ACT Test Overview

The ACT (American College Testing) is one of the two standardized tests (along with the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT)) for college admissions in the United States. It measures high school students' general educational development and their capability to complete college-level work with the multiple choice tests covering four skill areas: English, mathematics, reading, and science. The optional Writing Test measures skill in planning and writing a short essay. Specifically, ACT states that its scores provide an indicator of "college readiness", and that scores in each of the subtests correspond to skills in entry-level college courses in English, algebra, social science, humanities, and biology.

The main four tests are scored individually on a scale of 1-36, and a Composite score is provided which is the whole number average of the four scores. A testing session lasts approximately 4 hours (or 5 hours with the optional writing section) and costs $36.50 ($52.50 with optional writing section).

The role an applicant's ACT score plays in his or her candidacy to a college or university varies between institutions. While the SAT is the preferred standardized test of most colleges on the East and West coasts, the ACT is more widely accepted in the Midwest and South. Some colleges require neither, opting to evaluate candidacy solely on the basis of high school coursework, GPA, extracurricular experiences, writing samples and recommendations. Because of variance across high schools resulting from differences in curriculum, grading and rigor, standardized tests like the SAT and ACT provide admissions boards with a comparable element for the applicant pool.

Changes to the ACT Exam: September 2020

Beginning September 2020, students who want to improve their ACT score will be able to retake single sections of the five-part test, which lasts about three hours, instead of sitting for all sections again. The change would allow students to avoid getting worse marks on sections they had taken earlier. It will also enable them to focus their energy and study efforts accordingly to improve sectional performance. Additionally, students will now have the ability to ‘superscore’, or aggregate the best scores from each section from all tests taken, and present schools with their best test performance. Additionally, students will have the option to take digital, rather than paper, ACTs on any of the national testing dates, which would allow them to receive scores within two business days instead of waiting 2-8 weeks. This fast turn-around time is ideal for students who may need to retake the exam.

ACT vs. SAT

Which test is a better fit for you? Students may take whichever test they prefer (assuming there are available testing locations for both tests). If you're not sure which test you would prefer, consider the key differences between the ACT and SAT. Some students find that the ACT caters to their strengths more so than the SAT, and vice versa.

  • The ACT is an achievement test, measuring what a student has learned in school. The SAT is more of an aptitude test, testing reasoning and verbal abilities.
  • The SAT contains tricky, questions can be phrased in ways that make them difficult to decipher. The ACT contains straightforward questions that may be long but are usually less difficult to decipher.
  • SAT math levels: arithmetic, data analysis, algebra I and II, functions, geometry; formulas are provided in the test booklet. ACT math levels: arithmetic, algebra I and II, functions, geometry, trigonometry; no formulas are provided.
  • SAT Scoring: Math, Critical Reading, and Writing scores will each range between a 200-800; total SAT score ranges between 600-2400. ACT Scoring: English, Math, Reading, and Science scores will each range between 1-36. Composite ACT score is the average of your scores on the four sections; ranges between 1-36.
  • The ACT has up to 5 components: English, Mathematics, Reading, Science, and an optional Writing Test. The SAT has only 3 components: Critical Reasoning, Mathematics, and a required Writing Test.
  • The College Board introduced a new version of the SAT in 2005, with a mandatory writing test. ACT continues to offer its well-established test, plus an optional writing test. You take the ACT Writing Test only if required by the college(s) you're applying to.
  • The SAT has a correction for guessing. That is, they take off for wrong answers (1/4 of a point, except for grid-in math questions). The ACT is scored based on the number of correct answers with no penalty for guessing. As a result, students should guess on any ACT question that they are unsure about but should only guess on the SAT if they can confidently guess the correct answer by eliminating at least 2 answer choices. Mixing these two strategies up could cost students points.
  • The ACT has an Interest Inventory that allows students to evaluate their interests in various career options.
  • In recent years, more and more students are submitting both an SAT score and an ACT score to colleges. Some admissions officers have indicated that having an additional data point can sometimes be helpful in gauging the student's candidacy. Strong ACT and SAT scores look more convincing of a student's academic ability than just one test score.
  • To find out which test you are better at, take practice tests during your sophomore year of high school. A practice PSAT is offered by most schools and the PLAN test is the PSAT equivalent for the ACT. These tests are shorter in length but feature the same types of questions as on the actual SAT and ACT. After getting the results, you can then compare the scores using a conversion table and decide which test you will need more help with.
  • When you're studying for the tests, we recommended that you separate the study blocks and do not study both tests at the same time. These two tests require different strategies and intermingling them will likely confuse you and result in less-than-ideal performance.

ACT Test Sections

The ACT is generally regarded as being composed of somewhat easier questions (versus the SAT), but the time allotted to complete each section increases the overall difficulty (equalizing it to the SAT). The ACT allots:

  • 45 minutes for a 75-question English section
  • 60 minutes for a 60-question Mathematics section
  • 35 minutes for a 40-question Reading Comprehension section
  • 35 minutes for a 40-question Science section

Comparatively, the SAT is structured such that the test taker is allowed at least one minute per question, on generally shorter sections (25 or fewer questions).

ACT Test Topics

  • English: Usage/mechanics and Rhetorical skills
  • Mathematics: Pre-Algebra/Elementary Algebra, Intermediate Algebra/Coordinate Geometry and Plane Geometry/Trigonometry
  • Reading: Social Studies/ Sciences and Literary Narrative or Prose Fiction/Humanities
  • Science: One of three formats: Data Representation, Research Summaries, Conflicting Viewpoints

ACT Scoring

  • 1. First the number of questions on each test that you answered correctly are counted. No pointed are deducted for incorrect answers (there is no penalty for guessing).
  • 2. Then the raw scores (number of correct answers on each test) are converted to "scale scores." Scale scores have the same meaning for all the different forms of the ACT, no matter on which test date a test was taken.
  • 3. The Composite score and each test score (English, Mathematics, Reading, Science) range from 1 (low) to 36 (high). The Composite Score is the average of all 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.
  • 4. The seven subscores (Usage/Mechanics, Rhetorical Skills, etc.) are computed in the same way, but subscores range from 1 (low) to 18 (high). There is no direct, arithmetic relationship between your subscores and your test scores—this means your subscores don't add up to your test score.

How soon are ACT scores available?

Most scores are available for online viewing within 2 ½ weeks after each national or international test date. Your scores are not reported any faster if you view them online. Score reports are normally released within 3 to 8 weeks after each test date. If you took the Writing Test, your score reports will be released only after all your scores are available, including Writing, within 5 to 8 weeks after the test date. Beginning in 2020, students will have the option to take digital, rather than paper, ACTs on any of the national testing dates. This will allow them to receive scores within two business days instead of waiting the 2-8 weeks it typically takes to receive score reports for the paper examination.

How High Schools and Colleges Use ACT Results

  • High schools
  • High schools use ACT results in academic advising and counseling. They also use ACT results in evaluating the effectiveness of instruction, identifying students who need assistance with certain subject areas or academic skills, planning changes and improvements in the curriculum.
  • Colleges
  • Colleges use ACT results in a variety of ways:
  • Admissions decisions:
  • ACT test results, high school grades, academic preparation, out-of-class accomplishments, and future plans—these and other kinds of information help admissions officials identify applicants who can benefit most from their programs.
  • Course placement:
  • Colleges usually try to take into account individual strengths and weaknesses as they place students in first-year courses. For example, a college may offer three sections of a subject—developmental, regular, and advanced. A student's ACT test results, academic background, and high school grades might be used to determine which section would be most appropriate.
  • Academic advising:
  • College academic advisors may consider ACT results, high school academic program, high school grades, planned extracurricular activities, areas in which there is a need for assistance, and part-time employment plans to tailor an appropriate program of study to a student.
  • Scholarships and loans:
  • Some scholarship and loan agencies may use ACT test results with other information such as high school grades to identify qualified candidates. However, the agencies may not look at academic potential alone. The ACT score report provides information about a student's educational needs, extracurricular achievements, and educational plans. This information, along with high school grades and test scores, helps the agencies evaluate applications for scholarships, loans, and other financial assistance.

Using ACT Writing Test Results

If you took the ACT Plus Writing, the colleges and high school to which you have ACT report your scores will receive your Writing scores and the reader's comments on your essay along with your subject-area scores and Composite score. These colleges and your high school will also have the option to access an image of your essay online. Colleges may choose to review individual essays to help make admissions or course placement decisions. High schools may choose to review individual essays to monitor student achievement levels and guide their curriculum decisions.

ACT Score Cumulative Percentages

ACT Composite Score Percentile of student at or below this score
35 99.7%
34 99%
33 99%
32 98%
31 97%
30 95%
29 93%
28 91%
27 88%
26 85%
25 80%
24 75%
23 69%
22 62%
21 55%
20 48%
19 41%
18 34%
17 28%
16 21%
15 16%
14 11%
13 6%
12 3%
11 1%
 
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