ACT Test Guide: Everything You Need to Know (2024)

Man writing in notebook in front of whiteboard
Updated:
April 10, 2024
15 min read
Contents

”Rohan

Reviewed by:

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 1/9/24

There’s no need to search for the ultimate ACT test guide any longer: this article contains everything you need to know about the ACT, completely free. Below you’ll find all things ACT and get the answers you need in one convenient spot. 

High school students have two choices for standardized tests: the SAT or the ACT. Every year over one million high school students and graduates take the American College Test (ACT). Your test scores are a crucial part of your college applications, and it’s normal to feel a bit of pressure before you take the ACT test. 

This free ACT test guide will have you in tip-top shape and feeling confident about  acing the ACT in no time. Read on to learn more about the ACT and its history, test overview, tips to up your ACT test prep game, and much more. 

What is ACT Test?

So, what is the ACT test? Like the SAT, the ACT is a college entrance exam. The test is entirely multiple-choice and takes approximately three hours to complete. 

There are two main players in the college testing industry: the College Board, which administers the SAT, PSAT, and AP curriculum, and ACT Inc., which administers the ACT.  

Admissions committees use your ACT scores as a way to gauge your college readiness and academic aptitude. School curriculums, opportunities, and GPA scales can differ by district, let alone by each state. Students aren’t always offered the same academic opportunities as their peers in other districts or states. 

The ACT offers a standardized way to fairly compare students beyond just their GPA and class rank to mitigate the gap. Comparing students using standardized tests evens the playing field and ensures disadvantaged students aren’t left behind just because of where their school is located. 

ACT Format

Students are tested in five key subject areas: 

  • English 
  • Math 
  • Reading 
  • Science 
  • Writing (optional)

Each section has its own designated time limit, and completing the entire exam requires 3 hours and 35 minutes.

Section # of Questions & Time Limit Content/Skills Covered Question Types
English 75 questions in 45 min. Grammar & usage, punctuation, sentence structure, strategy, organization and style, Four choice, multiple choice usage/mechanics and rhetorical skills questions
Math 60 questions in 60 min. Pre-algebra, elementary algebra, intermediate algebra, coordinate geometry, plane geometry, trigonometry Five choice, multiple choice questions
Reading 40 questions in 35 min. Reading comprehension of what is directly stated or implied Four choice, multiple choice referring and reasoning questions
Science 40 questions in 35 min. Interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning, and problem-solving Four choice, multiple choice data representation, research summaries, and conflicting viewpoints questions
Writing (optional) 1 essay in 40 min. Writing skills Essay prompt

History of the ACT 

The ACT was created in 1959 after University of Iowa professor Everett Franklin Lindquist sought an alternative to the SAT. As more and more students decided to pursue higher education, it became clear the country needed another college entrance exam to meet demand. 

Initially, the ACT was created to rival the SAT “in response to changing patterns in college attendance in the United States and a desire for an exam that more accurately judges the ability of a student to perform well in college or university.” 

In 1959, the first ACT sections were English, Mathematics, Social Studies, and Natural Sciences. Fast forward 30 years later to 1989, and the Natural Science section was changed to Science Reasoning, and Social Studies became the Reading section. 

In 2005, an optional writing test was added to the ACT. ACT Inc. made slight changes to the writing section in 2015, increasing the time limit from 30 to 40 minutes and changing the content. 

female student looking at schedule

ACT Testing Statistics 

In 2023, there was a slight decrease of 0.3 points in ACT scores compared to 2022, which was smaller than the 0.5-point drop observed from 2021 to 2022. 

During the same year, approximately 1.4 million high school seniors participated in the ACT test, representing an increase of about 40,000 from the previous year. However, this number still fell short of the approximately 1.7 million students who took the test in 2020.

ACT college admissions test scores also reached their lowest point in three decades. The average composite score for the exam dropped from 19.8 to 19.5, representing a decrease of 0.3 points, as reported by the nonprofit organization responsible for conducting the test. It's important to note that the highest achievable score remains 36.

Data shows the ACT test tends to be more prevalent in central states, with some exceptions: 

  • Alabama
  • Arkansas
  • Colorado
  • Idaho
  • Illinois
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana 
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota 
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • New Mexico
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • South Dakota 
  • Tennessee 
  • Utah 
  • West Virginia
  • Wisconsin 
  • Wyoming 

As you can see, it’s a pretty even split between states that prefer the ACT versus states that prefer the SAT. Ultimately, it’s up to you, the student, to decide which test is best for you. 

Who Should Take the ACT? 

All U.S. high school students can take the ACT if they prefer it over the SAT. Typically, students in their junior or senior high school years take the ACT. The test is designed “for the 10th, 11th, and/or 12th grade levels to provide schools and districts with the data necessary to position students for success after high school.”

When to Take the ACT 

The timing of when you take the ACT is essential. However, you shouldn’t take the ACT test until you feel prepared to do so and have taken a practice test that approaches or exceeds the score you want to achieve. You should also finish all high school courses that cover topics you’ll see on your exam first, such as logarithms or trigonometry.

You’ll want to plan your ACT exam dates so you can retest if necessary. The best strategy for college entrance exams is to test as soon as possible while giving yourself time to get fully prepared. If you can, try to take the ACT once in the spring of your junior year and again in the fall of your senior year. 

The ACT offers seven test dates per year, typically falling on Saturdays in February, April, June, July, September, October, and December. If you can’t take the test on a Saturday for religious reasons, the ACT may have accommodations available for you. 

The ACT administration recommends “choosing a test date at least two months ahead of the application deadlines of all the colleges and scholarship agencies you might want to apply to.” Ensure you check the ACT’s test dates and plan to take the test on a date that works best for you. 

student writing on calendar

The Day of the ACT: What to Expect 

Knowing what to expect on ACT test day can help you enter the testing center feeling cool, calm, and collected. In the days before the test, ensure you check if your test has been rescheduled for reasons relating to bad weather or any other unforeseen circumstances. You don’t want to make the trek to the test center only to find it closed. 

You must arrive at the testing center by 8 a.m. on test day. If you have the time and resources to do so, you may want to travel to your testing center on another day to gauge how much time it will take you to get there. Don’t forget to factor in situations beyond your control, such as weather, traffic, public transportation delays, and more.

Getting to the testing center on time is crucial: you will not be admitted to the test if you're late. Aim to be there 15 minutes early to avoid missing the test. When you get there, staff will check your admission ticket and photo ID and use either an electronic device or paper materials to administer the test. 

Once you break the seal on the ACT test, you can’t request a test change date. You’ll have access to your calculator only on the ACT Math Test. You’ll be asked to agree to the ACT Terms and Conditions when you register and again on test day. 

After you’ve finished the fourth section of the test, you’ll complete a short multiple-choice, ungraded test. Don’t worry about this test too much: your results won’t be reflected in your composite score, and your responses are used to help develop future test questions. 

The length of the ACT varies; if you don’t decide to take the optional writing test, your test day wraps up at about 12:35 p.m. If you do want to take it, you’ll finish at 1:35 p.m 

Before you leave, ensure you tell a staff member if you don’t want your scores reported. Students may choose not to report their scores if they feel they didn’t perform as well as they could, and have time to take the test at a later date. 

Breaks

The order of subjects on the ACT is English, Math, Reading, then Science. After you finish the ACT Math Test, you’ll be allowed to take a short break where you can have a snack, drink, and relax before the rest of the test. Note that you can't have your phone or any electronics during this time. 

If you decide to take the writing test, you’re permitted to take another break after the ACT Science Test, which is the last of the required subjects. 

Important Note on Devices 

From the moment you step into the testing room until your test is complete, you can't have access to any electronics besides your ACT-approved calculator. If you bring a device with you, double-check that it’s turned off and out of sight while you take the test. 

If you access any electronic device or your phone makes any noise (even if it’s a cool ringtone), you’ll immediately be dismissed and have your scores canceled. Staff members may even take your device away. Don’t make these mistakes! 

ACT Test Prep: How to Prepare 

Since the test is quite challenging, you’ll need to ensure you work hard and read our step-by-step test ACT prep guide. The below test prep tips can help increase your confidence and ensure you’re ready to rise to the occasion on test day. 

Set Up Goals ASAP 

Identifying your target score is a crucial step in ACT test prep. It’s one thing to say, “I want to do well on the ACT Test,” and another to say, “I’m aiming for a composite score of at least 30.” 

Finding your target begins with taking an initial practice test and seeing how you do. From here, you can plan your studying based on how much time you have before test day and how much you want to raise your ACT score. 

Another way to find a measurable goal for yourself is to check the class profile data of schools on your college list. Schools often release data on the average ACT scores of admitted students. Shoot for, or above, this average for a better chance at getting accepted at the school of your dreams! 

Your Study Schedule Matters 

Creating a consistent study schedule is imperative to your success and ACT test prep plan. Schedules ensure you stay on track, cover all the concepts you need to know for your test and keep you from straying off your study path. A well-organized schedule can also prevent you from burnout or cramming (it’s never fun and seldom a good idea). 

Use any planning tools you’re comfortable with, whether on your phone, laptop, calendar, or a paper day planner. However, don’t neglect to factor in your other responsibilities, commitments, and free time when making your schedule. You don’t have to spend every waking moment you’re free studying: balance is essential! 

Focus on Where You Need to Improve 

Don’t linger too long on concepts you’ve already mastered. While you may want to routinely check in and ensure you still understand and remember everything, mastering means moving on. 

Many students assume they need to allow the same amount of study time per ACT section. Unfortunately, this logic may not hold for every student. If you’re a math whiz, you’ll probably need to spend less time practicing with math questions than most of your peers. 

Focusing on your areas that need improvement can be uncomfortable and even frustrating for some, but with practice comes familiarity and mastery. Don’t be afraid to tackle your weaker subject areas: you’ll see your effort reflected in your test scores. 

Finish Courses Related to ACT Content

Most high school students aren’t rushing to take the ACT in their first year or even the beginning of their sophomore year. If you’re taking the ACT in your junior or senior years, there’s a good chance you’ve taken the courses you need to succeed. 

Circle back and ensure you don’t have any knowledge gaps that become apparent as you take practice tests. The ACT contains some questions relating to trigonometry and logarithms: ensure you take the relevant advanced math courses so you’re not left confused. 

Practice As Much As You Need 

Taking regular practice tests helps you get more familiar with the ACT’s content and helps measure your progress. You’ll want to regularly take a practice test to check in and see how you’re doing. 

As soon as you hit your target score or get pretty close, feel confident knowing you’re ready to ace the ACT. 

Time Yourself

Timing yourself as you take practice tests is one of the most crucial elements of ACT test prep to guarantee your success. The ACT is faster than the SAT: you’ll need to ensure you can answer each question with ease within less than a minute on average. 

Along with timing yourself, ensure you can complete your practice tests in one go, similar to test-day conditions. Turn off your phone and TV, and ensure you can work in a quiet environment. You might want to tell your family or housemates you’re practicing to minimize distractions ahead of time. 

As you take practice tests, you can increase your speed: speed comes after accuracy and familiarity. 

Hourglass on table

Still unsure if you're ready for the ACT? Take our free interactive ACT Readiness Quiz to find out if you're prepared for the test.

Organize Your Bag and Materials the Night Before 

Forgetting something important you need is the worst. Don’t fall victim to forgetting something essential like your admissions ticket or calculator. Make a list of what you need and organize your bag the night before so you don’t have to frantically rush around in the morning. You need to bring

  • A printed admission ticket 
  • An acceptable photo ID (current, valid ID issued by your state/city/school/government in a plastic card format with your first and last name on it
  • An ACT Student Identification Form with a photo if you don’t have an ID like the one described above
  • A mask or face covering 
  • Sharpened No. 2 pencils with erasers 
  • A watch without an alarm that doesn’t make noise
  • A permitted calculator 
  • Snacks to eat on your break 

Don’t Neglect Yourself and Exude Confidence

There are only a few days left before ACT day, and you’re burning through your study materials and practice tests. While that’s great, take care not to neglect yourself and your needs leading up to test day. 

Stay hydrated, eat well, and try to get a solid eight hours of sleep each night. Remember, do participate in activities that make you feel good, whether it’s watching your favorite show or movie, painting, exercising, or hanging out with friends. Don’t allot every second of your spare time to ACT test prep. 

Act Test Subjects 

The entire ACT includes four sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science. You can also take the optional writing test if you choose to do so. The shortest sections are reading and science, and the math section is the longest. 

Knowing the ACT’s structure well before taking the actual test is essential and can help you feel more prepared. 

ACT English 

The ACT English Test will give you multiple essays or passages, each followed by a set of multiple-choice questions. The key thing to remember about the ACT English Test is it “puts you in the position of a writer who makes decisions to revise and edit a text.” 

There are three main question types on the ACT English test: writing production, language knowledge, and conventions of standard English. Here’s a breakdown of what’s expected of you for each one.

student pulling book from library shelf

Production of Writing (29-32%)

These questions assess your understanding of the purpose and focus of the passage. This includes questions relating to: 

  • Topic Development: You need to show you understand and control the rhetorical aspects. You understand the purposes of text sections, whether parts of the narrative meet its goal, and evaluate the relevance of the text concerning the overall focus. 
  • Organization, Unity, and Cohesion: You use strategies to ensure text flows well in a logical and organized manner while ensuring there is a practical introduction and conclusion. 

Knowledge of Language (13-19%)

Knowledge of language questions demonstrates your effective language use “through ensuring precision and concision in word choice and maintaining consistency in style and tone.”

Conventions of Standard English (51-56%)

These questions measure your understanding of English grammar, usage, and mechanics to edit and revise your writing. Examples include: 

  • Sentence Structure and Format: You understand how sentence structure and formation can make narratives more straightforward and improve writing. 
  • Punctuation: You can identify punctuation issues and solve them. 
  • Usage: You can identify common problems “with standard English usage” and make revisions. 

ACT Mathematics

The ACT Math Test has 60 questions you must answer in one hour (one minute per question on average). Most of the questions you see are self-contained, although some may belong to a set. 

Although knowledge of “basic formulas and computational skills are assumed as background for the problems…recall of complex formulas and extensive computation are not required.” 

These are all the question types you’ll see on the ACT and an approximate measure of how frequently they appear. 

person solving equations on paper

Preparing for Higher Math (57-60%)

The math you see in these questions contains much of the newer math concepts you’ve learned in your high school courses leading up to the test. Preparing for higher math has five subcategories: 

  • Number & Quantity (7-10%): These questions relate to real and complex number systems. You must reason and understand quantities in forms such as integer and rational exponents, and vectors and matrices.
  • Algebra (12-15%): You must “graph, and model multiple types of expressions. Students will employ many different kinds of equations, including but not limited to linear, polynomial, radical, and exponential relationships. The student will find solutions to systems of equations, even when represented by simple matrices, and apply their knowledge to applications.”
  • Geometry (12-15%): You’ll deal with shapes and solids and concepts like congruence, surface area, and volume. You must understand the "composition of objects, and solve for missing values in triangles, circles, and other figures, including using trigonometric ratios and equations of conic sections.”
  • Functions (12-15%): These questions test your knowledge of function definition, notation, representation, and application. These questions may include, “but are not limited to linear, radical, piecewise, polynomial, and logarithmic functions. Students will manipulate and translate functions, as well as find and apply important features of graphs.”
  • Statistics and Probability (8-12%): You will describe the center and spread of distributions, answer questions about data collection methods, “understand and model relationships in bivariate data, and calculate probabilities, including the related sample spaces.”

Integrating Essential Skills (40-43%)

This category focuses on how well you can use your knowledge to solve simple and complex questions. You’ll be asked to address concepts including: 

  • Rates and percentages
  • Proportional relationships 
  • Area, surface area, and volume 
  • Averages and medians
  • Expressing numbers in different ways 
  • Solve problems combining skills in chain steps 
  • Applying various skills in different contexts 
  • Demonstrating mathematical fluency

Modeling 

Modeling questions include problems that deal with producing, understanding, evaluating, and improving models. Modeling is reflected in all five math subcategories discussed above, as well. This category measures your modeling skills across many mathematical topics. 

ACT Reading 

The purpose of the ACT Reading Test is to show you can read closely, pull out important information using evidence in the text, and integrate information from multiple sources. Questions on the reading test ask you to: 

  • Find main ideas 
  • Find and interpret specific details 
  • Understand the chronological order of events 
  • Make comparisons
  • Understand cause-effect relationships
  • Determine the meaning of context-dependent words, phrases, and statements 
  • Make generalizations 
  • Analyze the author’s voice and method 
  • Evaluate claims and evidence in an argumentative text 
  • Integrate information from multiple texts 

You'll see the narratives and passages range from longer to shorter. What you’ll see reflects examples of writing you’ll work within your first year of college. The question types you’ll see belong to three distinct categories.

Key Ideas and Details (55-60%)

You’ll need to read each passage closely to identify central themes and ideas so you can accurately summarize what you’ve read. These questions measure your proficiency in understanding relationships, drawing logical inferences, and understanding sequential, comparative, and cause-effect relationships. 

Craft and Structure (25-30%)

Craft and structure questions require you to figure out the meanings of words and phrases, analyze text structure, understand the author’s purpose and perspective, and character POVs. You must also “Interpret authorial decisions rhetorically and differentiate between various perspectives and sources of information.”

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas (13-18%)

These questions test your understanding of authors’ claims, your ability to differentiate facts from opinions, and connect different texts using evidence. Other questions in this category may ask you to analyze how an author constructed their argument and gauge the reasoning and evidence from sources. 

Visual and Quantitative Information in the Reading Test

This is a relatively new element on the ACT Reading Test. Introduced in 2021, one of the passages may be accompanied by a visual or quantitative element like a graph, table, or figure. You may be asked to analyze data from the visual and passage to get the correct answer. 

ACT Science

The ACT Science Test is meant to measure your “analysis, evaluation, reasoning, and problem-solving skills required in the natural sciences.” Every passage you see in this section presents authentic scientific scenarios. 

The test's content includes biology, chemistry, Earth & space sciences, and physics. Thankfully, you don’t need to possess advanced knowledge in these areas to perform well on the test. Many students consider the ACT Science Test an extension of the reading test because it focuses more on different ideas and concepts than scientific knowledge. 

The science information and passages on the ACT are presented in one of three ways: 

Data Representation (30-40%)

These questions present graphics or tables similar to what you see in scientific journals or other materials. Questions accompanying the information measure skills like finding relationships based on a visual, interpolation and extrapolation, and translating “tabular data into graphs.”

Research Summaries (45–55%)

Research summaries provide descriptions and results of one or more related experiments. Questions focus on experiment design and the interpretation of experimental results.

Conflicting Viewpoints (15–20%)

Conflicting viewpoint information presents different explanations for scientific phenomena inconsistent with each other. You’ll need to understand, analyze, and compare different hypotheses or views. 

There are three question types you’ll see, including: 

Interpretations of Data (40-50%)

Approximately half the ACT Science questions ask you to analyze scientific data presented in numerous formats like graphs, tables, and diagrams. 

Scientific Investigation (20-30%)

You must understand experimental tools, procedures, and design (like identifying controls and variables) and compare, extend, or modify experiments (such as predicting the results of future experiments or trials). 

Evaluation of Models, Inferences, and Experimental Results (25–35%)

These questions ask you to judge a science experiment’s validity based on the provided information. You may also be asked to form conclusions or predictions based on that information. 

ACT Writing 

The ACT Writing Test presents one writing prompt describing a complex issue and three different perspectives on that issue. Your job is to read the prompt and develop your own opinions and perspectives on the issue. 

Your essay should analyze how your perspective relates to one or more of the other presented perspectives. Where you choose to take your writing is up to you. 

Some students have a perspective borrowing partial elements from those given or agree with one perspective. Other students may choose to generate a completely alternate perspective. Your scores on the test aren’t influenced by your point of view but based on your writing skills. 

female student writing in notebook

Why is the ACT Writing Test-Optional? 

The ACT Writing Test is optional because not all colleges require a writing score for admission. If you’re unsure whether or not you should write the ACT essay, check the requirements of all the schools you want to apply to first. If none of them require ACT Writing Test scores, you don’t have to take it. 

How the ACT Is Scored 

Your total ACT score is your composite score: this number can range from 1 to 36. Your total score comprises your scores from all ACT sections, excluding the writing test. Here’s how your ACT test is scored

  • First, the number of questions you answered correctly in each section is counted. No points are deducted for wrong answers as there is no penalty for guessing on the ACT. 
  • Your raw scores (the number of questions you answered correctly) are converted into scale scores. Scale scores have the same meaning across all ACT sections. 
  • Your test scores and your composite score range from 1 to 36. Your composite score is the average of your four test scores, rounded to the nearest whole number. Fractions in your score of less than one-half are rounded down, while above one-half are rounded up. 

You’ll receive this information in a report. In the report, you’ll also see other scores for categories within each test, including total questions, how many you answered correctly, and the percentage of correct questions. 

Reporting categories follow similar frameworks as above: the percentages above indicate how many questions in each test belong to that category. 

If you choose to take the ACT Writing Test, you will receive a score of 2-12, following the ACT’s grading rubric. The main page of your ACT score report will look something like this: 

Your score report also shows your Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) score made up of your combined math and science scores and English Language Arts (ELA) score made up of your combined scores from reading, English, and writing if you took it. 

Your scores estimate your educational development. You should also consider the ranges marked by the blue and green lighter shades around your actual scores.

“Think of your true achievement on this test as being within a range that extends about one standard error of measurement, or about 1 point for Composite and writing scores, and 2 points for STEM, ELA, and other test scores above and below your score,” reads the ACT score report. 

Average ACT Scores

In 2023, the average ACT score for high school graduates stood at 19.5 out of a possible 36 points on the college entrance exam. This score is a key indicator of how prepared students are for college-level studies and plays a significant role in the college admissions process.

Source: ACT

However, it's important to acknowledge that performance on the ACT showed notable differences among various racial groups. These disparities highlight the ongoing challenges related to educational equity and access to quality preparation resources, which can influence students' performance on standardized tests.

Interestingly, about 36 percent of the class of 2023 made the choice to retake the ACT at least once during their high school years. 

This decision to retake the exam often results in improved scores, showcasing students' dedication to achieving better outcomes. Notably, this trend was particularly prominent among Black students, who demonstrated a higher inclination to retake the test.

These variations in ACT scores and the enthusiasm to retake the exam underscore the significance of addressing educational disparities and ensuring equal opportunities for all students, irrespective of their backgrounds. 

Achieving this equality remains a critical goal for educators, policymakers, and institutions nationwide as they work toward fostering a more inclusive and accessible education system.

ACT Test-Taking Tips 

The ACT test is reasonably challenging, and you’ll need to put in the work and time to achieve high scores. While we outlined everything you needed to know about ACT test prep above, we’ll move on to test-taking tips you can use to ensure you ace the ACT like a pro. 

General ACT Test-Taking Tips

We’ll start with general test-taking tips to remember before delving into section-specific tips and tricks.

Budget Your Time and Keep a Good Pace 

You have an average of 52 seconds per question if you want to complete every question within the designated time frame. Speed is one of the most critical elements to your success besides your accuracy. Good time management on tests requires practice, practice, and more practice. 

Ensure you don’t get caught up on one question for too long, as tempting as it can be to stay until you have the answer. You simply won’t have the luxury to do that on the ACT without negatively impacting your scores later. Instead, know when it’s time to skip it and return later. 

Good test-taking speed doesn’t happen overnight. Take practice tests consistently to work on it: the more comfortable you are with the content, the faster you’ll answer questions on test day. You might even have time left over to check your work! 

Begin With Easier Questions 

No rule states you have to start with the most challenging questions in each section. Starting nice and easy can help you budget your time and obtain the highest score possible if you run out of time. 

Starting with more straightforward questions or question sets can help you boost your ACT morale. Finding yourself stuck on the first few questions won’t boost your confidence, so why put yourself through that right away? Beginning your test this way can set the tone for annoyance, nervousness, and other bad feelings. Don’t let yourself fall into this negative mindset. 

Don’t Let Yourself Get Frustrated or Too Nervous 

On the topic of negative mindsets, try to stay as positive as you can while you’re completing your test. Negative feelings can creep in when we feel incapable, angry at ourselves for not knowing answers we think we should know, or when the worry seed creeps into our head and tells us that we won’t get the score we’re hoping for. 

Learn to deal with these negative thoughts and feelings before the ACT, and you’ll help yourself stay calm, collected, and in the right headspace to perform your best. If you find yourself getting anxious, frustrated or worked up, remember to breathe deeply, take a second to clear your head and start again. 

Some people like to repeat positive affirmations to themselves, visualize something that makes them happy, or think forward to how they’ll reward themselves when the test is over. Whatever works for you, don’t spend too long doing it; get back in the game as soon as you can! 

Use the Process of Elimination 

If you don’t know the answer right off the bat, or you’re still unsure after about a minute of thought, the process of elimination can help. If you have four possible answers and you know two of them aren’t correct, you boost your chances of selecting the right answer from 25% to 50%. 

The process of elimination can help cut through the noise and take your focus off answers you know are wrong. 

ACT English Test Tips 

Now that you have a handle on general ACT test-taking tips, it’s time to tackle the ACT’s first subject: English.

female student looking at laptop

Learn Your Grammar Rules 

Unfortunately, there’s no fun or handy tip to get around this one: you need to know your grammar rules, including where and where not to put punctuation marks. You’ll need to know about comma splices, keep a watch out for run-on sentences or poor sentence structures, and understand other English language mechanics. 

Look Closely at Transitional Sentences 

Transitional relationships are a running theme on the ACT English Test. First, you’ll need to read the entire sentence before you answer the questions. Think about the type of transitional relationship between clauses, sentences, or paragraphs. Is it cause and effect, an addition, or a contrast? These are some of the common relationships you’ll see. 

From here, you can narrow down your choices. You can omit the underlined part of the question, plug in each answer choice, and see if one suits the sentence’s transitional purpose better. 

Identify Agreements 

Agreements are essential on the ACT English Test, specifically subject-verb and antecedent-pronoun agreements. You need to correctly identify whether the subject is plural or singular before deciding whether the verb needs to be corrected. 

When looking at antecedent-pronoun agreements, you’ll again need to watch out for plurals and singulars. Don’t forget to double-check tricky questions that use words like “each of” or “a proportion of.”

Keep Tense Consistent 

The writing samples the ACT provides can have tenses that jump all over the place. Something is probably wrong if tenses are switched in the middle of a sentence. Ensure that all the sentences are consistent. For example, “She played basketball and studies neuroscience” should be, “She plays basketball and studies neuroscience.” 

This is just one easier example, but it shows how the ACT likes to play around with tense and have you solve it. 

The Most Concise Answer May Be Correct 

While there can be many exceptions to this rule, the most concise answer is usually correct in English. If you’re presented with an option with a lot more punctuation than the other answers, there’s a strong possibility it’s wrong. Concision is key to excellent writing. 

Read to Gain Context 

When students realize they’ll mainly be dealing with grammar and revising text, they may look past the main ideas and purpose of the narrative. Although you don’t have to hang on to every word of the passage, understanding the main idea and purpose may help you get some excellent insight for answering questions. 

ACT Math Test Tips 

The ACT Math Test is the next test to pass your desk, the longest section with the most questions. Read on for some succinct, helpful math tips! 

Memorize Formulas 

Similar to how there’s no way to bypass knowing your grammar rules, there’s no way to get around learning and memorizing essential formulas for your ACT Math Test. Unlike the SAT, you won’t be provided a reference sheet of crucial formulas you need to know. 

Some formulas you should know are: 

  • SOHCAHTOA
  • Slope-intercept form 
  • Midpoint formula
  • Logarithms 
  • Averages 
  • Percentages 
  • Area and volume of different shapes 
  • Pythagorean Theorem 
  • Properties of right triangles 

These are just a selection of what you’ll need to know to succeed on the ACT Math Test. As you do practice tests, you should get more familiar with everything you’ll need to know.

Ensure You Bring the Right Calculator 

Showing up and realizing your calculator is not ACT-approved would be terrible. You’d have to decide to tackle the test sans calculator or reschedule for another date. Thankfully, the ACT allows most scientific, graphing, and four-function calculators. However, you must ensure it doesn’t fall into the prohibited list

  • All model numbers that begin with TI-89 or TI-92
  • TI-Nspire CAS (Note: the TI-Nspire (non-CAS) is permitted. 
  • HP Prime
  • HP 48GII
  • All model numbers that begin with HP 40G, HP 49G, or HP 50G
  • fx-CP400 (ClassPad 400)
  • ClassPad 300 or ClassPad 330
  • Algebra fx 2.0
  • All model numbers that begin with CFX-9970G

If your calculator isn’t one of these and is a scientific, graphing, or four-function calculator, it’s permitted.

Along with these calculators, you’re prohibited from using any device with wireless or Bluetooth capabilities or those built into devices like smartphones, QWERTY calculators with format letter keys, and electronic writing pads or pen-input devices. Double-check your calculator is permitted before you show up at the testing center. 

Turn Language into Math: Mark-Up Problems 

Take advantage of writing in your test booklet. If you’re presented with a math question in a long paragraph form, it can be challenging to know where to start. Begin by circling or underlining the information you’ll need to solve the problem. Pull out numbers and write them on the bottom or side to explain what they represent. 

Pay extra attention to math language such as “equal to” or anything else that can tell you more about the problem. For example, “the number of,” “how much,” or “how many” can represent variables. Turning language into math signs and numbers can help you make sense of these wordy problems.

Plug-In Answers If You’re Unsure or Have Time 

While plugging in your answers probably isn’t the best first-step strategy, it’s a helpful tool to use if you have time left over. Plug in all possible multiple-choice answers after crossing out the ones you know are incorrect. Beware that this method can eat up a lot of your valuable time, so don’t make this your go-to strategy for every math question. 

We recommend this method to check your work if you finish up your math test before the time limit or if you can’t figure out the answer to a question or two. 

students writing test in classroom

Identify Your Method Best Method For Finding Answers 

Improving your test-taking skills involves determining which strategies work best for you. An excellent method is to read the entire question first, pull out all the relevant information you’ll need, and write it at the bottom of your booklet. 

Then you can look at the answers, make a hypothesis, and use traditional math to solve. See if your answer is what you thought it was.

If you think you’ve made a mistake, you can try back-solving using the answer choices. Everyone works differently, so play around with what works best for you before entering the testing center. 

ACT Reading Test Tips 

With half the test complete, you’ll move on to tackle the ACT Reading Test questions. 

Choose Your Passage Order 

The ACT Reading Test has four passages with ten accompanying multiple-choice questions each. The passages will include each type of narrative: prose fiction, social studies, humanities, and natural science. 

You don’t have to go in order if you don’t want to. Feel free to begin with the passage that seems easiest to you or with the subject area you enjoy most. This way, you can start this ACT section confident and ready. 

Skim the Passage First To Understand 

You’re under a time crunch of just 35 minutes, so you’ll need to act quickly. Looking at the questions first may not help you very much because there are so many you’d need to keep track of as you read. Instead, skim the passage first, paying particular attention to the beginning and end sentences of paragraphs. 

Skimming helps you understand what the text is about, its primary purpose, and the author’s intent. 

Remember that You Don’t Need Outside Knowledge 

The texts the ACT uses are similar to those you may come across in first-year college courses. Don’t fret about the content of the reading passages if they deal with topics or situations you don’t know very much about. You don’t need any outside knowledge about prose, humanities, natural science, or social studies to perform well on the reading test. 

Use Line References 

If a question refers to line 10, go right to line 10. You should also read the surrounding sentences to gain more context and a better idea of the ideas presented in a sentence. For example, if you’re supposed to go to line 10, reading lines 8 through 12 will help you more. 

Mark Up Passages 

Your test booklet is yours to mark up as you see fit. When you skim through or answer questions, don’t be afraid to underline or circle keywords and phrases. Marking up your booklet is especially crucial if you’re trying to find supporting evidence or summarize the intent or central idea of the passage. 

Read the Pre-Passage Descriptions

Many students tend to blow right past the pre-passage descriptions and launch right into the passages and questions. While these descriptions may not give you all the answers, they provide relevant information about the author, period, and anything else that can give you more context. Read them to help ground you. 

ACT Science Test Tips 

The ACT Science Test is viewed by many as an extension of the reading test. Similar to what you just did, you should mark up your passages as you see fit to answer questions with ease. 

Understand You Don’t Need (Much) Outside Information 

Like the reading test, you don’t need to know everything about meteorology or chemistry to do well on the ACT Science Test. The real purpose of this section is to assess your ability to think like a scientist and understand scientific methods and skills.

That being said, brushing up on your general science knowledge is helpful. Most of the terminology on the test are terms you’ve probably seen before in your science classes. As you take practice tests, you’ll likely see questions relating to chemical equations, cells, DNA, and more. 

Run Right to Figures or Visual Data Representations 

The visuals are there for a reason, so don’t skim them. These figures can contain a goldmine of information you’ll need to answer questions. Feel free to mark them up and analyze them before you read the passage. Remember, thinking like a scientist involves integrating data in multiple forms. 

Understand the Scientific Method 

Having a firm grasp of the scientific method can help you make quick work of research summary questions. Using the simplified scientific model, ask these questions:

  1. Observation: What was the situation or phenomenon observed? 
  2. Hypothesis: What was the plausible and testable explanation the scientist came up with? 
  3. Prediction: Did they predict that their hypothesis would be correct or incorrect? 
  4. Experiment: How did they test the hypothesis, and what data did they record? 
  5. Conclusion: Did they decide their hypothesis was correct or incorrect based on the data collected?

Identify Your Strategy to Tackling Questions 

Strategy means first picking which passages you want to start first. The ACT Science Test has six or seven passages, including one dual passage. Start with whichever subject matter looks easier to you. 

After that, you can decide your next steps. Do you want to read the whole passage up front? Skim it first? Or look at the questions and jump back into the passage? Some students may use a hybrid of these methods. 

The best strategy is always the one that works best for you while keeping your time limit in mind! 

ACT Writing Test Tips 

If the schools you want to apply to require ACT Writing Test scores, you’ll head out for a break after finishing the science test. Use the time to re-energize and ready yourself to write a stealer essay! 

Build Your Writing Skills Pre-Test Day 

The ACT administration recommends using standard methods to build your writing skills before the test since there’s no one right way to “review” for the test. Some recommended tips to help you prepare for the test are to: 

  • Read and write frequently
  • Stay on top of current issues and develop opinions about them 
  • Practice writing essays and in other formats 
  • Write in your extracurricular activities if the opportunity presented itself 
  • Share your writing with family, teachers, tutors, and friends and get feedback 
  • Learn the best writing process for you: brainstorming, planning, outlining and more
  • Always look to improve your writing skills
  • Try to keep your writing well-developed, organized, and concise 

Keep Your Eye on the Time 

You only have 40 minutes to read the prompt, consider the stances, and write your response. That’s a tall order in such a short timeframe. Plan your essay out so you don’t run out of time. Think about the length and what you want to write before putting a pencil on paper. 

Identify Your Stance 

Once you’ve read through the passage and accompanying stances, it’s time to develop your own. Think about whether you agree with an opinion fully or partially, or what to take your writing in a completely different direction. Remember, you’re graded on the quality of your writing, not what stance you take. 

Make a Plan 

Making a plan can include writing out bullet points of critical points you want to hit, estimating your essay’s parts length, and concisely organizing ideas. You want to ensure your writing follows a logical and organized flow, but you certainly don’t want to run out of time while you write. 

Write and Review 

When your plan or outline is sorted and you have all your ideas down on paper, it’s time to start the writing process. Do your best to be concise and use proper grammar and spelling. After you've finished your essay, use the time left over to see if there’s anything you want to change or clarify before submitting it. 

Once you’ve done that, congratulations! You’ve finished the ACT test. 

ACT Resources

The ACT offers many free resources for students. Through the ACT’s partnership with Kaplan, you can join the official ACT online class where you can get your questions answered in real-time, a self-paced course with on-demand tutorials and individual tutoring sessions. 

You can also buy the official ACT Prep & Subject Guides paperback set. The ACT also offers an official ACT test prep guide containing six practice tests and 400 digital flashcards. 

Lastly, you may choose to hire an ACT tutor to help increase your score and ace the ACT. An ACT tutor can create a personalized plan based on your strengths and improvement areas. 

They can help you understand the content, provide feedback, create a tailored study schedule, and much more. Remember, you don't have to tackle ACT test prep alone! 

female student writing notes on paper

ACT Logistics

Now that you know everything about the ACT test, all that’s left to do is navigate signing up and paying fees. 

Signing Up for the ACT

To sign up for the ACT, you’ll need about 30 minutes, a computer with internet access, a credit card or other payment method, high school course details, and a recent headshot. You’ll sign up using the MyACT portal where you can choose your testing date and location. Once you’ve signed up, you’ll also be able to print your admission ticket. 

You’ll notice that a recent headshot is required to register for the ACT. This is for security and identification purposes. You can upload a photo from your computer, mobile device, or submit a printed photo. 

Ensure you follow all the requirements, including showing your facial features unobstructed and that your face and shoulders are included as you look straight at the camera (even if you don’t think it’s your best angle). 

Fees for the ACT 

For most students, the ACT costs $68 with no writing test and $93 for the ACT with the writing test. Other fees include: 

  • To add or remove the writing test: $25
  • Late registration: $38
  • Standby testing: $68 (Refunded if you are denied admission to the center on test day or if your registration was canceled because you didn’t provide a photo.)
  • Changing test date or center: $44 
  • Sending score reports to 5th and 6th college choices: $16 (score reports to your 1st through 4th college choices are sent for free)
  • Additional score reported: $18.50
  • Test information release: $32 during registration and $40 after the test

You can also look into the ACT Fee Waiver Program if you meet these eligibility requirements: 

  • You’re enrolled in the 11th or 12th grade 
  • You’re testing in the U.S., U.S. territories, or Puerto Rico
  • You meet one of these economic need indicators: 
  • “Enrolled in a federal free or reduced-price lunch program at school, based on US Department of Agriculture (USDA) income levels.
  • Enrolled in a program for the economically disadvantaged (for example, a federally funded program such as GEAR UP or Upward Bound). Note: If the student participates in a program but is not economically disadvantaged, they are not eligible for a fee waiver.
  • Resides in a foster home, is a ward of the state, or is homeless.
  • Family receives low-income public assistance or lives in federally subsidized public housing.
  • Family’s total annual income is at or below USDA levels for free or reduced-price lunches on the USDA Food and Nutrition Service website.”

If you’re eligible for a fee waiver, you can check with your school counselor. Once they determine your eligibility, you can get up to four fee waivers to take the ACT for free and receive learning resources. When you register for the ACT online or by mail, you must use your ACT fee waiver code. 

ACT Test FAQs 

Still have questions about the ACT test? Check out these answered FAQs to get the information you need. 

1. How Do I Know What a Good ACT Score Is? 

What each test-taker considers a “good” ACT score depends on their target score and their top-choice schools. If you’re comparing your score to other ACT test-takers, anything above the average composite score of about 20 would be considered a good ACT score. 

However, a 20 on the ACT isn't a competitive score at some of the country’s best colleges. The average ACT score of students admitted to top colleges ranges from 30 to 35. Keep your target score and dream schools in mind to help you achieve your best score. 

2. Does the ACT Provide Superscores? 

Yes, the ACT provides a calculated ACT Superscore to all students. If you decide to take the ACT multiple times, your best scores from each section will be combined into a superscore.

However, some colleges have different policies around superscoring: some may accept them happily, whereas other colleges will evaluate your application using your best test. 

3. Are the ACT Test Subjects Always in the Same Order? 

Yes, you’ll always take the ACT test in the same order: English, Math, Reading, Science, and Writing. 

4. Can My ACT Scores Help Me Get Scholarships?

You may be eligible for scholarships. To see if there are any that apply to you and your ACT scores, you can speak with your school officials or search for awards online. 

5. When Do I Take the ACT Test? 

Most students tend to take the ACT in the spring of their junior year or the fall of their senior year. Some students take the test twice somewhere around these times. 

6. Does the ACT Have a Guessing Penalty? 

No, the ACT doesn’t have a guessing penalty. You’re free to take as many guesses as you like if you don’t have the answers. A blank answer is always wrong, but a guessed answer has a chance of being correct. Always guess as a last resort! 

Final Thoughts

The ACT is a long and pretty challenging test, but you can increase your chances of a high score with enough time spent studying. An excellent ACT score helps your college applications become more competitive. 

Now that you know when to take the test, general ACT test prep tips, and tips and trips to excel in each section, you can arrive at your testing center ready to ace the ACT. 

Remember to stay calm, use test-taking strategies that work best for you, and always guess if you’re stuck and running out of time. Keep up with your studying and practice tests, and you’re sure to be an ACT pro in no time! 

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