, the science section of the ACT does not test the student on his/her knowledge of science.  In fact, about 90% of the material in the science section is not taught in most high school science classes.

Instead, what the ACT attempts to test is the student’s ability to analyze information presented to him/her in the form of charts, graphs and tables, and then answer questions based on that analysis.  The section has passages drawn from the four sciences – earth science, biology, chemistry and physics, and there are 5-7 questions per passage.  Like reading, this is a very time-constrained section due to the amount of work the student needs to complete in a relatively short period of time.

At Breakaway, we give students strategies and plenty of practice to help them improve their performance, better manage their time and help reduce the pressure they may feel.

Writing

The revised ACT writing section is a 40-minute exercise designed to assess the student’s writing skills.  ACT will present the student with a prompt on a contemporary issue such as technology, health care or censorship, and then offer three perspectives on the issue.  ACT will also include a series of questions that will “support writers as they develop and express their ideas in response” to the question.  Students will be asked to evaluate and analyze the given perspectives; to state and develop his or her own perspective; and to explain the relationship between his or her perspective and those given.

Beginning in September 2016, the ACT changed the writing section score back to the 2-12 scale that has been in use since the writing section was introduced in 2005.   The writing section score is NOT integrated into the student’s overall composite score and is scored separately.

Breakaway prepares students for the essay by giving them a strategy and a structure to attack this section.  Through practice, constructive feedback from their instructor, and use of a proven essay structure, students are equipped with a game plan that drives their success.

Guessing

There is no guessing penalty on the ACT, so students should make sure to fill in an answer for every question on the test.

The Redesigned SAT

The Redesigned SAT

The SAT was, for years, the standardized test in America. No more. Starting in 2011, the ACT overtook the SAT in terms of the number of students taking the test, and the ACT has never looked back. Every year, more students now take the ACT than the SAT, and it is believed that last year was especially brutal for the SAT given the mid-year launch of the redesigned test.

The new SAT, which debuted in March 2016, is a test that looks a lot more like the ACT than ever before. It is, once again, a test predominantly of reading and math, and the scale is back to a 1600-point scale. It is a long test, running for more than four hours with the essay. The SAT is offered seven times a year in the United States – in the months of October, November, December, January, March, May, and June.  Effective in 2017, the SAT will begin offering a test in August each year and, in 2018, it will drop the January administration.  The test is typically offered on the first Saturday of the month for the November, December, May, and June administrations. It costs $49 to take the test.

Like the ACT, the SAT also offers copies of the test booklet and the student’s answers and the answer key for three tests each year:  October, January and May.  You can order a copy by clicking here and downloading the attached pdf.

The redesigned test emphasizes reading more than ever before. Students start with a 65-minute, 52-question reading test, which is comprised of five passages including a few charts. From there, students move on to the Writing and Language test, which consists of 44 questions to be completed in 35 minutes. Between these two sections, students will face roughly 4,500 words of reading and close to 100 questions in about an hour and 40 minutes. Students will get a short break in between sections.

From there, students advance to the math section, which begins with the 25-minute, 20-question, no-calculator portion of the test, followed by a 55-minute, 38-question calculator-permitted portion of the test. Math on the SAT has evolved toward a heavier focus on algebra, a lighter focus on geometry, with a sprinkling of trigonometry and statistics. Students will continue to see a mix of multiple choice questions and grid-in questions, also known as “student produced responses”.

Students will then get another short break before taking on the new, optional essay that many competitive colleges and universities will require. Unlike the essays offered on the SAT for the past decade, the new SAT essay will require students to read a 700-word essay and then evaluate the author’s use of evidence. The length of the essay will double from 25 minutes to 50 minutes, meaning that students who take the new SAT along with the optional essay will be testing for over four hours including breaks.

In sum, here are seven of the most significant changes of the new SAT:

  • From a test-taker’s perspective, perhaps the most important change is that students will no longer be penalized for wrong answers, which means that students won’t need to concern themselves with a strategy for when it’s best to guess and when it’s not.
  • Similar to the ACT, all multiple-choice sections of the redesigned SAT will now feature only four answer choices, instead of five.
  • The essay is changing. Instead of writing a personal essay based on the student’s perspective on a given prompt, the SAT will now ask the student to read a passage and then write an essay explaining how the author constructs his/her argument and attempts to persuade the reader.
  • In the reading section of the new test, College Board introduced something called evidence-based reading. In this section, students will be asked a question about a given text, and then asked which lines of text from the passage provide the best evidence to support the student’s answer.
  • No more obscure vocabulary. Instead of testing students on rarely used words like obsequious or ineluctable, the new SAT will test more commonly used words that can have multiple definitions and ask the student to define how the word is used in the context provided.
  • More charts and graphs. Especially in the reading section, the redesigned SAT will ask students to infer information gleaned from charts and graphs.
  • Excerpts from “great texts”. While students won’t need to be familiar with the underlying texts, SAT will incorporate excerpts from key historical documents into the reading section and ask students relevant questions about the texts.

If you have questions about the ACT, the SAT and what might be the best test for your student, please contact Ron Michalak, Breakaway’s president, at [email protected] or at 612-216-5133.