ACT or SAT: 10 points of comparison

Stephanie from Knewton addresses your standardized test questions.

Today's post is again from our friends at Knewton - this time from test expert Stephanie Wertkin.

Most high school students planning to go to college know that they probably have to take some kind of standardized test. Often, the only question is: Which one? Many schools accept both the SAT and ACT. Before you make your choice (or decide to take both!), it’s a good idea to compare the ins and outs of each test.

Here are a few basic points of comparison:

1. Cost

SAT exam registration costs $45. The ACT exam alone costs $32 – but if you want to take the optional writing test as well, it will set you back $47.

2. Length

The SAT consists of a 25 minute essay, six 25 minute sections, two 20 minute sections and a 10 minute multiple choice writing section. That means the whole test is 3 hours 45 minutes – not counting the 3 short breaks you get in between.

The ACT consists of 4 sections that total 2 hours and 55 minutes. If you take the Writing Test as well that will add an extra 30 minutes, for a total of 3 hours and 25 minutes.

3. Number of Questions

The SAT has 140 questions; the ACT has 215.

4. Subject Matter

This is one of the most important distinctions between the two tests. The SAT tests reasoning and problem-solving ability. The ACT, on the other hand, is a curriculum-based test, meaning the questions are designed to test a student’s knowledge of high school work.

The SAT covers mathematics, critical reading, and writing. The ACT covers English, mathematics, reading, and science. There are some differences in the way each test approaches the subject matter: for example, the ACT contains basic-intermediate algebra, geometry, and four trigonometry questions, while the SAT only tests basic algebra, word problems, and geometry. While the verbal sections of the SAT emphasize vocabulary, the ACT focuses on grammar and punctuation.

5. Scoring:

SAT – Aggregate score 600 – 2400, based on total of 3 scores (Reading, Math, Writing, each scored on a scale from 200-800); Score of 0-12 for Essay
ACT – Composite score 1-36 based on average of 4 sections (English Math, Reading Science);  Score 0-12 for Optional Essay.

6. The Essay

The ACT essay is optional, while the SAT essay is mandatory. The SAT prompt is usually abstract and open-ended (i.e., do people learn from their mistakes?), while the ACT prompt is more specific and high school-centric (i.e., should more schools adopt uniforms?). On both tests, you’re expected to write an essay that makes a strong argument and uses specific examples to support that argument.

7. Scoring

The ACT only counts the answers you get correct, whereas the SAT deducts 1/4 of a point for all incorrect multiple choice questions.

6. Difficulty

There’s a prevailing myth that the ACT is easier than the SAT. However, there’s not much truth to this: The vast majority of test-takers score in the same percentiles on both tests. Since both tests are scaled (that is, your final score is based on how you do compared to everybody else), that’s really all that matters.

On the SAT, questions increase in difficulty level as you move through that question type in a section (except reading passage questions, which progress chronologically through the passage). On the ACT, the difficulty level of the questions is random.

7. College Requirements

The majority of colleges in the U.S. now accept both the ACT (+ writing section) and the SAT.  However, just to be safe and to avoid confusion (and possibly despair) near application deadline time, make sure you know which scores the schools you are applying to require for admission. If you are confused about a school’s requirements, contact that college or university’s admissions office for clarification.

In addition to SAT or ACT (with the writing section), some  schools also require 2-3 SAT Subject tests.

8. Administration dates

The SAT is offered seven times per year: January, March or April, May, June, October, November, and December
The ACT is offered six times per year: February, April, June, September, October, and December (note that some states offer the ACT as part of their state testing requirements; these tests are not administered on the national test dates)

9. National Averages

For the Class of 2009 the average SAT scores were: Critical Reading – 501, Mathematics – 515, Writing – 493
The 90th percentile scores were: Critical Reading – 670, Mathematics – 700, Writing – 650

The ACT national averages in 2009 were: Total – 21.1, English – 20.6, Math – 21.0, Reading 21.4, Science 20.9
The 90th percentile scores were: Total – 28, English – 29, Math – 28, Reading – 30, Science – 20

10. Score Choice

Students can select which scores they send to colleges by test date for both the SAT and the ACT. Scores from an entire test are sent—scores of individual sections from different test dates cannot be selected independently for sending. Some colleges and universities (particularly the more competitive schools) require students to send all of their scores.

The way that admissions offices deal with multiple SAT scores varies from school to school. For more on College Board’s “Score Choice” program and more information about how colleges evaluate your SAT scores, check out our blog post decoding Score Choice.

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SAT Writing Help: How To Be A Pro At Pronouns

Matthew Busick from Knewton

This week brings another guest post from our friends at Knewton - this time from writing expert Matthew Busick.

You’ve heard of the Ten Commandments, the G8, the Big Ten, Top 40 Pop, the Three Musketeers, the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, the 1001 Things to Do Before You Die. The lists of impressive numbers are endless. But at Knewton, we’ve compiled the most impressive list of them all: the SAT Freshman 15 Grammar Rules. These are, in all their splendor, the top fifteen most commonly tested grammar rules on the SAT. Learn these, and your whole life will fall into place (that is, if your whole life is the writing section of the SAT).

Today, we’re going to talk about just one of these illustrious rules:

Rule 15. A pronoun must refer to a specific noun or a group of nouns (no matter how correct the pronoun may sound in a sentence.)

In everyday speech, we break this rule all the time. It allows us to express ideas easily and generally causes little confusion. Consequently, we often overlook ambiguous pronouns when they appear on the SAT. Rule 15 is meant to remind you that every pronoun on the SAT must logically refer to a noun or group of nouns in the sentence. These nouns, or groups of nouns, are known as “antecedents.”

Keep these three sub-rules in mind:

1. A pronoun cannot refer to an abstract idea. The most common offenders are the pronouns itthis,and that. These pronouns are often used to refer to broad ideas expressed in entire sentences or clauses. For example: “Devon broke his knee playing basketball, and because of this he had to quit the team.” This sentence is flawed because this must refer to a noun, but the only previous nouns in the sentence areDevonknee, and basketballThis might be attempting to refer to a general idea, such as the fact that Devon played basketball, or the fact that his knee was broken, but specifically which idea is not clear.

These sorts of sentences can be revised either by replacing the pronoun with a noun or by supplying a clear antecedent for the pronoun. If we say, “Devon broke his knee playing basketball, and because of this injury he had to quit the team,” the pronoun this now logically refers to the injury. This construction clarifies that the injury caused Devon to quit the team.

2. The pronoun “it” at the beginning of a sentence is not preferable. When the pronoun “it” begins a sentence or is part of the phrase “it is,” be on the lookout for a better option. Sentences that begin with “it” tend to be unnecessarily wordy, and the pronoun “it” is usually ambiguous. For example, in the sentence: “It is not typical for an adult to prefer cartoons,” the antecedent of the pronoun it is slightly unclear. Exactly what is not typical? An adult who prefers cartoons? The occurrence of an adult preferring cartoons? A better way to phrase this sentence would be: “An adult typically does not prefer cartoons.”

3. When a modifying phrase begins a sentence, the pronoun “it” can never be the first noun after the comma. In the sentence: “Traveling across the country in an RV, it is the first vacation that Edna is able to go on all year,” the pronoun it does not have an antecedent. It does not logically refer to the gerund traveling or to the nouns country or RV. The sentence should read: “Traveling across the country in an RV, Edna is on vacation for the first time this year.” In fact, the pronoun “it” will neverhave an antecedent when placed immediately after the comma. “It” cannot be modified by an opening phrase; without a prior subject, it doesn’t stand for anything.

The same rule applies to personal pronouns. Although a modifier may strongly imply a pronoun’s antecedent, it cannot itself function as that antecedent. Check out this example:

Incorrect: In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, he weaves a tale of death and deceit.
Correct: In Hamlet, Shakespeare weaves a tale of death and deceit.

The possessive modifier Shakespeare’s cannot function as the antecedent of he. The rewritten sentence eliminates the pronoun and inserts its implied antecedent, Shakespeare.

Well, there you have it: rule number 15, last but certainly not least on our Freshman 15. Tune in again to learn about subject-verb agreement, verb tense, modifiers, and sentence fragments. For now, go practice the skills you’ve gained from rule 15 on your friends and family. It… I mean, your proper use of pronouns is guaranteed to blow them away.

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SAT Essay Prompts: What They Look Like And How To Approach Them

Alex Khurgin from Knewton Advises on the SAT Essay

This week brings another guest post from our friends at Knewton - this time from essay expert Alex Khurgin.

First on the list of Cailey Hall’s recent post, Top 10 SAT Essay Do’s and Don’ts: Take the time to read the essay prompt and make sure you understand what it’s asking. Knewton recommends that you devote a full minute of your total 25 to reading and thinking carefully about the prompt before deciding on an answer to the question.

A minute might not seem like a long time, but if you’re familiar in advance with the types of prompts you’ll see on the test, it should be all you need.

Every SAT essay prompt begins with a short paragraph, 50-80 words long, that touches on an issue of broad relevance to the studies and experiences of a typical high school student. About half of the prompts will be adapted excerpts from books. For example:

Information is now so cheap and abundant that it floods over us from calendar pages, tea bags, bottle caps, and mass e-mail messages from well-meaning friends. We are in a way like residents of Borges’s Library of Babel—an infinite library whose books contain every possible string of letters and, therefore, somewhere an explanation of why the library exists and how to use it. But Borges’s librarians suspect that they will never find that book amid the miles of nonsense.

- Adapted from Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis

…and half will be passages written especially for the test by the College Board. For example:

Of all the millions of children in the United States today who play and show an interest in athletics only a few thousand of them will ever become professional athletes and of that number only a handful will become truly successful at the top level of their respective sports. The same goes for virtually any pursuit. Rather than succumbing to long odds one would be better off setting more realistic goals.

The issues presented in the passages above —how technology affects access to information, and how the unlikelihood of achieving a goal should affects its pursuit—will be familiar to most test takers and not just because of their studies. It’s hard to be alive and not sometimes feel bombarded by information or frustrated by a seemingly unachievable goal. Other favorite topics for SAT essays include courage, honesty, independent thought, and facing adversity—emotionally charged words for many high schoolers.

If after reading a passage, you don’t have a perfect grasp of the issue it presents, the question that follows will lay it out clearly. For the two sample passages above, the assignment might read:

(1) Is it true that the more information people have access to, the less knowledge they can obtain from it?

(2) Is an unrealistic goal worth pursuing?

As with all SAT essay assignments, the questions above can be answered with a “yes” or a “no.” You may notice that the authors of the two sample passages seem to be leaning one way or another; Jonathan Haidt would probably answer “yes” to the first question and the author of the unrealistic goals passage would probably answer “no” to the second question. Or maybe, in response to such broad questions, both authors would answer “it depends on the context.” However, since you, the test taker, only have 25 minutes to write an entire four- or five-paragraph essay, save the nuanced “depends-on-the-context” responses for your school assignments. On the SAT, pick a side and stick to it. And remember: you don’t have to agree with the passage.

Practice the first step of writing an SAT essay with the five examples below:

Traditionally, the term “originality” has been applied to those who are the first to see or discover something new. But one of the most original things you can do is to see as new what is old and long familiar, to re-imagine something that has been overlooked by everybody. The discoverer who can only see new things is too common of a creature, lacking spirit and addicted to accidents.

- Adapted from a philosopher’s Mixed Opinions and Maxims

Is “originality” better defined as discovering new things or discovering something new in the old?

The more we are aware that we are lost and confused, the more eager we are to be guided and told; so authority is built up in the name of the State, in the name of religion, in the name of a Master or party leader. Authority is the great limiter of personal freedom, because it places an intermediary between you and reality.

- Adapted from J. Krishnamurti, Commentaries on Living

Does obeying authority always limit personal freedom?

Thoughts are like friends for most of us: close, constant, intimate as breathing. Why not, then, choose good ones instead of bad? If we torment ourselves, sooner or later we torment others; family, friends, neighbors, other nations. It is inner war, that inner conflict of all the judgmental, nagging, angry voices in our heads that eventually explodes in outer war, as we take our anger out on others.

- Adapted from Dale Carlson, Who Said What?

Are external conflicts caused by negative thinking?

The term “beautiful” is used by surgeons to describe operations which their patients describe as horrific, by physicists to describe methods of measurement which leave romantic people cold, by lawyers to describe cases which ruin all parties involved, and by lovers to describe the objects of their love, however unattractive they may appear to the unaffected spectator.

- Adapted from George Bernard Shaw

Can something be considered beautiful by everyone?

As awful as it may seem when young people around the world are asked what freedom means most of them say the freedom to buy what you want, when you want it, and to use it how you want. Although we don’t usually admit it, this was at the heart of our American Revolution. Recall the Boston Tea Party. We did not like to be told what to buy and how much to pay for it.

- From James B. Twitchell, 20 Ads That Shook The World

Does freedom mean the freedom to be a consumer?

For even more practice, check out the four essay prompts from the most recent batch of SATs (June ’10).

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Knewton Blogs: Evil SAT Trick Of The Week

Sarlin vs. Evil. Bet Sarlin.

Sarlin vs. Evil. Bet Sarlin.

Our post this week comes from Alex Sarlin, Verbal Lead at Knewton, where he helps students with their SAT prep.

If you’ve begun your SAT prep, you’ve probably already realized that the test-makers aren’t exactly mild-mannered or kind—quite the opposite. Luckily, we at Knewton have their number. Today we’ll be revealing one of their signature tricks.

First, a quick aside. Have you ever heard this old word-game? It goes something like this:

You: Let’s play a game. I’m bet I can get you to say the word “black.”

Friend (smirking): No way.

You:  OK. Name the colors in a traffic light.

Friend (thinking, suspicious): Red… yellow… green.

You: How about the colors in the American flag?

Friend: Uhh… red… white… blue.

You: Gotcha! Oh man, that was so easy!

Friend (surprised): What?!

You: I made you say blue. You totally weren’t even paying attention.

Friend: What?! You said you were going to make me say ‘black!’

You: NOW I gotcha.

So very evil. And there’s a moral, too: Never let your guard down before the game is over.

The SAT writers use their own version of this trick on the math section of the test. They give you a rather complex problem, and then, just when you’re at the very last leg of your problem-solving, they’ll offer you an answer choice that refers to the next-to-last step. After all that work, many test-takers cling to this number like a life preserver, forgetting to do that last, important step and completely wasting all the time they just spent.

Let’s look at some examples:

8. There are 2 different ways to arrange the 2 letters A and B in a row from left to right. How many more different ways are there to arrange the 5 letters A, B, C, D and E in a row from left to right?

A.      60

B.      100

C.      118

D.      120

E.       625

Ah, permutations and combinations: everybody’s favorite subject. Dig into your math knowledge: you need to put the number of possibilities into “slots.” There are 5 possibilities for the first slot (A, B, C, D or E), 4 for the second (because one letter is gone), 3 for the next slot, and so on. You end up with 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 = 120 different combinations. Choice D. All set, right?

Wrong. The question actually asked how many more different ways are there to arrange 5 letters than there are to arrange 2 letters. Because there are 2 ways to arrange two letters, there are 118 more ways to arrange five letters. Choice C is correct—not evil Choice D.

Now try this problem, which has not one, but three evil answers lying in wait:

4. Hector is both the 4th tallest and the 4th shortest person in his family. If everyone in his family is a different height, how many people are in Hector’s family?

A.      6

B.      7

C.      8

D.      9

E.       10

Some test-takers will think, OK—four taller, four shorter, eight people, choice C, done. Those people obviously aren’t paying attention. For one thing, they forgot about Hector himself!

Others think, Ah ha! Four people taller and four shorter, plus Hector. There are nine people in Hector’s family: Choice D! That might sound like it makes sense—but it’s still wrong.

In reality, if Hector is the fourth tallest, then actually there are only three people taller than he is. He is the fourth tallest. The same goes the other way. There are three people shorter than he is. And, then, we have to add Hector. There are 7 people in Hector’s family. Choice B is correct.

As you can see, the SAT isn’t out to make friends. Watch out for answer choices that seem too obvious or simple to be correct—they often are. These are particularly evil examples, but in fact, the SAT uses this trick, in some form or another, on many math questions. Beware, and think twice before choosing the “obvious” answer!

Check out the Knewton blog for more Evil SAT Tricks!

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