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What is the ACT?

The ACT is one of the two most popular college admissions tests. Trying to decide if taking this exam is the right choice? Here's what you need to know.
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Reviewed by Lonnie Woods III

If you're in high school or know someone who is, you might be thinking about the ACT. Like the SAT, the ACT is a standardized test used to measure college readiness or academic aptitude. Most people who take the ACT are high school-aged students. Taking the test expands your higher education options.

In some cases, the ACT isn't optional, it's mandatory. Some states require all high school students to take the ACT (or the SAT) to graduate.

The pandemic led K-12 schools and colleges to rethink the importance of standardized tests. Some K-12 schools waived the graduation testing rule. And some colleges and universities waived the test as an application requirement.

You might want to learn more about the ACT because it's a high school graduation requirement. Or you might want to take the test to open your options. Read on to learn how the ACT might fit into your educational future.

Key highlights about the ACT

Used for

Undergraduate college admissions

Cost

$63 without essay, $88 with essay

Duration

Three hours without essay, four hours with essay

Skills tested

English, reading, math, science, and optional writing

Computer-adaptive?

No

Scores

1-36 point score for these four sections: English, reading, math, and science; your composite score is the average of your score on these sections of the test

Average score

20.3 composite in 2021

Available online?

No

When to take it

Fall or spring of your junior high school year

Can you retake it?

Yes

Are there subject-specific tests?

No 


What skills does the ACT test for? 

The ACT — formerly the American College Test — is intended to assess your knowledge and skills in four areas: English, reading, math, and science. These sections are multiple-choice. The ACT also includes an optional writing test. 

Here is a breakdown of the content in each section.

A graphic summarizing the five ACT sections, including the optional writing section. Text from the graphic is repeated below.
Tori Rubloff/ZDNet

English

You'll revise and edit passages of text and short essays. The texts span topics and situations that are intended to "reflect students' interests and experiences" and assess language skills.

Reading

This section tests your ability to read a text and apply logic and reasoning. You'll be asked to identify the main ideas of a text, make comparisons, place events or ideas in sequence, and use context to determine the meanings of words.

Writing

This section of the ACT measures high school-level English writing skills. 

According to the ACT, colleges and universities choose whether to require the results from the writing portion of the test writing test. That's why this part of the test is optional, and students may decide whether to take it.

Here's what's in this section:

  • You receive a writing prompt describing "a complex issue" with three provided perspectives.

  • After reading the prompt, you write an essay in which you state your position on the issue.

  • Your essay must analyze the relationship between your position and one of the given positions.

  • Your response may introduce a new perspective or discuss one of the given positions.

Science

In this section, you'll apply critical thinking skills. You'll also interpret, analyze, and develop hypotheses to answer multiple-choice questions about science-based topics. The topics focus on biology, chemistry, Earth sciences, and physics.

Math 

This section focuses on content a student with a high school education might encounter in an entry-level college math course. 

This test section assumes you have basic computational math skills and know basic formulas. But you won't need to perform extensive computation or remember complex formulas.

How is the ACT scored?

ACT scores range from 1 to 36. Here's how scores are calculated, according to ACT:

  • The number of correctly answered questions are counted. There are no deductions for wrong answers, and there's no penalty for guessing.

  • The number of correct answers on each test section (the raw score) is converted to a scaled score. This step accounts for differences among versions of the test.

  • The average of your scores on the test's English, reading, math, and science sections is your composite score. Composite scores are rounded to the nearest whole number.

Each score report also includes reporting categories. Reporting category information includes the total number of questions in the category, the number of questions answered correctly in a category, and the percentage of questions correct. 

Reporting categories provide further insight into a student's strengths and weaknesses within specific subject areas.

What's considered a good score?

The high school senior class of 2021 earned a national average composite score of 20.3. Nearly 1.3 million students took the ACT in 2021, compared to 1.7 million who took the test in 2020. That's down 22%.

A composite score of 24 means you scored in the 75th percentile. In simple terms, if you earned that score, it means 75% of the people who took the ACT scored equal to or lower than you. A 99th percentile score of 35 could position you for consideration at an Ivy League school. 

How do I take the ACT?

Advance registration is required to take the ACT. To register, you'll need 30 minutes and:

  • A computer with internet access
  • A credit card or other payment information
  • Your high school course details
  • A headshot photo 

The registration process includes deciding whether you want to take the essay portion of the exam as well as selecting the schools to which you want to send your results. You can send results to four schools without paying additional fees.

Test day experience

On test day, remember your admission ticket, a photo ID, sharpened No. 2 pencils, a non-smartwatch that doesn't make any noise, and an approved calculator. You may also bring snacks to eat outside the testing room during exam breaks.

The exam will take about three hours to complete — four hours if you do the essay.

Can I take the ACT online?

All students must take the ACT at a school or testing center. Officials considered allowing students to test at home at the height of the pandemic. However, they decided not to move forward with that option. 

States or school districts may offer the ACT on paper or on a computer, but you'll still take the test in a school or testing center. Students outside the US must take the computer-based ACT.

Can I take the ACT more than once?

Yes, you can take the ACT more than once. In fact, you can take it up to 12 times. 

The best practice for retaking the ACT is similar to most standardized tests. Experts suggest taking this exam at least twice.

When should I take the ACT?

Most people take the test in the fall of the spring of their junior year. ACT suggests choosing a test date two months ahead of application deadlines for colleges you're applying to. 

The ACT is offered seven times a year, usually in February, April, June, July, September, October, and December. You should get your score back in two weeks, but allow up to eight weeks for your score.

How much does the ACT cost?

Right now, the ACT costs $63. It's $88 if you take the optional essay. This cost includes score reports for you, your high school, and up to four colleges. Fee waivers are available if cost is a concern. 

Check with your school before you pay or apply for a waiver. Many schools offer students an opportunity to take the ACT on a school day during school hours. And sometimes the school district or state pays the registration fees.

ACT recommends checking with your school counselor to determine your eligibility for a waiver. You must meet a list of requirements to qualify

If you qualify, you can receive up to four fee waivers. The waivers allow you to take the ACT for free. You'll also receive free study resources.

Additional fees may apply when taking the ACT. They include a $36 late registration fee. You'll pay $40 if you need to change your testing date or location, and extra score reports cost $16.

What's the difference between the ACT and the SAT?

The ACT and SAT are the two main standardized tests. Both are used to assess students for undergraduate-level college admissions. The SAT is run by the College Board, a completely different nonprofit organization with no connection to the ACT. You can use scores from either test to apply to American colleges.

After the SAT's 2016 update, the two tests are more similar. Both tests cover many of the same topics. You don't get points deducted for wrong answers on either test. 

The most significant difference between the ACT and SAT is the math section. Here are three key differences:

  • On the SAT, you must fill in your own answer for some math questions

  • The ACT includes more geometry-oriented questions

  • The ACT has five choices for multiple-choice math questions. The SAT has four choices.

Aside from math, there are a couple of other differences. The SAT does not have a science section. The College Board also discontinued the SAT's optional essay section in 2021. 

You also have more time to answer each question on the SAT. If you struggle with time management on academic exams, you might want to practice that skill before the ACT.

In order to maximize your future options, education experts and advocates suggest taking both tests.

This article was reviewed by Lonnie Woods III

A head-and-shoulders photo of a Black man wearing large glasses, a black turtleneck, and a gray vest.

Lonnie Woods III is a student affairs administrator, professor, and professional development consultant whose work and research examine the career competencies of students interested in pursuing artistic careers or those studying arts-related majors in college. 

He has 10-plus years of experience working in education with professional experience spanning various institutions, including Pratt Institute, Maryland Institute College of Art, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York University, The George Washington University, and The Whitney Museum of American Art. Woods holds a bachelor of science in fine art photography from Towson University and a master of arts in higher education and student affairs from New York University. Woods currently serves as a professor within the arts administration master's program at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Lonnie Woods III is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education Integrity Network. 

Last reviewed May 6, 2022.

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