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ACT English and SAT Writing and Language Differences

Emma W.

The ACT English and SAT Writing and Language sections test grammar, punctuation, organization, style, word choice, and other fundamental English language skills that students need to know for success in college. While these sections used to differ greatly, the March 2016 redesign of the SAT made the Writing and Language exam virtually identical to its ACT counterpart. That having been said, ACT English and SAT Writing and Language still have some important differences. If you have taken one exam and are planning to take the other, you should make sure that you understand these differences before test day.


Number of and Density of Questions

ACT English has a total of 75 questions. SAT Writing and Language, on the other hand, has only 44 questions. These questions take the form of a series of passages with deliberate errors. ACT English has five of these passages while SAT Writing has only four. Each English passage has 15 questions and each Writing passage 11.


Because passages from English and Writing tend to be of comparable length, the ACT usually packs more questions into a given section of text than the SAT does. If you have only worked on ACT English passages in the past, SAT Writing passages can look fairly thin on questions. If you are only familiar with SAT Writing, ACT English passages are likely to look more densely packed with questions than the passages that you are familiar with.


Time Limits

ACT English gives you 45 minutes to complete all 75 questions. SAT Writing, by contrast, provides 35 minutes to answer all 44 of its questions. This works out to just over half a minute per question and approximately 50 seconds per question, respectively.


What this means is that moving from one exam to the other requires a recalibration of your time management strategy. Obviously, students familiar with only SAT Writing will need to pick up the pace on ACT English. However, English section experts should reconsider their approaches to the Writing section as well. If you fall into the latter camp, you’ll want to practice using this newfound time to your advantage, learning to either spread it evenly across all question types or bank if for questions that you find more difficult.


Whole Passage Questions

Both ACT English and SAT Writing sometimes ask questions that apply to the passage as a whole. These are usually modified versions of non-whole passage questions. For example, a whole passage question might ask you the best place in the entire passage to insert a sentence or the best place to move an entire paragraph. You might also see a question that asks you to choose the best concluding sentence to the passage, one that wraps up both the final paragraph and the passage overall.


The ACT does have one whole passage question that the SAT lacks: the “writer’s goal.” If you are only familiar with whole passage questions as they appear on SAT Writing, we recommend that you check out our blog post on this tricky question type.




Charts and Graphs (SAT Only)

“Quantitative information” (charts, graphs, tables, etc.) is a feature exclusive to SAT Writing and Language. Once or twice an exam, you’ll be asked to pick the sentence or phrase that accurately represents the information in a graphic. Don’t be intimidated by these graphics if you are coming from the ACT. The information they present is fairly basic, with only two or three variables to consider.


Furthermore, any data points necessary to reach the correct answer will be clearly labeled. For instance, if the correct answer contains “12%”, that percentage will be annotated in such a way that it’s impossible to mistake it for a different percentage or to overlook it. In the end, graphics are just another way of presenting information. All you have to do is pick the choice that translates the correct visual information faithfully into written form.



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