Exam Overviews & Strategies
The ACT is one of two popular standardized tests accepted by colleges and universities in the United States. It is comprised of four mandatory sections (English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science) with a total of 215 questions, broken down as follows:
- English: 75 questions to be completed in 45 minutes
- Mathematics: 60 questions to be completed in 60 minutes
- Reading: 40 questions to be answered in 35 minutes
- Science: 40 questions to be answered in 35 minutes
There is also an optional, 40-minute Writing section where you write a response to a provided question, and are evaluated on a 6-point scale by two different readers. As of September 2015, this section has been revised so that you will receive a score of 1-36 instead of the earlier 0-12. However, the Writing section still does NOT count towards your composite score.
Depending on if you take the Writing section, the test will take up to four hours to complete, including breaks.
The ACT website includes a comprehensive list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s) that covers matters like how to register for the test, a description of each section, testing dates, sending scores to colleges, and even some basic advice on how to prepare for the test. The link for that site is: http://www.actstudent.org/faq/faq.html
Example of ACT Prep:
The following is an example of preparatory advice that I’d give to students for the ACT; in particular, the Reading section:
The Reading section of the ACT is unlike most other reading tasks. It is not like reading a book for school, nor is it like reading for fun. Your goal for the Reading section is to read a passage and respond to ten questions in less than nine minutes (8:45, to be precise), then repeat this task three more times.
Many students approach the Reading section by reading the entire passage first, hoping to remember as much as possible for the questions. A common outcome from this strategy is that the student will switch back-and-forth between the questions and the passage, using more time than necessary. Students who use this method tend to get lower scores, especially if they are not as good at Reading as they are at Math or Science. Because the ACT Reading section is so different, your approach has to be different as well.
To earn a higher score in Reading, you need to know the following before going into the exam:
- The section will always have passages in the following order: Prose Fiction, Humanities, Social Studies, and Science.
- You will have to answer a variety of questions for all the passages. These can range from fact-based questions to questions that ask you to discuss the main idea of the entire passage.
- Fact-based questions do not require reading the entire passage in order to answer them, and can be answered more quickly. Main idea questions will always require knowing the whole passage.
By knowing these facts in advance, you can tailor your approach for reading each passage so that you can learn the most material in the shortest amount of time.
(please note: this information is accurate for the current version of the SAT. As of Spring 2016, the test will be changed to the Revised SAT [rSAT])
The SAT Reasoning test is one of two major standardized tests accepted by colleges and universities in the United States. Most parents may recall that the SAT contained two sections (Verbal & Mathematics) with the highest possible score of a 1600. This is no longer the case. As of 2005, the SAT has a maximum score of 2400 points, and is now comprised of ten sections from the following three categories:
- Critical Reasoning
From the SAT website:
“The SAT is comprised of 10 total testing sections. The first section is always a 25-minute essay, and the last section is always a 10-minute multiple-choice writing section. Sections two through seven are 25-minute sections. Sections eight and nine are 20-minute sections.”
The company behind the SAT, College Board, maintains a detailed page of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s) about the test, including test dates, score reporting, and information on each section of the test. The link for this is: https://sat.collegeboard.org/about-tests/sat/faq
Example of SAT Prep:
The following is an example of preparatory advice that I’d give to students for the SAT; in particular, the Mathematics section:
The more challenging questions in SAT Math are not necessarily hard because they involve advanced math. These questions, which come in the later part of the Math sections, are more challenging because of tricky phrasings or illustrations. They are deliberately constructed to have “trap answers” that are incorrect, yet easy to arrive at if you are not careful.
Given that all the math questions are worth the same number of points, your test-taking strategy depends in part on how high of a score you are trying for. For a score of 700 or above (top 6% of test takers), you will want to attempt every math problem; for a score around 600 (top 25%), you have the option of leaving more answers blank or guessing more frequently on questions you are not sure of.
Remember that unlike the ACT, the SAT does penalize your score for incorrect answers. To remind you of how the SAT is scored: Your raw score increases by 1 point for every correct answer. It is unchanged for every blank answer, but is reduced by 1/4th of a point for every incorrect answer. That raw score is then converted into a scaled score ranging from 200-800 points.
You are never required to answer every single question in a section, and you may in fact get your highest score by leaving some blank.
The computer-based GRE revised General Test contains six sections that will take about 3hrs, 45min to complete under standard testing conditions:
- An Analytical Writing section with two tasks, which always comes first in the test (30min per task for 60min total)
- Two Verbal Reasoning sections (approximately 20 questions per section, 30min each section for 60min total)
- Two Quantitative Reasoning sections (approximately 20 questions per section, 35min each section for 70min total)
- One unscored section, typically a Verbal Reasoning or Quantitative Reasoning section that may appear at any point in the test (approximately 20 question for 30-35min total)
- Note that because the unscored section resembles the scored portions of the exam, and it is unidentified, it is in your best interest to assume that every section of the exam will count towards your score, and treat them all seriously
In previous computerized versions of the GRE, the exam was “adaptive” on a question-by-question basis. Answering a question correctly would follow with a harder question, whereas an incorrect response would follow with an easier question. Your final score would be based on the difficulty of the questions you answered; if your test involved correct replies to the hardest questions, you would have a higher score. With this format, you could not “skip around” to other questions, and it was advantageous to spend more time on the initial problems so that you could get to the hardest ones by the end.
The current “Revised” version of the GRE has been changed so that it is adaptive on a sectional basis. This means that your performance on the first Verbal or Quantitative section affects the questions you will get in the second section. You may now “skip around” questions, mark off ones you’ve completed, and come back to harder ones before time has run out.
More information on the GRE can be found at: http://www.ets.org/gre?WT.ac=grehome_grehome_b_121017
Example of GRE Prep:
For Quantitative Comparison questions in the Math section, there are several strategies to help answer them more quickly.
For this section, the directions/answer choices for this section are always as follows:
Directions: Each of the following questions consists of two quantities, one in Column A and one in Column B. There may be additional information, centered above the two columns, that concerns one or both of the quantities. A symbol that appears in both columns represents the same thing in Column A as it does in Column B.
You are to compare the quantity in Column A with the quantity in Column B and decide whether:
(A) The quantity in Column A is greater.
(B) The quantity in Column B is greater.
(C) The two quantities are equal.
(D) The relationship cannot be determined from the information given
The first part of answering these questions more quickly is that you should know the directions by heart before you go to the testing center. By memorizing these, you save time by being ready to answer the questions as soon as it comes up on the screen.
Secondly, you can always eliminate Choice “D” if both columns have numbers in them and nothing else. For instance:
|Column A||Column B|
For each row, respectively, the answers would be B, C, and A. Numbers will always have a relationship with one another.
An example where Choice “D” is the correct answer is:
|Column A||Column B|
|x – 3||y + 2|
In this case, because we have no idea what the values are for “x” or “y,” you can confidently answer “D.”
Thirdly, many Quantitative Comparison questions involve variables, such as the following:
|Column A||Column B|
|a > b > 0 > c >d|
|a + c||b + d|
One method to solve this problem is a logic-based approach: Since “a” is always greater than “b,” and “c” is always greater than “d,” the values generated in Column A will always be greater than those in Column B. Therefore, “A” is the correct answer choice.
However, not everyone solves problems in the same way. An alternative method to solve this is by substituting appropriate values in for each variable. With this method, you would pick numbers to plug in for variables a, b, c, and d:
- a = 6
- b = 4
- c = -2
- d = -5
Plugging these values into the question, you get a value of “4” for Column A and a value of “-1″ for Column B. Because Column A is the larger value, the correct answer is “A.” Feel free to plug in other numbers that satisfy the conditions of the problem – Choice “A” will still be the correct answer.
Substitution will help you solve many Quantitative Comparisons, even if you blank out on how to perform certain mathematical functions. Compare these two equations: “x(x – 1)” vs. “x2 – x“. Some people would solve this more quickly by distributing the first equation and finding out that it’s the same as the second one. Others could plug in a number several times and discover no matter what number they plug in, they get the same answer on both sides. Both methods are equally valid for getting the correct solution – Choice “C”.