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Elise Gout

SAT vs. ACT: The Reading Section

Hello Magooshers! Today we have a very special treat for you – a firsthand take on the SAT vs. ACT discussion from our very own High School Blogger, Elise! 🙂

Deciding whether to take the ACT or the SAT is a frequent source of confusion. The tests truly are separate entities, and, after taking both, I found that one of the most prominent ways that they diverge is within their respective reading sections. So, without further delay, here is my point-of-view regarding some of the primary reading section differences:

1. The Time Constraints

ACT: You are given 35 minutes to read four passages and answer ten corresponding questions per passage, for a total of 40 questions.

SAT: You are, throughout the entirety of the test, given two 25-minute sections and one 20-minute section, for a total of 67 questions.

If you compare the two tests by looking solely at the numbers, it can seem like the time that you have for each question is pretty similar; however, with the ACT, things can definitely feel more rushed, seeing as you are reading a lot more in one sitting. Having always been a fast test-taker (for better and for worse), the pacing didn’t personally affect me much, but I know a large number of my peers were unsettled by not being able to recheck as many of their answers, annotate the passages as thoroughly, and so on and so forth.

It’s also important to realize the implications of reading four sections of text all at once versus reading a good amount of text, then doing trig or grammar, then reading some more text again. If you need multitasking and constant change to keep your mind active, then the SAT’s reading section may be the way to go. On the flip side, some people – including myself – can struggle with being pulled out of their “literary-mode,” and so much transitioning between right-brain, left-brain can be jarring. In this case, the ACT might be the way to go.

2. The Kinds of Passages

ACT: The four passages in the ACT pertain to Prose Fiction, Social Science, Humanities, and Natural Science – always appearing in that order. Prose Fiction is the only fiction passage on the test, and every passage is given equal weight in the section’s scoring (25%). The ACT passages tend to be on the longer side, and sometimes for the Prose Fiction, two shorter passages will be paired together.

SAT: The passages cover the same four genres, though the length tends to vary more between long passages (500-800 words with 8-13 questions), short passages (about 100 words with two questions), and dual passages. While each of the passages is also weighted equally, the order of them is randomized.

I suppose that I found the reliability of the ACT’s reading section beneficial. (I do like knowing as much of what to expect as possible.) If you know that you can get really nit-picky about those kinds of details, then the ACT’s consistency can reduce overall chaos. That aside, the tests reading passages are pretty similar, and will each have that same academic tone. (You won’t have to confront Shakespeare, but you also won’t come across any Stephanie Meyer… disappointing, I know.)

3. The Number of Answers

ACT: Four answer choices.

SAT: Five answer choices.

While this seems like an awfully silly distinction to have on the list, for me it was one of the main reasons that I preferred the ACT. I cannot begin to count how many times I’ve been stuck on a passage question between two answers that I could swear to you were both right. (I’m notorious for changing my answer last second and then getting it wrong…) Having four choices speeds up the process of elimination and makes it easier to narrow in on the best option – which generally made me more confident about what I was bubbling in.

4. The Kinds of Questions

SAT: 19 sentence completion questions, 48 passage-based reading questions.

ACT: 40 passage-based reading questions.

At last! We have reached what I find to be the hardest, most infuriating part of standardized testing:

SAT Vocab

(Allow me to reiterate that this is entirely subjective.) Now, I consider myself to have a relatively expansive vocabulary, as in I’m not constantly Thesaurus.com-ing my life away, but I never could understand who in their right mind would be able to see the word “dearth” and immediately go, “Oh, that’s right, this means an insufficient quantity or number.” Unless, of course, you memorize definition after definition, an overwhelming feat that, as a high school junior, I quite simply could not make the time for.

There are plenty of strategies out there that make these sentence completion questions easier, and I tried to use them when I could – to varying degrees of success. The nice thing about the ACT is that it didn’t give me the chance to bleed those points, boosting my reading score by a fairly decent amount. That being said, for those of you who do have very powerful vocabularies (and are thinking I must be incredibly ignorant to not know what “dearth” means), the SAT may be more attractive, as you will find yourself at an advantage.

Finally, in regards to the passage-based questions, the ACT and SAT revolve around similar things. They both ask about the main idea. They both ask about vocab words in context. They both point you to specific lines. And yet, I found the ACT’s passage-based questions to be far more direct than the SAT’s. Essentially, with the ACT, there was less time but more manageable questions – ones that generally didn’t have hidden tricks or pitfalls.

There are countless, minute differences between the ACT and the SAT reading sections; what it really comes down to is being familiar with your strengths and owning up to your weaknesses. If you aren’t sure where you stand, then the best thing you can do for yourself is get started: commit to practice tests and review the questions that you miss. The more you know about your preferences as a test taker, the more comfortable you can make your experience.

Still have more questions? Read more about the ACT Reading and SAT Reading sections, and leave us a comment below! And as a bonus, check out our video below for tips and strategies you can use for ACT Reading.


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About Elise Gout

Elise writes articles for the Magoosh SAT blog to help teenagers during an exciting time in their lives. Despite residing in Southern California, where she attends San Dieguito Academy high school, she has no surfing abilities whatsoever; it’s actually rather sad. She is your typical senior high school girl who sword fights daily, and is pretty much convinced that bananas are a food sent from heaven. Elise will attend Columbia University next fall to study environmental science.

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