While the SAT and the ACT are more similar now than they have ever been, there are still some noticeable and confusing differences between the two tests, especially in the English-language sections. First, however, let’s look at the similarities. Both the SAT and the ACT are utilized by colleges for both admissions and scholarship purposes. College admissions officers like standardized test scores because they provide a single number that is both national and the same from year to year. Both the SAT and the ACT test similar skills: comprehension, vocabulary, grammar, writing style and organization, and critical thinking. The grammar based SAT Writing and ACT English sections are virtually identical in content, structure, and format.
The differences between the two exams usually fall into two categories – structure and philosophy. Philosophically, the SAT is a puzzle test. Each question is an inference question. The SAT test writers are always trying to trick the students. The questions are confusing and wordy and the answer choices more so. The passages are dense and challenging to read quickly.
The structure of the SAT Reading section, however, can help students navigate the questions and answers. Each question tends to include a specific line number reference telling students approximately where in the passage they can find the answers. Further, the questions generally follow the order of the passage. Finally, the SAT allots an average of around 13 minutes per reading passage for the students.
The ACT is a far more straightforward test. Rather than presenting students with verbal puzzles, the ACT test writers ask much more detail-oriented questions so that students can demonstrate their knowledge and expertise. Along with the questions, the answer choices are much more clear and precise than SAT answer choices.
The ACT, however, provides all of the difficulty a student can expect from a standardized test through the structure and format of the Reading section. Students are only provided with an average of eight and half minutes per passage within the time limit. Almost none of the questions include line number references, making it very difficult to know where to find the answers in the passage. More frustratingly, though, is the fact that the questions are not arranged in order of the passage. Instead, the questions for each ACT Reading passage are jumbled. These factors are often cited by students who state that they find the ACT Reading section harder than the SAT Reading section, even though it is technically true that the SAT Reading passages are rated at a slightly higher reading level.
Both the SAT and ACT Reading sections each provide their own specific challenges, nationally, students tend to perform about the same on each test. When advising students and parents, it is our position that you should find the experience that will help you maximize your performance and best achieve your personal goals.