If you’ve found this article, you’ve probably vaguely heard of the ACT (and if you hadn’t before, well, you have now!). Maybe you have some idea that it has something to do with college, but you’re still pretty confused about what exactly it is. I’m here to help!
The ACT, like the SAT, is
a standardized test used for college admissions
. If you’re planning to apply to college in the US, you’ll almost certainly have to take one of these tests (and you might still need to even if you’re planning on going to school outside the US).
This article will take you through
everything you need to know about the ACT
, including why students take it, what it tests you on, and when you should plan to take it yourself.
Why Do People Take the ACT?
The ACT is a standardized test designed to show colleges how prepared you are for higher education
by measuring your reading comprehension, knowledge of writing conventions, and computational skills, and then comparing you to the rest of the high school students who take it.
The exam essentially serves as a nationwide college admissions test (though it’s far from the only factor schools consider when looking to admit students).
Most four-year schools require applicants to submit either ACT or SAT scores (they don’t distinguish between the two), which can then make up as much as 50% of the admission decision.
A strong standardized test score is a key part of your application.
There are also a lot of students who are
required to take the ACT by their high school
. A number of states use the ACT as a statewide assessment test, so every junior at a public school takes the ACT.
Which Schools Accept the ACT?
There’s a common misconception that some colleges only accept SAT scores and won’t take ACT scores. This is not the case:
all four-year colleges and universities in the US accept ACT scores
, and the schools don’t distinguish between the two tests. You can take whichever you prefer.
However, many schools these days, including George Washington University, Hampshire College, and the California State University system,
either don’t require ACT/SAT scores or have flexible policies on standardized tests
If you’re an international student looking to attend a US school, you’ll need to take either the ACT or SAT. If you’re an American student planning to apply to international schools, you will probably still need to take one of these standardized tests, but it will depend on the school you’re applying to and which country it’s in.
Two-year colleges and trade schools generally don’t require applicants to take the ACT
but will sometimes accept it in lieu of a placement test.
MIT, one of the many colleges that requires an ACT score.
What Does the ACT Cover?
ACT consists of four sections
—English, Math, Reading, and Science—plus an
optional Writing section, or essay
. With the exception of the essay,
the test is entirely multiple choice
: the Math questions each have five answer choices, while the rest have four.
This chart quantifies the basic structure of the test. For more details on what’s actually on the ACT, you can follow the links to full breakdowns of each section.
# of Questions
Time per Question
|75 questions||45 minutes||36 seconds|
|60 questions||60 minutes||60 seconds|
|40 questions||35 minutes||52 seconds|
|40 questions||35 minutes||52 seconds|
|1 prompt||40 minutes||40 minutes|
|215 + 1 prompt||3 hrs 35 mins (2 hrs 55 mins w/out essay)||—|
How Is the ACT Scored?
ACT scores can feel arbitrary, so let’s break down
where that mysterious number between 1 and 36 actually comes from
For each section of the test, you’ll get a raw score, which is the number of questions you get right. That is then converted into a scaled score between 1 and 36.
The composite score is simply the
of your four ACT section scores
is left out because it’s optional).
the average ACT score hovers around 21
, though there’s some variance from year to year.
While it’s easy to fixate on trying to get as high a score as possible, most students don’t need to get a 36. Instead, you should determine
what a good score is for the colleges (and scholarships) you’re planning to apply to
. For top-tier,
highly selective schools
, you’ll likely need at least a 33-34, but for less selective public universities, you could very well get in with a score closer to the average.
When Should You Take the ACT?
When you take the ACT will depend on what kind of score you want to get, when your
are, and whether you live in one of the states that requires the ACT.
Generally speaking, though,
it’s ideal to
take the ACT for the first time
in the fall or winter of your junior year
, when you’ve covered most of the material in school but still have time to
retake the test if needed
Check out our guide to
see a list of upcoming ACT test dates
and get tips on choosing one.
We’re just getting started! Time to make a plan.
Everything You Need to Plan for the ACT
Having read this post, you hopefully feel a bit more clear about what the ACT is. But the tricky part is still to come: preparing for the test. I’ve compiled
a list of essential questions you should ask yourself
as you begin to plan for college applications.
Should I Take the ACT or SAT?
This question concerns a lot of students, but it’s not as important as it seems, since
most students don’t see that much of a difference between their scores on the two tests
the SAT is very similar to the ACT
in terms of overall structure and content.
If you’re not sure which test to take, try using
our fool-proof method
to determine whether the ACT or SAT is better for you. You can also take our
quiz on deciding between the SAT and ACT
or get the rundown of
all the major differences between the two exams
Also, keep in mind that
if you’ll be taking the ACT in school anyway
, it’ll be simpler to stick with that test, since you might have some prep lessons in class and it will save you money on registration.
What ACT Score Do I Need to Get Into College?
What’s the Best Way to Prepare for the ACT?
If you decide to study on your own, make sure to
come up with a study plan
, get the
best ACT prep books for your needs
, and take plenty of
official ACT practice tests
. We also recommend looking at
our ultimate ACT study guide
to help you plan out your study schedule and get the resources you’ll need.
What Do I Need to Know to Prepare for the ACT?
There are three key pieces to preparing for the ACT:
- Understanding how the test works
- Reviewing the material
how to think effectively about the ACT
our guide to the five strategies you must use
Not sure where to get started on your ACT prep?
Our free ultimate ACT study guide
offers you step-by-step advice on what to read and when in your ACT prep.
Aiming high on the ACT?
Get expert tips on how to ace the exam with
our comprehensive guide to getting a 36
—written by a