Reading Questions: SAT vs. ACT

April 10, 2019 

Good reading comprehension is a cornerstone of success on the SAT and ACT. However (as you might expect), it is more crucial on the Reading sections of both tests.

Reading comprehension is actually a portmanteau term, as it combines several skills. You must not only decode information, but you must also understand what you have read and be able to answer questions that require you to analyze, infer, predict, and apply.

The SAT and ACT Reading tests are similar, but not identical. Both Reading sections require you to exhibit a minimum of 9th grade reading skills. ACT selections will not go above an 11th grade reading level. The SAT will probably have one or two selections written on a college level. On tSAT and ACT Reading | A+ he other hand, the SAT gives you more time to handle that greater complexity. You will have a minute and fifteen seconds to answer each question on the SAT, as opposed to just under a minute on the ACT.

The Reading sections of the two tests differ in how they expect you to use your skills. The ACT requires more “basic” comprehension. Basic comprehension questions on the ACT may ask you to locate the main idea, identify supporting details, summarize information, or indicate how the author met her goals for the passage. You might also be asked to compare ideas, trace causes and effects, or describe the author’s voice

One example from Summit Educational Group’s ACT textbook demonstrates that basic comprehension questions still require careful reading. A social science passage on aging is followed by two questions:

  1. Which of the following best expresses the main idea of the passage as a whole?
  2. Which of the following best describes the main idea of the second paragraph (lines 10-26)?

The alert student (you) will register the key words “main idea”, but also notice that each question refers to a different portion of the reading. So there’s no need to worry why the same question is being asked twice. This seems obvious now, but during the time-crunch of testing such mistakes are easy to make. 


  • The SAT section also asks students to recall key details and analyze the main idea of a passage or paragraph, but in general there is much more emphasis on “defining vocabulary in context, understanding the role of the author, and defending answers with textual evidence.” Let’s look at one of each of these SAT question types. (Again, examples come from SEG’s SAT and PSAT Course Book.) 


  • Defining Vocabulary in Context. Vocabulary in context questions usually begin with “as used in line 15” or “as used in line 20”. This acknowledges the fact that one word can have many meanings. The test, however, is interested only in the meaning used in that particular line. Question 1 on page 39 of the Summit textbook asks: “As used in line 38, ‘house’ most nearly means…” The answer choices are defend, inhabit, fortify, and hold. Even though some answer choices can be eliminated, a final decision cannot be made without reference to the passage (context), as both “inhabit” and “hold” are valid definitions.


  • Understanding the Role of the Author. Also called point of view (POV). The key to answering these questions is to pick up on “tone, attitude, and opinion.” Look for the phrase “point of view” or the word “author” as in “Which of the following statements would the author most likely agree with?”


  • Defending Answers with Textual Evidence. These are normally the second part of a two-question set. The first question asks a detail or inference question such as, “Which of the following best describes how scientists believe the Large Hadron Collider could be used to learn about dark matter?” The follow-up (evidence) question offers four excerpts that you can choose to support your (presumably) correct answer to the first question.


One advantage of having two college admissions tests is that it gives you options. Neither the SAT nor the ACT can be defined as “better”; the question is which is better for you. Most students find it useful to take two practice proctored tests. If you do so with A+, you can then discuss your results and experience with our staff. This helps you decide which test will more effectively showcase your knowledge and skills.

At A+ Test Prep and Tutoring, our focus is always on you. Our practices are based on the latest developments in educational theory and research. We have an excellent team of tutors who can help you with standardized testing, executive functioning, or achievement in any other school subject. If you would like more information, our Client Service Directors Anne Stanley and Susan Ware are available to answer questions and provide solutions. You may reach either of them by calling A+ Test Prep and Tutoring at 215-886-9188.


What They're Saying

Contact Us


A+ Test Prep and Tutoring -- Philadelphia

505 York Road, Suite 6, Jenkintown PA 19046

A+ Test Prep and Tutoring -- Montgomeryville

593-1 Bethlehem Pike, Unit #4, Montgomeryville PA 18936

A+ Test Prep and Tutoring -- Center City

419 S 19th Street

Philadelphia, PA 19146