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Understanding the ACT

Decode ACT – a key that opens doors to U.S. colleges. Discover the impact of ACT on your college dreams and navigate your path to success.

American College Testing (ACT)

From that first step onto a college campus to the triumphant toss of your graduation cap, the journey to higher education is filled with milestones. One such stepping stone that can seem both mysterious and daunting is the ACT. 

An acronym for ‘American College Testing,’ the ACT is a standardized test used by colleges and universities across the United States in their admissions process. 

But why, you may ask, do colleges care so much about this one test? To answer that question, let’s take a closer look at the role of the ACT in college admissions.


The Role of the ACT Test in College Admissions

Colleges use ACT scores as one of their tools for comparing students from diverse backgrounds. It’s like a universal language that speaks volumes about students’ academic abilities. Your ACT score can be a strong advocate for you, telling colleges you’ve got the necessary academic chops.

Yet, the role of the ACT in the admissions process has been a topic of heated debate. Some argue that it’s not all about academics. They say a holistic admission process should look at the complete picture, including a student’s character, resilience, creativity, and leadership skills.

The other side of the argument stresses the fairness of the ACT. It provides a uniform measure that stands unaffected by the varying grading standards across different schools.

The truth is, both arguments carry weight. Yes, colleges value ACT scores as they offer a standardized measure of academic aptitude. But remember, colleges also want to see the ‘real’ you – the person behind the score.

ACT Test Basics

Imagine the ACT as an academic marathon. It’s a standardized test designed to assess your readiness for college, much like a marathon tests a runner’s stamina and endurance.

The core areas of the ACT are English, Math, Reading, and Science. There’s also an optional Writing section. Let’s think of these as checkpoints in your marathon. 

The English section examines your grasp of language and grammar, while Math tests your numerical skills. Reading measures your comprehension, and Science tests your interpretation and reasoning skills. The optional Writing section gives you a platform to exhibit your argumentative writing skills.

Who takes the ACT and Why?

So, who runs this academic marathon and why? High school students, primarily juniors and seniors, take the ACT as a crucial step in their college application journey.

They take it because colleges across the U.S. and beyond recognize ACT scores as a reliable indicator of a student’s academic abilities. It’s like a passport that can take you to your dream college.

Measuring Success - The ACT Test's Effectiveness

How good is the ACT at predicting a student’s success in college?

Standardized tests like the ACT are designed to assess a student’s mastery of the high school curriculum and their potential for success in college.

Think of it as a compass, giving colleges an indication of how well a student might navigate through the academic terrains of college. Research suggests a correlation between high ACT scores and better performance in college.

However, remember, it’s one piece of the jigsaw puzzle that makes up your college application.

While important, other pieces like your grades, recommendations, personal statement, and extracurricular activities also play pivotal roles.

ACT Test Format and Timing

Have you ever watched a relay race? Runners passing the baton from one to the other, each racing against the clock? That’s like the ACT, where you tackle one section after another in a fixed amount of time.

Number of questions and time limit for each section

So, what’s the ACT relay race like? You kick off with English, sprinting through 75 questions in 45 minutes. 

Next, you race through 60 Math questions in 60 minutes. 

Then, you’re off to the Reading and Science sections, each with 40 questions to answer in 35 minutes. 

And for those going for the cherry on top, there’s a 40-minute Writing section.

Types of questions in each section

Regarding standardized testing, the English section is designed to assess your grammar and writing style. This includes ensuring you use the correct words and punctuation in your written responses. 

In the Math section, you’ll encounter a wide range of topics, from introductory algebra to more complex geometry problems. 

The Reading section focuses on comprehension, requiring you to read passages and answer questions based on your reading. 

For Science, you will be tested on your problem-solving skills in biology and physics. 

Finally, if you take the Writing test, you’ll be asked to write an essay on a given topic, arguing your perspective and supporting your argument with evidence.

Registering for the ACT Test

Here’s the deal – you need to register for the test, and it’s pretty simple. You can do it online on the ACT website.

Important to note are the deadlines. Think of them as the ticking clock in a thrilling movie. You don’t want to miss the climax, do you? The same goes for the ACT registration deadlines, so keep your eyes peeled!

Test Date

Registration Deadline

Late Registration Deadline

September 9, 2023

August 4

August 18

October 28, 2023

September 22

October 6

December 9, 2023

November 3

November 17

February 10, 2024

January 5

January 19

April 13, 2024

March 8

March 22

June 8, 2024

May 3

May 17

Preparing for the ACT

Getting ready for the ACT isn’t about cramming the night before. It’s like training for a marathon, requiring planning, practice, and perseverance. Luckily, many resources can help you build your strength and stamina for this test.

Books, online courses, and tutoring services can be crucial in your preparation. Here’s a breakdown:


ACT prep books are like your personal trainers. They offer practice tests, strategies, and comprehensive content reviews. Some popular choices include “The Official ACT Prep Guide” from the makers of the ACT itself and “Barron’s ACT,” known for its in-depth content and practice questions.

Online Courses

These are like virtual training camps. They offer interactive lessons, practice tests, video explanations, and more. 

Kaplan’s ACT Prep course, The ACT Test Guide, and Magoosh’s ACT Prep Course are highly rated by students for their extensive resources and practice questions.


Personal tutors can provide customized training plans to address your specific needs and weaknesses—companies like PrepScholar offer online ACT tutoring, matching students with experienced tutors for one-on-one sessions.

Remember, consistent practice and review are the best way to prepare for the ACT. Consider your prep resources as tools in your training kit.

Choose those that align with your learning style, and you’ll be ready to conquer the ACT marathon confidently.

Winning Strategies for Effective ACT Prep

  1. Start Early: Like the tortoise in the famous race, slow and steady wins the race.
  2. Plan: Break down your study sessions by topic. A bit of English one day, Math the next.
  3. Practice: They say practice makes perfect, and they’re right! Practice tests can give you a feel of the real thing.
  4. Review: Go through your mistakes. Remember, each error is a learning opportunity.

ACT Scoring: What do the Numbers Mean?

After you’ve done the test, how do you know how well you did? That’s where the ACT scores come in. 

Each of the four multiple-choice tests has an ACT score range of 1 to 36. The average of the four test scores is rounded to the nearest whole number to calculate the Composite score. The writing test is scored on a separate scale of 2 to 12 and reported as a distinct score.

When you send your ACT scores to colleges, it’s like sending them a snapshot of your academic skills. They look at it and say, “Ah, here’s a student who knows their stuff!”

So, a good score can make your application stand out. But remember, it’s just one piece of the picture.

ACT vs. SAT - A Tale of Two Tests

In the world of college admissions, ACT and SAT are two colossal figures, often compared for their distinct characteristics. Both aim to assess your readiness for college, but their approaches differ slightly, reminiscent of two distinguished professors with their unique teaching styles.

ACT adopts a broad-spectrum methodology, examining your knowledge in English, Mathematics, Reading, Science, and an optional Writing test. It’s akin to a multifaceted academic decathlon, aiming to capture your overall scholastic aptitude.

On the other hand, SAT focuses intensely on Reading, Writing, and Math. Its Math section dives deeper, devoting half its test to this subject alone. 

Unlike ACT’s straightforward approach to questions, SAT often wraps its questions in critical thinking puzzles, measuring not just what you know but how effectively you can apply it.

The choice between these two depends heavily on your academic strengths, learning style, and strategic test-taking skills. Hence, carefully examining both tests can help you select the one that will best showcase your intellectual prowess.

Looking at ACT Through Different Lenses

Can the ACT accurately predict a student’s success in college? It’s a million-dollar question with no clear answer.

Like a two-sided coin, there are two perspectives on this. Some say the ACT measures relevant academic skills, while others argue it can’t capture a student’s drive, creativity, and other strengths.

How about fairness? The ACT offers an equal playing field, but critics argue that students with access to expensive prep resources may have an edge.

And then there’s the psychological impact. There’s no denying that standardized tests can be stressful. It’s like stepping into an academic arena.

But remember, the ACT is just one day in your long academic journey.


  • The cost of the ACT without the writing section is $66, while the price with writing is $91. 
  • Late registration incurs an additional fee of $36.
  • Sending scores to up to four schools is included in the registration fee, but sending scores to additional schools costs $18 per school.

The ACT exam is specifically tailored for 10th, 11th, and 12th graders, aiming to equip schools and districts with essential data to prepare students for success beyond high school.

Many juniors or seniors in high school choose to take either the ACT, SAT, or both in the spring or fall. The ACT is available nationwide annually in September, October, December, February*, April, June, and July.

The duration of the ACT is 2 hours and 55 minutes, while opting for the ACT with Writing will extend the test duration to 3 hours and 35 minutes.

It’s possible to take the ACT exam up to 12 times. However, it’s recommended to take it only 2-3 times. Taking the test more than that is unlikely to result in a significant score improvement.

It’s important to note that taking the exam multiple times may have a negative impact on your college application.

The score you need to achieve on the ACT exam depends on the college or university you wish to attend. The national average composite score is generally around 21. 

However, if you’re aiming for more selective schools, you may need to achieve scores in the upper 20s or even 30s.

There is no penalty for guessing on the ACT. It is advisable to make an educated guess because it increases the chances of getting the question right as opposed to leaving it blank and getting it wrong.


In conclusion, understanding the ACT is crucial for any student looking to pursue higher education. By familiarizing yourself with the format, content, and scoring of the exam, you can better prepare yourself for success. 

Remember to practice, stay organized, and seek help when needed. You can achieve your goals and excel on the ACT with hard work and dedication.

And as for the debates, they remind us that you’re more than just a test score. You’re a unique individual with your own set of strengths. 

So, go on, conquer your dreams, and make your mark on the world. The ACT is just one of many steps on your road to success.

Still weighing your options between the SAT and ACT? Dive deeper into our detailed comparison guide, where we break down the intricacies of each test.

Editorial Disclaimer

The College Compass is reader-supported and committed to maintaining complete editorial independence. All views expressed are solely ours and are not influenced by any external party. We may include affiliate links in the article, which helps us earn a small commission to support our work. We always have a link to the source for any data or information we include. Learn more about our editorial practices.

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