Ten Key Differences Between the ACT and the SAT - The Part of Tens - ACT Math For Dummies

ACT Math For Dummies (2011)

Part VI. The Part of Tens


In this part. . .

In Part VI, I present two top-ten lists containing additional information that can help you do well on the ACT, including a comparison with the SAT and a useful checklist for keeping track of the details leading up to your test day.

Chapter 19. Ten Key Differences Between the ACT and the SAT

In This Chapter

arrow Comparing the upsides and downsides of the ACT and the SAT

arrow Understanding the main features of both tests

Lots of students take both the ACT and the SAT in order to fulfill the entrance requirements for a wider range of colleges and universities. If you’re among this lucky bunch, you’re probably studying for both tests even as we speak, so staying clear on the differences between the two tests is important. In this chapter, I provide you with ten important differences between the two tests, including advice on how to handle each of them.

Number of Math Tests

The ACT math test is one 60 minute test that contains 60 questions. The SAT, however, contains three shorter math tests with varying numbers of questions. So, on the ACT, you don’t have to keep changing gears. You can simply focus on algebra, geometry, and trig for an hour and then be done with math for the day.

Test Organization

On the ACT, the math test is always numero dos — that is, the second test of the day. In contrast, the SAT includes nine separate sections, any of which could be math, English, or writing. If you’re like most students, you’ll find the ACT setup a bit more comforting. Why? As you finish the first test (that is, the English test), you know that math is up next and you can psychologically prepare for it.

Presence of the “It Doesn’t Count” Section

Every section of the ACT counts toward your composite score. The SAT, on the other hand, includes one section that doesn’t count toward your score. This section is used by the test-makers to field potential questions for later SATs. Because entrance exams are inherently stressful, you may be relieved to know that you won’t have to live with this stress for any longer than absolutely necessary.

Existence of Grid-In Questions

The ACT math test contains only multiple-choice questions. Compare this to the SAT, which contains ten grid-in questions (also called student-produced response questions) that require you to write an original answer into a special chart. The lack of grid-in questions on the ACT is a win from every side. Answering grid-in questions is just one more otherwise useless skill you have to attain simply to take the SAT. Furthermore, the rules for how to fill in the grid are subtle and complicated and may lead a student with a correct answer to lose points for a clerical mistake. In my humble opinion, you’re much better off with the ACT, answering those old tried-and-true multiple-choice questions.

Penalty for Wrong Answers

On the ACT, you aren’t docked points for wrong answers. On the SAT, however, each wrong answer to a multiple-choice question shaves off one-quarter of a point from your score.

remember.eps This difference is important, because it significantly changes your strategy for completing the test. Because you won’t be penalized for guessing on the ACT, you want to make sure not to leave any answers blank. Keep an eye on your timer, and, when your time is just about up, fill in a guess for every question you haven’t answered.

As with any test, educated guessing is always preferable to wild guessing. If you can confidently rule out one or two answers, you greatly increase your change of guessing correctly.

Answer Choice Format

On the ACT, the odd-numbered questions contain the multiple-choice answers (A) through (E), and the even-numbered questions contain the answers (F) through (K). The answer (I) is omitted (probably because it looks too much like the number 1, which could be confusing in a math test). In contrast, all the multiple-choice questions on the SAT are labeled (A) through (E).

The ACT convention is useful for helping prevent a common nightmare that many students (including myself) have experienced at least once on printed tests: Finding that they skipped a question early in the test but forgot to leave space for it on their answer sheets. At this point, they lose precious minutes as they panic, erase, erase, scribble, scribble, and finally continue the test. Not fun.

Because the ACT alternates ABCDE questions with FGHJK questions, you’re far less likely to make this mistake. For example, if you skip over an ABCDE question, your next question will be an FGHJK question: Whatever answer you choose, you won’t be able to enter it in the space for the question you skipped over.

Amount of Advanced Math

The ACT contains questions that test your understanding of advanced math concepts that aren’t tested on the SAT. Four key areas are trigonometry, matrices, logarithms, and imaginary (and complex) numbers. I discuss all these topics in Chapter 11. The ACT also contains questions that may require you to know the quadratic formula (see Chapter 7) and the area of a trapezoid (see Chapter 10). Additionally, Chapter 8 includes a few topics of coordinate geometry that aren’t on the SAT, such as the equation for graphing a circle.

remember.eps The downside of these questions is obvious: If you haven’t studied this stuff, you won’t know how to answer these questions, so just move on. But here’s the upside: Although this material is advanced, if you already know it, the questions tend to be on the easy side. For example, trigonometry isn’t easy, but if you’ve taken a trig course, you’ll probably find most ACT questions easier than many of your homework problems.

Length of Word Problems

ACT word problems tend to be, well, wordier than SAT word problems. They often contain story elements that you don’t need to answer the question. Some students may find this feature engaging, a small relief from numbers, numbers, numbers. Others may find it merely annoying (“Get to the point, already!” these students say).

tip.eps However you feel about conversational word problems, forewarned is forearmed. So consider yourself warned, and keep in mind that on the ACT, a long word problem may not be particularly difficult after you sift the necessary information from the extraneous stuff.

The Number of Problems You Should Probably Skip

Just about any test contains questions that you may want to skip and return to later if you have time. On the ACT, this feature is more pronounced than on the SAT. In fact, some ACT math questions seem designed to be a morass of confusion — the kind of question you want to avoid at all cost, unless you finish all the other questions with plenty of time to spare.

The presence of these questions requires that you be shrewd as well as intelligent. For instance, if you read a question and feel like you’ll need five minutes just to figure out how to begin, move on. Even at the end of the test, you may find that checking the work you’ve already done is a better use of your time than trying to figure out what a confusing question is getting at.

Requirements Regarding the Writing Test

The ACT writing test is optional and is always the fifth of the five tests, whereas the SAT gives you a required writing test first. So if you opt not to do the writing sample on the ACT, you can leave after you’ve finished the first four tests.

This option won’t affect you if you’ve definitely decided to do the writing sample (which doesn’t count toward your numerical score but is graded and sent to schools), but it can be a welcome feature if you’re undecided. For example, if you’re not feeling well the day of the test, you have the option to cut the day short, which may help you focus on the four required sections of the test. Alternatively, if you’re feeling strong as you finish the fourth test, you can stay and do the writing sample.