The Experimental Section on the SAT and ACT

by | Oct 4, 2019

If you took the August SAT or September ACT, you might have noticed that the test did not look exactly like the practice tests you’ve been working on. After finishing the calculator math section on the SAT or the Science section on the ACT, you were given a “5th section” that contained additional questions from one of the sections you had already taken. This 20-minute section is called the experimental section, where College Board and ACT have the chance to try out potential future test questions (called pre-test questions).

On the old SAT, there were seven shorter sections for each subject (math, reading, writing), and one of those sections — the experimental section — did not count towards the total score. Because students did not know which section was the experimental one, they had to put maximum effort into each section.

What’s the point of experimental questions?

In order to create new tests that are comparable to previous administrations, College Board and ACT need to create a balance between easy, medium, and hard questions. If there are too many easy questions, then in order to make scores comparable, there needs to be a harsher ‘curve,’ where missing one question will drop your score by 30, 40, or 50 points instead of 10 or 20 (on the SAT). Harsh curves have not been that big of an issue on the ACT, possibly because ACT has decades of problems to pull from. The College Board, however, has received a lot of bad publicity over the past year for having tests with unforgiving scales that made it extremely difficult to get a high score.

What should you do about the fifth section?

Relax. You’ve just spent several hours answering dozens of math, reading, writing, and science questions, and you still have to write an essay for another 30+ minutes. These questions do not count — ACT explicitly states this, and College Board is evasive every time someone asks them (but essentially admits it). While we don’t recommend taking a nap during the experimental section and potentially sleeping through the essay, you shouldn’t stress out either. Take this time to decompress and mentally prepare yourself for the essay. You should still answer the questions honestly, as these questions might be used on future tests. So if you have a younger sibling or younger friends, they’ll thank you for helping make sure their test will be accurate and fair.