In the past, which exam you took was based on where you lived. For example, most students in the Midwest took the ACT, while students in the East Coast took the SAT. Today, students now have the choice to take either the SAT or the ACT, regardless of where they live. Most colleges also have zero preference regarding which exam a student takes. Today, the two exam formats are more similar than ever before: both exams have very similar content in Math, Reading and Writing. Both have optional essays and both are approximately 3 and a half hours in length. Now let’s take a look at the differences between the two exams:
Time: While the material tested on both exams is almost identical, the ACT is far more time intensive. In other words, the ACT gives you less time per question.
The hardest part of the ACT is time. There are definitely strategies to improve timing, but if you have serious issues with timing or prefer more time to consider your answers, the SAT may be the better option. Alternatively, if you are able to plow through questions and are super focused, then the ACT may be the better choice.
Science Section: The ACT has a separate “science” section, but the SAT does not. I put the word “science” in quotes, because it has absolutely nothing to do with the science taught in high school. This section is primarily about analyzing charts and graphs and requires the ability to quickly decipher information from charts, graphs and text. Although the science section is all about strategy and relatively easy to master, the SAT might make your sense if you absolutely hate analyzing charts/graphs. You won’t completely get away with not having to do analytical type questions on the SAT: while the SAT doesn’t have a separate “science” section, the exam does spread chart/graph problems across all its sections (Reading, Writing, Math).
Math: In terms of content, ACT Math and SAT are very similar in terms of material: both mainly focus arithmetic, algebra and geometry. Both exams also test trigonometry, but focus very little on it. However, while the ACT math section is 100% multiple choice, the SAT Math section is roughly 80% multiple choices and 20% grid-in (fill in your own answer).
The ACT lets you use a calculator on all its math problems, but the SAT math section is separated into a “without calculator” section (one-third of the math questions) and a “with calculator” section (two-thirds of the math questions). Some students might get nervous about the “without calculator” section, but it doesn’t require any difficult arithmetic, so this isn’t really much of an issue.