The SAT and ACT: What You May or May Not Know

Ross Shinberg, Staff Writer

“The word telling used in line 27 best means… If Chloe wants to build a fence around her 14ft x 28ft garden…. The passage infers that Nathan feels disappointed in his brother because….   Do these questions look like mumbo jumbo?  If that’s the case, don’t fret.  This is common amongst teenagers who are thinking about taking the SAT or ACT.  High school students across the country cringe at even the thought of taking the two tests.  Newcomers feel overwhelmed with the amount of questions to answer and knowledge to learn.  Some students are confident with the material, but are nervous when they sit down to take the actual test.  But have no fear.  This article will attempt to answer some of the most commonly asked questions about the two tests and debunk common misconceptions about the tests along the way.

First off, what is the SAT?  The SAT is a four-hour exam designed to test a student’s college readiness though three subject topics.  The test is made up of four sections containing questions on Math (with and without a calculator) and evidence-based reading and writing.  There is also an optional essay available.

What is the ACT?  The ACT is a three-and-a-half-hour exam designed to test a student’s college readiness through four subject topics.  The test is made up of four sections containing questions on Math, Science and evidence-based reading and writing.  There is also an optional essay available.

So, what’s the difference?  While the SAT and ACT may look similar at first glance, there are a lot of differences between the two tests.  The biggest one is that the SAT questions are more involved than the ACT questions.  This means that it will require more thinking and problem solving to come up with the correct answer on the SAT.  Because of this, more time is allotted to answer each question.

This is in contrast to the ACT because the questions are fairly straightforward.  However, less time, significantly less time, is allotted to answer each question.  This test requires takers to work at a brisk pace in order to complete all available questions.

Another major difference is the inclusion of the science section on the ACT.  This section is all about reading graphs, tables, and charts and answering questions about them.  Test takers will also need to form basic conclusions from the data and find general trends within it.  The science section has 40 questions, includes seven sections and has a 35-minute time cap.  The SAT does not have a science section; it is exclusive to the ACT.

What is the best way to study?  One of the best ways to study for the SAT or ACT is to sign up for a prep class. These are not online classes. With a prep class, an actual teacher will be there to go over concepts, give advice, go over practice problems and answer questions.  The teachers will assign homework and give practice tests to prepare the students for the real test.   The classes can take anywhere from one to three months, and prices will vary from tutor to tutor.


Alternative options include online programs and/or studying with a prep book.  The books and online programs will likely include practice problems, practice tests, explanations and test taking tips.  The downside is that there is no true teacher to ask questions.  There also is the possibility that the books may contain mistakes.

What can be done to prepare?  Some ways to prepare for the test are to look up unfamiliar vocabulary words in the reading/writing sections, learn to annotate the reading passages, and learn math formulas and English grammar rules.  For the essays, getting down an essay format and timing structure will help to plan the essay and to pace the writer during the essay.

What are some test taking strategies?  On the writing sections, choose the shortest and most concise answer. Generally, that is the correct answer.  On the science section of the ACT, complete the “multiple hypothesis” passage last.  Also, learn the structures for the math and reading sections.  On the math section, questions 1-20 are considered low difficulty, 21-40 are considered moderate difficulty and 41-60 are considered challenging.  On the reading section, the 4 passage topics will always be in the following order: Prose Fiction, Social Science, Humanities and Science.  Pick the section that is the most interesting and go from there.

All of these test strategies are important, but the most important one is this: Answer every single question, even if it is a complete guess.  The SAT and ACT do not take off points for a wrong answer. It is beneficial to put a bubble in for every question as not answering them will limit the ceiling of the composite score.

The grand finale–The Essay.  Most colleges recommend taking the SAT/ACT essay.  Colleges like to see the extra effort put in on the tests. The SAT essay is 50 minutes long and requires writers to read and analyze an article and point out ways the author uses persuasion to get the reader on their side.  The ACT essay is 40 minutes long and gives writers three perspectives, asks the writer to choose one and argue for it.

The SAT and ACT, for obvious reasons, are essential for college applications.  A good score can significantly boost a college application.  These scores can set an application apart from others who have similar G.P.A. scores.  Scoring well on these tests show colleges the student’s high intelligence level and that a college workload can be manageable.  However, these tests are not an end-all-be-all for applications. High scores in conjunction with a good G.P.A. score, participation in extracurricular activities and well composed college essays complete the application.  A well-rounded application is needed to receive the highly coveted college acceptance letter.  But taking the SAT and the ACT are great first steps.




References sat-booklet-2Photo by Ross Shinberg

Berkman, Justin. “The Best Way to Study for the SAT: 4 Ultimate Tips.” The Best Way to Study for the SAT: 4 Ultimate Tips. Prep Scholar, 5 May 2016. Web. 15 Sept. 2016.


“SAT vs. ACT.” Test Prep. Princeton Review, n.d. Web. 15 Sept. 2016.