What is the ACT? Complete Explanation of the Test

ACT Exam Information

If you’ve found this article, you have probably heard of the ACT (and if you haven’t before, well, you have now). Maybe you have a vague idea that ACT has something to do with college, but if you are confused about what exactly it is, I’m here to help!

The ACT, like the SAT, is a standardized test that colleges across the United States use for admissions. If you are a high-achieving student planning to go to a US college, you will need to take one of these tests.

In this article we will cover everything about the ACT. Specifically, what the ACT is, what colleges use it for, what is covered on it, and when you should plan to take it.

What do colleges use the ACT for?

The ACT is a standardized test designed to show colleges a student’s preparedness for the rigors of higher education. This is achieved by measuring a student’s reading comprehension, knowledge of grammar, writing ability, and math skills on a level playing field with the rest of the high schoolers who take it. Although it is not the only factor that colleges consider in admission decisions, the ACT basically serves as a nation-wide college admission test.

All four-year colleges will accept either an SAT or an ACT score that each student submits with the rest of his or her application package. This score can make up as much as 50% of the admission decision. A strong standardized test score (ACT or SAT) is a key part of a student’s application.

In addition, there’s a number of states that use ACT as a state-wide assessment test, so every junior at a public school is required to take the ACT.  Some of the states that require ACT with (and some without) writing are: Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Utah, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. Furthermore, Arkansas, Hawaii, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Tennessee have other arrangements where they require either SAT or ACT.  If you are from one of these states and want to know more, please contact your state Department of Education.

Which Schools Accept the ACT?

There’s a common belief that some colleges prefer to accept only SAT or only ACT. That is a misconception. All four-year colleges and universities in the United States accept ACT scores. The schools do not distinguish between the two tests, so you can take whichever one you like better.

However, schools such as California State University, George Washington University, and Hampshire College that either don’t require the ACT or SAT, or have flexible standardized testing policies.

Community colleges and trade schools usually don’t require applicants to take the SAT or ACT, but will sometimes accept test scores as a substitute for a placement test.

International students: If you are an international student with a goal of attending a US college or university, you will have to take either the SAT or ACT. If you are an American student planning to apply to international schools, you will probably still need to take some kind of standardized exam, but the specific requirements are dependent on school and country it is in.

What Does ACT Consist Of?

The ACT consists of four sections – English, Math, Reading, and Science – plus a (not-so) optional Writing test. All sections except the Writing test are completely multiple choice. The math questions have 5 answer choices, while all the other questions have 4.

Section Questions Time


English 75 questions 45 minutes


Math 60 questions 60 minutes


Reading 40 questions 35 minutes


Science 40 questions 35 minutes


Writing 1 prompt 40 minutes


How is the ACT scored?

ACT scores can feel confusing and random, so let me explain where composite score comes from.  For each section of the ACT, each test taker gets a raw score which is equal to the number of questions he or she answered correctly. The raw score is then converted to a scaled score between 1 and 36. The average of 4 scaled scores is the composite score. The writing is sometimes optional, so it gets its own score.

Although there is some variance from year to year, the average composite score in the United States is around 21.  Getting a high score is an admirable goal, but most students do not need to aim for a 36. Instead, you should determine what is a good score for the schools (and scholarships) you are planning to apply to and aim to get a score in the 75th percentile of their previously accepted students.

When Should You Take the ACT?

The timing of taking the ACT depends on many factors such as what kind of score you’re looking for, when application deadlines are, and whether you live in one of the states that require it. In general, the ideal time to take the ACT for the first time is the winter of junior year – when you’ve covered all or most of the material tested on the ACT in school, but have enough time to retake it, if necessary.

Everything You Need to Plan for the ACT.

Hopefully, after having read this article, you feel more clarity about what the ACT is and what subjects it tests. However, the hard part – preparing for the test – is still ahead. As you begin preparing for college application process, ask yourself the key questions below.

Should I take the ACT or the SAT?

This question concerns a lot of students. Before answering this question, consider that the New SAT is similar to the ACT, so deciding which test to take is not as important as it once was.

If you are not sure which test to take, you can use our fool-proof method which test is better for you or try this quiz for deciding between the new SAT or the ACT.

Also, keep in mind that if you live in one of the states that requires you to take the ACT in school anyway, it may be simpler just to stick with one test since you will probably have some practice sessions in class and it will save you money on registration.

What ACT Do I Need to Get into College?

Your score goal will depend on which schools you want to apply to.

What is the best way for me to prepare for the ACT?

As you prepare for the ACT, you’ll need to decide whether you want to study on your own or hire a tutor.

If you decide to study on your own, make sure you get the best books for your needs.


Next Steps

There are three important components necessary for effective ACT preparation: understanding how the test works, reviewing the material, and practicing.

In order to study effectively for the ACT, you must understand that this is one of the most important exams of your life and preparation should be approached that way. You must schedule the time to study (and stick with it). Remember that practicing the ACT concepts “when you have time” will not help you achieve significant improvements.

Check out the video for this blog: https://youtu.be/8gymK-4MDpI

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