Both the ACT and the SAT are standardized multiple choice tests that are part of your application to US universities. Not all schools require you to take one of the tests (there are some ‘test-optional’ schools), but all schools accept either. The tests are slightly different, and some students score better on one than the other, but mostly students can take either test. In certain geographical areas, one test is more popular than another, but it makes no difference to the university you’re applying to. Check their admissions page for more info about what score you need, and look here for the major differences between the two tests.
The ACT has 4 sections, plus an optional essay section. Each section gets a “scaled” score out of 36. These are averaged to give a composite score out of 36. If you do the essay section, this is also scaled out of 36 and averaged with your English and Reading scores to get an ELA (English Language Arts) score out of 36. If you’re doing practice tests, you can find the scaling table at the end of each test. You can read about how it’s derived here.
English: 75 questions in 45 minutes
The English section is a mixture of grammar questions, and something called ‘rhetoric’. This is to do with style, brevity and clarity in writing. Sounds complicated, but there are a few tricks to make it easy.
Math: 60 questions in 60 minutes
The Math section is stuff you’ll have mostly covered in high school. Sometimes the questions are ‘disguised’, so you won’t know what to do straight away, but with practice, it’s easy to improve. Check out some sample questions being solved here, and the full list of topics here.
Reading: 40 questions in 35 minutes
The Reading section consists of 4 passages, each approximately 800 words long. The first is Prose Fiction – basically an extract from a story. This can be hard to work with, as there are lots of inferences and metaphors. The key is to get a picture of the story overall. The next passages are Social Sciences and Humanities. These can be quite similar – they’re the sort of thing that you’d read in a magazine like the Economist. They could be a biography, or an argument based on a situation. Sometimes one passage is split into two related passages – often an extract from a work of fiction, with the author’s commentary on their writing process. You then have to compare the passages. The last passage is the most straightforward. It’s Natural Science, so the questions are mostly fact based. The hardest thing about the reading section for the average student is getting all the questions done in time. The way around this is practice!
Scientific Reasoning: 40 questions in 35 minutes
The scientific reasoning section often scares people, but it’s actually quite similar to the reading section. You are not required to have any specific scientific knowledge – only very basic concepts. You need to make judgements and extrapolations from the data that’s presented to you. There are 3 types of passage. Data representation requires you to analyse some data and draw conclusions. Research summaries are pretty much the same, except they are based on experiments. These passages have either 5 or 6 questions. Lastly, there’s one Conflicting Viewpoints passage. This involved 2-4 students or scientists discussing their opinions on a certain topic. You have to compare their views and choose statements that some or all of them would agree with.
Essay: 40 minutes
The essay section is technically optional, but most people write it. You are given a topic to analyse, based on 3 perspectives that you’re presented with. Examples and well constructed arguments are the key to succeeding here. (Note that the structure of the essay has recently changed. If you see prompts that don’t have 3 perspectives, they’re the old style ones. Don’t practice with these; the new one is quite different, so you’ll be wasting your time). Here’s more information on the new essay.