SAT vs. ACT Reading Tests

In the last few years, both the SAT and the ACT have revised their sections designed to test reading comprehension. Although both tests are intended to measure a student’s ability to interact with text and “read between the lines” there exist subtle-yet-significant differences between how each approaches the task. Because these differences can impact what tactics will be most successful on each test, we’ve broken down some of the specific similarities and differences of the ACT and SAT reading sections.

Sequential or Random

The SAT reading test organizes questions sequentially relative to the passage, while the ACT does not. That means that on the SAT a question about something in the first paragraph will appear before questions related to the second or third paragraph. Consequently, one of the challenges on the ACT is the need to use time “hunting and pecking” for the right portion of a passage before answering. From a strategic standpoint, that makes reading the full passage before beginning to answer questions more important for the ACT than the SAT (where some students choose to simply skim before reading more closely as necessary to answer the questions.)


Not only is the ACT reading section not sequential, it also allows less time per question. While the SAT asks 52 questions in 65 minutes (~75 sec/question), the ACT covers 40 questions in 35 minutes (~53 sec/question). Thankfully, there is some compensation for ACT takers–their questions are pulled from only 4 passages while the SAT requires students to work through 5 passages.


ACT takers may also have a slight advantage when it comes to the content of their passages. Because the SAT is intended to mimic classroom materials, it has a tendency to include language that feels more formal or even dated compared to the ACT. This may be especially true for the US/World Literature and History/Social Sciences passages. The ACT on the other hand, tends to use more modern sources resulting in passages that feel more familiar to many high school students.

Graphs and Charts

Both the SAT and ACT have placed an increased emphasis on being able to interpret information presented graphically, although they take slightly different approaches. The SAT includes two “science” passages which generally include charts or graphs to analyze. While the ACT doesn’t have a science section, it does include at least two passages somewhere in the reading test that include visual information to analyze and interpret.

While the increased prominence of visual data may seem intimidating, on both tests there is no need for prior topic-specific knowledge and no math required.

Paired Questions

Another difference is the presence of so-called “paired questions” on the SAT. Every question on the ACT is independent of the other questions around it–getting on questions wrong isn’t likely to influence how whether you get the next one correct or not. On the SAT, however, that isn’t the case. Throughout the reading section there will be questions that require test-takers to provide evidence from the passage to support the answer to a previous question–the question are “paired.” That means that getting the first question incorrect means likely getting the second one incorrect as well. To make things more difficult, the test-writers frequently include examples in the second half of a question pair that could support multiple answers to the first question.

Words in Context

The way the tests approach vocabulary is also slightly different. While the ACT tends to focus on things like what the use of a particular, generally familiar, word implies about the author’s intent or message, the SAT is more likely to expect the test-taker to provide a definition of a given word. While historically the SAT placed a lot of weight on evaluating vocabulary in a vacuum, the newest incarnation of the test uses reading passages to determine how well students can understand college-level words when they are used in context.

Compare and Contrast

One area where both tests are the same is that they both include at least one section composed of two written passages that the reader must then compare and contrast to successfully answer the question.


To help keep these differences straight, the chart below summarizes the key characteristics of both tests:

Time allowed for Reading Test65 minutes35 minutes
Number of questions52 questions40 questions
Time per questions75 seconds53 seconds
Number of passages5 passages4 passages
Subject of passages1 – US/World Lit
2 – History/Soc. Studies
2 – Science
1 – Prose Fiction/Literary Narrative
1 – Soc. Studies
1 – Humanities
1 – Natural Sciences
Has paired questions.YESNO
Questions are sequential.YESNO
Includes charts and graphsYES (typically in science section)YES (at least two passages)
Has sections requiring the reader to compare and contrast two different textsYESYES
Length of passages600-750 words450-800 words

Regardless of which test you choose to take, the best preparation is to develop a habit of reading material from multiple sources early on and practicing drawing conclusions based on what you’ve read. To find out more specifics about each test, including practice questions, you can visit the College Board (SAT) and the ACT websites.