Everything you need to know about the ACT

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We’ve put together everything you need to know about the ACT, and answers to the most frequently asked questions.

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ACT Basics

The ACT, along with the SAT, serves as one of the major components of a student’s admission decision at the vast majority of American colleges and universities. The ACT has 5 sections (also called “tests”), which include 4 multiple choice sections and an optional Writing test for a total of 3 hours and 35 minutes. The ACT is scored on a 1-36 point scale, with four subsections (English, Math, Reading, and Science) each receiving scores from 1-36, which are then averaged to generate an overall composite score. The optional essay receives a score from 1-12, which is not included in a student’s composite score.

Who takes the ACT?

Students hoping to secure a seat at the vast majority of American colleges and universities. The ACT (or SAT) is required for admission at over 90% of American colleges and universities.

What is tested on the ACT?

There are five main academic areas that are assessed on the ACT. In English, students are tested on their knowledge of basic grammar, punctuation, and standard writing conventions. In math, students are tested on their knowledge of concepts in arithmetic, geometry, algebra, trigonometry, and advanced concepts (imaginary numbers, radians, matrices). In reading, students are measured in their ability to read for main ideas, draw inferences, locate details, and define vocabulary in context. In science, students are tested on their ability to interpret experiments, charts, and graphs, and draw conclusions from the information. In writing, students are assessed on their ability to formulate an argument in response to a prompt and provided perspectives.

When do most students take the ACT?

Most students take the ACT (or SAT) at least two times during their high school careers. The majority of students take the ACT for the first time during the spring of their junior year. If needed, students may retake the exam during the fall of their senior year.

Where can I sign up to take the ACT?

Student must register for the ACT through the ACT Corporation’s website: http://www.actstudent.org/regist/

What is the cost to take the ACT?

The regular registration fee for the ACT is either $56.50 (with the Writing section) or $39.50 (without the Writing section).

Why is the ACT important?

The ACT is important because it comprises between 25% to 35% of a student’s college admission decision. It is a single three-and-a-half hour test that has a significant impact on a student’s collegiate prospects. By the end of junior year, several components of a student’s college admission – such as Grade Point Average and extracurricular activities – are relatively settled. This leaves the ACT as one of the final opportunities for a student to either solidify an otherwise strong application or to bolster a weaker application.

How should I prepare for the ACT?

Students should gain familiarity with the structure of the ACT. The ACT, at nearly three-and-a-half hours, is the longest test most students will take to that point in time, and being aware of this unique challenge is important. Students should also work to further develop the academic skills being assessed by the ACT. Understanding how to define vocabulary in context, solve trigonometry questions, utilize commas, and interpret data are just a sample of the cross-curricular skills that are covered on the exam. Students should learn the particular way in which questions are asked on the ACT. A particular challenge of the ACT is the time crunch of many questions being asked in a relatively short amount of time. This makes it imperative for students to be able to quickly identify core concepts and then know how to proceed accordingly. The easiest way for students to gain experience with the ACT is to complete a full-length practice exam under conditions similar to the actual test. This experience will provide results that can inform and focus student preparation.

Our approach to ACT Test Prep  
ACT Sample Question
  • If | 7a –10 | > 4, then which of the following CANNOT be a value of a ?
  • F -5
  • G -3
  • H 2
  • J 4
  • K 6
  • Answer: H

ACT FAQs

Is the ACT easier than the SAT?

The ACT and the SAT assess many similar academic concepts, with differences in the ways that questions are asked, the rigor of the content, and the amount of time that students have to solve each individual question. Approximately 20% of students will have an ACT/SAT “test preference” – a test on which they naturally perform better – so it is important for students to gain experience with both tests before the end of junior year to know if they fall into this category.


Which colleges receive my ACT scores?

Only the college(s) to which students choose to send their scores to will see them. Students can pick up to four schools to send scores to for no additional cost when they register, but additional score reports are $12 or $16.50 each (depending on the level of priority processing that is selected).


Will colleges receive all of my ACT scores?

Students can decide which scores from which ACT test administration that they would like to send to colleges. Every college has a different policy regarding how they consider scores from different test dates – So it is important for students to check with their college counselor. Most colleges only look at the ACT with your highest 1 to 36 total. Some colleges will average your individual 1 to 36 section scores. No colleges take the average of your scores on different tests.


Is the ACT Writing section really optional?

The ACT Writing section is optional in that students can receive a composite score without completing the essay. However, many colleges do require the writing section for students who submit the ACT as their standardized testing score. For additional information regarding individual college/university preferences regarding the ACT Writing section, students can contact a guidance or college counselor.


Can colleges view the ACT essay?

Yes. Colleges can view student essays.


Will some schools accept the ACT in lieu of required SAT Subject Tests?

Yes. Some colleges and universities have policies which require applicants to submit scores for the SAT AND SAT Subject Tests or just a score for the ACT. For Example, at Columbia applicants may choose to take either the SAT and two Subject Tests or the ACT. The standardized testing policy differs for each school, so it is important for students to consult with a guidance/college counselor in regards to the particular policy of the schools in which they are interested.


I am not a strong student in science. Does that mean I should not take the ACT?

Not necessarily. Although there is a “Science” section on the ACT, the section does not actually assess a student’s knowledge of the periodic table, energy, or animal kingdoms. The section actually examines a student’s ability to interpret data and utilize it to answer questions. A student’s current grade in biology, chemistry, or physics is thus not a predictor of performance on this section.


Should students choose “C” if they do not know the answer?

As there is no guessing penalty for questions on the ACT, students should not leave any questions blank at the conclusion of any section. Students should answer all of the questions they know, then the questions on which they can eliminate some of the answers before guessing, and then randomly guess on any remaining questions.


Are some test dates easier than others?

There is no statistical advantage in selecting one ACT test date over another. Students should choose test dates that make the most sense for their schedule and their preparation.


What is a good ACT score?

There is no one “good” ACT score. The quality of a score depends on the school(s) to which a student is applying. A good way to set a goal score is to research the school(s) to which a student is interesting in applying and find the average or 75th percentile score.

ACT History
  • 1959 – First administration of the ACT.
  • 1989 – The Social Studies test was changed to the Reading section and the Natural Sciences test was renamed the Science Reasoning test, with more ofan emphasis placed on problem solving skills.
  • 2005 – The optional writing test is introduced to the ACT.
  • 2012 – For the first time more students take the ACT than the SAT.
  • 2015 – The ACT introduces the option of computer-based administration for all students and a new Writing section format.
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