Is the ACT Hard? 4 Factors That Make It Tricky

Many colleges use the ACT for admission purposes. But is the ACT hard? And what makes the test challenging? Learn more about the difficulty of the ACT.

portrait of Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
by Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.

Updated August 15, 2022

Edited by Tyler Epps
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Is the ACT Hard? 4 Factors That Make It Tricky
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Over 1 million high school students took the ACT in 2021. The popular standardized test can help determine where you'll go to college. But is the ACT hard? And how does it compare with the SAT?

Ultimately, the difficulty of the ACT depends on the test-taker. Some may find the long reading passages and complex math questions challenging.

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But since the test uses a predictable format and structure, even students who find the test hard can improve their performance with practice.

How Hard Is the ACT?

The ACT is a standardized test used to measure your readiness for college. That means the test is designed to challenge students. But how hard is the ACT exactly? And why is the ACT hard?

The exam consists of four main sections: English, Math, Science, and Reading. Together, these sections make up your final ACT score, which ranges from 1-36. (The ACT also includes an optional Writing section, which is scored separately.)

You'll have 175 minutes to answer 215 questions. The time constraint alone makes the ACT difficult. With less than a minute per question, you must manage your time carefully.

Is the ACT Harder Than the SAT?

The ACT and SAT are the two main college entrance exams. If you ask test-takers which test is harder, you'll get a variety of answers. So is the ACT or SAT harder? And which should you take?

The answer depends on the test-taker. Overall, the two exams rank similarly in terms of difficulty. However, your individual subject strengths can play a big role in deciding which test is harder for you.

Consider the test content. Whereas the SAT tests math, reading, and writing, the ACT tests all of these plus science. Students who ace the Science section might rank the ACT as easier, while others might find the SAT Reading section more straightforward than ACT Reading.

If you're stuck deciding between the two exams, consider taking a mix of SAT and ACT practice tests. You might quickly realize that you prefer having a separate Science section. Or you might like how your Math score counts for a larger proportion of your total score on the SAT than it does on the ACT.

Why Is the ACT Hard? 4 Key Factors

Why is the ACT hard? The format and content both make the ACT a challenging standardized test. However, by preparing for these elements, you can learn how to master the ACT.

1  Strict Time Constraints

The structure of the ACT makes it difficult for some test-takers.

Consider the English section.You'll get just 45 minutes to answer 75 questions, meaning you'll need to answer a question every 36 seconds to complete the section in time.

The time constraints on the ACT give you little time for difficult questions and to ponder possible answers. Instead, you need to prioritize answering questions as quickly and as accurately as possible.

2  Long and Complex Reading Passages

As if the time constraint on the ACT wasn't bad enough, the test also includes long, complex reading passages. You must practice reading fast while absorbing key information. Then you'll need to know how to weed out tricky answer choices that sound correct from the actual answer.

Practice tests can improve your speed and reading proficiency, as can prioritizing reading outside of study time.

3  Advanced Math Concepts

The ACT Math section covers many math concepts, including algebra and trigonometry, which can trip up test-takers. And while the SAT provides common math formulas for its Math section, the ACT does not — meaning it's up to you to memorize all potential formulas.

Test-takers who struggle with math should put in extra time during their study sessions to work on understanding common strategies and formulas.

Here's one trick that works well on any ACT section: Rule out obviously incorrect answers first to improve your odds of getting the question right.

4  General Test Anxiety

Like other standardized tests, the ACT puts test-takers under immense pressure. The stress of answering 215 questions in just under three hours can easily trigger test anxiety.

Fortunately, you can improve test anxiety. First, take ACT practice tests under test-day conditions to get used to the time pressure. It's also a good idea to practice strategies like deep breathing, time management, and positive self-talk during the exam to keep anxiety at bay.

Tips to Make the ACT Test Easier for You

How hard is the ACT? The test's difficulty may depend on how you prepare.

The following tips can help you walk into test day feeling confident. And even if you fall short of your target score, you can improve on a retake.

Schedule Study Time

First, you'll need to study for the ACT to make it easier. But how should you prepare? Since the ACT tests your academic skills, you're actually studying for the test in your classes.

In addition, consider buying an ACT prep book to make sure you understand the format and structure of the exam. Taking official and high-quality ACT practice tests can also help you do well on test day.

It's a good idea to start studying at least a month before your test. Consider scheduling additional study time to make the test easier for you.

Take Official Timed Practice Tests

Taking ACT practice tests can give you an edge on test day. That's because you'll know exactly what to expect in terms of content, question types, and pacing.

When taking practice tests, be sure to replicate testing conditions as closely as possible. Set a timer to hone your time-management skills. Also, prioritize official practice tests from the ACT Inc. website, since these will be the most similar to the actual test.

Maximize Your Test-Day Performance

By test day, you'll wrap up your studying. But your approach to the day can help determine whether you find the ACT hard or easy.

Know ahead of time what to bring on test day. You should also plan to arrive early so you can avoid rushing and give yourself ample time to settle in.

Instead of cramming right before the ACT, focus on getting a good night's sleep the day before the test and eating a balanced breakfast that morning.

Retake the ACT

If you struggle with the ACT, you can always retake the test. And the ACT offers a major benefit for retakers in the form of superscoring.

A superscore is created by taking your highest score on each of the four ACT sections across all tests you've taken. If you retake the test and boost your score on one section, that will appear in your superscore.

Before retaking the ACT, consider what tripped you up the first time. Did you need to spend more time preparing for a particular section? Or did test-day conditions rattle you? Make a plan to address any issues for your retake.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Difficulty of the ACT

How do you study for the ACT?

Test-takers should spend at least 1-3 months studying for the ACT. Consider tools like ACT prep books, online prep courses, and practice tests to help you prepare. Many sites offer free practice questions and tests, including ACT Inc., which designs the exam.

Understanding the test format, practicing common question formats, and building strong time-management skills will help you perform well on the ACT. Test-takers can also retake the test to try to boost their scores.

Is math harder on the ACT or SAT?

The ACT and SAT Math sections ask a similar number of questions — 60 on the ACT and 58 on the SAT — but the SAT provides more time overall. While ACT Math takes one hour, giving you about a minute per question, SAT Math lasts an hour and 20 minutes, giving you about 83 seconds per question.

That said, test-takers can use a calculator on the entire ACT Math section, while the SAT Math section includes a No-Calculator portion. The content of the two math sections overlaps a great deal, so consider taking practice SAT and ACT Math sections to see which is easier for you.

Is the ACT Science section hard?

Students with a strong foundation in reading, critical thinking, and investigation may find the ACT Science section easier than others do.

ACT Science presents you with data and asks you to interpret it. The section contains 40 questions, many of which are accompanied by complex reading passages or data tables. You'll get only 35 minutes to complete this section.

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