Test Prep

These Are the Differences Between the English Sections of the SAT, ACT

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Still trying to decide whether you should take the SAT or the ACT? What exactly makes these two exams different from each other? Time to do some comparison shopping. Let's start by taking a closer look at the English section of each test.

A Basic Overview


The English portion of the SAT is officially called the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section and is made up of two parts: the Reading test and the Writing and Language test. There's also an optional essay, which some colleges will require you to take. The ACT's verbal component is divided into two parts: a Reading section and an English section. The ACT also features an optional essay.

When it comes to the number of questions and the amount of time allowed per question, the ACT English section provides more questions and less time per question. Regardless of this difference in level of intensity, the content you will be tested on in both English sections is, in general, quite similar.

Reading Passages

The ACT's Reading section gives you five reading passages with 40 multiple-choice questions that are to be completed in 35 minutes – barely half an hour. The SAT's Reading section includes 52 multiple-choice questions based on four reading passages to be completed in 65 minutes – that's more than an hour.

However, remember that the ACT also includes a Science section, which is really more about interpreting charts and graphs with science themes. Did you know that the Science section is also designed to test your analytical reading skills with several science-themed reading passages?

What this means is that the ACT ends up with a lot more reading comprehension-related questions overall compared to the SAT. If you don't feel comfortable with being tested on those long reading passages, you might want to stick to taking the SAT instead. (Of course, the ACT, like the SAT, does allow for testing with accommodations, so if you are eligible, you could be allowed up to 50 percent more time to take the test.)

Besides working your way through practice questions, the best way to increase your pace (and build vocabulary) for the reading passages on either test is simply to read more often! Read your textbooks like you're supposed to, read fiction and non-fiction books, read magazines, read online articles. Everything helps.

Language Questions

In this section, you'll get tested on your knowledge of some important rules of English grammar. Sounds easy if you've been speaking English all your life, but there are plenty of formal rules that we tend to break in our everyday conversations – so pay attention in English class! This is why it's really beneficial to work through some official practice questions from this section of each test – you'll see which grammar rules keep coming up again and again.

There are 75 questions on the ACT's English section to be answered in 45 minutes (36 seconds per question). On the SAT's Writing and Language section, you get 44 questions to answer in 35 minutes (48 seconds per question). Some of these questions will be based on your ability to read and interpret infographics (tables or graphs), something you won't find on the ACT. But don't worry, there's no math involved here!

The SAT used to be known for its long and challenging vocabulary list, which you had to memorize in advance. However, the SAT no longer includes those formidable words and now has vocabulary questions that, like the ACT, focus on your ability to decipher the meaning of a word using context clues.

Optional Essay

The writing portions of both the SAT and ACT are designed to draw out your abilities to construct and recognize an argument on a topic, but each test has its own way of doing this.

The ACT allows you 40 minutes to write an essay that presents your perspective on a given topic, and show how it relates to at least one of the three included perspectives on this same topic. For the writing portion of the SAT, you have 50 minutes to analyze a persuasive reading passage, and explain exactly how the author constructs his/her argument – even if you don't agree with the author's point of view.

If you do register to take the SAT with Essay or the ACT with Writing, the score you get on the essay portion does not count toward your overall test score.

Reading through these differences may help you differentiate the tests, but you should also take the time to go over the content and structure of the other sections on both the SAT and ACT. In the end, the only way to really know which test you feel more comfortable with is to take the full practice version of each test and then decide.