What Is the ACT? A Complete Guide

The ACT measures college readiness in English, math, reading, and science. Discover what the ACT entails in terms of timing, content, and fees.

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by Anne Dennon

Published on June 14, 2022 · Updated on June 16, 2022

Edited by Hannah Muniz
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What Is the ACT? A Complete Guide
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The ACT, a three-hour, multiple-choice college entrance exam, covers four skill areas: English, math, reading, and science. It also includes an optional essay.

The more than 60-year-old test is rigorously designed and updated to align with high school core curricula and first-year college courses. The test aims to provide an accurate measure of what students learn in secondary education — and what they're prepared to take on in college.

While many question how useful standardized exams are, ACT Inc. argues that grade inflation makes tests like the ACT more important than ever. Grade inflation is when students are awarded higher grades than in a previous period of time for the same level of work.

Research published by ACT Inc. found that grade inflation has caused the average high school GPA to increase from 3.17 to 3.36 between 2010 and 2021.

According to ACT Inc., the test is designed to evaluate "how skillfully students solve problems, grasp implied meanings, draw inferences, evaluate ideas, and make judgments."

So what is the ACT exactly? What is on the ACT? And when do you take it?

What Is the ACT?

The ACT is a college entrance exam that tests students' knowledge of English, math, reading, and scientific reasoning, plus writing through an optional essay. By measuring readiness for college courses in these fundamental areas, the ACT provides a common data point that admissions officers can use to compare applicants.

The ACT, which costs $63 without Writing and $88 with Writing, is held seven times a year in September, October, December, February, April, June, and July. Depending on your state and testing facility, you may take the exam using pencil and paper or a computer.

ACT Inc. also offers state and district testing, which allows students to take the ACT on a weekday at their high school.

Many U.S. colleges and universities use ACT and SAT scores, along with other application materials, to help make admission decisions.

What does ACT stand for? The name ACT derives from the testing program's original moniker, American College Testing. In 1996, however, ACT Inc. decided to drop the full name in favor of the initialism, which it continues to use today.

What Is on the ACT?

The ACT is a multiple-choice test with four main sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science. Test-takers can also choose to sit for the optional Writing section, which requires you to compose an original essay.

In total, the ACT lasts 3-3.5 hours (depending on whether you take the Writing section) and consists of 215 multiple-choice questions.

ACT Sections
Section Number of Questions Time Time per Question
1. English 75 45 minutes 36 seconds
2. Math 60 60 minutes 60 seconds
3. Reading 40 35 minutes 53 seconds
4. Science 40 35 minutes 53 seconds
5. Writing (Optional) 1 essay prompt 40 minutes N/A
Total 215

2 hours 55 minutes (without essay)

3 hours 35 minutes (with essay)

N/A

English

The English test requires you to examine five passages for corrections and improvements. Questions relate to the underlined portions of passages and ask for amendments that deal with grammar, sentence structure, and rhetorical skills (e.g., organization, clarity, and style).

Three key categories are evaluated:


Math

The Math section tests topics like pre-algebra, elementary algebra, intermediate algebra, plane geometry, coordinate geometry, and elementary trigonometry. Typically, questions are organized by difficulty, with harder problems appearing last.

This test assesses students' knowledge in three skills areas:

You may use a calculator for the entire duration of the ACT Math section; however, you must use an accepted calculator that follows the ACT calculator policy. Specifically, calculators that run computer algebra systems are not allowed.


Reading

ACT Reading consists of four passages, one of which is actually a pair of shorter passages. Questions ask test-takers to derive meaning and interpret details from the texts through close reading and reasoning.

You'll also see questions on sequences of events, cause-effect relationships, the contextual meaning of words and phrases, and the author's voice and method.

The Reading test assesses skills in three general categories:


Science

The Science test covers an array of topics, such as biology, chemistry, physics, geology, and astronomy. Rather than focusing on advanced scientific knowledge, this ACT section emphasizes key science skills like data interpretation and scientific investigation.

Test-takers must read and interpret 6-7 passages that come in three formats: data representation, research summaries, and conflicting viewpoints. The questions that follow each passage ask students to critically examine the data as well as the conclusions and/or hypotheses drawn from it.

The three assessment categories for this section are:


Writing (Optional)

The optional Writing section appears at the end of the test. To take the ACT with Writing, you must pay an extra $25 on top of the regular test fee of $63 when you register for the exam.

You'll get one essay prompt, typically on a broad social issue. The prompt will consist of a passage and three perspectives on the issue presented. You'll be asked to write about your own perspective on the issue, taking care to analyze the relationship between your opinion and one or more other perspectives provided.

There are four domain scores for ACT Writing:

How Long Does the ACT Take?

The ACT lasts two hours and 55 minutes without breaks and without the optional Writing section. With the 40-minute essay, the ACT length rises to three hours and 35 minutes without breaks.

ACT Timing
Section Time Time per Question
English 45 minutes 36 seconds
Math 60 minutes 60 seconds
Break 10 minutes N/A
Reading 35 minutes 53 seconds
Science 35 minutes 53 seconds
Break 5 minutes N/A
Writing (Optional) 40 minutes N/A
Total (with breaks)

3 hours 5 minutes (without Writing)

3 hours 50 minutes (with Writing)

N/A

You'll get one 10-minute break between the Math and Reading sections. If you're not taking the ACT with Writing, this is the only break you'll have during the test. Those sitting for the essay will get a five-minute break between the Science and Writing sections.

Students with a documented disability or other condition may request special accommodations, such as extended testing time, which can increase the length of the ACT.

Your ACT may include an experimental section (called the "fifth test") after the Science section to test out potential questions for future test administrations. Your performance on this will not impact your composite ACT score in any way.

The experimental section is 20 minutes long and can take the form of an additional English, Math, Reading, or Science test. According to ACT Inc., all students taking the ACT under standard time constraints on a national test date can expect to get a fifth test.

When Do You Take the ACT?

Most students take the ACT in either the spring of their junior year or the fall of their senior year. Some students take the test at both these points in an attempt to raise their scores.

Because the ACT is offered a limited number of times annually, you'll need to be strategic about your test dates and college application deadlines. The ACT is offered seven times per year in September, October, December, February, April, June, and July.

ACT Test Dates 2022-23
Test Date Registration Deadline Late Registration / Deadline for Changes Standby Deadline
September 10, 2022 August 5, 2022 August 19, 2022 September 2, 2022
October 22, 2022 September 16, 2022 September 30, 2022 October 14, 2022
December 10, 2022 November 4, 2022 November 11, 2022 December 2, 2022
February 11, 2023 January 6, 2023 January 20, 2023 February 3, 2023
April 15, 2023 March 10, 2023 March 24, 2023 April 7, 2023
June 10, 2023 May 5, 2023 May 19, 2023 June 2, 2023
July 15, 2023 June 16, 2023 June 23, 2023 July 7, 2023

Source: ACT Inc.

Regular registration closes just over a month before the test date. Late registration, which charges a late fee of $36, closes around 20 days before the test date.

You can also pay an extra $63 to get on the standby list for a particular test date, though you'll receive a refund for the extra fee if you don't get to take the test on that date.

How Does ACT Scoring Work?

Each of the four ACT sections — English, Math, Reading, and Science — is scored on a scale of 1-36. Your composite ACT score is the average of your four section scores. As a result, it also uses a scale of 1-36.

So if, for example, you earned a 24 on English and Reading and a 28 on Math and Science, your composite score would be 26. Note that composite ACT scores with decimals are rounded to the nearest whole number.

ACT Inc. calculates scores based on the number of questions test-takers answer correctly, with no deductions for wrong answers. Your raw score, which is equal to the number of questions you get right, for each section is converted into a scale score out of 36 through a special equating process that's unique to that exam.

How raw scores translate into scale scores varies slightly depending on the difficulty of the test.

Test-takers who opt for the Writing test will receive a separate Writing score, ranging from 2-12. This score does not factor into your ACT composite score.

In addition to section scores and a composite score, you'll see two combined scores on your ACT score report: an English Language Arts (ELA) score and a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) score.

ELA scores equal the rounded average of your English, Reading, and (if applicable) Writing scores, whereas STEM scores make up the rounded average of your Math and Science scores.

What Is a Good ACT Score?

Generally speaking, anything over the median, or 19, is considered a good ACT score. Earning at least a 19 means you've outperformed at least half of all test-takers.

That said, most colleges prefer to see higher scores. It's therefore best to aim for a score of 24 or higher, which would place you in the top 25% of test-takers and make you a competitive applicant for many schools.

Ultimately, what constitutes a good ACT score for you depends on the colleges you're applying to. The most selective schools will expect extremely high ACT scores, often in the top 1-5%.

How to Study for the ACT

Besides doing well in English, math, and science courses, test-takers can access tons of ACT prep materials. Start with the free resources on the official ACT website before turning to top-rated ACT prep books, online prep courses, videos, and practice questions.

And don't forget about ACT practice tests. These can help you determine your strengths and weaknesses while helping you get acclimated to the timing and format of the exam.

All in all, try to dedicate at least 1-3 months preparing for the ACT. Make sure to focus on your biggest weak points and review the content areas you struggle with the most.

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