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ACT

The ACT Part 6: Essay

Note: this post has been updated to reflect recent changes to the ACT essay.

This is the sixth in a six-part series on the ACT.

Read Part 1 – Intro, Part 2 – English, Part 3 – Math, Part 4 – Reading, Part 5 – Science

And finally, we come to the Essay section. The Essay is optional but required by some colleges. Unless you’re 100% sure that every college you’re applying to doesn’t require it, then you should take it. It’s just an extra 40 minutes at the end of the test. If you don’t do the essay and apply to a college that requires it, you’ll have to retake the entire test.

As I said in Part 1, the Essay score doesn’t count toward your composite score. So why should you even care about it?

Because some colleges care about it. You might have a composite score in the 30s, but if your essay score is dismal, that could raise a red flag for the admissions department: this student can’t write! You don’t want that to happen, so take the essay seriously. Don’t freak out over it; just do your best.

Learning to write well is the most important skill for success in college. You can go to class every day, complete all the assigned reading, and have brilliant things to say about what you’ve learned. But if you can’t communicate your thoughts in writing, your professors won’t know how brilliant you are!

Furthermore, most high-paying jobs require some amount of writing. If your emails to your boss or to clients are filled with mistakes and nonsensical sentences, you can bet they’ll notice.

But learning how to write well isn’t easy. It takes years of practice. I can’t teach you how in a two-hour class, much less a blog post. But I can recommend a wonderful little book called Writing with Style by John Trimble. It’s very short and easy to read. He basically shows you all the mistakes every college freshman makes (everybody makes the same mistakes) and then shows you how not to make them. He’s got a lot to say, but the most important part is: Write to be understood. Keep your sentences short and to the point.

Back to the essay . . . You will be presented with three viewpoints on an issue (environmentalism, healthcare; it could be anything really). Your job is to analyze and evaluate the three perspectives, provide your own perspective, and explain the relationship between your perspective and the three perspectives given.

Two graders will score your essay on four metrics, each on a scale of 1-6:

Ideas & Analysis (1-6)
Development & Support (1-6)
Organization (1-6)
Language Use (1-6)

These four scores are averaged for each grader, so you’ll get two scores on a scale of 1-6, which are then added for your final score, on a scale of 2-12. Simple!

Short essays get low scores, so be sure to use the full 40 minutes, and make your essay as long as possible (without repeating yourself).

The best way to prepare for the essay is to read the sample essays and scoring explanations on the ACT website.

If you’re concerned about the essay, you may want to contact your target schools and find out if they require the essay and what kind of score they’re looking for. In most cases, an 8 (on the 2-12 scale) is probably good enough, but higher is always preferred.

Again, the essay does not affect your composite score, and the composite is the primary benchmark colleges will be considering.

Want to know where you stand? Send us your essay, and we’ll grade it for free! Just send us an email with “practice essay” in the subject line, and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

This concludes our series on the ACT. If you live in the Austin area, you can sign up for a free practice test. And, of course, we’ve got ACT classes going all year long. If you’ve still got questions about the ACT (or anything!) we’d love to hear from you!

ACT

The ACT Part 5: Science

This is the fifth in a six-part series on the ACT.

Read: Part 1 – Intro, Part 2 – English, Part 3 – Math, Part 4 – Reading

If the Science section looks intimidating, that’s because it’s designed to be. The test makers like to brag that the ACT tests what you learn in school. And yet one of their favorite subjects on the Science section is geology. No one takes geology in high school! You will see words and concepts that are completely foreign to you. But don’t panic! You don’t really need to know what’s going on in all these studies and experiments. Most of the questions test your ability to read charts and graphs, which really isn’t that difficult. The hardest part about the Science section is dealing with information overload. The good news is: you don’t need all that information. In fact, you don’t even have to read 90% of it. And that’s good because you don’t have time.

ACT Science
40 questions
35 minutes
7 passages
5 minutes per passage

Some students who excel at science classes in high school will actually bomb the ACT Science section the first time they take it. Why? Because they try to read and understand all the paragraphs, charts, graphs, and tables before going to the questions, and they inevitably run out of time. Most of that information is irrelevant anyway. Some passages will even contain one or more charts or graphs that the questions don’t even ask about. They’re just for show!

Go straight to the questions. Most questions will tell you exactly where to look. If a question says, “According to Table 2 . . .” then the answer is on Table 2.

Important: The easiest way to miss a question on the Science section is to look in the wrong place. Table 2 is not the same thing as Figure 2.

If a question says, “According to Experiment 1 . . .” then find the chart or graph associated with Experiment 1. (It’s usually right below it.) Nine times out of ten you do not need to read the paragraph introducing Experiment 1. Read these paragraphs only if the question directs you to. For example, if a question says, “According to the hypothesis of the scientist in Experiment 3 . . .” then you need to read Experiment 3 so you know what the hypothesis is. These questions are rare. Also, if you ever feel completely lost, you might want to read the introductory paragraph, which is usually pretty short.

A few tips:

When looking at a graph, always read the labels on the axes. You need to know what’s being measured, and in what units.

The last question on any passage is usually the hardest. Remember: on the ACT you have to keep moving. If you’re stuck on a question, it’s best to guess and move on.

The Conflicting Viewpoints passage is the hardest one. You’ll recognize it because it has fewer charts, graphs, or illustrations than the other passages (usually none at all). It will also have passages labeled “Scientist 1” and “Scientist 2” or “Student 1” and “Student 2” or “Hypothesis A” and “Hypothesis B” or something similar. Occasionally there will be more than two viewpoints. Since there are few (or no) charts and graphs, you will have to do some reading on this one. Read the intro paragraph and the first sentence of each viewpoint. Then you can go to the questions. You can find the answers to most of them by scanning for key words. For example, if a question says something like, “Scientist 2 would most likely state that the vertical circulation that is present in most of the oceans today is maintained, at least in part, by the presence of . . .” then you should scan Scientist 2’s paragraph for the words “vertical circulation.” The sentence with that phrase will probably contain the answer to the question. If you struggle with time on the Science section, it might be a good idea to guess on the Conflicting Viewpoints passage.

In our final post of this series, we’ll take a look at the Essay section.

ACT

The ACT Part 4: Reading

This is the fourth in a six-part series on the ACT. Read: Part 1 – Intro, Part 2 – English, Part 3 – Math.

The Reading section is the hardest section for most students for the simple reason that most students don’t read much. Most students don’t like reading, and that’s a shame. But I’ll save that sermon for another post. Let me just say this: if you read for 30 minutes or more every day, after a few months you’ll find the Reading section a lot easier. (And all the other ones, since they all—including the math section—require reading.)

Another major challenge is time. There are four passages with ten questions each, and you’ve only got 35 minutes. That’s eight minutes and 45 seconds per passage.

ACT READING
4 passages
35 minutes
40 questions
8 minutes & 45 seconds per passage

Some students simply cannot do it. For them, there’s Plan B, which we’ll return to in a moment. Plan A is to answer every question. Here’s how to do it.

Read the questions first. Unlike on SAT Critical Reading sections, the questions are not in order. In other words, the first question might be about the last paragraph. If you try to read the whole passage first, you’re likely to zone out and start daydreaming (the passages aren’t exactly riveting). But if you read the questions first, then when you get to the passage, you’re actively looking for information, which keeps you focused and engaged. You still need to read the entire passage. You just pause every once in awhile to answer a question.

Ask yourself what each question tells you about the passage. For example, if the question asks, “Which of the following statements most accurately expresses Fran’s feelings when she hands her mother the letter from Linda Rose?” then you know Fran is going to get a letter from Linda Rose. Then, when you read about Fran getting a letter in the first paragraph, you already know who it is (most likely) from.

Underline key words. When a question contains a word or phrase that is either unusual or very specific, underline it so that you’re more likely to remember it when you’re reading the passage. In the above question, for example, you should underline “hands her mother the letter.” When you arrive at this part of the passage, you’ll probably remember that there’s a question about it. You won’t remember which question, but you can probably find it pretty quickly.

Mark the line number questions. Many questions come with line numbers. You should write these question numbers in the margin of the passage. For example, if question 14 asks, “Which of the following statements best summarizes Lincoln’s thoughts about what Jefferson achieved when he wrote the Declaration (lines 21-28)?”, then you should write the number 14 in the margin next to line 28. Then, when you’re reading the passage, and you see that 14, you’ll know it’s time to answer question #14.

By the time you’ve read the passage, you should have answered about half the questions. Now quickly answer the rest of them.

Do not get bogged down on a hard question. Even if you end up getting it right, if it keeps you from getting to another question down the line, it’s not worth it. It’s better to just guess and keep moving. Try to do as little re-reading as possible. If you’re 70% sure the answer is C, then there’s no need to double check; just pick C! Put a star by the question, and go back to it later if you have time (but you probably won’t.)

Plan B

If you’ve attempted at least two Reading sections and genuinely given it your best shot but were unable to finish, then count the number of questions you have left. If it’s fewer than five, you can finish. Push yourself. Go faster.

If it’s more than five, go with Plan B: spend the full 35 minutes on the first three passages and guess on the last ten questions. Just bubble in letters in a straight line (A, F, A, F, A, F . . .) and you should get at least two of them right. If you also get every question right on the first three passages, then you can still get a good score (anywhere from a 26 to a 30 depending on the test).

The passages always come in the same order: Fiction, Social Science, Humanities, Natural Science. I think Natural Science tends to be the most difficult (technical, dry), and it is conveniently last. However, I have met students who genuinely do not do well with fiction. If that’s you, then guess on the first passage, and spend the full 35 minutes on the other three. The Social Science passage also tends to be difficult and dry. The Humanities one is all over the place. It might be about Shakespeare or Star Trek, so it’s hard to generalize. Some tutors instruct their students to read the intro of each passage first and then decide which one to skip, but I think that’s just one more decision to make and a waste of precious time.

But everyone’s different. These are just guidelines that work for the majority of students. Feel free to experiment with strategies as you practice. But on test day, have a plan and stick to it!

Next time: Science!

ACT

The ACT Part 3: Math

This is the third in a six-part series on the ACT. Read: Part 1 – Intro, Part 2 – English.

The second section on the ACT is Math. It is the longest section (one hour) and the only one that gets harder as you go on. There are 60 questions, so you have one minute per question, but many of the early questions will take less than one minute while some of the later ones might take a little more.

ACT Math
60 questions
60 minutes
1 minute per question, but later (harder) questions may take longer

The test covers not just algebra and geometry, but higher-level concepts including quite a bit of trigonometry. There are also a few questions on relatively obscure topics like imaginary numbers, matrices, and logarithms.

There are no formulas provided. Here’s what you need to know.

The last ten problems are pretty tough. Students who struggle in their math classes at school might be better off spending the full hour on the first 50 questions and guessing on the last ten. (Remember, when you’re guessing, to bubble your answers in a straight line: A, F, A, F, A, F, etc.)

A few tips:

Most trig problems can be solved with SOH CAH TOA. If a problem gives you a right triangle and tells you that:

sin equation

 

 

rewrite the equation like this:

sin equation 2

 

 

Some problems contain irrelevant information. Take a look at #34 on p. 458 of the Official ACT Guide. This problem is easy, but many students get confused because of all the distracting information. All you have to do is plug in 50 for d in the formula and put it in your calculator; all the other numbers are irrelevant.

Show your work! This is good advice for doing math generally. Showing work is important for a couple of reasons. First, writing things down helps you think. When I’m doing a math problem for the first time, I usually don’t come up with a multi-step plan and then follow it through. Instead, I just write down what I know (I’ll even re-write equations given in the problem) and go from there. Showing your work will also help you minimize arithmetic errors. You are much more likely to forget to distribute a minus sign, for example, if you do everything in your head.

Also, when you review missed problems (the key to improvement when training for any standardized test), if you don’t have anything written down, you can’t retrace your thought process. You won’t know where your mistakes occurred. So show your work, and make it nice and neat! Try to make your steps look like the steps in a math textbook. Anyone else should be able to look at your work and follow your thought process.

If you make good grades in your math classes, you will probably do just fine. The math section really does test what you learn in school. If you feel under-prepared, get a copy of the Official ACT Guide, and work through a couple of the math sections, looking up the answer explanations to any problems that give you trouble. Most of the problems are pretty basic if you understand the concepts being tested. Unlike on the SAT, the ACT Math has very few trick questions and trap answer choices.

The next post will cover what many students find to be the most challenging part of the ACT: the Reading section.

ACT

The ACT Part 2: English

This is the second in a six-part series on the ACT. Read: Part 1 – Intro

The first section of every ACT is the English section. You have 45 minutes to answer 75 questions. That’s 36 seconds per question.

The questions are based on five passages. Each passage has 15 questions. You have nine minutes per passage.

ACT ENGLISH
75 questions
45 minutes
5 passages
9 minutes per passage
36 seconds per question

Most of the questions ask you to choose the best version of the underlined portion of a sentence. Other questions are more specific, asking things like “should this sentence be kept or deleted?” A few questions will ask about the passage as a whole.

Since most questions focus on only a few words in a sentence, many students do not read the entire sentence. This is a huge mistake. To see why, consider the following example:

. . . the walls has been painted to match . . .

If you read only this much of the sentence, you’ll think there’s a problem with the underlined portion. But the whole sentence says:

The washers and dryers are lime green, and the paneling on the walls has been painted to match, although it was later varnished with some kind of artificial wood grain finish.

The noun “walls” is inside a prepositional phrase; the subject of the underlined verb is “paneling.” The sentence is correct as it is. So read the whole sentence every time!

Here are some other tips:

The “no change” option is right about 25% of the time—in other words, as often as anything else. So don’t be afraid to choose it. Don’t be afraid to choose it twice in a row.

Most problems on this section have the four answer choices and that’s all. But some come with questions. Read the questions carefully. Sometimes all four answer choices will be grammatically correct, but only one will answer the question.

If a question has the word NOT, LEAST, or EXCEPT, be careful! Even though these words appear in all caps, it is very easy to overlook them. Think about it: you’ve just answered 50 questions in a row where your job was to choose the BEST version of the underlined portion. Now, all of a sudden you’re asked to choose the WORST version. It’s hard to suddenly change tactics. Circle the word as soon as you see it so you won’t forget it’s there.

Read every word of every passage. When a passage has three or four lines of text with nothing underlined, students tend to skip over them. But the last question is usually about the passage as whole, so you shouldn’t skip around.

When the four answer choices are all the same except for the punctuation, the choice with the fewest punctuation marks is probably right. For example, if you see answer choices like this . . .

A. Joe ate a sandwich
B. Joe ate: a sandwich
C. Joe ate a sandwich,
D. Joe, ate a sandwich,

. . . then the answer is probably A. Of course, you can’t know for sure without any context, but the odds are very good.

Okay, so much for the “tips and tricks.” What is the ACT English section actually testing?

It’s mostly grammar. Things like subject-verb agreement, comma splices, possessives, and parenthetical phrases. But it’s also rhetorical skills. Many questions require students to identify redundant information. To borrow an example from Philosophy 101, if I tell you that my friend Brian is an unmarried bachelor, I’ve just told you the same thing twice. A bachelor is by definition an unmarried man, so I should have just said he’s a bachelor and left it at that.

Another important concept is relevance. If I’m explaining to you how a car engine works and I mention that Elvis once owned a car—actually several of them, you’d probably wonder why I brought that up. It’s not relevant to the discussion.

So anything irrelevant or redundant is wrong. By the way, when “OMIT the underlined portion” is an answer choice, it’s right more often than not, usually because the underlined portion is irrelevant or redundant.

There’s way too much grammar to cover in this post, but there’s one thing that I want to explain because 95% of my students do not know it. Here’s how to use apostrophes to show possession:

1 dog’s house (a single house owned by a single dog)
2 dogs’ house (a single house owned by multiple dogs)

It’s simple, and it’s on practically every ACT, so memorize it.

Also:

it’s = it is
its is possessive. For example: I told my dog to get in its house.
its’ is not a word.

The Official ACT Guide has answer explanations for every problem. If you complete the English section of the first three tests and look up the explanations for every question you miss, you should learn just about every grammar rule you’re likely to encounter on test day.

Next time, we’ll take a look at the Math section.

ACT

The ACT Part 1: Intro

This is the first in a six-part series on the ACT.

Note: The SAT referred to in this article is the current SAT. For information about the new SAT coming in 2016, click here.

Many people think of the ACT as the SAT’s less important little brother, and while that may have been true in some parts of the U.S. years ago, times have changed. In fact, the ACT has been accepted by all U.S. colleges since 2007 and actually surpassed the SAT in popularity in 2012. For some students, it’s a great alternative to the SAT. Students applying to highly selective universities may want to submit scores for both tests.

The ACT was introduced in 1959. (The SAT dates back to 1926.) For many years, universities on the East and West coasts (and Texas) preferred the SAT, while those in the Midwest and South preferred the ACT. Today, all U.S. colleges and universities will accept the ACT, though regional differences in popularity remain, probably due to misconceptions about which test is “better” or “preferred.”

For a quick overview of the differences between the tests, see our post on the SAT vs. ACT. We’ve also got a handy chart.

The two most important things to know if you’re taking the ACT are:

1. There is no penalty for wrong answers. If you don’t know the answer to a question, just guess and move on.

2. You do not have a lot of time per question. If you’re spending too long on a question, guess and move on. If you’re about to run out of time on a section, fill in the rest of the bubbles in a straight line (A, F, A, F, A, F, etc.). You should get about 25% of them right (20% on the Math section).

What’s “too long” to spend on a question? That depends on the section. Over the next few days, we’ll be devoting an entire post to each section: English, Math, Reading, Science, and Essay. But first, let’s talk about scoring.

A perfect score on the ACT is a 36. The average score is around 20. This composite (overall) score is an average of the English, Math, Reading, and Science scores. The Essay is scored separately and not factored into the composite score. It is optional but required by some colleges. If you choose to take the ACT without the essay and then apply to a college that requires it, you will have to retake the entire test. So we recommend that students take the essay.

What’s a good score? Well, it depends on what schools you’re applying to and what the rest of your application looks like, but here’s an informative (if somewhat oversimplified) chart to give you a rough idea. To better understand how colleges view your test scores, you should read this.

The short-short version: 20 is average, and 30+ is very good.

It’s unusual for a student to get the same score on every section; most of us have strengths and weaknesses. The best way to identify yours is to take a diagnostic test. (If you live in the Austin area, come take one with us; if not, you can download a free ACT with grading instructions here.)

Many people assume that students should focus on their weaknesses. I’ve heard parents say, “My kid doesn’t need any help on the math; he got a 30.” Okay, but if he could bring it up to a 34, he’d bring his composite score up one point, and on the ACT, that’s significant. So, while it makes sense to work on your weak areas, you shouldn’t neglect your strengths.

In addition to the scores for the four main sections and the essay score, every ACT score report (and practice test) comes with a chart outlining “subscores” for things like Usage/Mechanics on the English section, and Arts/Literature on the Reading section. Colleges don’t use these scores, but they can help students identify areas they need to work on.

Next time, we’ll take a detailed look at the English section. See you then!

SAT

The New SAT: A Look at the Sample Questions

This is our second post about the upcoming changes to the SAT. To read the first post, click here.

Last week the College Board released sample questions for the new SAT. (If you didn’t get the memo, you might want to start checking our Facebook page.)

Here’s what we’ve learned:

The math is tough! There are trig functions, radians, imaginary numbers, and other high-level math concepts not found on the current SAT. Some of the problems require more steps than we’re used to as well. Consider this geometry problem, for example, which is considerably more complex than any geometry problem in the Official SAT Guide. And take a look at this multi-paragraph word problem. These problems look like what you’d see on an SAT Math Subject test.

As for the Critical Reading, it doesn’t seem drastically more difficult than the current test, but with only 24 questions over five passages, it’s hard to say. We already knew there would be no fill-in-the-blank vocabulary questions, and the three vocabulary-in-context questions are easy. There are also three questions of the form “which choice provides the best evidence for the answer to the previous question?” They’re all easy—as long as you got the previous question right.

As expected, some of the reading passages come with graphs and illustrations, but the questions about them are pretty easy. There are no “founding documents,” as the College Board’s earlier press releases had led us to expect, but there is a speech by Barbara Jordan (1974) and an excerpt from an Edith Wharton novel (1911). The other passages are from science and social science contexts and are all from 2010 or later.

The Writing portion looks very much like an ACT English section, with questions going beyond mere grammar, asking things like “should this sentence be kept or deleted?” I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily harder than the current Writing Skills section, just different.

The essay asks you to analyze how an author builds a persuasive argument. This task is more difficult than answering a general question like “can knowledge be a burden?” or “is money a more powerful motivator than conscience?” The responses are graded on three different criteria: reading, analysis, and writing. So, to get a good score in each area, you have to understand what the author is saying, recognize the author’s use of persuasive rhetorical devices, and demonstrate this knowledge in coherent, eloquent prose. Piece of cake, right?

If you’re ready to start preparing for the 2016 SAT (or the 2015 PSAT), these sample questions are a great place to start. The College Board is planning to release more material in March, and when they do, we’ll let you know.

Test Prep

SAT vs. ACT

Note: the SAT referred to in this article is the current version. For information on the 2016 relaunch, click here.

One of the most common questions we get at MTAT is what is the difference between the SAT and the ACT?

The short answer is that the SAT is trickier and involves more abstract thinking, while the ACT is more practical and down to earth. On the other hand, you have less time per question on the ACT. Neither test is necessarily easier than the other, though some students may perform better on one test than the other.

Several key differences:

  • On the SAT, you lose a quarter point for every missed question. The ACT has no penalty for missed questions.
  • The ACT has a science section; there’s nothing like it on the SAT.
  • SAT math is basic—algebra and geometry—but the questions are tricky. ACT math includes higher level concepts from trig and precalculus, but the questions are more straightforward.
  • Every SAT Critical Reading section has five to eight fill-in-the-blank vocabulary questions, the last two or three of which are very difficult. The ACT Reading section may have one or two vocabulary-in-context questions, and they are usually very easy.


How do you know which test is right for you? Simple: take one of each and see which you you do better on. You can download a free copy of each test with grading instructions here and here.

If you live in the area, you can also sign up for a free practice test at one of our Austin locations. Taking a practice test in a realistic setting is ideal, but if you have to take it at home, just be sure to work in a quiet, distraction-free environment. (Turn off the phone!) And if you qualify for accommodations (like extra time), be sure to use them when you practice!

PLEASE NOTE: Many students will bomb the ACT Science section the first time they take it. With practice, it gets much easier.

Don’t just compare the scores; ask yourself which test would be easier to master with practice. Hardly anyone is going to get a good score without doing quite a bit of studying, so ask yourself which test you would rather spend time with. If you did better on the SAT but thought the ACT was more fun (or less intolerable), then you’ll probably be better off with the ACT in the long run.

I STRONGLY ADVISE AGAINST studying for both tests simultaneously. The strategies are different. For example, there’s no guessing penalty on the ACT, so you should fill in every single bubble. But that strategy could be disastrous on the SAT. So if you’re going to take both tests, you should get one out of the way before you start studying for the other one.

Just about any college will accept either test, but you should always check. This information should be in any college website’s FAQ, but if not, just email or call the admissions office.

Once you’ve decided on a test, get the official guide. The SAT Guide comes with 10 practice tests. The ACT Guide has only five practice tests, but it also has answer explanations. (Explanations for the problems in the SAT Guide can be found on the College Board website). Of course, if you’re lucky enough to live in the Austin area, you can sign up for one of our classes, and we’ll throw in the guide for free.

Whichever test you choose, practice is key. So take as many practice tests as possible. If you use up all the tests in your guide and need more, we’ve got you covered. Just contact us.

SAT

The New SAT: What to Expect

In the spring of 2016, the College Board will launch the redesigned SAT. What will change? The short answer is that the new SAT will look more like the ACT—no guessing penalty, less vocabulary, more charts and graphs. There’s more to it than that, but with the reboot still in progress, the College Board isn’t saying much. The details are hazy, but according to the College Board website, there will be eight key changes. Of course, these summaries are like a lot of SAT problems—convoluted and confusing. Here they are in plain English.

vocabulary
1. Vocabulary: The new SAT will scrap questions about obscure vocabulary words like obsequious and magnanimity and instead ask students to identify the meanings of more ordinary words in context. For example, the word “acute” can mean “sharp,” “intense,” or “clever,” depending on the context. In fact, the current SAT already has these “vocabulary in context” questions on the passage-based portion of the Critical Reading section.

evidence

2. Evidence-Based Sections: The new SAT will combine the Reading and Writing portions into a single “evidence based” test. Here’s what that means:

Reading: Some questions will require students to select a sentence from the passage that best supports their answer to the previous question. For example, question #7 might ask, “How does Daisy feel about Tom?” And #8 might ask, “Which of the following sentences from the passage best supports your answer to question #7?” Some passages will also be paired with infographics.

Writing: Much like on the ACT English test, students will analyze multi-paragraph passages rather than focusing stand-alone sentences (like on the current SAT). This section will also require students to edit passages so that they accurately convey information from infographics.

analyzing

3. Essay Analyzing a Source: This new essay will also be evidence-based. Students will read a source document and write an essay explaining how the author constructs his or her argument. This sounds much more difficult than the current essay format. The idea is to make the SAT essay more like college essays.

The essay will be optional (like on the ACT), but some colleges will require it. In other words, it’s only optional if the colleges you are applying to don’t require it. Read your prospective colleges’ admissions requirements carefully. If you’re applying to Yale, and Yale requires the essay, then for you the essay is required.

math

4. Math that Matters: The new math section will focus on three areas: Problem Solving and Data Analysis (using ratios, percents, and proportions to solve problems in science, social science, and career contexts), The Heart of Algebra (linear equations and systems, abstract thinking), and Passport to Advanced Math (manipulation of complex equations—the College Board is pretty vague on this one).

In addition to these areas, some problems will test geometry and trigonometry skills “relevant to colleges and careers.” (Note: the current SAT does not have any trig function—sine, cosine, tangent—questions.)

real world
5. Problems Grounded in Real World Contexts: The primary focus of the redesign is to make the SAT less abstract and more practical—in other words, more like the ACT. The Reading/Writing section may have fiction passages, but it seems the focus will be on non-fiction passages from the humanities, hard sciences, social sciences, and “career contexts.” On the Math section, students will be presented with several charts and graphs relating to some real-world scenario (e.g. television-viewing statistics or fluctuations in the price of soybeans) and asked several questions requiring them to integrate information from these various sources.

science
6. Analysis in Science and History/Social Studies: The new SAT will require students to “apply their reading, writing, language, and math skills to answer questions in science, history, and social studies contexts.” Basically, it sounds like the Reading/Writing and Math sections will be more integrated than on the current SAT (more reading on the Math section, and more charts and graphs on the Reading/Writing section). Students will also be asked to revise texts to make them consistent with infographics related to “recent discoveries, political developments, global events, and health and environmental issues.” These kinds of infographics are common in National Geographic Magazine.


7. Founding Documents and the Great Global Conversation: Every new SAT will contain excerpts from U.S. founding documents (e.g. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers) and documents from “the great global conversation,” that is, politically-themed documents by authors like Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglas, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Henry David Thoreau, and Martin Luther King Jr. The College Board website specifically mentions Mary Wollstonecraft, Edmund Burke, and Mohandas Gandhi. The founding documents as well as texts by all these authors are available for free online. If you want to start studying for the new SAT now, start reading these texts—along with notes.

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8. No Penalty for Wrong Answers: On the current SAT, you lose one-quarter point for every wrong answer. Taking away the guessing penalty makes the test easier because students won’t ever have to decide when to guess. If a wrong answer gets you the same result as leaving the question blank, then guessing is a no-brainer. You might as well guess and move on to the next question; there’s nothing to lose. Decision making is mentally and emotionally taxing. Taking a little stress off students should actually make it easier to get a more accurate assessment of their performance on the test material.

The College Board will release a full-length practice test in March of 2015. Until then, students should make sure their basic math and reading skills are up to par. Since the new SAT will be more like the current ACT, and since practically every university will accept either test, now is a great time to study for the ACT. If your ACT score is good enough, you probably won’t even need to take the new SAT, but if you do, the skills you develop studying for the ACT should transfer.

Test Prep

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Common Vocabulary Words
Writing Skills Grammar Rules
Funky Functions

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English Section Guessing Strategies
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Demystifying the Science Section

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