College & Beyond


As seniors wait to hear this spring from colleges and are at the end of the college process, juniors are just beginning. Many will take a standardized test – either the SAT or the ACT this spring, beginning of summer, and/or early fall. Whereas the SAT used to be regarded as the main option for standardized testing, the ACT is now widely accepted by colleges and universities. According to the New York Times article “ACT vs. SAT” (November 4, 2007), “…the ACT is curriculum-based, while the SAT is aimed more at general reasoning and problem-solving skills.” This past year, I tracked twelve students, from both private and public schools. Out of the twelve students, four took the ACT, while eight took the SAT; one took both. The student who took the SAT and ACT tests scored consistently, so he sent his ACT and SAT scores into the colleges to prove his abilities. Most people, however, choose one test and prepare intensely for that exam. Marlyn McGrath-Lewis, director of admissions at Harvard College stated in the New York Times article that “either is fine with us, and we don’t have a feeling that either favors students with any particular profile.”

Paul Siemens, Director of Advantage Testing of Los Angeles, one of the premier test-prep companies in LA, gives great insight about how to decide whether to take the SAT or ACT:

Many people talk about the general differences between the SAT and the ACT but the best way for a student to see those specific differences is to take practice exams in both formats. The resulting scores will provide a great deal of information about which test a particular student might be better suited for taking. But the experience of taking the tests will also tell the student a lot: many students prefer the timing and pacing of one test to those of the other, despite how the questions on each test are phrased. In my opinion, choosing between the two tests depends in large part on how well a student can adapt to the pacing of each format. The SAT is akin to running ten sprints; the ACT is like running five mini-marathons. How a student responds to taking both practice tests in a simulated environment should clarify which test would be better for the individual student.

Knowing one’s strengths and weaknesses can also help determine which exam to take. The ACT, for instance, has a science section, which is not covered on the SAT. My students who have felt comfortable with reading graphs/data tables or who were particularly strong in science felt that they could shine in this area. For those with strengths in vocabulary or for the students who care to divide up testing into smaller sections over shorter periods of time, the SAT has been the right test. Many of my students have commented that the SAT was a “learnable” test—that they could master the test by putting in the proper preparation.

The ACT lasts for three hours and twenty-five minutes. It is divided into 5 sections, including the writing test:

75-question English test in 45 minutes
60-question Math test in 60 minutes
40-question reading test in 35 minutes
40-question science reasoning test in 35 minutes
Writing test with one essay prompt in 30 minutes

I like the predictability of the ACT. For instance, there are consistently the following number of questions in math:

• 14 pre-algebra
• 10 algebra
• 9 intermediate algebra
• 9 coordinate geometry
• 14 plane geometry
• 4 trigonometry

On the ACT, the English component consists of 5 passages that test grammar, punctuation, style, and content. The reading portion of the exam includes 4 passages in prose/fiction, social science, humanities, and natural science. Science reasoning contains passages in which the test taker must use charts and graphs to answer the questions. There are also 3 “experiments” passages and one passage where two scientific opinions are explored.

The SAT lasts for three hours and forty-five minutes. It is divided into 10 sections:
• Three writing
• Three critical reading
• Three mathematics (calculator is allowed) The math sections cover arithmetic, geometry, algebra I and algebra II
• One unscored section (this section does not factor into the final score)
According to, the first section is always the essay, and the last is a writing section.

Here is the breakdown:

Writing (essay) 25
Writing (multiple-choice) 25
Writing (multiple-choice) 10
TOTAL TIME: 60 minutes

Critical reading (multiple-choice) 25
Critical reading (multiple-choice) 25
Critical reading (multiple-choice) 20
TOTAL TIME: 70 minutes

Mathematics (multiple-choice and student-produced response) 25
Mathematics (multiple-choice) 25
Mathematics (multiple-choice) 20
TOTAL TIME: 70 minutes

Variable (unscored, multiple-choice) 25
TOTAL TIME: 25 minutes

• The ACT is scored from 1 to 36 with 36 being a perfect score.
• A separate score is recorded for each section, and the average is taken to obtain the composite score.
• A writing score will be given ranging from 2-12, but will not be factored into the composite score.
• No points are deducted for incorrect answers.

• Each section is scored on a 200 to 800 point scale.
• The “perfect” score is 2400.
• A writing score will be given ranging from 2-12
• ¼ point is deducted for incorrect answers.

April 9, 2011
June 11, 2011


May 7, 2011
June 4, 2011

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My father, who developed the first online college application and founded, understood the importance of everyone having access to test preparation. On the website under the “National Application Center,” free test prep is given.

CollegeBoard also offers free sat practice.