ACT FAQ: Your Guide to the ACT Exam & its Upcoming Changes
Updated: Aug 10, 2021
2019 / 2020 School Year Version
After reading this article you will...
understand what the ACT test is about, what colleges require, and which scores colleges will see
be able to form a test prep plan, using tips from a longtime tutor
What is the ACT?
ACT stands for American College Testing and is used casually to refer to a standardized test administered to high school juniors and seniors. Similar in nature to the SAT, the ACT is a 3+ hour assessment of a student’s abilities to complete reading, writing, & math problems under timed circumstances. ACT scores are required for many college admission applications. Some colleges accept SAT scores in addition to or instead of ACT scores; see below for how to choose which to take, or whether to take both.
I encourage students to begin preparing for both the ACT and SAT exams outside of school as early as possible. The College Board offers formal preparatory practice tests (the PSAT 8/9, PSAT 10, & PSAT NMSQT) to 8th-11th graders. (PSAT FAQ) The PSAT tests, while from the competing company, still serve as good practice for the ACT. It's important to know that there is significant subject overlap between the SAT & ACT ~ by studying for one, students are developing skills that will come in handy on both exams.
Who takes the ACT?
11th & 12th grade high school students.
When do students take the ACT?
The ACT exam is offered seven times each year, in March, May, June, August, October, November, & December. You must register over a month in advance, which you can do at www.act.org. Students must bring a government-issued photo ID on test day. Students can take the ACT test as many as 12 times, though to improve control over which scores are submitted to colleges I recommend that students practice with full, timed tests administered at home or at a testing center. The results of these practice tests are never sent to schools and are one of the most useful test prep tools a student and tutor can use to improve scores.
Juniors have more opportunities to take their ACT tests than seniors do. Starting the college entrance exam process in junior year (or sooner) helps students pace their senior year more comfortably and reduces the stress of their college application season, and can help them score better.
When are the remaining ACT dates for 2019/2020?
2019: October 26th & December 14th
2020: February 8th, April 4th, June 13th, & July 18th
Note that registration windows close about a month before each test date. Some test centers fill up quickly. Be sure to register as soon as you know when you’ll be ready to take the real thing. If you’re not sure when the right time is, consulting a tutor can help. I offer brief phone consultations with no charge or obligation.
There will be changes starting in September 2020, what are they?
The American College Testing company recently announced that as of September 2020 students will be able to:
take the ACT online and receive results in 2 business days (!)
re-take individual sections only (after sitting for a full ACT)
see all previous scores on each ACT score report. (Colleges will be able to see, too, though.)
Are these changes bad news for students?
The additional options available to students in 2020 may actually ease pressure and could save time and money. The new ACT “superscoring” system (which looks at your best scores for each section across multiple test days), and a comprehensive score reporting policy will make it easier for colleges to assemble a full picture of a student’s results within their applications.
Why do students take the ACT?
ACT scores are required by many top-tier universities and colleges and are a key component of their application review processes.
When should students start preparing for the ACT?
With college admissions being so competitive starting formal test prep early is a good idea, especially if students are hoping to be accepted at a T20 or T50 school. Starting early they get more exposure to the question types, they develop test-taking endurance, they are able to practice strategies they can use on test day, and they feel calmer about the big test when it feels familiar.
Students can now begin taking the PSAT as early as 8th grade, with the addition of the PSAT 8/9 to the College Board’s “SAT Suite of Assessments.” The PSAT tests have many of the same types of questions as the ACT and SAT, which are different from normal schoolwork. Seeing these question styles earlier and more frequently helps to assure that students have solving systems in place early and aren’t scrambling to learn about them later.
If your child is in 10th or 11th grade, not to worry, you still have time to prepare with a more compressed approach.
How long is the ACT?
The ACT is 2 hours and 55 minutes long, plus 40 minutes for an optional essay. It is made up of these sections:
English: 45 minutes (5 passages & 75 questions total)
Mathematics: 60 minutes (calculator allowed & 60 questions total)
Reading Comprehension: 35 minutes (4 passages & 40 questions total)
Science: 35 minutes (6-7 passages & 40 questions total)
Optional Essay: 40 minutes. Option must be chosen at registration. Note that the ACT essay does not affect a student’s composite 4-section score. It is graded separately by human readers on a scale of 1-12, subdivided into 4 domains (“Ideas & Analysis,” “Development & Support,” “Organization,” & “Language Use & Conventions”). While the essay is recommended by many colleges and universities around the world, it is only required by a handful (drop me a note if you need to know the list).
How much does the ACT cost?
The ACT is $52 (no essay) or $68 (with essay). For those with financial need, fee waiver applications are available at www.act.org. Prices have yet to be announced for the online and individual section options that will start in September 2020.
What does the ACT actually test?
It’s important to understand that the ACT exams are not equivalent to any school’s curriculum standards or teaching approaches. Students must know how to deal with the unique question types, approach to material, and time constraints, preferably well ahead of test day.
In a nutshell, the ACT tests skills in 3 or 4 subject areas, depending on whether students opt for the essay portion:
English Grammar & Composition: usage rules, rhetoric style, idea expression & analysis, graph interpretation, & punctuation.
Reading Comprehension: active reading, passage analysis & comparison, vocabulary, chart interpretation, & inference-making. Each of the 4 passages will be 700-900 words long and they are always in the same categorical order: Literary Narrative (aka fiction), Social Science, Humanities, Natural Science.
Mathematics: algebraic & geometric problem solving, data & diagram analysis, niche topics like trigonometry and pre-calculus, plus some elementary math concepts that students may not have used in a while (like calculating the mean, median, mode, & range of a data set).
Dozens of parents, after looking at their students’ ACT practice math materials, have expressed their alarm to me regarding the difficult wording and advanced concept combination skills required to answer each question in the allotted time, which is usually 1-2 minutes per question. They’re right, these tests are challenging, especially with respect to pacing. It’s helpful for students to learn when it’s strategic to speed up or slow down.
Test-taking endurance is an often-overlooked aspect of test prep. Students taking the ACT will be testing for over 3 hours; those with time extension accommodations may sit their exams for well over 6 hours. While breaks are included with exam administration standards, exams like the SAT & ACT require a level of uninterrupted focus that isn't often directly trained during school hours.
It’s important to begin individually-paced training for these mental marathons early and often so that students have the capacity to follow 2 and a half hours of reading and math with another 35 minutes of intense science Q&A and a 40 minute essay.
Taking full-length, timed practice ACT tests outside the house (in a library or at a testing center) and reviewing results with a tutor is an excellent way for students to get practice with ACT question styles in an authentic testing atmosphere. The scores from these practice tests are nearly as valuable as the test-taking time itself, as they yield a ton of data that is useful to savvy students or tutors, yet they are never sent to colleges.
Who gets a time extension?
Allowances of 1.5x time or 2x additional time are available for select students with proper documentation and pre-planning. To qualify a student typically must have a documented history of requiring individual time circumstances on assignments in school. Students with 504 plans or IEPs are more likely to be given a time extension, but it’s not guaranteed. A separate application through the ACT company is necessary. The review process can be lengthy and the results are uncertain.
How is the ACT scored?
The ACT is scored on a 1-36 scale for each section. A perfect score is a composite 36.
How long does it take to get ACT scores back?
ACT score results are usually available 2 weeks after a student’s test date. Starting in September 2020, an online ACT option will give students the ability to see their scores 2 days after taking the test.
If a student takes the ACT more than once, do colleges see all of their scores?
Each college or university has its own policy regarding which ACT scores they review with a student’s application. Most fall into three categories:
All scores from all tests are required.
Only the highest-scoring sections among all of the tests a student has taken. This policy is called “superscoring”.
Only the highest-scoring total score among all the tests a student has taken.
Note: Students can find information about a school’s ACT score submission preferences on their admissions web pages or by calling the admissions office. (Ideally this call will include a few other well-researched questions that aren’t answered on the website; be aware that many schools’ admissions faculty keep track of how many times a student reaches out directly, and for what.)
Is the ACT’s changing score system the same as superscoring, or the Score Choice program that the College Board offers for SAT scores?
No. The new ACT scoring system (that will be in effect as of September 2020) is not affiliated with the College Board or any individual school. It will simply make it easier for students to submit scores to colleges and retake specific test sections.
The Score Choice program is a College Board program that some colleges use. It allows students to choose which test dates to submit with their application. Under this plan if a student’s best section scores occur on separate test dates, the student have the option to submit their composite scores for both test dates in order for colleges to be able to see their highest section scores.
Note that while participation in the College Board’s Score Choice program is the student’s choice and not the school’s, some schools still require students to submit all of their SAT scores. If you see a school’s website using the term “Version 1” it means they accept the Score Choice program’s policies. If it says “Version 2” it means they will accept Score Choice but prefer to also see all of a student’s SAT scores. And they may simply require all scores.
What about the SAT? Do students have to take both the SAT & ACT? How do SAT scores compare to the ACT scoring scale? Can I practice for both the SAT and ACT in one training program?
Some schools accept the ACT instead of, or in addition to, the SAT. If your targeted schools are in this category, you have to decide which tests to take and submit.
The SAT reading and writing sections are scored together for a composite in the range of 200-800. The two SAT math sections are also scored together on a scale of 200-800. A combined perfect score is 800+800=1600.
Some students do well on both exams, while others show a performance preference on one or the other. Students’ PSAT, SAT, & ACT practice test scores can be helpful predictors when it comes time to decide whether to take both the SAT and ACT or commit to only one of them. Many factors play into the decision: diagnostic results (SAT vs ACT diagnostic and practice exams are available here [link]), schedule availability (juggling hectic junior/senior year workloads & extra-curriculars), and even finances (there’s a fee for each time a student takes the exam).
How can I study for the ACT?
Start early, take practice tests, and work with a tutor! Even a single last-minute session can boost your score on test day.
What is the “fifth” section of the SAT people keep talking about and does the ACT have unexpected extra sections?
If a student’s ACT or SAT test includes a 20-minute fifth section, it’s simply a feature the ACT Company and College Board sometimes use to screen potential future test questions and does not affect the student’s total score. If a student’s test includes this section, their release time will be correspondingly later.
How early in the morning is the ACT?
Test centers open at 7:45am and close their doors promptly at 8:00 am. I recommend that students prepare test materials and plan their outfit and breakfast the night before so that the morning of the test goes as smoothly as possible and arriving early doesn’t create stress. Many students are now choosing to meditate on the way to the test to help prepare their concentration for the marathon they’re about to run. The test itself will begin between 8:30-9:00 am, after the proctor gives out materials, checks calculators, and reads instructions. This schedule is true for the SAT exam as well.
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Jessica Robinson is a test prep tutor in Manhattan. She has spent over a decade coaching students in standardized test-prep and anxiety-management.