ACT Questions and Answers by Advantage Testing

ACT Frequently Asked Questions

Advantage Testing ACT FAQ

About the ACT/Test Administration

What is the ACT used for?

The ACT is designed to evaluate your college readiness by determining how well you have mastered the core components of a typical high school curriculum. The ACT is an important part of applications to most U.S.-based colleges and universities. However, keep in mind that some schools now have Test Optional or Test Blind admissions policies, meaning they do not require ACT or SAT scores to apply.

Admissions testing policies are frequently updated, so be sure to verify specific testing requirements on the official website of any school to which you are applying and make sure the information you’re looking at is current. If you can’t find the information you need online, you can always call or email the school’s admissions office.

How many times can you take the ACT?

As of fall 2020, there is no limit on the number of times you can take the ACT. Depending on the policies of the colleges and universities to which you are applying, we generally recommend that you take the ACT as many times as you need to in order to achieve your goal.

Many students plan to take the ACT for the first time in the spring of their junior year. With this timetable, we recommend beginning preparation in the second semester of your sophomore year, and certainly no later than the start of your junior year.

What is the difference between the ACT and the SAT?

The ACT and the SAT are admissions tests accepted by most U.S. colleges and universities; schools do not prefer one test over the other.

Scoring

  • ACT: 1–36 composite scale
  • SAT: 400–1600 composite scale

Test Length

  • ACT: 2 hours and 55 minutes + 40-minute optional essay
  • SAT: 3 hours

Reading

  • ACT: 40 questions in 35 minutes; passage-based reading comprehension
  • SAT: 52 questions in 65 minutes; passage-based reading comprehension; informational graphics included

English

  • ACT: 75 questions in 45 minutes; passage-based testing of grammar, usage, syntax, rhetoric, and punctuation
  • SAT: 44 questions in 35 minutes; passage-based testing of grammar, usage, syntax, rhetoric, and punctuation; informational graphics included

Math

  • ACT: 60 questions in 60 minutes; can used approved calculator; all multiple choice; arithmetic, algebra I and II, planar and coordinate geometry, trigonometry and precalculus including functions, conic sections, combinations and permutations, logarithms, and matrices
  • SAT: no calculator section: 20 questions in 25 minutes (including 5 grid-in questions); calculator section: 38 questions in 55 minutes (including 8 grid-in questions); trigonometry, radians, volumes, complex numbers, congruence and similarity, simple rational expressions, higher order equations, circle-related topics; emphasis on algebra, problem solving and data analysis, and certain advanced math topics

Science

  • ACT: 40 questions in 35 minutes; interpretation and application of scientific data presented in tables, pie charts, bar graphs, scatter plots, etc.
  • SAT: no science section; science questions throughout the Reading, Writing and Language, and Math Tests

Essay

  • ACT: 40 minutes; optional; writing and composition, analysis and development of an argument; 4 scores: ideas and analysis, development and support, organization, and language use and conventions
  • SAT: after the June 2021 administration, the College Board will no longer administer the SAT Essay

If you are trying to decide between preparing for the ACT or SAT, we recommend that you begin by taking a timed, full-length practice ACT and a timed, full-length practice SAT. Then compare your scores and your overall comfort level with each test. You should prepare for and take the test on which you feel that you will perform best.

Which test is harder, the ACT or the SAT?

The ACT and SAT have many similarities—they both assess your college readiness by testing skills in Math, Reading, and Writing. Neither test is objectively “harder” than the other. Some students perform better on the ACT, others perform better on the SAT, and most students find their performance on either test to be about the same.

If you are deciding between preparing for the ACT or SAT, we recommend that you take both a timed, full-length practice ACT and a timed, full-length practice SAT. Compare your scores and your overall comfort level with each test. You should prepare for and take the test on which you feel that you will eventually perform your best.

What subject areas are on the ACT?

The ACT consists of four required multiple-choice Tests on the following subjects:

  • English Test: five passages, with questions covering Production of Writing (Topic Development and Organization, Unity, and Cohesion), Knowledge of Language, and Conventions of Standard English (Sentence Structure and Formation, Punctuation, and Usage)
  • Mathematics Test: questions covering Preparing for Higher Mathematics (Number and Quantity, Algebra, Functions, Geometry, and Statistics and Probability), Integrating Essential Skills, and Modeling
  • Reading Test: four passages (Literary Narrative, Social Science, Humanities, and Natural Science), with questions covering Key Ideas and Details, Craft and Structure, and Integration of Knowledge and Ideas
  • Science Test: six passages (in the format of Data Representation, Research Summaries, and Conflicting Viewpoints), with questions covering Interpretation of Data, Scientific Investigation, and Evaluation of Models, Inferences, and Experimental Results

The ACT also has an optional Writing Test, an essay that will be assessed to evaluate your writing skills and ability to analyze an issue.

What is the question format of the ACT test?

The ACT consists of four multiple-choice sections, called “Tests,” and an optional essay:

  • English Test: 75 multiple-choice questions spread over five passages
  • Mathematics Test: 60 multiple-choice questions
  • Reading Test: 40 multiple-choice questions spread over four passages
  • Science Test: 40 multiple-choice questions spread over six passages (note that older practice tests may include seven passages)
  • Optional Writing Test: one essay prompt

Starting sometime after summer 2021, you will be able to retest individual sections after you have taken at least one full ACT.

How much time do you get to complete the ACT test?

Standard timing for the ACT is:

  • English Test: 45 minutes
  • Mathematics Test: 60 minutes
  • 10-minute break
  • Reading Test: 35 minutes
  • Science Test: 35 minutes
  • Unscored experimental section: 20 minutes
  • 2-minute break
  • Optional Writing Test: 40 minutes

Students who have documented needs for accommodations can request and may be granted additional time.

Do you really need to take the ACT?

If you are applying to U.S. colleges and universities, you should strongly consider taking the ACT or the SAT. Either the ACT or the SAT can be used for admission to most U.S. colleges and universities, and schools do not prefer one test over the other. Note that many schools now have Test Optional or Test Blind admissions policies, meaning they do not require ACT or SAT scores to apply. However, some of these policies have been put in place solely as a temporary measure during the COVID-19 pandemic, and some have further requirements if you choose not to submit test scores (e.g., you may be required to submit supplemental materials). Always check the individual school’s testing policy on the school’s website or by contacting the admissions office to be sure.

If you are concerned about your test performance, keep in mind that test scores are not the only way to demonstrate your credentials on a college application. Colleges and universities review all aspects of your application when making their admissions decisions. Your GPA and the rigor of the classes you take in high school, your application essays, your letters of recommendation, and all of your extracurricular activities will play a role in college admissions decisions. While your test scores may provide a quantitative measure of comparison, these other components can also help you stand out as an applicant.

Can you take the ACT for free?

The fee for each full ACT administration in the 2020–2021 cycle is $55 (or $70 with the optional Writing Test). When section retesting becomes available in 2021, the fees will be $44 for one section, $48 for two sections, and $52 for three sections.

Fee waivers are available for students who have demonstrated financial need. You can find more information about applying for a fee waiver here. As of fall 2020, ACT will offer up to four fee waivers to qualifying students (double the number previously offered), and students who have taken the ACT with a fee waiver can send an unlimited number of free score reports.

What should I bring to an official ACT administration?

When you take an official ACT at a test center, you should bring:

  • Your ticket
  • Photo identification
  • Number 2 pencils
  • A watch (but not a smartwatch)
  • An approved calculator (view the official ACT Calculator Policy here)
  • Snacks

You should not bring:

  • Books
  • Notes
  • Scratch paper
  • Highlighters
  • Pens
  • Any electronic device, other than an approved calculator
  • Any nicotine products

You can view additional information about what you can and cannot bring on the ACT Test Day checklist.

Preparation and Strategy for the ACT

How should I prepare for the ACT test?

Through more than 30 years of experience, we have found that long-term, one-on-one tutoring is the best way to prepare for the ACT. An experienced tutor will be able to determine your individual strengths and weaknesses and tailor a preparation plan that will enable you to achieve your best score. However, there are many ways to prepare for the ACT; for example, you can also take an ACT class or prepare on your own.

When preparing for the test, make sure to study the underlying concepts on all of the sections of the test (not just the sections that you like best) and then practice what you have learned by taking timed, full-length practice tests. Practice tests are a key element to any preparation plan because you need to expose yourself to the tested material and be able to complete the test within the given time limit. Practice tests will also help you grow familiar with the logistics of the official test and develop the stamina necessary to maintain your focus throughout a full test.

When should you take the ACT for the first time?

The ACT is designed to test your college readiness by evaluating your knowledge of the core concepts of a standard high school curriculum. Most students take the ACT for the first time in the second half of their junior year, leaving plenty of time to retake the test the following summer and fall. We recommend that you begin studying for the ACT toward the end of your sophomore year. This timeline will give you plenty of time to learn the underlying math, science, reading, and grammar and allow you ample opportunities to practice applying them on timed practice tests.

However, some students take the test earlier or later; take the ACT when you feel prepared and confident in your ability to achieve your best score. Refer to our college admissions timeline for more information.

How long should I study for the ACT?

The ACT is designed to evaluate your college readiness by testing your familiarity with the core concepts of a high school curriculum. It takes a significant amount of time to learn all the tested math, science, reading comprehension, and grammar concepts and to practice applying them on timed practice tests.

With this in mind, most students should plan to study for the ACT for at least a year. Such a timeline will give you the opportunity to master the material in manageable assignments over the long term. We have found that most students achieve their best scores when they begin preparing for the ACT toward the end of their sophomore years in preparation to take the ACT for the first time in the spring of their junior year. This schedule will leave time to retake the test, if necessary, the following summer and fall. You can refer to our college admissions timeline for more detailed information.

If you have less time to prepare, either on your own or with a tutor, focus on taking timed practice tests. Review the concepts underlying the questions that you miss. This approach will allow you both to pinpoint your weaknesses and to become comfortable with the format and pacing of the test.

How can I raise my ACT score fast?

Studying for the ACT is generally not a quick process because the ACT is designed to test your knowledge of the core concepts of a high school curriculum. If you do not have much time to prepare, focus on taking full-length practice tests and reviewing the topics related to any questions that you miss.

We recommend studying for the ACT for approximately a year, starting in the second half of your sophomore year of high school. Long-term preparation gives you time to learn the underlying concepts and to practice applying those concepts on timed practice tests. 

Advantage Testing has found that studying for the ACT through one-on-one tutoring yields the best results because an excellent tutor can provide you with an individualized program tailored to your strengths and weaknesses.

Do colleges look at how many times you take the ACT?

Each college and university has its own policy regarding how it considers ACT scores. Some schools want to see all of your ACT scores, though they may consider only the highest scores when making admissions decisions. Other schools allow you to submit only your highest ACT scores. Still other schools may superscore your test, meaning they will evaluate only your highest score on each of the four sections (English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science) across multiple test administrations. You can now send official ACT superscore reports to schools that accept them. It is always a good idea to confirm the specific test reporting policies of the colleges and universities to which you plan to apply.

Do not worry if you feel that you need to retake the test! Most students take the ACT more than once. We recommend that you first take the test after you have practiced and feel comfortable with the content, ideally by the spring of your junior year. This schedule will leave plenty of time to continue preparing and retake the test the following summer and fall, well in advance of college application deadlines.

How ACT Scoring Works and Why ACT Scores Matter

What is a good ACT score? What is a bad ACT score?

What determines a "good" ACT score for you depends on your goals. Different colleges and universities have different medians and ranges of standardized test scores, so your goal should be within the range of the schools to which you intend to apply. Keep in mind that everyone starts their ACT preparation at a different point, and your ideal score should also be one that is within reach.

ACT scores are scaled from 1 to 36. For students who graduated in 2018, the mean composite ACT score was 20.8, the mean score on the English Test was 20.2, the mean score on the Mathematics Test was 20.5, the mean score on the Reading Test was 21.3, and the mean score on the Science Test was 20.7.

Selective colleges often have average scores that are considerably higher than these national averages (e.g., the average composite ACT score of students admitted to Brown University is 34). To determine the score you will need to be a competitive applicant, check the websites of the schools to which you plan to apply or other college-ranking websites to find the range of ACT scores of admitted students.

Remember that your ACT score is only one part of your college application. Colleges and universities also consider your high school GPA, coursework, application essays, letters of recommendation, and extracurricular activities.

What is the average ACT score?

For students who graduated in 2018, the average composite ACT score was 20.8 on a scale from 1 to 36. The average score on the English Test was 20.2, the average score on the Mathematics Test was 20.5, the average score on the Reading Test was 21.3, and the average score on the Science Test was 20.7.

Keep in mind that the average scores of students admitted to colleges and universities with highly selective admissions are generally much higher than these national average scores (e.g., the average ACT score of students admitted to Yale is 34). When you are trying to determine your goal, look up the average and 75th percentile scores of students at the schools to which you plan to apply.

What is an average ACT score for the first time taking the test?

The ACT does not publish data about the first time each student takes the ACT. From more than 30 years of experience, we have found that most students do not achieve their best score the first time they take the ACT.

After long-term preparation, most students perform better when they retake the official ACT because they are less anxious and have had more practice and experience with the test content and format.

What is a good ACT score for a freshman or sophomore?

What defines a “good” ACT score depends on your own goals. As a freshman or sophomore, you probably have not been exposed to all of the core academic concepts tested on the ACT, so your score would likely be lower than it would be as a junior or senior.

As you define your goal, keep in mind that everyone starts at a different point, and your goal should be one that you can achieve with hard work and sustained study. Also note that the medians, means, and ranges of ACT scores vary greatly among colleges and universities, so ideally your goal is within the range of the schools to which you intend to apply.

For most students, we recommend beginning ACT preparation in the second semester of your sophomore year. You should then be prepared to take the ACT for the first time in the spring of your junior year, leaving time to retake the test the following summer or fall, if needed. However, some students take the test earlier or later. It’s always best to take the ACT when you feel prepared and confident in your ability to achieve your best score.

Is 17 a good score on the ACT?

For high school graduates from 2016, 2017, and 2018, a score of 17 was below the threshold “College Readiness Benchmark Scores” for all sections of the ACT. A composite score of 17 was at the 32nd cumulative percent (on the English Test, a 17 was at the 39th cumulative percent; on the Mathematics Test, the 40th cumulative percent; on the Reading Test, the 31st cumulative percent; on the Science Test, the 29th cumulative percent).

Thus, for most students, 17 is not a good score. ACT scores, however, should always be assessed within the context of individual goals. Keep in mind that many students do not achieve their goal the first time they take the test, and that rigorous practice and long-term study of the tested concepts can help students substantially improve their scores.

Is a 30 on the ACT good enough for Ivy League schools?

For high school graduates from 2016, 2017, and 2018, a composite score of 30 was at the 93rd cumulative percent. On the English Test, a 30 was at the 91st cumulative percent; on the Mathematics Test, the 95th cumulative percent; on the Reading Test, the 88th cumulative percent; on the Science Test, the 94th cumulative percent.

Thus, for most students, 30 is a good score. However, a 30 is below the average score of students admitted to the nation’s most selective schools. For instance, at Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Brown, and Columbia, the 25th percentile ACT score is 33 and the 75th percentile score is 35. At the University of Pennsylvania, this interquartile range is 34–36; at Cornell and Dartmouth, 32–35.

If you feel you need to improve your score, don’t worry! Few students achieve their goal the first time they take the ACT; however, with long-term study of the concepts and practice applying them, all students can improve their scores.

What ACT score is needed for Harvard?

Harvard is a selective and competitive school, and even a perfect ACT score will not guarantee acceptance. At Harvard, the 25th percentile ACT score is 33 and the 75th percentile ACT score is 35. The average ACT score of students admitted to Harvard is 34.

Keep in mind that ACT scores are only one part of your application. You will also be asked to submit your high school transcript, letters of recommendation, and application essays. ACT scores provide one measure for colleges to evaluate applicants, but they form only one aspect of the profile you present in your application.

How do I get my ACT score report?

Score reports are posted online to your ACT web account. Your scores on the multiple-choice portion of the ACT will be available about two weeks after taking the official test (though scores can sometimes take as long as two months to become available). Scores on the optional Writing Test will become available about two weeks after the multiple-choice scores become available. Note that scores for the October administration come out later than other administrations. 

If you choose computer-based testing once it becomes available in 2021, your scores on the multiple-choice sections will be available much faster—as soon as two days after the test administration.

Do I have to report my ACT score?

Each college and university has its own policy regarding ACT score reporting. Some schools may ask you to report all ACT scores, while others may allow you to choose which scores to send. Some schools will accept superscore reports, while others may choose to look only at full test scores.

The official ACT FAQ website also provides instructions about how to delete an ACT score, by writing to: 

ACT Institutional Services
P.O. Box 168
Iowa City, IA 52243-0168
USA

How do I send my ACT scores to colleges?

When you register for the ACT, you can send your scores to up to four colleges at no additional cost (students who have received fee waivers can send their scores to an unlimited number of colleges). Note, however, that these colleges will receive your scores before you have the opportunity to review (and possibly delete) them. If you want to select which scores to send to colleges (assuming those colleges allow selective reporting), you can order additional score reports from your ACT web account for a fee.

Regular additional Score reports for scores after September 1, 2017, cost $13 each. Additional Score Reports for archived scores (i.e., for tests taken before September 1, 2017) cost $38 each. Regular score reports are processed within a week of the request and then delivered to colleges within two weeks after that. Archived scores take an additional one or two days to process.

Recent and Upcoming ACT Changes

How is the ACT changing in 2021?

Starting sometime in 2021, the ACT will offer two new features:

  • You will be able to choose to take the ACT as a computer-based test or in paper-and-pencil format.
  • You will be able to retest individual sections of the ACT after you have taken at least one full-length ACT (i.e., you can take one, two, or three sections of the test at a time).

Can you take the ACT online?

Starting sometime in 2021, ACT will offer a remote testing option for students to take the ACT online at home. 

Starting in 2021, U.S. test takers will have the option of computer testing. When you sign up for a full ACT, you will be able to choose computer or paper testing. The upcoming section retests must be administered on computers. Keep in mind that you must take a full ACT before you will be able to take section retests.

Note that international ACTs are already administered on computers.

Is the online ACT different from the paper ACT?

Once they become available, the computer-based ACT offered at test centers or through remote proctoring will have the same content, structure, and timing as the traditional test. The only difference between the tests will be how they are administered.

In 2021, the ACT will also introduce section retesting, which will allow you to retake individual sections of the ACT (up to three sections at a time). This option is not available for paper testing. The content and format of each section on a retest will be the same as those of the section on the full ACT.

Should I take the ACT online or on paper?

If you are taking section retests (starting in 2021), you will not have the option to take the ACT on paper; retests will be available only on computers. If you are taking a full ACT and have the option of paper or computer testing, you should pick the format on which you feel most comfortable. Make sure to take at least one practice test on each format to help you determine which is easier for you. Once you decide, practice using that format to prepare for test day.

Should I retake certain sections of the ACT?

When section retesting becomes available in 2021, you should plan to retake certain sections of the ACT. In most circumstances, we recommend that students retake the ACT (see our college admissions timeline for more details). In particular, with ACT’s new retesting option, we recommend that students retake the sections on which they feel they need to improve. Retesting limited sections will allow you to prepare intensively for those sections. 

Keep in mind that the ACT will always include your highest composite ACT score from a single administration in your score reports, even superscore reports; some schools may choose not to use superscores and instead consider your top ACT score from a single sitting. Verify the individual policies of each school to which you intend to apply as you plan your testing and retesting strategy.

Do colleges care if you combine ACT section scores?

Some colleges will accept ACT superscores, while others may choose to look only at full ACT scores from a single sitting. You can now send official ACT superscore reports. A superscore is calculated by combining your highest section scores from all full ACTs and all section retests (once they become available in 2021). Note that superscore reports will still contain at least one composite full ACT score and all scores from the test events that comprise the superscore. Some colleges and universities may choose not to use the superscore when evaluating applications; make sure to confirm the score reporting policies of the colleges and universities to which you are planning to apply.

How does superscoring work on the ACT?

Historically, some colleges have calculated a superscore from the complete set of scores reported on a standard ACT score report. You can now send official ACT superscore reports with a composite superscore, which is calculated by combining your highest section scores from full ACT tests and all section retests. Note that score reports that superscore will still contain at least one composite full ACT test score and all scores from the test events that comprise the superscore. Some colleges and universities may choose not to consider the superscore when evaluating applications, so make sure to verify the score reporting policies of the colleges and universities to which you are planning to apply.

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