ACT: The Essentials

Find out when to take the ACT and what to expect.

The ACT takes about 3.5 hours to complete, including time for instructions and a short break.

The ACT is a standardized college admissions test given to students to assess what they’ve learned in their high school education and how prepared they will be for starting a major at a university. When trying to find a college that is right for you, it's important to consider whether your ACT scores will meet the requirements of various colleges and universities.

All American 4-year colleges and universities accept ACT test results. Students planning to attend a community college, get online degrees or take distance learning courses should contact the schools they’re considering to find out if they require the ACT for placement purposes.

The questions on the ACT are generally related to what you have learned in high school.

ACT Test Sections and Scores

The required part of the ACT consists of 215 multiple-choice questions divided into four subject areas: English, math, reading and science. There is an additional optional writing test students can take and have factored into their overall score. Keep in mind that while the writing test is optional for you to take, it may be required by some of the colleges and universities you’re applying to. As you’re doing your college search, find out what’s required at each of your schools before deciding whether to take the ACT or ACT Plus Writing. If you find a college that requires the writing test, you should take it.

Students receive a score for each of the four sections ranging from 1 to 36, with 36 as the highest score, and a composite score that is an average of those four scores. If you take the optional writing test, that score is averaged with the required English test, with two-thirds of your score being based on the English test and one-third on the writing test. The national average reported in 2009 was 21.1.

ACT Test Components

The ACT takes about 3.5 hours to complete, including time for instructions and a short break. If you are taking ACT Plus Writing, the test will take just over 4 hours. The actual time you’re be working on the test is 2 hours 55 minutes; ACT Plus Writing test is 3 hours 25 minutes. Here’s how long you’ll spend on each section:

English: 45 minutes
Math: 60 minutes
Reading: 35 minutes
Science: 35 minutes
Writing: 30 minutes

ACT Test Dates and Costs

The ACT is offered six times a year (September, October, December, February, April and June); the ACT Plus Writing test is offered on all of those dates except September. It’s best to take the test during your junior year so you have time to retake it if necessary. Keep in mind that it can take up to eight weeks to receive your scores, so be sure to register for a test at least two months before your deadlines for scholarships, colleges and universities.

The ACT costs $35, and the ACT Plus Writing is $50.50. Register to take the test on the ACT site, where you can also change your test date if necessary and view your scores when they become available.

ACT Tips & Tactics

  • Need help prepping for the test? These programs can help up your scores to meet university standards or requirements for your prospective majors or desired degree; check them all out to find the program that best suits your needs:
  • Feel free to guess. Unlike the SAT, the ACT test doesn’t deduct points for wrong answers, so it’s worth it to guess if you’re not sure of an answer.
  • Remember that the ACT is a curriculum-based test. The questions on the ACT are generally related to what you have learned in your high school English, math, and science classes, so the more you study in those classes, the better you will likely score on the ACT.
  • Consider retaking the test if you’re not happy with your scores, like if you scored low in the sections you’re considering as college majors or post-college careers. According to ACT, more than half the people who retake the test improve their scores. You can take the test up to 12 times, but the more common scenario is taking the test once your junior year and again your senior year if your score is below the cutoff for admissions at the colleges and universities in your college search.

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SAT Subject Tests: the Essentials
SAT: The Essentials
SAT or ACT: Which Should You Take?
Should You Send All of Your SAT Scores to Colleges?

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