What Is The ACT? A Complete Guide

By Staff Writers

Published on May 14, 2021

What Is The ACT? A Complete Guide

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ACT Preparation: Resources & Expert Advice

Since 2012, the previously lesser-known American College Test, or ACT, has emerged as the most popular college entrance exam over the SAT. Which will reign supreme for the 2017-2018 school year remains to be seen, but with more states and school districts administering the ACT free – often times during the school day – it's expected to maintain its steadily increasing momentum. This guide will help you to better understand the ACT, from what your results mean to tips for finding resources — both free and paid — that are available to help you prepare.

Simply put, colleges and universities use the ACT to predict a student's college performance. The quality of a high school education may vary greatly across the country and sometimes even in the same city. Because of this, a 3.5 grade point average may mean something very different for two students. The purpose of the ACT is to allow colleges to more effectively compare the abilities of students from different backgrounds, putting them on more equal footing in the admissions process. While it may not be the perfect way to measure likely college success, experts say in collaboration with GPA and strength of schedule (the difficulty or ease of your classes), it can be a pretty good indicator of how a student may fare at the collegiate level.

"The ACT is a tool that colleges use to try to normalize the admission process," says Caleb Pierce, president of Get Smarter Prep, a standardized test preparation company with locations in Leawood and Mission, Kansas. "It helps [schools] determine on the front end the likelihood a given student will ‘persist,' which is an enrollment buzzword that just means students will eventually graduate and become supportive alumni."

Caleb Pierce

Test Prep Timeline

Step 1: Summer Before Your Junior Year: Take Practice Exams
Experts advise that you start taking practice tests in the summer after your sophomore year in high school. The amount of time needed for preparation for the real test will vary by student. For example, students whose practice tests show only needing a point or two of improvement may only need three to four weeks to prep for the exam. Students needing a significant improvement, on the other hand, will need to begin much sooner.
Step 2: 3-4 Months Before Your Desired Test Date: Enroll in a Test Prep Program
"Any program should build specifically towards a test date," Pierce says. "Our longest program at Get Smarter Prep is 10 weeks and it begins 10 weeks before a given test."
Step 3: 6 Weeks Before Your Desired Test Date: Register for the Exam
Pierce says students should register for the ACT when they know what test date they hope to target. PrepScholar suggests registering at least six weeks before your desired test date. Many states and school districts offer the test for free during the month of April and, in many cases, during the school day. If that's not an option in your area or the date doesn't work for you, standard registration costs $42.50 without the optional writing and $58.50 with the writing portion included. Registration usually closes a little more than a month before any given test date, so it'll cost you an additional $27.50 after that.

How Does the ACT Differ from the SAT?

The ACT and SAT are scored differently

The ACT is made of four multiple choice sections — English, math, reading and science, all of which are weighted equally. The SAT, conversely, is made up of four sections, so the writing and language and reading sections combine to make half the score, while the two math sections combine to make the other half. "So, math is one-fourth of an ACT score, but one-half of an SAT score," says Pierce.

The SAT has a no-calculator portion

"In addition, the SAT includes a no-calculator math section, along with student-produced response questions [meaning no multiple-choice options for that portion], neither of which are found on the ACT," he says.

The ACT has more questions

The SAT has fewer questions — 154, plus a newly optional essay, compared to the ACT, which has 215 questions also with an optional essay. "Unlike the SAT, nearly all students will find that they are crunched for time on at least one section of the ACT," says Pierce, emphasizing that the question style is also different for both.

Question format is more direct on the ACT

"The ACT is more direct in the wording of their questions, so most students are able to quickly determine what the test is asking and begin to work on the solution," he says. "The SAT can be a little trickier for students, in that half the battle can be deciphering what the SAT is asking in the first place."

Pierce says that almost all students have trouble completing at least one section on the ACT, but being "malleable to the structure of the test," is essential. "I think this skill is applicable to college and life as well. We're constantly being given different parameters for different tasks and how we adjust to the different situations oftentimes dictates the final outcome."

Caleb Pierce

Similarities Between the ACT and SAT

Even with each exam's distinct traits, the ACT and SAT have many similarities, especially since the SAT overhaul.

"Since every college across the country will accept both tests, there's no reason to prepare for both," he says. "Once you have baselines [scores on your practice tests], the goal is to focus all your time and energy toward one test and never think about the other."

Caleb Pierce

Ways to Prepare for the ACT

Becoming intimately familiar with the format of the test and the style of the questions can help reduce some of the stress on test day and provide you with insights into your strengths and weaknesses on the exam.

And you shouldn't assume that because you're really solid in one subject in school that it will be your best section on the exam. "Many of my students outperform their natural tendencies on their weaker sections of the ACT," Pierce says.

One place many students overlook for getting test prep assistance is at school.

"Your teachers may not be ACT prep experts, but they can give you some insight into how to think about particular questions on the test," Pierce says. "For example, if you don't remember how to use a semicolon, go in and ask your English lit teacher or if you can't remember how to work ‘system of equations' questions, stop in after school and chat with your Algebra teacher."

Adds Pierce: "You have a wealth of knowledge around you, it's just how you take advantage of it." Here are a few other resources to consider for your ACT test prep.

Caleb Pierce

Online Resources

  • ACT.org
    Hands down, experts agree that the best free prep option is the content on the official ACT website. Sample questions, sample student essays and college admissions planning advice are just some of the many helpful materials available on this website.
  • Khan Academy
    While it is officially an SAT prep site, the math review lessons available for free on this website can be helpful for the ACT too — especially if you need to get up to speed on the subjects covered on the math portion: algebra, geometry and trigonometry.
  • McGraw Hill Practice Plus
    McGraw Hill has a dedicated ACT prep web page featuring two complete online practice tests with explanations for every question. You'll also find problem-solving videos and other ACT preparation resources that can supplement your study.

Smartphone Apps

  • ACTStudent
    Available for iPhone, this free app created by the makers of the ACT helps you prepare with practice items, scores and feedback to answers. A link to the ACT's mobile site offers answers to FAQs about the test.
  • ACT Prep For Dummies
    Available for iPhone and iPad for $9.99, you may download this app from iTunes or the App Store to access more than 150 practice questions covering reading, writing and math skills. There's also two full practice exams with time limits.
  • Tutor.com To Go
    As the mobile companion for Tutor.com, it's the only education app that connects you to a live tutor help. Not only do you get your questions in real-time on this iOS application, but your instructor may also explain how they arrived at the answers via a digital blackboard. You may start with a free trial, then plans start at $39.99 a month.


  • "Barron's ACT Math and Science Workbook" by Roselyn Teukolsky
    This hands-on workbook presents exercises, problems and quizzes with solutions and answers and covers all math and science topics covered on the ACT. The workbook also features a glossary of science terms and test-taking tips as well as a full-length math and science practice test. Check out "Barron's ACT" by Brian Stewart,for more of an ACT overview.
  • "The Complete Guide to ACT English" by Erica Meltzer
    To get the real ACT English experience, you should be working withpassage-based questions and real questions that have actually appeared on the ACT. This book provides both, with five full-length practice tests and answer explanations for the English section. That's a total of 375 multiple choice questions to work through.
  • "The Official Act Prep Guide, 2018 Edition"
    This comprehensive guide, from the makers of the ACT includes three previously administered, full-length ACT tests and is universally considered the best resource available. It provides insight into ACT-test content, structure and format, along with insider test-taking tips, helpful strategies and an in-depth look at the optional writing test.
  • "320 ACT Math Problems Arranged by Topic and Difficulty Level" by Steve Warner
    This book is designed to generate huge ACT score increases with only 20 minutes of daily math preparation. By arranging the problems by topic and level, you may easily pick out the problems you need to focus on to raise your score without wasting time on problems that are too easy or too difficult for you.

Finding the Right Fit for ACT Prep

Do your research

"There are many places that will have you sit and work through a lot of ACT questions, with minimal feedback or insight and I personally don't think this is the best path. Find a company that will help you learn new techniques that are unique to the ACT. Also, beware of places with a one-size-fits-all approach. Look for programs that customize the approach as much as possible to your particular score. Every student is different and has different needs."

Keep score

"Often times, students enroll in a particular ACT course, but within that class, there are students scoring across the spectrum, from 13s to 33s, and everything in between. If it isn't obvious, then I'll say it: students scoring in the 75th percentile or higher will need something drastically different than students scoring in the 25th percentile and vice versa. So, know how you're scoring and make sure you fit in the group setting, if you choose a class option."

Check the record

"Overall, try to find a company that has been in business for a while, is well rated with an established track record and can tell you about how they approach the exam and why they approach it that way. To be successful, you'll need a team that cares about you as an individual student."

How the ACT is Scored

The highest score a student may get on the ACT is 36, versus 1600 for the SAT (you may compare and convert your scores via the ACT and SAT Concordance table or ConvertYourScore.org). Your number of correct answers convert to a score that ranges from 1 to 36 for each of the four tests (English, math, reading and science) and your composite score is the average of your four test scores, rounded to the nearest whole number.

Fractions less than one-half are rounded down; fractions one-half or more are rounded up. Each reporting category includes the total number of questions in that category, the total number of questions in that category you answered correctly and the percentage of questions correct.

The average ACT score is 20 and scoring in that vicinity means you will be considered generally "college ready." Keep in mind that more selective schools will likely require scores in the upper 20s and 30s, so consider that when mulling over whether to retake the test.

Scores in the 15-17 range are considered low and, depending on where you plan to apply, is likely grounds for a retake exam. Scores do matter, but don't assume that you're doomed if you don't do well the first time or at all. The ACT is only part of the college admissions process and is considered in tandem with your GPA, recommendations, strength of schedule and the essays that many schools require for the application process.

Expect to receive your ACT score reports in the mail about three to eight weeks after the test date. Add an additional two weeks if you opted to complete the writing portion.

Expert Q&A: Getting Ready for Test Day

Caleb Pierce

How should students prep the night before test day?

Students should take the night before the test off to rest and relax a bit before the big exam. We typically recommend that students do a little review the day before, but it should be cut off by around 4 p.m. If you haven't learned it by then, it likely won't be terribly helpful.

Sleep and hydration are two of the most important considerations the night before the test. Your brain will be much more effective on test day if you regulate your sleep three to five days before, but better late than never. Similarly, staying hydrated leading into the test and during it will help students remain focused for a greater length of time.

The other things that should be done no later than the night before is completing a dry run to the testing center [if it's not held at your high school], printing your ACT ticket and putting everything you'll be taking to the ACT to the test site in one place.

What are some of your favorite tips for test day?

Traffic on Saturday mornings is usually less than during the week, but don't make a false assumption, especially when it can cost you so much. Plan to arrive to the testing site 20-30 minutes early, even if you're testing at your own school because you never know when you might encounter something you didn't expect – like a 5K run or a community fund raiser.

What items should students bring with them to the testing site? What shouldn't they bring?

Before you head out the door, be sure you have your ACT Ticket, a valid photo ID, your [ACT exam-permitted calculator], some No. 2 pencils with good erasers (no mechanical pencils or ink pens), a snack and a bottle of water.

An analog watch can be handy too, but each testing room will have a clock, so it's not necessary. You'll also want to make sure your phone is turned off. And if you have a digital watch, make sure it's set to silent, as any electronic noises coming from your device could get you kicked out of the exam.

How should students handle getting stumped by a question during the test?

Always use the process of elimination to try to give yourself a greater chance of getting the question correct if you need to guess. If you truly have no idea how to do a question, cut it loose and keep moving. Don't stress too much or let it consume too much of your time.

You can star it in your test booklet and plan to come back later — that's if you have extra time at the end. For these skips, you should always bubble-in a letter on your Scantron in case you don't have time to return. This will also prevent you from getting off a letter.

How do you suggest students ward off nervousness during the test?

First off, get rid of the negative self-talk. So many students make themselves more nervous, by saying negative things about themselves. Any time a negative thought pops in your head, flip it around and remind yourself that you've prepared the best you can and that you're capable and confident in your abilities. Mindfully turning the negative into a positive can be a powerful thing.

Along the same lines, it's easy to add undue pressure on yourself, so remind yourself frequently that catastrophic thinking isn't going to help. If you need to, ask yourself, "What's the worst that could happen?"

With over 3,000 colleges across the country, you're going to find a great fit for you no matter what. So, there's no reason to stress. Just do your best and stay as focused as you can on what's important: remaining focused on the one question in front of you, before moving on to the next.

Another thing that can help is to direct your nervousness to something else, whether it's chewing — not chomping — gum, sucking on a hard candy, or having something small and meaningful in your pocket or in your bag next to you.

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