What is the ACT?

What is the ACT?

Understanding the American College Testing Exam

The ACT, formerly known as the American College Testing exam, is one of two standardized tests used by American colleges and universities to evaluate each applicant’s readiness for their curriculums and academic demands. Recently, it has been adopted by numerous universities abroad.

The ACT as it stands is also used as an academic-readiness indicator in high schools. Many states are now using the ACT as an academic quality indicator among their public high schools, and students in these states are forced to take the ACT as part of widespread federal and state academic readiness testing initiatives.

The ACT tests students’ aptitude in reading comprehension, English grammar and writing, basic scientific principles, high school-level mathematics, and essay writing.

The other standardized test used by American colleges is the SAT. Since 1926, the SAT was the test of choice for American applicants. However, as of 2011, the ACT has surpassed the SAT as the most popular American college entrance exam.

The ACT is published and administered by ACT Inc., an American non-profit organization. It was first administered in 1959.

Nearly 1.7 million students take the ACT each year, and it is accepted by all American four-year colleges. Recently, a number of international universities have also begun to accept the ACT in place of their previous or still-extant exams.

Though it is a newer exam, the ACT has recently become more popular than the SAT in the United States.

Though a number of American schools are becoming test-optional because of the ACT’s dubious quality as an indicator of student readiness, it is still seen as a requirement to get into the nation’s best schools.

The History of the ACT

The ACT was first administered in the United States in 1959 as a competitor and alternative to the College Board’s SAT, which, at the time, was the only widely-accepted standardized test for college admissions in the United States, and thus had a virtually monopoly on the market.

The first round of the ACT was offered by Everett Franklin Lindquist, a professor of education at the University of Iowa.

The original version of the ACT was quite similar to the version offered now. It consisted of four major sections: English, Mathematics, Natural Sciences, and Social Studies. The first major change to the test came in 1989, when the Social Studies portion of the test was changed to a Critical Reading section, which more closely matched the curriculum of the SAT.

In 2005, the next major revision took place: the ACT added an optional Writing test, which gauges student essay-writing ability. This mirrored the 2005 change to the SAT, which added a required essay during that time.

Many of the changes to the ACT have reflected changes to the SAT (and vice versa), as both tests are in constant competition for status as the primary college application exam utilized by admissions committees in the United States. The SAT was the more popular exam until 2012, when the number of students taking the ACT surpassed the number taking the SAT.

The final major change in the ACT is coming in 2016, when the ACT plans to offer computerized versions of its exam. However, students should not plan on immediately altering their plans. Many schools are not ready to implement the change, and many studies have found that students perform better at on-paper exams.

What is the function of the ACT?

According to the makers of the ACT, the primary purpose of the exam is to gauge students’ “general academic development and capability to complete college-level work.”

Recently, certain states in the United States have also required that all students in their junior year take the ACT. These states’ education boards are using student test scores as a quality-control measure pertaining to their public schools.

The ACT is seen as a reflection of a student’s ability to handle the basic concepts of mathematics, grammar, sentence composition, reading comprehension, and scientific thinking – skills that American universities view as prerequisites to beginning their curriculums.

ACT scores are primarily used by colleges to accept or reject applicants. These scores are used as an objective metric of student achievement and aptitude. Because GPAs and academic standards vary so widely from state to state and school to school, admissions officers use ACT scores as an objective way of evaluating a student’s base-level abilities in the four disciplines it tests.

Student GPA, SAT or ACT scores, along with extracurricular activities, essays, and recommendations, make up the primary criteria by which schools accept or reject students. The ACT represents the only one of these metrics that has “absolute value” in the eyes of admissions committees. Because American admissions officers are overwhelmed with an increasing number of applications, the ACT offers an essential heuristic necessary for admissions officers to make unbiased decisions.

What’s on the ACT (structure and timing)?

The ACT is scored out of 36 points.

It is offered in four discrete sections plus an optional essay section at the end of the exam.

These sections always appear in the same order. These sections (and their time restraints) are as follows:

  1. English – 75 multiple choice questions – 45 minutes.
  2. Math – 60 multiple choice questions – 60 minutes.
  3. Reading – 40 multiple choice questions – 35 minutes.
  4. Science – 40 multiple choice questions – 35 minutes.
  5. Essay / Writing (optional) – 40 minutes – one essay on 4 lines pages.

Notice that with the exception of the essay, every question on the ACT is multiple choice.

Students receive discrete out-of-36 scores on the English, math, reading, and science sections. Schools see all of these scores individually.

These scores are then added together and averages to give a student’s “composite score,” generally seen as the most important overall metric in the application process.

The essay is graded separately from the rest of the exam. If students request to do so, they can also take a “with Writing” exam that provides a combinatory score of the English and essay/Writing portion of the test. Most schools do not pay close attention to this score.

The ACT is known as an extremely time-intensive test. The strict time limitations of each problem (one minute or less per problem, including the time required to read and digest passages and information) make it especially challenging for students who need special accommodations.

The intricacies of each section are highlighted below:

What does ACT English test?

The ACT English section pushes students through  series of passages containing underlined errors and portions of interest. Students are asked to correct or improve these passages based on their grammar, order, composition, sentence structure, and overall writing style.

Students who have mastered high-school-level English grammar should have a relatively easy time getting a perfect score on the ACT English section, and no ACT-specific information is required. That being said, the ACT is infamous for including many esoteric and rarely-used grammar rules that often frustrate students. Spending the time to study a few recent ACTs and get a feel for these sorts of rules is essential for students who want to score well.

The primary focus of the ACT English section is on English grammar, covering such topics as:

-Comma and semicolon use

-Use of apostrophes

-Subject-verb agreement

-Adjective vs. adverbs

-Verb tense

However, it also covers more advanced subjects such as:

-Sentence composition


-Writing style


Any fluent English speaker will be able to get a relatively good score on this exam. However, because the majority of students taking the exam are fluent English speakers, and because the exam is graded on a curve, students looking for a high score are advised to spend significant time studying the intricacies of the section.

What does ACT math test?

The ACT math section tests the American high school-level math subjects deemed essential for success in American colleges and universities.

These subjects include the following:


-Elementary algebra

-Intermediate algebra

-Coordinate geometry

-Plane geometry


Here, you can find a detailed list of all the math covered by the ACT math section

Students are permitted to use a calculator on all 60 math problems within the ACT math section. Because the test is more concerned with whether or not students know how to solve these problems than it is with arithmetic, the use of a calculator is actively encouraged.

What does ACT reading test?

The ACT reading section tests a student’s ability to read, digest, and analyze a passage.

In total, students will read four passages of roughly 750 words each, followed by ten multiple-choice problems covering each passage.

Students will need to answer questions such as the following:

-What was the main idea of the passage?

-What was the tone of the passage?

-What was the purpose of the passage?

-Where is certain evidence contained?

-Where are certain contradictions apparent?

-What is the motivation of a certain character?

-What is the effect of a certain action?

-What is NOT present within the passage?

While the exact questions on this section vary from passage to passage, their general nature is usually the same. Students need to attain a firm grasp of the passages that they read and then answer questions about them under rapid-fire conditions.

Studies have shown that stronger readers and students who read more often in general usually score higher on the ACT reading section. However, certain tutors and programs have shown success in improving the ACT reading scores of non-fluents speakers and non-frequent readers.

What does ACT science test?

The ACT science section purportedly tests students’ “scientific aptitude and reasoning ability.” However, the section itself has very little to do with scientific knowledge.

No pre-existing knowledge of biology, chemistry, physics, or any other scientific principle is necessary in order to get a perfect score on the ACT science section, though in certain cases, this knowledge can prove helpful.

Rather than testing students’ scientific knowledge, this section tests students’ scientific reasoning capacity.

The ACT science section presents students with 6-7 passages, followed by 4-7 problems per passage, testing student comprehension of charts, graphs, non-linear information, and scientific stories and principles laid out within each passage.

As an example: a student might be shown a graph correlating earthquakes on the Y axis with bird migration patterns on the X axis. He or she would then be asked to explain what the graph means or says. Note that no knowledge of birds or earthquakes is necessary to answer this question – just an understanding of how graphs and tables function.

In rare instances, the section will ask “pure knowledge” questions or “scientific method” questions, which may ask things such as:

“What process do plants use to create sugars?”

  1. Geometry
  2. Photosynthesis
  3. Fueling
  4. Decay


“What might John have done to make the experiment more accurate?”

  1. Cleaned the facility before the experiment
  2. Timed the experiment
  3. Cleaned the facility after the experiment
  4. Paid his researchers more

In almost all cases, while these cannot be studied, they are seen as “common sense” – no amount of study or preparation can ready students for these questions, which usually make up 2-3 questions per passage.

Because the ACT science section is so peculiar, students are urged to spend some time reviewing previous ACTs and finding examples of problem types so that they can study the most frequent question formats and adequately prepare themselves.

What does the ACT Writing section / essay test?

The ACT offers an optional essay at the end of each exam as a “fifth section.”

In 2015, the ACT switched their long-standing format to a new format that they will be using for the foreseeable future. An example of this new format can be found here:


The writing test is scored on a 2-12 scale separately from the rest of the exam. A full guide on how the ACT writing test is scored can be found here:


The ACT writing test / essay gives students forty minutes to read an argument, followed by three perspectives on that argument, and then pick the perspective which they most agree with and support it.

Students are judged on their essay structure, sentence structure, use of evidence, use of topic sentences, mastery of relevance, use of language, mastery of English vocabulary and grammar, and multiple other concepts to produce their grades.

Two graders come up with the 2-12 essay score, which is graded objectively based upon the absence of required elements (clear thesis, topic sentences, relevant evidence, etc.). Opinion is not a part of the grading process.

When can I take the ACT and where is the ACT offered?

The ACT is offered six times a year at high schools all around the United States.

The ACT is usually offered on Saturdays in February, April, June, September, October, and December.

Students with religious conflicts or obligations can request to take the ACT on Sundays instead of Saturdays when necessary.

The ACT is now being offered in other countries around the world. However, there are few locations available, and there are usually fewer than six offerings in any particular location. Students planning on taking the ACT are advised to research testing locations and availability as far in advance as possible.

The ACT costs $38 without the writing / essay section, and $54.50 with it.

Students can find available ACT testing dates and registration information here:


They can find out testing locations here:


ACT raw scores, ACT scaled scores, and percentiles

The ACT is scored out of 36 points. Each of the four sections (not including the writing / essay portion) provides students with an out-of-36 score. All scores are rounded up to a whole number. Additionally, these scores are added together and divided by four, then rounded up to create the “composite score,” which is generally the most important number of all when it comes to college admissions.

Students receive both a raw and a scaled score on the ACT. The raw score is simply the number of correct answers that a student achieves on each section of the test.

For instance, if a student gets 32/40 reading problems right, then his raw reading score is a 32. There is no penalty for wrong answers on the ACT.

These raw scores are then converted to “scaled scores” for each section. These scores depend on the performance of the other students who took the ACT. Because the ACT is a comparative mechanism, each missed point can have more or less of an effect on a student’s score based on how many other students got that problem right or wrong, along with multiple other factors.

It is the scaled score, not the raw score, that colleges use in order to evaluate student applications.

ACT scores also come with certain percentile correlations. Your ACT “percentile” is simply the percentage of students whose scores you beat when you attain a certain score. For instance, if you’re a 78th percentile scorer, it means that you outscored 78% of students who took the test.

Only 99.7% of students achieve a 35 or above on the ACT.

A 33 and above is a 99th percentile score.

A full list of percentiles correlated to scores can be found here:


In general, the expected scores of any particular college or university indicate the percentage ranking of that school itself. For instance, if a school expects 95th percentile scores as a minimum, it is most likely in the top 5% of American colleges.

ACT Extra Time and Special Accommodations

The ACT’s strict time limitations make it an extremely challenging test – much more so for students who have certain learning and processing difficulties.

Fortunately, the ACT does allow for special accommodations for students with certain disabilities. Students can receive extra time, private testing rooms, computerized exams, and more.

By far the most common of these accommodations is extra time – students can receive up to 50% extra time depending on the severity and number of their impairments.

While the SAT and ACT both provide special accommodations for their students, the ACT is notoriously difficult when it comes to allowing them. For this reason, many students with special needs opt for the SAT.

You can read our full guide on learning disabilities and extra time here:


For a full guide on what’s provided and which forms of disabilities quality for special accommodations on the ACT:


You can also find a useful chart on what to request, when, where, and how, here:


Comparison Between the ACT and SAT

For a full guide to the differences between the SAT and ACT, we recommended viewing this article:

The ACT vs. the SAT

Colleges do not prefer the ACT to the SAT. For a full discussion on this topic and how the scores compared, you can examine a very simple tool, the SAT ACT concordance table, here:

The ACT SAT Concordance Table

You can also view a full conversation on the topic in the “Comparison Between Scores” section of our full guide to the SAT.

How can one prepare for the ACT? Is it possible?

The ACT is neither an intelligence test nor an IQ test. Because it does not test innate ability, it is inherently studyable.

Students looking to improve their ACT scores are strongly advised to start studying early and consistently, as crash courses and other short-term prep methods and “cramming” techniques have been prove to fail repeatedly.

Students need three things in order to achieve higher ACT scores:

-Mastery of material

-Mastery of approach and strategy


Students must find, document, and memorize all of the math facts, grammar rules, and other material elements necessary for a high score.

Next, they must gain familiarity with the exam and understand the best ways to approach each section, question-type, etc.

Experience with the exam with support both of the elements above. Additionally, students need testing experience. Students who take multiple full-length, timed, graded, realistic practice exams generally outperform students who go in “cold,” regardless of length of study.

You can find a full, free guide on taking practice tests here:


While score improvements are achievable, picking the correct prep method for your needs is essential. Most prep methods fail, though some tutors and programs have been able to achieve remarkably high score improvements.

If interested, we recommend that you view our guide on how to select a good test prep program:


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