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Catherine 3.0By Catherine Tierney

This year’s changes to the SAT made the SAT and ACT more similar than they have ever been. That said, there are some parts of the test that remain quite distinct. Students are often unsure of how to choose between the SAT and ACT. When we help families choose between tests, we often focus on one of the areas where the two tests differ most: the Reading sections. Typically a student is much better suited to one of the reading formats.

The ACT: Easier questions, but difficult timing

The ACT reading section allows students 35 minutes to answer 40 questions, which boils down to just 53 seconds per question. Keep in mind that this does not even include time to read the passage or bubble in answers. With such a blistering pace, many students just cannot keep up and end up eliminating an entire passage (or 10 questions out of 40). That said, the questions on the ACT are very straightforward. 

In general, the ACT reading section is very fact based. Students are not expected to deeply understand the passage, critique it, or cite evidence from it. Doing well is really about being detail oriented enough to locate the correct answers in the text. Students who can move through text relatively quickly will be well served by the ACT, especially because the questions themselves are pretty easy.

As for the content, the ACT tends to draw passages from modern publications like newspapers, magazines and scientific journals.The language in the passages is less academic and formal and more straightforward than that of the SAT.


The SAT: Harder questions, but generous timing

The SAT reading section gives students 65 minutes to answer 52 questions, allowing 75 seconds per question. This feels practically luxurious compared to the ACT draconian time limit. But there is a reason why the SAT allows more time: the questions are harder. While the ACT reading section asks mostly about facts from the text, the SAT is obsessed with evidence.

On the SAT, students are expected to not only find the correct answer, but cite evidence for this answer. This takes a lot more time to do, hence the longer time allowed. Students can expect to see at least two sets of these paired questions in every passage.

The SAT draws passages from historical documents, presidential speeches, and essays by classic authors.The passages tend to have more formal, academic language than found in ACT passages. That said, the passages are more aligned to what students see in AP history and literature classes.

The bottom line: There are, of course, many other factors that can weigh on the decision between tests. With coaching, most students can improve their scores on both reading sections regardless of where their initial strength lies. The table below sums of the key differences between the two reading sections

Length 35 minutes 65 minutes
Time per question 53 seconds 75 seconds
Type of text Journalistic, drawn from magazines and newspapers. Historical, formal, classic
Best suited for… Quick readers who take a straightforward, efficient approach to reading. Careful, deliberate readers who like reading challenging and more formal texts.


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