The Differences Between SAT and ACT Reading

act preparation reading sat preparation standardized test tips Sep 12, 2022
the differences between the SAT and ACT Reading sections

Table of Contents

  • Structure and Score
  • Time
  • Topics and Question Types
  • Conclusion

Structure and Score

The obvious difference is the number of passages. The SAT has 5 passages containing a total of 52 questions. The ACT has 4 passages containing a total of 40 questions. The Reading section is first on the SAT and third on the ACT. If you find reading challenging, you may want to get it over with first.

There are fewer questions in the Reading section on the ACT but the Science section is in large part a Reading section as well. The SAT includes a few graphic questions in the Reading. ACT groups them all in the Science section. If analyzing graphs and tables is challenging for you, you may find the SAT to be a better fit. 

The Reading score is one-fourth of your composite score on both tests. The impact on your score has more to do with structure, time and placement of the section.



The SAT allows 65 minutes for 52 questions, that is 1 minute 15 seconds pre question. The ACT allows 35 minutes for 40 questions, that is a little more than 50 seconds per question. Obviously, the pace is faster on the ACT but as mentioned above, the questions are more straightforward and the passages are recent. If you are a good skimmer or quick reader the ACT may be a better fit. If time constraints create anxiety for you, the SAT may be better. Just remember you don’t have to get them all correct to get a good score. 


Topics and Question Types

The passages on the ACT ALWAYS come in the same order: prose fiction, humanities, social science and natural science. The order of passages on the SAT changes from test to test. There will be one fiction and four non-fiction passages on the SAT. Both tests have a paired passage, two articles on the same topic from differing viewpoints. The SAT also includes one or sometimes two passages from the 19th or 20th century (historical documents or great works of literature). These passages have antiquated vocabulary and references and intricate sentence structure. If you are not a strong reader these passages can be quite challenging. 

The SAT also has paired questions: the first asks a question and the second asks for the lines where you found the answer. Questions on the ACT are more straightforward and while the answers are based on lines from the passage, you are not asked to cite them. 



The differences between the SAT and ACT reading sections are much less than those found in the math sections, but the question and passage types and time allotment can impact your score. It is important to familiarize yourself with the differences when deciding which test is best for you. Here are some questions you may want to ask yourself while deciding

  • Am I a quick reader/Do I skim well?  (ACT)
  • Do I have a strong vocabulary, particularly older words? (SAT)
  • Can I  easily cite specific lines to support my answer choice? (SAT)
  • Is Reading stressful for me/Should I do it first? (SAT)
  • Do I read charts and graphs well? (ACT)

While there are far fewer differences between the SAT and ACT Reading sections, being familiar with them can help you make an informed decision and impact your score.


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