Last Updated On: October 16th, 2020

ACT vs. SAT. It’s a common conflict during the test prep that occurs during the admissions process. A few years ago the College Board opted to reformat the SAT test. The guiding principle behind this effort was making the SAT test a lot more like the ACT test. The most obvious similarity between these standardized tests is between the Writing and Language (SAT) and Verbal (ACT) sections, which are virtually identical. The most notable difference is the fact that the SAT does not include a Science section. However, the type of data analysis needed on the ACT Science section is still a significant feature of the SAT. Instead of using just one section to test it, SAT opted to put charts, graphs, tables, etc. (all figures you’ve seen in high school) on all three sections of the test. Understanding how to interpret these figures can be helpful to your SAT prep, improve your SAT score, and therefore make an even better college application.

Charts on the ACT

The ACT Science section is ground zero for data to be presented as a figure, and your ACT score on the science section will be most impacted by your understanding of those figures. On the ACT Science section, test-takers should first read and understand the title, key or legend, variables, and units before doing any questions. You should also look out for trends, such as whether a variable is increasing or decreasing and if it’s doing so directly or inversely with another variable. Oftentimes you may see figures that combine different types of graphs/charts. Take your time to understand what each individual element of the figure is referring to, and find the link. There is no need to worry about the actual science behind the presented data. Just understand enough about the units so that you can employ process of elimination on the questions.

As for the ACT Math section, charts and graphs are not nearly as significant a feature as they are on SAT math, and so understanding them is less important for your ACT composite score. In fact, you may only see one set of two to three questions that will refer to a table, chart, or graph. Make sure you read and understand this figure before reading any of the questions, which will be in the form of word problems.

There are no charts on the ACT English or ACT Reading sections.

Problem Solving and Data Analysis on the New SAT

The Official SAT Guide from College Board says that, for the math section, these are questions that “assess your ability to use your understanding of math and your skills to solve problems in the real world.” However, figures will appear in all sections, so knowledge of them are important for all your section scores and therefore for your SAT total score.

But, no matter the section, types of figures you are most likely to see are:

  • Scatterplots
  • Bar graphs/Histograms
  • Two-way tables
  • Frequency tables
  • Line graphs
  • Stem-and-Leaf Plots
  • Box plots

For scatterplots, each dot represents a data point, and sometimes the test writers will provide you with a line of best fit. Oftentimes, test writers will ask you to locate a data point, and also identify the value that the line of best fit says that value should be (or vice versa). From there, they may ask to find the difference between those values, or some other operation.

Line graphs look similar to scatterplots with a line of best fit, but all of the data points will be on the line which will look straight or curved on the x/y axis. They show the change in one variable per another variable. Test writers will often ask you to observe the graph and identify what the equation for that graph should be. In general, linear equations and parabolic functions are a common topic on the SAT math section, so there are questions that may involve these types of graphs, but that do not come with an illustrated line graph.

Rather than points, a bar graph represents data with a bar (which is just a thick line). The length of the bar corresponds to a value on the x-axis. A histogram is a bar graph for which each bar represents a range of values rather than a specific value. There aren’t too many tricks with either of these figures, and the test will commonly ask you to find the median, mean, mode, and/or range of the data. Be sure to write down the values before doing any calculations.

Two-way tables give counts for data according to two variables. Instead of a graph along an x/y axis, two-way tables have categories listed across the top and down the left side of the table. This type of figure is commonly paired with questions about proportions. Frequency tables look relatively similar but they have two columns – one contains the values and the other contains the number of times a particular value occurs (the frequency). Similar to questions about bar graphs and histograms, frequency table questions are often ones that ask about median, mean, mode, and/or range, and are questions for which you probably want to list out the values on your scratch paper.

Both stem-and-leaf, and box plots are relatively rare on the SAT. The numbers to the right of the line on a stem-and-leaf plot merely represent the ones digit of a number that would begin with the digits on the left. Box plots are a bit more odd. A box plot line is broken into quartiles. The ends of the line segment respectively represent the minimum and maximum of the data. The middle line inside the box is the median and the ends of the box respectively represent the lower and upper quartile of the data.

Charts and Data Questions on SAT Math

Some questions will tell you exactly what to look for, while for others, part of the challenge will be making sure you’ve located the correct data from the figure with which to calculate. There are some questions that may even require you to make a prediction of the data based on the trends within the figure. You may even see figures in answer choices. This is a type of word problem that will describe something (and it really could be just about anything) and then pick an answer which has a figure that represents the situation described. Finally, there are other questions that will ask what a part of a graph means in context. Often, these questions are really just testing your application of the point slope formula: y=mx+b

Charts and Data on Reading/Writing & Language Section

At least one passage on the reading section will have a figure. It could be any of the ones previously described. All these questions are really asking you to do is synthesize the data in the graph with the information in the passage text. These questions should be an easy point, just don’t treat them carelessly. The same can be said for figures that show up on Writing and Language. Make sure the answer you’re choosing has information that is supportable by both the figure and the text of the passage.

Final Thoughts

If you’ve already done some ACT prep, it is likely the prep you’ve done for the science section, not the math section, that will help the most with the types of charts and data that you’ll see throughout the SAT. If this hasn’t already been made clear the key with all charts and data questions is to treat them with care. They should all be easy points, but if you treat them carelessly and rush through them, you certainly run the risk of giving these points away. You may even want to consider skipping these questions for your first pass through the SAT math section, first doing easy questions that can be done more quickly, and then coming back to charts and data questions when you know you have the time to dedicate to them. Remember that for better or for worse the SAT and ACT is a part of the college admissions process and so test scores for either should be taken seriously. If you are taking the SAT be sure to take a PSAT or other practice test. The more practice you put in, the better your SAT composite score will be.

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