The Differences Between SAT and ACT ELA sections

The struggle students and parents face deciding between the SAT and ACT is completely understandable. The two tests are equally accepted by nearly all colleges and universities in the United States, and since updates to both tests in 2016 by their respective test writers, the two tests are more similar than ever.  In a previous article, we discussed the differences between the Math sections of the SAT and the ACT.  In this article, we will examine the differences between the three English Language Arts sections: Reading, Writing/English, and the essay.

            After the 2016 revision of the SAT, the Reading section more closely resembles the Reading section on the ACT than ever before.  The Sentence Completions, vocabulary questions for which the SAT was known, were removed, as were the short, 100-word passages that the SAT added in 2005.  Like the ACT Reading section, the SAT Reading section only contains a series of reading passages followed by a set of multiple choice questions.  Even though the Reading sections on the two tests look remarkably similar, there are still quite a few differences in the details.

            The SAT Reading section, which is now always the first section on the SAT, has five passages, one of which is actually a paired passage in which a single set of questions refer to a pair of passages, usually by different authors, discussing the same concept or topic.  Each passage will be followed by a set of 9-12 questions.  There is one literature passage, an excerpt from a work of English-language literature published between 1800 and around 2005, and there are two each social studies and science passages.  A student has 65 minutes to complete the 52 questions in the Reading section, which means that students have an average of 13 minutes per passage, which is quite an improvement over the 2005-2016 version of the SAT.

            The SAT Reading section focuses on Command of Evidence, which means figuring out what the questions are looking for.  The SAT is still a puzzle-based test, and there is a great deal of strategy in determining what the questions want.  Luckily, most SAT questions include line numbers from the passage, so students can focus on a particular part of the passage in uncovering answers.  Students should be aware of “paired questions” on the SAT, in which a question asks a fairly typical SAT Reading question, but the question contains no line numbers.  This is followed by a question that asks the student to locate the line numbers in the passage where she can find the answer to the previous question.  Many students find the paired questions challenging at first, but later find them much easier than they first assumed.

            The ACT Reading section, which is always the third section on the ACT, has four passages, one of which is also a paired passage.  Each ACT Reading passage has exactly ten questions. There is one prose fiction passage, an excerpt from a work of English-language literature published between the late 1700s and around 2005, one social studies passage, one natural sciences passage, and one humanities passage, focusing on a topic in the arts. A student has 35 minutes to complete the 40 questions in the section, which means that a student encounters more questions than minutes, and that there is only an average of 8-9 minutes per passage.  Many students find this to be the most challenging aspect of the ACT Reading.

            ACT Reading passages focus on identifying evidence, which means most students find the ACT Reading questions less difficult than SAT Reading questions.  The ACT adds difficulty to the section by not generally utilizing the line numbers. Students must spend time locating answers in the passage.  Between the tighter time limit and needle-in-a-haystack aspect of locating answers, many students feel the ACT Reading section is even more challenging than the SAT Reading, despite finding individual questions easier than typical SAT Reading questions.

            The SAT Writing section and the ACT English section are the grammar multiple choice sections on each test.  The SAT Writing section underwent a major redesign during 2016. The SAT test writers changed the section from a series of single-sentence grammar questions into a section of short passages, almost identical to the structure and format of the ACT English section.  The grammar and writing technique topics covered by the two tests are virtually identical, as well.  The only difference between the two tests is in the length of the section and the number of questions.  The SAT Writing section is 35 minutes in length and consists of 44 questions. There are four passages with exactly 11 questions each.  It is the second section on the SAT.  The ACT English section is 45 minutes in length and consists of 75 questions.  There are five passages with exactly 15 questions each.  It is the first section on the ACT.  Other than these cosmetic differences, the SAT Writing and ACT English sections are the parts of the two tests that are most similar.

            Conversely, the essay sections are the parts of the two tests that are most different.  The SAT essay, which was an integral part of the SAT before 2016, is now both optional and not included in the SAT score.  It is also the fifth and final section on the new version of the SAT.  The current format of the SAT essay begins with a two or more page long reading assignment.  This passage is either an article published in a newspaper or on a news website some time in the last five years or an excerpt from a speech given by a well known public figure some time between the late 1700s and the early years of the 21st Century.  Students are tasked with analyzing this passage, focusing specifically on the author’s use of reasoning, evidence, and style in communicating the point of the passage.  Many students have commented that this essay is quite challenging, especially compared to the writing they do in school.

            The ACT essay is structured differently.  The student is presented with a single paragraph describing a current event issue, which could range from concerns about how much children use technology to whether high school students should maintain a certain grade point average in order to earn a driver’s license.  The student will then read three provided opinions on the issue called “perspectives”.  The student’s task is to describe their own opinion on the issue and then analyze the perspectives in terms of why they are reasonable or not.  Since the ACT essay involves some persuasive writing, many students have commented that they find the ACT essay noticeably easier than the SAT essay, which is a purely analytical essay.

            Despite the fact that the essay is the section that is most significantly different between the two tests, it is often not a good reason to choose one test over the other.  Many colleges and universities in the United States tell applicants that the essay score is either optional or not considered in the admissions process. And while college admissions officers often read the SAT or ACT essays as a supplemental writing sample in addition to the college application essay, that is not reason enough to be the deciding factor between the SAT and the ACT.  Students and parents should consider the two tests as a whole, not as separate English language arts sections or math sections.  The SAT is a more tricky test, depending on study skills to parse complicated word problems and language-based questions.  The ACT is a more straightforward test, with questions that are far simpler to understand, even if the material on the test is academically more advanced.  On the other hand, the reduced time limits on the ACT make it a difficult challenge to complete the sections before time runs out.  The choice between the SAT and the ACT requires introspection.  Know yourself, and you’ll know which test is better for you.