I was recently invited to do an interview about SAT vs. ACT Reading on the “Tests and the Rest” podcast, which is run by test-prep experts Amy Seeley and Mike Bergin and covers a wide range of issues related to standardized testing and college admissions. (This is actually the second time they’ve had me on; my previous interview, in which I discussed SAT vs. ACT grammar, can be found here. I’m not sure when the new interview will air but will post something when it does.)

I had a great time chatting with Amy and Mike, and as I looked at my notes, the thought popped into my mind that in all my years of running this blog, I had somehow neglected to devote a post to that particular topic. It also occurred to me that perhaps I’d actually done such a post and simply forgotten about, but when I went back and checked, it turned out that I had in fact never devoted an entire post to that particular topic. So I’m putting it up now.

Let me preface this list by saying that there is considerable overlap between the reading portions of the two exams.


  • Consist primarily of non-fiction (ACT 3 out of 4 passages; SAT 4 out of 5 passages)
  • Draw from the same general pool of sources (typically articles of the sort found in publications like The Atlantic or Scientific American).
  • Include 1 set of paired passages

If you’re a very strong reader, you probably won’t have too much difficulty with either exam, and if you really struggle with reading, you’ll probably find either a challenge.

That said, here are five key differences that you should be aware of if you’re trying to figure out which test to focus on.


1) Length

SAT Reading: 65 minutes, 52 questions

ACT Reading: 35 minutes, 40 questions

A couple of things to keep in mind here. Yes, the ACT does give you considerably less time per question; however, the questions and the answer choices are more straightforward on the ACT, and it is sometimes possible to answer a couple of questions per set without looking back at the passage, or within a couple of seconds. As a result, the differences do even out somewhat.

If you are not a fast reader or a good skimmer, however, the ACT time constraint may feel uncomfortably tight.

On the other hand, if you’re a solid reader but would rather spend your testing time focusing on other things, the ACT provides an excellent opportunity to get the reading over with quickly.


2) Placement within the exam

SAT – 1st section (before multiple-choice wring)

ACT – 3rd section (after math, before science)

If you find the reading section particularly draining and/or hard to focus on, you may find it easier to tackle when you’re freshest, as opposed to having to trudge through it in the middle of the exam.


3) Old-fashioned language 

This is a consideration for not one but two passages.

First, every SAT includes a passage excerpted from a historical document (or two, if these are used for paired passages, which is usually the case). Often, these documents were written prior to the twentieth century and may contain challenging vocabulary, syntax, and references.

Second, the literature passage on the SAT is much more likely to be taken from a work written in the 19th or early 20th century. On the ACT, passages are almost always taken from books written within the last few decades.

If you really struggle with old-fashioned language, the ACT is very likely a safer bet.


4) Graphic-based questions

SAT – a few chart- and graph-based questions accompany social science and science passages

ACT – no graphic-based questions in the reading section, but an entire graphic-based science section

If you find graphs confusing, you may be better off opting for the SAT. Three of these questions are manageable (and if not, they can be skipped), whereas they play a major role on the ACT.


5) “Evidence” pairs 

The SAT contains paired question sets, with the second question asking you to identify the lines where the answer to the first question is found. Although these questions are less complicated than they appear, they can still be quite tedious; ACT questions are much more straightforward.