How College Admissions Tests Work

Structure of College Admissions Tests

The SAT is primarily a multiple-choice exam, so everything -- excluding the written segment -- is machine-scored. Students are allotted 3 hours and 45 minutes to take the exam, broken down into four sections:

  • Critical reading: three subsections on word relationships, reading comprehension and contextual analysis.
  • Mathematics: three subsections on algebra, geometry, measurement and statistics.
  • Writing: three subsections on recognizing errors and creating a developed essay.
  • Unscored section: one segment piloting new questions for one of the three scored sections.

In contrast, the SAT Subject Tests (SAT II) are one-hour exams taken in literature, history, mathematics, science and languages. They are also multiple choice, but some language tests have a listening component.

For the machine-scored questions, correct responses are worth one point, responses left blank are not counted, and there is a one-quarter-point deduction for a wrong answer to discourage guessing. For each section, the total score is transferred to a scale score, providing continuity among different sections and versions of the test. Each section of the SAT test receives a score from 200-800. The average score for each section is 500. The three sections are then totaled to obtain a composite, with 2400 being the top score [source: College Board: Tests].

As with the SAT, the ACT consists primarily of multiple-choice questions. The ACT is shorter, however: Students have 2 hours and 55 minutes to complete the exam. It covers four curricular areas, plus an optional writing section:

  • English: correct usage and application
  • Mathematics: reasoning, algebra, geometry, trigonometry
  • Reading: comprehension and analysis of passages
  • Science: interpretation and analysis of information, reasoning and problem-solving
  • Writing: selection and defense of an opinion on a given topic (additional 30 minutes allotted)

The correct scores are counted with no deduction for wrong answers. Like the SAT, the raw score is converted to a scale score. The final ACT score is a composite from 1-36, based on the average of all four of the tests [source: ACT: Understand]. In 2009, the average U.S. ACT score was 21.1 [source: ACT: Selections].

Now that you know what's on the test, let's find out how to get you into the test site.