As you decide whether to take the ACT or SAT — or both — consider what the passages on their respective reading tests are like.
— Number of passages.
The ACT and SAT passages each span roughly a page, but this similarity has more to do with formatting than content. The one-page estimate also holds true for the paired passages when they are considered in their totality. In other words, each passage from a paired passage set is typically half as long as the other passage types.
On a more granular level, word count averages for ACT and SAT passages differ. Some sources have found ACT passages to vary between 800 and 1,000 words, while SAT passages may range between 500 and 750 words.
Number of Passages
The SAT Reading test has five passages, and the ACT contains four. Because of the difference in word count per passage, SAT-takers may not actually end up reading more words even though they have one more passage to read.
The passages contained in these tests span different genres, including literature, the social sciences and the natural sciences.
While no two passages within a genre are totally alike, there are some general traits that characterize each and which students should be aware of. For example, literary passages tend to contain dialogues, several characters and archaic language. Science passages usually contain numbers, such as years and percentages, and direct quotes from studies or scientists.
The ACT passages are explicitly classified according to their genre. Thus, you can expect the passage number (I-IV) to be followed by a label in capital letters, such as LITERARY NARRATIVE or INFORMATIONAL. The latter could refer to a text about natural science, social science or the humanities. Be aware that paired passages could fall under any category.
The SAT passages are not explicitly labeled this way. However, a quick glance at the passage title and accompanying blurb should help you figure out the genre. You may wish to practice doing this if your technique will be to attack the passages in a nonstandard order.
There is not necessarily a predictable order for the passages on the ACT or SAT. However, on past tests, literary passages have tended to appear at or near the beginning.
It is your decision whether you want to approach the passages in order or skip around. If there are certain passage types you significantly struggle with, it may be best to save those for last. For instance, classic literary passages that include lofty lexicon and outdated sentence structures can be especially challenging for English language learners. These students may benefit from tackling such passages last.
Since reading questions are all weighted equally on the two tests, it makes more sense to first answer the questions you have the greatest chance of getting right.
A major difference between the ACT and SAT Reading tests is that the latter contains supporting visuals at the end of two passages. The ACT Reading test, on the other hand, is purely textual.
You may be intimidated by the thought of having to interpret graphs, tables and charts on a reading test, especially if you have typically struggled to develop this skill in math class. However, be aware that you will not have to perform calculations based on the visuals. You just need to be able to observe trends and extract main ideas.
SAT Reading questions that involve visuals generally range between one and three per reading set. That typically amounts to between two and six visual-based questions out of 52 total, a small percentage of the reading test. Therefore, the presence or absence of graphics should not be the sole reason to choose one test over the other.
The difficulty of the ACT and SAT passages is a relative matter, as each student will have his or her own impression of what is hard and easy. Scientifically inclined students may find natural science passages easiest, while other kinds of students may consider them the hardest. What can be said is that the range of genres represented on either test lends itself to fairness.
A few generalizations can be made regarding either reading test. For example, although ACT passages tend to be longer, the questions that follow them may not be as complicated or multilayered as those on the SAT. However, ACT-takers must read faster because ACT passages are longer. Therefore, it’s not possible to objectively say which reading test is harder. That depends on each student’s strengths and weaknesses.
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