What’s the harder section, ACT Reading or SAT Critical Reading? We will break down the differences between SAT and ACT Reading to help you decide which test is hardest for you.
We will also compare percentile scores for both tests to see where the scoring advantage is. You might be surprised which one is easier!
In this first section, I'll break down the most critical differences between SAT Reading and ACT Reading. One test is not inherently easier than the other - it all depends on your skills. Keep your own strengths and weaknesses in mind as you read through the following sections.
One of the biggest differences between the SAT Critical Reading section and the ACT Reading section is the vocabulary tested. SAT vocabulary questions are notoriously tricky for many students, and require knowledge of a good amount of rare words.
19 out of the 67 SAT Critical Reading questions are vocabulary-based, which is a sizeable amount of the reading section. These questions feature a short sentence or two, and based on that, you have to define a word’s meaning.
In contrast, every ACT Reading question is based on a longer passage. This means the vocabulary questions are often possible to solve via the context of the passage. Plus, the ACT vocabulary itself is often much more simple. See an example below.
Via ACT's Preparing for the ACT guide.
Note that this question can be solved via the context of the passage, and the phrasing is very straightforward, unlike the SAT example...
Via College Board.
While the SAT Critical Reading section also has vocabulary-context questions like the ACT example, it also has questions like this that are just a single sentence. Notice that the language of the question itself is quite difficult, and the five answer choices all require fairly advanced vocabulary knowledge.
Our advice? If vocabulary is a strength for you, you will have a big advantage on SAT Critical Reading. If you struggle with vocabulary, or do best when you have context to figure out a word from, the ACT might be a better choice for you.
Breaking Down Long Passages
The ACT doesn’t always give line numbers in the questions. For what we call “little picture, find the detail” questions, you have to skim the whole reading passage to find the answer, whereas SAT always gives line numbers. See an ACT example below:
Via ACT's Preparing for the ACT guide.
For this question, you have to sift through the passage to find the one line that mentions this very particular detail. If you don't have a good memory for small details, this can take time.
In contrast, you can approach the SAT Critical Reading section by reading the questions first and then going back to parts of the passage using the line numbers. For the ACT, you will have to at least skim the entire passage, even if you read the questions first.
Our advice? If you have a good memory for longer passages and small details, you will have an advantage on the ACT. If you are good at picking information out of a passage, you might do better on the SAT.
Timing is a bigger challenge on the ACT, as the ACT asks more questions per minute. ACT reading has 40 questions in 35 minutes, which gives you just 52 seconds per question. Furthermore, the Reading section happens in a single chunk, so you have to keep up your stamina for 35 minutes.
Keep on your eyes on your watch!
In contrast, the SAT breaks reading into three sections. There are usually two sections with 24 questions in 25 minutes, and one section with 19 questions in 20 minutes. This gives you slightly more than one minute per question on the SAT.
You will spend more time overall on SAT reading (70 minutes total). But since SAT reading is broken up over three sections, ACT reading will likely feel more intense, especially because you will be moving at that quick 52-seconds-per-question rate.
Our advice? If pacing and sustained focus are your strong suits on tests, you will do better on the ACT. If you are able to switch topics quickly and focus better on shorter tasks, the SAT might be better for you.
Section Composition and Ordering
ACT reading is much more predictable. There are four passages about four set topics: Natural Science, Social Science, Literature, and Humanities.
ACT Reading also has just those four long passages – no shorter paragraphs or pure vocabulary questions like the SAT.
SAT Critical Reading is more of a mixed bag in terms of content. You have the tricky vocab questions, shorter (paragraph-length) passages, questions that have you compare two short passages, and longer passages.
The SAT also doesn’t have set reading topics like the ACT, and tends to draw from a wider variety of sources for its reading passages. All of these factors make the SAT Critical Reading a much more complicated section than ACT Reading.
ACT section ordering is much more straightforward, as well. ACT Reading is always the third section of the test, and you will be tackling it right after the break. This means your brain will be warmed up from the first two sections, but hopefully a bit relaxed coming back from the break. It might be the ideal section time!
For the SAT, the test order is more random, so the reading sections could come at any point, except first, which is always the essay, and last, which is always a writing multiple choice section. You might have a Critical Reading section after two other sections and may be exhausted. Or you might get one right after a break. There is no way to tell until you take the test.
Furthermore, SAT exams always have an experimental section, which means it’s possible you could take four critical reading sections on one test – three real ones and a fourth experimental one. (See our article about SAT timing for more about the experimental section.)
Our Advice? If you do well focusing on one task for a longer period, the ACT might be easier. If you need a variety of activities to stay focused, SAT reading will likely be easier for you.
If reading comprehension is something you tend to struggle with in general on tests, the ACT might be easier since you will be facing that section after a break and will be warmed up from the first two sections.
Percentile Score Comparison: Is The ACT or SAT Reading Section Easier?
Based on the percentile rankings, it’s tougher to get a high raw score on the SAT Reading section. Only 18% of students get 70% or more of the questions correct on SAT Reading, whereas 34% of students – nearly double – get that amount correct on the ACT.
We created a table comparing raw score percentages (from 100% down to 10%) with their respective SAT and ACT scaled scores and percentile rankings. (If you want to learn more about scoring and percentiles, check out our posts on ACT scoring, ACT percentiles, SAT scoring, and SAT percentiles.)
|Percent of Questions Correct||SAT Raw Score||ACT Raw Score||SAT Scaled Score||ACT Scaled Score||SAT Percentile||ACT Percentile|
ACT raw to scaled score data from the Preparing for the ACT Guide. SAT raw to scaled score data from College Board's scoring guide. SAT percentile data via College Board. ACT Percentile Data via the ACT Student website.
From the table, we can see that getting the same percentage of questions right nets a more impressive percentile score on the SAT. For example, a 90% raw score is in the 97th percentile for the SAT but 93rd for the ACT. An 80% raw score is also worth more on the SAT than the ACT – it’s in the 92nd percentile for the SAT, but the 81st for the ACT. And if you get 70% of the questions right, that puts you in the 82nd percentile for the SAT but just 66th percentile for the ACT.
Also note that if you get half of the raw points, you are in the 57th percentile for the SAT which puts your score above average, but in the 36th percentile for the ACT, well below average.
This of course is largely because the SAT questions are more difficult than the ACT - that is, more students get more questions right on the ACT than the SAT. But if you do particularly well on one type of test compared to the average student, you'll have a huge lead in score.
So Which Test Should I Take?
The best way to decide which reading section you’ll do best on is to take real practice tests. Score yourself, and find out which test you score higher on based on percentiles.
Also, based on those practice tests, figure out your weaknesses. Are you struggling on SAT’s vocabulary questions? Then the ACT might be a better choice for you. Are you struggling with ACT’s “find the detail” questions, or running out of time? Then maybe the SAT will be a better fit for you.
Another strategy is to think about which test you like more. Sure, a test is a test, but you’ll probably find you enjoy one more than the other. Some students enjoy Critical Reading on the SAT because breaking down vocabulary words is almost like a game. You may study more effectively for the test you like better.
Finally, think about the other sections if you can't decide. For example, you might take a practice test and figure out you are slightly better at ACT Reading. But if ACT Math is really hard for you, it could cancel out the benefits of being better at ACT Reading.
Want a comprehensive guide to whether the ACT or SAT is easier? Read this detailed breakdown.
What about the writing and math sections? See our complete guide to ACT versus SAT to compare your overall strengths and weaknesses.
If you’re going with the SAT, learn and review SAT vocab using the waterfall method. Also check out our tips for a perfect 800 on Critical Reading by our full scorer.
Want to improve your SAT score by 240 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:
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Halle Edwards graduated from Stanford University with honors. In high school, she earned 99th percentile ACT scores as well as 99th percentile scores on SAT subject tests. She also took nine AP classes, earning a perfect score of 5 on seven AP tests. As a graduate of a large public high school who tackled the college admission process largely on her own, she is passionate about helping high school students from different backgrounds get the knowledge they need to be successful in the college admissions process.