• April 21, 2016
  • BLOG

The Basics of the New 2016 SAT and ACT


Spring 2016

The SAT consists of four scored sections – reading, writing and language, math without a calculator and math with a calculator.  There is also an optional essay.

Reading Test

The 65-minute reading test consists of 52 multiple choice questions.   Students will encounter roughly page-long reading passages followed by questions about the text.  There will be one passage each on literature, history and social science.  There will be two passages on natural sciences.  Some passages contain info graphics which students must interpret to answer some of the questions.  At least once on the test students will encounter two shorter “paired” passages on the same topic.  For the “paired” passages, some of the questions will require students to compare and contrast the passages.  While there are no questions in which students will encounter vocabulary out of context, the SAT does test vocabulary in context on about 20% of its questions.  While students can generally figure out the meanings of some of these words based on context, a strong vocabulary will help students on the SAT.

Writing and Language Test

The 35-minute writing and language test consists of 44 multiple choice questions.  This section consists of passages (some of which contain info graphics) written specifically for the SAT that contain errors of grammar and rhetoric. Students are tasked with improving these mistakes through multiple choice questions. In addition to testing knowledge of specific rules of grammar and style, this section also tests students’ vocabulary.  The writing section will not test obscure vocabulary words, as did the old SAT.  Instead this section will test students’ ability to distinguish between homophones and other similar sounding words as well as between words with similar definitions but differing connotations.  Students with weaker vocabularies (or a specific weakness in these areas) might benefit from studying vocabulary words.

Math Test

The math portion of the SAT consists of two math sections.  The first math section, which is to be completed without a calculator, lasts for 25 minutes and consists of 15 multiple choice questions and 5 “grid in” questions in which students must derive the answer on their own.  The second math section, on which students may use a calculator, contains 30 multiple choice questions and 7 “grid in” questions to be answered in 55 minutes.

The math test covers a more limited range of topics than in the past, but these topics are covered in greater depth.  The test now focuses on problem solving using ratios, data analysis, statistics, percentages and proportions, linear equations, systems of equations, quadratic equations and more advanced functions.  The test will also cover Geometry and Trigonometry, though in a more limited fashion than the other topics.  While most of the material on this test comes from Algebra II, students will need to have some exposure to Trigonometry and Pre-Calculus to be able to answer all of the questions.  The math section requires a lot of reading as students will encounter many word problems.  Students who are weak readers or who do not have a strong foundation in Algebra are likely to struggle with this math section.

Optional Essay

The SAT provides an optional essay section, which comes at the end of the test and consists of one 50-minute essay.  For the essay, students are presented with a roughly page long passage and asked to “explain how the author builds an argument to persuade an audience.”  Students must also point out the argumentative, stylistic and persuasive strategies used by the author and evaluate their effectiveness.  Students are expected to support their claims with evidence from the passage.

The essay is read by two graders who each score the essay 1-4 on each of three measures: reading, analysis and writing. These two scores are added so a student will get an essay score ranging from 2-8 on each measure.  The reading score assesses how well students demonstrate an understanding of the passage. The analysis score assesses how well students understand how the author constructed his argument.  The writing score reflects students’ organization and writing skills. While colleges will see these essay scores, they are not used in formulating students’ overall scores and most schools likely will not give them much weight.  However, while this section is ostensibly optional, most selective colleges require it, so students should take the SAT with the optional essay.


Each section of the SAT is scored on a 200-800 scale.  The reading test and the writing and language test combine to form the verbal score.  The two math sections combine to form the math score.  1600 is the highest possible total score.  Each question a student answers correctly receives one point.  There is no penalty for getting a question wrong.  The correct answers for each section are added together to form the raw score.  The raw score is then converted to a scaled score (reported on a 200-800 scale) by a statistical process called equating. The College Board uses equating in order to ensure that neither the ability of the other students taking a test on a given day nor the particular test a student takes impacts a test taker’s score. In addition, equating makes it possible to compare test takers who take different editions of the SAT across different test dates.


The ACT consists of four scored sections: English, math, reading and science.  There is also an optional writing section, which consists of an essay only.


The 45-minute English section consists of 75 multiple choice questions.  There are four answer choices given for each question.  The questions test both rules of grammar and rhetoric.  The grammar questions focus primarily on pronouns, verbs and punctuation.  Parallelism is tested lightly.


The 60-minute math section consists of 60 multiple choice questions.  There are five answer choices given for each question.  The math questions range from simple arithmetic and elementary Geometry through quadratic functions, Trigonometry and logarithms.  While students who have completed Algebra II, Trigonometry and Geometry should be familiar with most of the topics on the ACT, students generally need to have completed a course in Pre-Calculus (or its equivalent) to have seen all of the topics covered on the ACT.  The ACT math topics cover a wider range of topics than the SAT.  There is sometimes an obscure math topic that appears on one ACT and is never repeated.  However, there are fewer complicated word problems on the ACT than the SAT and weaker math students can learn strategies to answer many of the problems on the ACT. However, students who are slow at math will have a hard time finishing this section.


 The 35-minute reading section consists of 40 multiple choice questions.  There are four answer choices given for each question.  The reading section consists of four reading passages (one of which will contain two shorter “paired” passages) followed by 10 questions each.  All of the questions in this section are reading comprehension.  There are no strictly vocabulary based questions.  However, vocabulary is tested through the reading passages and comprehension questions (but to a lesser extent than on the SAT).  As there are 40 questions to answer in only 35 minutes, slower readers have a very hard time completing this section.


 The 35-minute science section consists of 40 multiple choice questions.  There are four answer choices given for each question.  The science section consists of six or seven short passages each detailing several experiments or scientific findings followed by five to eight questions about the experiments.  This section essentially consists of reading the charts and graphs provided and answering questions about them.  While it is important to understand how to conduct experiments and how to read the scientific information, very little actual scientific knowledge is required. However, this section is extremely time pressured, and most students find it challenging to answer all 40 questions in 35 minutes.

Writing (Optional Essay)

 The ACT provides an optional writing section.  This section consists of one 40-minute essay.  The essay provides students with a description of an issue and then gives three perspectives on that issue.  Students are asked to “evaluate and analyze” the perspectives and to “state and develop” their own perspective on the issue.  Finally, students are instructed to “explain the relationship” between their perspective and the three stated on the test.

The essay receives a score out of 36, but this score is not used in formulating a student’s overall score and most schools do not give it much weight.  However, like with the SAT, while this section is ostensibly optional (and most schools do not seem to count it), most competitive colleges require it, so students should take the ACT with the writing section.


 Each of the four sections of the ACT is scored from 1 to 36.  The four section scores are then averaged (and rounded to the nearest whole number) to produce the student’s composite score.

A raw ACT section score is determined by counting the number of questions a student answers correctly.  Students do not lose points on the ACT for answering a question incorrectly.  The raw score is then converted to a scaled score.

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Note: This article discusses information current as of Spring 2016.  The information presented herein should not be relied upon without consulting directly with the college admissions offices and/or your college guidance counselor.