The ACT: What You Need to Know

Thinking of taking the ACT? Here's a quick overview of what to expect.

Your scores on the ACT help colleges judge how well you have mastered high school content compared to other applicants. While important, your ACT scores are just one factor in your admissions chances.

What's Tested on the ACT

The ACT measures the academic knowledge and skills you should have acquired in a standard high school curriculum. It includes four multiple-choice tests: English, Reading, Mathematics, and Science. The entire test is two hours and 55 minutes long. An optional 40-minute writing test may be required by some colleges.

The ACT English Test

This test measures your mastery of the elements of effective writing. You'll evaluate several essays and answer multiple choice questions about each. Questions focus on three areas: conventions of standard English (punctuation, usage, and sentence structure); production of writing (organization, cohesion); and knowledge of language (word choice, style, and tone).

The ACT Reading Test

Here, you will read several prose passages that are representative of the level and kind of reading required in first-year college courses. Questions test your understanding of information that is both directly stated and implied. You'll be asked to evaluate the author's reasoning, central ideas and themes, and supplied evidence.

The ACT Mathematics Test

The math test measures mathematical skills that students have typically acquired by the beginning of grade 12. You'll be asked to solve a wide range of math problems involving functions, geometry, statistics and probability, algebra, and modeling. You'll also be asked to solve problems that require you to use one or more math skills you learned prior to high school, such as averages, medians, and percentages.

The ACT Science Test

The science test is designed to gauge your interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning, and problem-solving skills. You will review several sets of scientific information and then analyze experimental designs and scientific results, compare alternative viewpoints and hypotheses, and interpret data.

The ACT Writing Test

This optional test measures writing skills emphasized in entry-level college composition courses. You will be presented with three points of view on an issue. You'll be asked to evaluate each perspective, present your position on the issue, and explain how it relates to or differs from the other positions presented.

How the ACT Is Scored

Your scores are based on the number of questions answered correctly. No points are deducted for questions left blank or answered incorrectly. Your composite ACT score is the average of the four required tests, rounded to the nearest whole number. If you take the Writing Test, your score will be included in a separate English Language Arts score, which is the average of your scores on the essay and the required English and reading tests.

How to Prepare for the ACT

The ACT organization offers testing tips and free practice questions on actstudent.org, along with an online prep course. There are many other online resources and books to help you become more familiar with the test.

When to Take the ACT

It's a good idea to take the ACT for the first time in the spring of your junior year. This will give you time to take the test again in the fall of your senior year. Be sure to confirm the last possible date you can take the test with the colleges you are applying to.

Sending Your Scores to Colleges

When you register for the ACT, you can choose up to four colleges to receive your scores at no cost, and more colleges for a fee per college. There is an additional fee per college for any scores sent after testing occurs. If you take the test more than once, you can choose which test date the schools will see. (You can't choose scores from different dates.) Fee waivers are available, based on income.

Some Colleges Don't Require Test Scores

An increasing number of colleges and universities do not require the SAT or ACT for admission. For a listing of these schools, visit fairtest.org.

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