Getting into the Top US Universities – ACT & SAT Exam Strategies (I)

By Marcella Ho, Leo Lam

(Admissions Consultant and Head of Test Preparation at The Edge Learning Center)

Since the New SAT was introduced in 2016, students and parents have been trying to gauge the minimum caliber needed to secure a place in top US universities. This time, The Edge’s Admissions Consultant and Test Prep expert are teaming up to provide you with the most needed insights!

In the latest US News Ranking, Princeton University is ranked as the number 1 National University. In the 2017-18 application season, the median SAT scores of students who got accepted to Princeton lie between 700 and 780 for SAT Math, between 680 and 760 for SAT English, and between 31 and 35 for the ACT. This implies an average total SAT score between 1380 and 1530, both out of 1600.

Duke University, which is currently ranked no. 10 in the US News Ranking, has also shared its admissions data. The median scores of students accepted to the Duke University are 740-780 in SAT Math, 740-790 in SAT English, and 33-35 in the ACT. This implies a total between 1480 and 1570 in the SAT, which is certainly not an easy score to achieve!

In comparison, Cornell University, which is currently ranked no. 15 in the US News Ranking, accepts students who scored between 700 and 790 in SAT Math, between 690 and 760 in SAT English, and between 31 and 34 in the ACT. Hence, the total score lies between 1390 and 1550.

Moving down the ranking, however, we do see a slight dip in the scores required. In particular, New York University – currently ranked no. 30 – accepts students who have scored between 650 and 780 in SAT Math, between 660 and 730 in SAT English, and between 29 and 33 in the ACT. This means a total SAT score between 1310 and 1510.

Notably, schools with very strong Math, Science, and Engineering programs also have high expectations of students’ English abilities. Carnegie Mellon University, for instance, accepts students who scored between 650 and 770 in SAT English, and between 640 and 800 in SAT Math. As for the ACT, the Pennsylvania-based engineering school requires students to have achieved a score between 31 and 35.

MIT, on the other hand, accepts students who have achieved a minimum of 770 in SAT Math, and a minimum of 730 in SAT English. The range of their accepted students’ total SAT score is 1500 and 1580, whereas the required ACT score is between 34 and 35.

Top 30 US University – ACT Exam Strategy

Score: 29

To achieve a 29 on the ACT, here are the approximate numbers of questions required in each section:

English: 64/75, Reading: 32/40

Math: 48/60, Science: 34/40

ACT SAT Exam StrategiesACT English

This section tests a combination of students’ grammar knowledge and rhetorical strategy. Generally, the two types of questions are fairly balanced: 40 questions in grammar, 35 in rhetorical strategy. With 45 minutes to work on 75 questions, this is a fast-paced section, just like the rest of the test. The large amount of questions may cause students to become careless towards the latter part of the section. Since half of the test is about the application of grammar rules, students should focus on memorizing such rules and learn about the type of questions that frequent the exam. The other half of this section requires students to understand the context/language requirement to make the correct choice. Many questions can be correctly answered simply by carefully re-reading the sentence to look for clues.

The passage types, and the language used in these passages, are rarely difficult. The five passages do not get progressively harder either; the distribution of difficulty is approximately the same throughout the section. What students should be aware of are the tones of these passages. Students quite often ignore the passage’s specific tone and make the wrong choice. In order to get 64 correct answers in this section, students need to avoid getting more than 2 incorrect answers out of the 15 questions per passage. By staying alert throughout the entire section, identifying the question types, and memorizing the grammar rules, students should find that this section is not such an obstacle after all.

ACT Reading

This section tests students’ ability to read and understand a fairly straightforward passage in a short amount of time. Compared to the SAT Reading section, the passages and questions are relatively easier. However, with only 35 minutes to read 4 passages (one of which will be paired) and answer 40 questions, the difficulty often comes down to time management. In order to get 32 questions correct, students cannot miss more than 2 questions per passage. For students who struggle with reading speed, a common strategy is to focus on three passages to ensure all the questions are correctly answered, and then use the remaining time to guess on the last passage.

The types of passages are fixed on the ACT Reading section. It starts with a literary narrative piece, then moves on to a passage on social science, followed by a topic on humanities, and finally ends with a natural science passage. The paired passages can appear in any one of these four types. With the questions being relatively straightforward, most students will find that they can improve in this section simply by increasing their reading speed.

ACT Math

ACT Math, compared to SAT, is also more straightforward. There is no “fill in your own answer” question type, but there are 5 answer choices instead of 4, so the chance of randomly guessing the right answer is slimmer. ACT Math tests students’ breadth of knowledge; in order to score very high, students will need exposure to concepts that are normally taught in Pre-Calculus. However, this does not mean students will struggle with the test if they have only studied up to Algebra II: ACT only has a handful of questions that require more advanced knowledge.

To get 48 questions correct, students will want to focus on accurately and quickly finishing the first 30 questions. The difficulty of the questions typically gets harder in the latter part of the section. This means students may need more time to do the last 15 or so questions. Time management is very important: many students struggle with this section because they run out of time.

Careless mistakes are another aspect students must avoid. There are many word problems in this section that test simple mathematical concepts, but without reading the question properly, it is easy to pick the trap answers. ACT does not provide any equations at the beginning on the section, so students must memorize formulae like the quadratic equation, the volume/area of geometric figures, compound interest, etc. The more advanced equations like the law of cosine, the volume of a sphere, or the determinant of a two by two matrix are commonly provided in the question.

Students who are not doing well in their math classes will find that they need the most preparation for this section. Start by reviewing the current math syllabus. If books/exercises from previous years are available, study them again. Make flash cards of equations/mathematical properties, so they can be recalled quickly on the exam.

Finally, remember that a calculator is allowed on this section. It is strongly recommended that students use a graphing calculator for this exam. If a problem seems to be particular difficult, don’t give up immediately. Try to analyze the question and see if certain answer choices can be logically eliminated. However, don’t linger on a question for too longer either. Quite often students may find that there are questions that can be easily done in the latter part. Remember, there is no penalty for an incorrect answer, so students should fill in every answer choice even if it involves guessing.

ACT Science

ACT Science, as most students find out after taking the test, does not test science knowledge. Instead, it focuses on students’ ability to analyze data and interpret their meaning in a scientific background. Students who are not taking physics, biology, or chemistry in school can still get top score in this section; knowledge from general science learned in middle school is sufficient. The background of each experiment/scenario being described on the test is generally irrelevant. What is important is the ability to swiftly understand and absorb the information provided by the various graphs/tables/charts and quickly find the answer. This is the last multiple-choice section of the test, and most students are already quite exhausted at this point. The fact that this section requires sharp thinking more than knowledge makes it particularly challenging.

The ACT Science section is broken down to 6 passages. One of these will resemble a reading passage, while the remaining 5 involve data interpretation. Knowing the structure and the specific kinds of questions involved with these two types of passages can help students improve tremendously. The difficulty of this section also tends to fluctuate the most: getting 34 correct answers can yield a 31 on a harder test, but it may also become a 27 on an easier one.

Just like the rest of the ACT test, time is of the essence. With only 35 minutes to do 40 questions for 6 passages, students cannot spend too much time lingering on a particular question. It is also important for students to remember that there is a lot of superfluous information in this particular section. Being able to parse the information and determine what is essential will be particularly important.

Students who have not taken any science courses recently may want to brush up on recognizing and reading the various types of graphs and charts. Having a solid understanding of what and how information is presented will greatly speed up the process of finding the right answer. It is also a good idea to review basic concepts in general science.

Top 30 US University– SAT Strategy

Math score: 650 | English score: 660

ACT SAT Exam StrategiesSAT Math

Achieving a 650 in the Math section of SAT is approximately equivalent to getting 42 out of 58 questions right.

The difficulty of Math questions on the SAT is approximately the same as that of questions at the end of an Algebra II exam, with the additional topics of trigonometry (very minor) and statistics/probability.

In order for a student to get 42 questions right, the first step is to review topics that are covered in Algebra II: exponential rules, exponential growth, quadratics, polynomials, and factor/remainder theorems are common questions that show up on the exam. Algebra makes up of a big chunk of the exam. Statistics/data analysis is another major topic for which many students may not have a strong foundation. Knowing how to read graphs/tables/charts is something that the students must be comfortable with. On top of that, students should also be able to understand linear regression and have common knowledge about data collection/interpretation. In addition, students should have a basic concept of the three basic trigonometric functions (sine, cosine, tangent) and conversion between degrees and radians. Finally, make sure to review topics that were taught in Geometry; while this topic makes up a very small part of the exam, students tend to forget some of the important geometric rules and become unable to answer some fairly straightforward questions.

With 16 questions to spare, students should not miss more than 5 in the non-calculator section, and no more than 11 in the calculator section. In the non-calculator section, there are normally 3 to 4 difficult multiple-choice questions (out of 15) and 1 to 2 difficult grid-in questions (out of 5). For the calculator section, there are normally 6 to 8 difficult multiple-choice questions (out of 30) and 2 to 3 difficult grid-in questions (out of 8). As long as the students are being careful with their calculations and don’t make many careless mistakes, 650 is a very achievable score in the Math section.

SAT English

Achieving a 660 in the English section of SAT is approximately equivalent to getting 77 out of 96 questions right.

Between the Writing and Language section and the Reading section, students can really only study for the Writing and Language Section.

Since there are 44 questions in the W&L section and 52 questions in the Reading section, students should aim for 35 and 42 correct answers in these two sections, respectively.

The W&L section on the new SAT is very similar to the ACT’s English section now. This means students can no longer rely on memorizing rules to do well in this section. However, approximately half of the section is still about grammar rules. This means students should still make sure they are well aware of the rules that will be tested on the exam, and they must know these rules by heart. The W&L section is also putting more emphases on students’ ability to analyze a passage’s content. Therefore, students should practice as much as they can whenever there is a chance.

In the Reading section of the SAT, there are 5 passages, each with 10 to 11 questions. Getting 42 correct is akin to allowing only 2 errors per passage. Most students, even those who are doing well in their English classes, find the varieties in the passage types challenging. In order to prepare for this, students should practice reading different topics/genres before the exam. In addition to improving their reading speeds, students should practice active reading: summarize as soon as they have finished a paragraph to ensure they are absorbing the main idea.

Continue Reading: ACT and SAT Exam Strategies to help you get into the TOP 10 US Universities >>


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About The Edge

The Edge Learning Center is Hong Kong’s premier Test Preparation, Academic Tutoring, and Admissions Consulting services provider. Founded in 2008, The Edge has helped thousands of students improve their ACT and SAT scores as well as their IB and AP grades. The AC team has just finished off another successful period in which student gained acceptance to schools such as Stanford, University of Chicago, Brown, and more! Check out the rest of our 2018 Admissions Results!