Everything you need to know about the ACT

~7 Minutes / ~1427 Words
Last Updated Dec 12, 2020

Performing proficiently on your standardized exams is an important step toward getting into your dream college. Good scores keep your application in contention; bad scores can quickly get you rejected. This article gives you an overview of everything you need to understand about the ACT and directs you to all the resources you might need to get the highest scores you can.

What is the ACT?

The two main exams high school students take for their university applications are the SAT and ACT. All the major universities accept both the ACT (given by the same-named company) and the SAT (given by the College Board). So why would a student take one in preference to the other?

Historically, if you were an international student, you probably would have taken the SAT because College Board initially did more international marketing than the ACT. If you were a U.S. student, you probably took the SAT if you lived on the East Coast, the West Coast, Indiana or Texas. If you lived in another state, you probably took the ACT. Why? It all had to do with marketing and which exam grabbed market share.

The ACT v. the SAT?

In recent years, the ACT has overtaken the SAT in popularity, possibly because it was impossible to take the SAT Subject Tests and SAT on the same dates (this has changed somewhat). The SAT also changed its format in 2016, and the test was a bit unreliable at first. Good test prep materials were hard to find, and it was difficult to reliably predict the score you would get. This is also becoming less of an issue.

So the important questions you might have are:

  1. Is one exam easier than the other?
  2. Which exam should I take?

Neither exam is objectively easier than the other, but one of the exams might be easier for you initially. If you are trying to ascertain which standardized test to take, read our article about the differences between the ACT and SAT.

What subjects are on the ACT test?

The exam is made up of four distinct "tests": English, Math, Reading and Science.

We have several articles that cover the formats of each of the sections. We also have guides for ACT Test Prep on each individual subject.

The ACT also offers an optional writing test that you can take after the standard exam. For more information on this test, check out our blog articles below:

How is the ACT scored?

After you take the exam, in a few weeks you’ll receive a score report that contains your composite score. You will also get a breakdown of scores on each section of the exam.

Like all standardized tests, your scores are calculated in a somewhat complex way. The number of questions you answered correctly on each section is your raw score. Like the SAT there is no penalty for incorrect answers. Every time you take the test, the questions are different. Thus, some exams will be slightly easier (and some slightly harder) than others. A raw score of 67 on one English test, for example, may be equivalent to a raw score of 70 on another English test given several months later.

Raw Scores into Scaled Scores?

To adjust for the insignificant differences that occur among different configurations of the ACT, the raw scores for each section (and the exam as a whole) are converted into scale scores. You see the scale scores on the score report. Your scores are sent to you  and the colleges you choose to report your scores to. When the raw scores are converted into scale scores, you can compare your scores with those who took different tests. For example, a scale score of 26 on the English test has the same meaning regardless of the form of the test on which it is based.

The ACT scales each section between 1 and 36. Your composite score is the average of the four scale scores in the four sections of English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science. If you take the exam with Writing, your Writing results are scored separately. Your writing score does not affect your composite score.

What is a good score on the ACT?

A good score on the exam is fairly subjective and greatly depends on the colleges and universities you intend to apply to. As you begin your test prep, go to the website of each of your top choice colleges and look at the test scores they expect of their applicants. College admissions often publish this information or display the average ACT/SAT scores of their incoming freshman class. This will help you determine what score range you are aiming for when you sit for the exam. If you are looking to apply to any of the Ivy League schools, a score between 31-34 is generally expected.

How do I register for the ACT?

To register for the test, you’ll need to create an account on ACT.org. The registration is several pages long and requires you to fill out some important information. This information identifies you and tracks your test. The ACT also uses it for research purposes, which has no bearing on your score). From this website you’ll be able to choose your test date (there are 7 test dates per year in the US) and testing location. Since the testing environment can have an effect on test performance, it is always ideal to select a location you are comfortable and familiar with, if possible. Some test centers do fill up, so it’s always ideal to register for your preferred exam date and location as early as possible.

As part of the registration process, you are able to choose up to four colleges to send your exam scores to. If you are relatively certain of four schools you plan to apply to, naming these colleges on your registration can save you money since each score report will later cost an additional fee.

What should I expect on ACT test day?

First off, it’s best to wake up early and arrive early to your testing location as there likely will be a line to check in before you get to your exam room. Arriving early will reduce some stress and anxiety and allow you to take time to locate the restrooms. You can get a drink of water, settle into your testing room, and mentally prepare yourself for the task ahead.

The exam takes two hours and fifty five minutes to complete. When you sit for the test, you begin with the English test, and then you take Math test. You can use calculators on every math question. You have a ten-minute break, and you then finish with the Reading and Science tests. If you choose to take the Writing test, you will have a five minute break before this section begins.

While on your break(s), make use of the brief rest to leave the test room: have a snack, stretch your legs, and calm your mind.

Overwhelmed or stressed? When to ask for help:

Standardized test preparation can be overwhelming and stressful. Sometimes it makes sense to seek help with test prep. Think about it: Just writing this article, it has taken more than two-thousand words to convey what you need to do to earn a top score.

If you have considerable difficulties at any point in your studies, you should employ a tutor. Not only can a tutor alleviate your obstacles, but you will be able to focus on the important entities. You can maintain your areas of proficiency and strengthen your areas of weakness. A professional tutor can guide you through your practice tests and other materials.

Read our Ultimate Guide to ACT Test Prep — it summarizes everything you’ll need to know, whether you are preparing to take the exam next month or in a few years.

Thinking about getting a tutor for test prep? Our online ACT test prep will teach you to apply these strategies and many more for success on the exam. Get in touch to schedule a free lesson or take a free practice test.