ACT or SAT - Which Exam is Right for You?

act exam prep phase 3 sat Apr 28, 2021

Where Do I Start?

So first off when deciding whether to take the ACT or the SAT, it's important to note that since 2007 every college in the country accepts both the ACT and the SAT exam for admissions.

This means that students no longer have a college-motivated reason to take one exam over the other, but instead should take whichever exam they perform better on.

How do you determine that? Well we'll talk you through that, but first let's take a look at the basic structure of each test:


ACT Format

  • LENGTH: 2 hours, 55 minutes (without essay), 3 hours, 40 minutes (with essay)
  • SECTIONS: English, Math, Reading, Science Reasoning, Essay (Optional)
  • MATH: 60 minutes, 25% of your composite score, heavier on geometry than SAT, more math concepts than SAT, requires memorization of formulas, can use calculator on all questions, all questions are multiple choice
  • SCIENCE: Contains a Science Reasoning section
  • TIME PER QUESTION: Less time per question on every section than the SAT
  • SCORING: Scored on a scale from 1-36
  • TEST PREP: Check out our FREE ACT Prep Guide here and our online ACT Prep Course here


SAT Format

  • LENGTH: 3 hours
  • SECTIONS: Reading, Writing & Language, Math No Calculator, Math With Calculator
  • MATH: 80 minutes (25 minutes No Calculator, 55 minutes With Calculator), 50% of your composite score, lighter on geometry than ACT, fewer math concepts than ACT, provides 12 most commonly used math formulas, one section is no calculator and one section is with calculator, some questions are grid-in (instead of multiple choice)
  • SCIENCE: No dedicated science section, though there are science-related questions in the Reading and Writing & Language sections
  • TIME PER QUESTION: More time per question on every section than the ACT
  • SCORING: Scored on a scale from 400-1600
  • TEST PREP: Check out our SAT Prep Course here


Broad Generalizations

Though the best approach is to take a full-length practice test for both exams at home and compare percentile rankings, here are some broad generalizations:


  • Better for students who are stronger in math and/or the sciences
  • Better for students who are good at memorization/concrete thinking
  • Better for students who are good test takers/work well under time constraints



  • Better for students who are stronger in English or social studies.
  • Better for students who would rather reason their way through to an answer 
  • Better for students who struggle with time constraints


Next Step

My recommendation is for students to print out a paper copy of both tests (ACT sample test is available here and an SAT sample test is available here) and take a practice test at home under timed conditions for both the ACT and the SAT, score both exams and compare the scores using this comparison chart

  • If the student scored significantly higher on one test, go with that one
  • If it was close between the two tests, go with the test the student is more comfortable with

Once you have decided on a test, have your teen spend all of their test prep efforts working towards that one exam. Generally, I recommend all students planning on taking the ACT or SAT 3-4 times, with active preparation going in before each exam (check out our article on when to take the ACT here). You can check out our FREE ACT Prep Guide here, we also have an online ACT Prep Course and an SAT Prep Course.

What questions do YOU have regarding the ACT or SAT exam? Let us know by email at [email protected]

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