What is the ACT?

Learn about the ACT and the Role It Plays in College Admissions

Students taking an exam
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The ACT (originally the American College Test) and SAT are the two standardized tests accepted by most colleges and universities for admissions purposes. The exam has a multiple choice section covering math, English, reading, and science. It also has an optional writing test in which examinees plan and write a short essay.

The exam was first created in 1959 by a professor at the University of Iowa who wanted an alternative to the SAT.

The exam was inherently different than the pre-2016 SAT. While the SAT attempted to test a student's aptitude--that is, the students ability to learn--the ACT was much more pragmatic. The exam tested students on the information they actually learned in school. The SAT was (wrongly) designed to be an exam for which students could not study. The ACT, on the other hand, was a test that rewarded good study habits. Today, with the release of the new SAT in March of 2016, the tests are strikingly similar in that both test information that students learn in school. the College Board revamped the SAT, in part, because it was losing market share to the ACT. The ACT surpassed the SAT in number of test-takers in 2011. The College Board's response has been to make the SAT much more like the ACT.

What Does the ACT Cover?

The ACT is made up of four sections plus the optional writing test:

ACT English Test: 75 questions related to standard English.

Topics include rules of punctuation, word usage, sentence construction, organization, cohesion, word choice, style, and tone. Total time: 45 minutes.

ACT Mathematics Test: 60 questions related to high school mathematics. Topics covered include algebra, geometry, statistics, modeling, functions, and more.

Students can use a calculator, but the exam is designed so that a calculator is not necessary. Total time: 60 minutes.

ACT Reading Test: 40 questions focused on reading comprehension. Test-takers will answer questions about both explicit and implicit meanings found in textual passages. Total time: 35 minutes.

ACT Science Test: 40 questions related to the natural sciences. Questions will cover introductory biology, chemistry, earth science, and physics. Total time: 35 minutes.

ACT Writing Test (Optional): Test-takers will write a single essay based on a given issue. The essay prompt will provide several perspectives on the issue that the test-taker will need to analyze and synthesize and then present his or her own perspective. Total time: 40 minutes.

Total time: 175 minutes without writing; 215 minutes with the writing test.

Where is the ACT Most Popular?

With a few exceptions, the ACT is popular in the central states of the United States while the SAT is more popular along the east and west coasts. Exceptions to the rule are Indiana, Texas, and Arizona, all of which have more SAT test-takers than ACT test-takers.

The states in which the ACT is the most popular exam are (click on the state's name to see sample scores for admission to colleges in that state):  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.

Keep in mind that any school that accepts the ACT also accepts SAT scores, so where you live shouldn't be a factor in which test you decide to take. Instead, take some practice tests to see if your test-taking skills are better suited for the SAT or ACT, and then take the exam you prefer.

Do I Need to Get a High Score on the ACT?

The answer to this question is, of course, "it depends." The country has hundreds of test-optional colleges that do not require SAT or ACT scores at all, so obviously you can get into these colleges and universities based on your academic record without consideration of standardized test scores. That said, all of the Ivy League schools, as well as the great majority of top tier public universities, private universities and liberal arts colleges do require scores from either the SAT or ACT.

Highly selective colleges all have holistic admissions, so your ACT scores are just one piece in the admissions equation. Your extracurricular and work activities, application essay, letters of recommendation, and (most importantly) your academic record are all important. Strengths in these other areas can help compensate for less-than-ideal ACT scores, but only to a certain extent. Your chances of getting into a highly selective school that requires standardized test scores will be greatly reduced if your scores are well below the norm for the school.

So what is the norm for different schools? The table below presents some representative data for the exam. 25% of applicants score below the lower numbers in the table, but your admissions chances will obviously be much greater if you are will within the middle 50% range or higher.

Sample ACT Scores for Top Colleges  (mid 50%)
 SAT Scores
 CompositeEnglishMath
 25%75%25%75%25%75%
Amherst313432352934
Brown313432352934
Carleton2933----
Columbia313532353035
Cornell3034----
Dartmouth3034----
Harvard323533353135
MIT333533353436
Pomona303431352834
Princeton323532353135
Stanford313532353035
UC Berkeley303431352935
University of Michigan293330342834
U Penn313432353035
University of Virginia293329342733
Vanderbilt323533353135
Williams313432352934
Yale3135----

See more schools and more information on ACT scores in this article: What's a Good ACT Score?

When Is the ACT Offered?

The ACT is offered six times a year: September, October, December, February, April, and June.

Many students choose to take the exam once in junior year and again at the beginning of senior year. Learn more in these articles:

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Grove, Allen. "What is the ACT?" ThoughtCo, Jan. 3, 2017, thoughtco.com/what-is-the-act-788435. Grove, Allen. (2017, January 3). What is the ACT? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-the-act-788435 Grove, Allen. "What is the ACT?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-the-act-788435 (accessed January 19, 2018).