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Score at the Top Blog

SAT or ACT: For Which Test Should You Prep? — Part 2: Reading

Thursday, December 01, 2016


In our previously posted Part 1 of this two-parter, we noted that

…the SAT’s Reading section allows 43% more time/question than does the ACT’s comparable section…If the passages and questions were all of equal difficulty, the SAT would be one’s obvious choice, and while we have to say that that’s generally so for the ACT’s English and the SAT’s Writing and Language sections…the same can’t be said about the two tests’ Reading section passage and questions…

and we promised you this follow-up discussion of the Reading differences.

We’re going to start by admitting that there a difference of opinion on whether the SAT’s Reading is tougher than the ACT’s reading; some test-prep experts hold that, on balance, the differences in difficulty between the two sections is either negligible or non-existent. Still, there are, in fact, more than minor differences between the two, one of which (time/per question) we mentioned above.

We indicated that all other things being equal (especially equivalent passage difficulty), the SAT would be the clear winner, but all other things aren’t equal, including – it can be argued – passage difficulty.

Compare: the ACT’s Reading section allows 35 minutes to read four passages and answer 40 questions. The SAT’s Reading section allows 65 minutes to read five passages and answer 52 questions. That means that students taking the SAT will need to maintain energy and reading focus for almost twice as long as students taking the ACT, so for students whose strong suit isn’t reading, that duration could be cautionary. On the other hand, since there’s less time per reading question on the ACT, students will need to work at a faster pace than on the SAT reading.

Turning to passage difficulty, we remind you that the new SAT is still “evolving” – still experimental – so that any conclusion based upon recent SAT tests and practice tests could be obviated by future changes. Having said that, thanks to an analysis done on two past ACT practice tests and two new SAT practice tests by our friend and colleague, Jed Applerouth, we know the following:

  • The average number of words/sentence in reading passages was 13% higher on the SAT practice test than on the ACT practice tests.
  • The peak number of words/sentence reading passages was 47% higher on the SAT practice tests than on the ACT practice tests.
  • The average reading complexity grades for the two SAT tests were at the college freshman and sophomore levels, while those for the two ACT tests were at the high school junior and senior levels.
  • At least one of the passages for each of the two SAT tests was at the college senior reading complexity level, while the most complex passages for the two ACT tests were at the college sophomore level (on the 2009-10 Practice ACT) and the high school senior level (on the 2014-15 Practice ACT).

Further, as Applerouth notes,

Students can anticipate seeing much more complex vocabulary in the passages of the new SAT compared to the old SAT, particularly those drawn from older texts (e.g. brazier, betook, engender, discomfiture, monotony) or from the “hard” passage (e.g. solicitude, obstinacy, consecrated, subversion, incantations).

Last, the SAT’s reading passages contain graphs, charts, and tables that require students to integrate material from them with passage text to answer questions. That’s not so for the ACT’s reading passages. However, all of the graphics are easy to interpret, although somewhat easier than those found in the ACT’s Science section.

So what’s the meaningful conclusion? Well, except for those features of the SAT that might cause you anxiety and, thus, result in you not doing your best, none of it’s meaningful. The only thing that is meaningful is this: on which of the SAT or ACT you’re likely to do best. We’ll close with the same text we used at the end of Part 1.

Having covered the above, remember what we said about nothing mattering except on which of the two tests you’ll do best, because that’s the test you’ll want to focus on for your preparation, and here are the best ways to figure that out before you begin in-depth prep: