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 a redesigned 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. Students read passages and then answer questions related to sentences that have been underlined in those passages.

ACT Mathematics Test: 60 questions related to high school mathematics. Topics covered include algebra, geometry, statistics, modeling, functions, and more. Students can use an approved calculator, but the exam is designed so that a calculator is not necessary. The math test does not cover calculus. 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. Where the English Test is about proper language usage, the Reading Test digs in to ask about key ideas, types of arguments, differences between fact and opinion, and point of view. Total time: 35 minutes.

ACT Science Test: 40 questions related to the natural sciences. Questions will cover introductory biology, chemistry, earth science, and physics. The questions typically aren't highly specialized for any field, but more about the process of doing science—interpreting data, understanding research processes, and so on. 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. There is a 10 minute break after the Math Test, and a five minute break before the optional 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%)

Composite 25% Composite 75% English 25% English 75% Math 25% Math 75%
Amherst College 32 34 33 35 29 34
Brown University 31 35 32 35 29 35
Carleton College 29 33 - - - -
Columbia University 31 35 32 35 30 35
Cornell University 31 34 - - - -
Dartmouth College 30 34 32 35 29 35
Harvard University 32 35 34 36 31 35
MIT 33 35 34 36 34 36
Pomona College 30 34 32 35 28 34
Princeton University 31 35 33 35 30 35
Stanford University 32 35 33 36 30 35
UC Berkeley 30 34 29 35 28 35
University of Michigan 30 33 30 35 28 34
University of Pennsylvania 32 35 33 35 30 35
University of Virginia 29 33 30 35 28 33
Vanderbilt University 32 35 33 35 30 35
Williams College 31 35 32 35 29 34
Yale University 32 35 34 36 31 35

Keep in mind that these are all top-tier schools. There are hundreds of excellent colleges for which significantly lower ACT scores will be on target for admission. The parameters for a good ACT score vary greatly from school to school.

When Is the ACT Offered and When Should You Take It?

The ACT is offered six times a year: September, October, December, February, April, and June. When you should take the ACT depends partly on what high school courses you've completed and how you do the first time you attempt the exam. Since the exam tests what you learn in school, the later you take it in your schooling the more exam material you will have covered. A typical strategy is to take the exam late in junior year, and then, if necessary, again at the beginning of senior year.

Source: ACT data from the National Center for Education Statistics

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Grove, Allen. "What is the ACT?" ThoughtCo, Oct. 29, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-is-the-act-788435. Grove, Allen. (2020, October 29). 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 March 31, 2023).

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