What is the ACT?

Published Sunday, January 30, 2011 by Katie

The ACT is widely known as the substitute for the SAT. However, in regions such as the Bay Area, students tend to be more knowledgeable about the details of the SAT than those of the ACT. Indeed, in the state of California, more than 50% of students favor the SAT over the ACT.

What, exactly, is the ACT? In short, it is a test comprised of five sections—English, math reading, science reasoning, and writing. Unlike the SAT, which has ten sections, all of which are required, the writing section on the ACT is optional. No points are deducted for wrong answers. Additionally, the ACT is scored on a scale of 1 to 36, with each of the English, math, reading, and science reasoning sections being score on a subscale of 1 to 18. The writing section, if taken, is scored on a scale of 2 to 12, much like the SAT; however, the ACT writing score report is accompanied by one to four comments from essay scorers. A combined English and writing score is also given on a scale of 1 to 36.

The English section is 45 minutes long and contains 75 questions. So, a test taker has less time per question on this English section than on the SAT Critical Reading sections. Some of the questions it contains are similar to those found in the SAT CR and Writing sections. For example, some questions test revision of potentially awkward sentences or sentence fragments, while others test sentence organization in a paragraph. However, the ACT contains English questions unique to the ACT, such as numerous questions solely testing punctuation use and transitions.

The math section is 60 minutes long and contains 60 questions, so requires a much faster pace than the SAT math section. Topics covered in the questions include pre-algebra, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. Though the topics covered in the ACT are quite similar to those covered in the SAT, the ACT math questions possess several nuances. The ACT math section simply tests students’ knowledge on each subject, testing more in-depth knowledge from each topic. Additionally, the SAT math section is generally thought of as more “tricky” than the ACT math section—that is, the SAT writers seek to make students apply their knowledge, rather than regurgitate it.

The reading section is 35 minutes long and contains 40 questions. It tests reading comprehension, evaluating students through questions asked about four different type of passages: prose fiction, social science, humanities, and natural science. These reading comprehension-type problems are quite similar to the long passage readings in the SAT Critical Reading sections.

The science reasoning section is 35 minutes long and contains 40 questions. Much like the reading section, it tests reading comprehension. However, the topic of all seven passages in this section is natural science. Though the section is intended to test applied science principles, minimal actual scientific knowledge is needed to complete the section. Instead, the sections test data representation of scientific discoveries, summary of conducted research, and “conflicting viewpoints,” much like the double long passage section of the Critical Reading SAT.

Finally, the optional writing section of the ACT is 30 minutes long and contains one essay response to a given prompt. These prompts are quite similar to those given on the SAT; however, no specific five-paragraph essay structure is required. Moreover, the essay score does not directly contribute to the overall ACT score; instead, it combines with the English ACT subscore to form an English composite score. At most, the essay score affects the composite score by two points out of 36. As such, the ACT is often favored by students who consistently perform unfavorably on the essay section of the SAT.


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