SAT or ACT? Which One Is For Me?

If you plan to apply to college in the US, more than likely, you will have to take either the SAT or the ACT. Since the SAT was available in the Caribbean and on US coasts before the ACT, the SAT has become the more popular option for students living there. However, that's no longer the case! Students now have the choice between SAT and ACT wherever they are in the world.

Here at AIM, we advise students to prepare for one test – not both. So here are some tips on deciding which one is the best-fit for you:

Both tests are split into sections based on subject matter. Both include two Verbal sections: one on reading comprehension and another on grammar (Writing on the SAT; English on the ACT). The Verbal sections are intense on both exams and require much preparation to get accustomed to rigorous knowledge of grammar rules and speedy deciphering of passage content. The greatest difference in formatting then lies in how each exam handles Math and Science. The ACT has one long Math section that allows for calculator use, while the SAT has two Math sections – one that allows for calculator use and focuses on complex arithmetic and mathematical comprehension, and another that inhibits calculator use that emphasizes graphing, geometry and abstract algebra. Both tests are quite similar in difficulty, and so the decision must boil down to the type of Math student you are. We recommend the ACT to students who have difficulty with mental math and work best with calculators.

Often times, students who are more STEM-oriented are drawn to the ACT, given that the SAT completely lacks a science section. The ACT includes a very in depth Science section that includes 40 questions, 6-7 scientific studies and a ton of visual data. It is important to note though that many of these questions are based on hypothetical studies and not necessarily based on actual science. It is fundamentally a reading comprehension section that requires a firm grasp on scientific language and basic concepts. The SAT doesn't ignore science though, as there is one dedicated science passage within the Reading section that usually has some scientific visual such as a chart or a table to interpret.

Timing might play a larger role in doing well on either exam than mastery of the content. What's the point of knowing the answer to every question if you don't have time to actually shade it in on the bubble sheet?! Mastering the time crunch of each exam takes practice and should be an important part of the students' test prep strategy. It is important to note though that while both exams are administered under time constraints that students may not be accustomed to, the ACT is a generally more time restrictive exam. It consists of 215 questions to be answered in 2 hours and 55 minutes, while the SAT has 154 questions over a 3 hour period. The time difference might appear most starkly in the Math sections as the ACT has 60 questions in 60 minutes, versus the SAT's 20 no-calculator and 38 calculator questions to be done in 80 minutes.

The last major difference between the ACT and the SAT would be study resource availability. Given that the SAT tends to be more popular, business involvement is larger, and thus there are a plethora of secondary resources and study guides catered to SAT prep. Not to say resources aren't available for the ACT, but just not as many. On the other hand, the ACT currently offers access to more past paper tests for prep purposes, since the SAT has recently changed format.


When choosing between the ACT or the SAT, we stress that students take a diagnostic exam of each to be able to properly determine which exam is more suited to the individual's test taking style. Many students will know immediately which one they prefer after taking a diagnostic sitting of each.

AIM offers a comprehensive diagnostic exam that we like to call "Bias Testing" which helps our expert counselors make recommendations for which exam students should take. Click HERE to book a Bias Testing session with us today.

Ready for that one on one personalized help? Book an Initial Consultation with us and let's begin planning your college prep strategy now.

Author: TJ Chung
TJ Chung is AIM's "essay guru" and has been editing college essays for the past 3 years. She has helped many students showcase their best selves through essays to get to the school of their dreams.
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