SAT vs. ACT: Verbal Considerations

Jan 29, 2021

Choosing between SAT and ACT: Verbal Considerations

If you plan to apply to universities in the United States, you need to take one of two standardized tests: the SAT or the ACT. In this article, I’ll walk you through the major differences between the Verbal portions of these exams and offer some advice that may help you decide which test is the better fit for you.

But first, let’s review the basics.

What does the “Verbal portion” of the SAT/ACT refer to?

On the SAT, your Verbal score (on a scale of 200 to 800) is the sum of two sections: SAT Reading and SAT Writing and Language. The SAT Reading section consists of 5 passages with 10-11 questions each for a total of 52 questions in 65 minutes. This section tests your ability to understand the main ideas of a passage, link claims with evidence, make inferences based on the passage, define vocabulary words in context, and synthesize information within and between passages as well as between a passage and graphs/figures.

Meanwhile, the SAT Writing and Language section includes 4 passages with 11 questions each for a total of 44 questions in 35 minutes. This section tests your knowledge of grammar rules, language use, and rhetorical strategies.

What about the ACT Verbal section?

On the ACT, you receive a separate score (on a scale of 0 to 36) for each of the Verbal sections. This means you receive one score for ACT Reading, and another for ACT English.

The ACT Reading section consists of 4 passages of 10 questions each for a total of 40 questions in 35 minutes. The competencies tested are similar to those tested on the SAT Reading.

The ACT English section consists of 75 questions in 45 minutes, and, like SAT Writing and Language, tests your knowledge of grammar rules, language use, and rhetorical strategies.

ScoringScaled composite of both Verbal sections; 200-800 totalSeparate score on a scale of 0-36 for each of the two Verbal sections
Reading52 questions in 65 minutes40 questions in 35 minutes
English/WL44 questions in 35 minutes75 questions in 45 minutes

Which test is best for me, SAT or ACT?

If you’re wondering which test would be a better fit for you, your best bet is to take both an SAT diagnostic and an ACT diagnostic—which is what Onsen recommends before signing up for a tutoring program. You may find you have a natural affinity for one test over the other, or you may discover that you’re stronger in Verbal on one test and Math on another. Either way, these diagnostics provide useful data about where your strengths and struggles lie, and how you and your tutor can work together to maximize your overall score.

Key differences between SAT Verbal and ACT Verbal

Nearly all universities in the United States accept both SAT and ACT scores and do not favor either test. While I can’t recommend one test over the other without seeing your diagnostic scores, I can point out a few key differences between the Verbal sections of these exams that may influence which is the better fit for you.

Difference 1: Timing is significantly tighter on ACT Reading than on SAT Reading

ACT Reading gives students less time per question than does SAT Reading; on the ACT, you’ll have an average of roughly 50 seconds per Reading question, whereas on the SAT, you’ll have an average of 1 minute, 15 seconds per question. Those extra 25 seconds per question can make a huge difference! If you struggle to complete the Reading section on time, the SAT may be a better fit for you—but keep in mind the following caveats:

First, as you’ll see below in Difference 2, just because the SAT Reading passages are shorter, doesn’t mean they’re easier (in fact, the opposite is often true!).

Second, Onsen’s tutors have loads of experience helping students test out different reading strategies that optimize both speed and accuracy. It’s very common for students to struggle with timing on the diagnostic exams, and Onsen’s tutors can help to troubleshoot that problem starting in the very first session. Put differently, struggling with timing on the diagnostic exam should not automatically rule out the ACT.

Difference 2: SAT allows more time per question, but requires higher-level reading proficiency and comprehension

In other words, you may be less crunched for time on the SAT than the ACT, but you may find that the SAT questions themselves are more difficult than the ACT questions. As mentioned above, SAT Reading allows more time per question than ACT Reading does—however, SAT Reading questions often require a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the passage compared to ACT Reading questions. One is not better or worse than the other; they are simply different, and therefore require different approaches. Your Onsen tutor will tailor your program to your individual needs, as well as to the strategies that have proven most effective on each of the exams.

Difference 3: SAT Reading contains a potentially tricky question type that doesn’t appear on ACT Reading

SAT Reading contains paired answer-evidence questions, in which one question asks you something about the passage and the subsequent question asks you to locate evidence for the previous answer in the passage.

Here’s an example of this type of question:

If you miss some of these paired evidence questions on your diagnostic exam, don’t worry too much; Onsen’s Verbal tutors have powerful strategies that will help you ace these types of questions.

Even though this question type does not appear on the ACT, it’s still really important to learn to link specific evidence from the passage with your answer choice. As I say to my Verbal students, on both the SAT and ACT Reading sections, you should always be able to point to a particular spot in the passage as evidence for the answer you’re choosing.

Difference 4: ACT separates out your Verbal sub-scores; SAT combines them

As noted above, on the ACT, you will receive a score out of 36 for Reading and a score out of 36 for English. On the SAT, your Reading and Writing and Language scores will be combined into one Verbal score out of 800.

What does this mean for you?

Because the ACT divides your total score into four sections (Reading, English, Math, and Science) as opposed to two on the SAT (Verbal and Math), the ACT offers a great opportunity to prove your talents as a humanities-oriented or STEM-oriented student. 

For instance, let’s say you’re planning to major in Art History or English Literature (or any other humanities major): the ACT can given colleges a more nuanced look at your strengths, because you can excel at Reading and English individually, rather than just at “Verbal” as on the SAT. Similarly, let’s say you intend to study Computer Science, Biomedical Engineering, or fulfill Pre-Med requirements (or pursue any other STEM path): the ACT offers you a chance to excel at both Math and Science as opposed to just Math on the SAT.

Your college admissions counselor can help you decide which exam plays to your strengths and best aligns with your overall application narrative.  

Difference 5: ACT is often considered to be more in line with high school curricula (AP/IB)

Many students find that the questions on the ACT are similar to those they encounter in school, particularly in AP or IB courses. Many students also express that the ACT features more straightforward wording and fewer traps, as compared to the SAT. You may feel more at ease with the ACT because it more closely mimics the kind of work you do in school, particularly if you attend school in the states or an American school abroad.

Difference 6: The Essay section

As of January 2021, the SAT no longer offers the optional Essay section. The ACT, by contrast, still offers the optional Essay portion—at least for now. Although the Essay section does not typically play a large role in college admissions, it is often a good idea to take this optional section—and hopefully do very well! The Essay section offers yet another quantitative measure of your abilities that you can share with universities.

**Bonus** Difference 7 (for students taking the exams outside of the United States): The International version of the ACT is computer-based, while the International version of the SAT is paper-based

If you will be taking your standardized test(s) outside of the United States, it’s worth bearing in mind that the International ACT is conducted entirely via computer software at a testing lab, while the SAT is conducted on paper. 

Some students strongly prefer one format over the other, especially when it comes to the Reading section. If you prefer to read physical books, physical worksheets, physical magazines and newspapers, and so on, you may find the International SAT is a better fit for you. If, by contrast, you’re very used to reading on your computer for school and reading on an electronic device for pleasure, then you may actually prefer the computer-based format of the ACT. 

Keep in mind, though, that because the computer-based format is generally less familiar to standardized test takers than the paper-based format is, there is sometimes a learning curve when adjusting to the computer-based format. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the computer-based version of the exam does not allow you to annotate Reading and Science passages, so if you are already struggling to complete these sections of the ACT within the allotted time, then the computer-based test may amplify those timing challenges. As a result, we sometimes see a decrease in ACT scores simply by virtue of switching to the computer-based version. 

This does not mean that if you’re taking your exams outside of the US, you should avoid the ACT because of the computer-based format. If you’re taking the ACT abroad, then your Onsen tutoring program will include full-length computer-based practice tests so that you can familiarize yourself with the format and functionality. Your Onsen tutors will also offer guidance on how to approach your homework so as to mimic the computer-based testing format. 

The Take-Home Message

SAT Verbal and ACT Verbal share many similarities—but they also have several key differences that are worth taking into account as you, your family, and your Onsen program manager decide which exam is better suited to your ability and potential.

Keep in mind that the Verbal sections represent only one portion of the exam! Head over here to read about the differences between the Quantitative sections of the SAT and ACT.

Written by

Margret Ann Thors
Author Image A professional writer and three-time graduate of Columbia University, Margrét Ann has tutored the SAT, ACT, GRE, SSAT, as well as creative and academic writing for the past eight years. In addition to her one-on-one tutoring work, Margrét Ann has taught undergraduate writing and education courses at Columbia University and University of Colorado, Boulder, as well as pre-college summer workshops at such colleges and universities as Yale, Fairfield, Haverford, and Vassar.

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