An ACT Introduction


Find out all you need to know about the ACT!


The ACT is a national (and international) college admission standardized test taken by over one million students worldwide. Started in 1959, the ACT was established as a way to impartially assess a student's potential for success in college, help students gauge their abilities in the core subjects taught in high school, and to assist colleges in admission by providing a standardized measurement of a student's ability from different schools across the world.

Individuals of all educational backgrounds and ages can take the ACT, including middle school students, high school graduates, and adults looking to go back to college. All that is required is registering for the test and paying the testing fee, which can be waived in certain circumstances. You can take the ACT more than once and can elect which scores are sent to colleges for review. This is different from other standardized tests where all of your scores will be sent to the colleges where you apply for admission.

The test

The ACT has four mandatory subject tests, English, Reading, Mathematics, and Science, and one optional 30-minute Writing test. The test has 215 questions in total and takes three and a half hours to complete, or about four hours if you take the optional writing section. The test is administered six times a year: in September (only in certain regions), October, December, February, April, and June.

Why does the ACT matter? Why is the ACT important?

The ACT is a standardized test to get into colleges. Most universities will accept either the ACT or the SAT, but the ACT is a nice alternative to the SAT for some students because it is curriculum based. This means it tests a set of content that you can very directly study for, and if you put in the time your score will go up. However, the import of the ACT can vary from student to student.

For some students, taking both the SAT and ACT is a great option because they can submit whichever of the two scores is better (based on their percentile ranking) which then lets them increase their odds of acceptance in college admission. For other students, the ACT is important because it lets them qualify for particular scholarships or programs. For example, certain camps or universities with special programs for middle school students will accept a certain score on the ACT for admission into their summer program. In other cases, some universities will have special scholarships established that require a minimum ACT score to qualify, hence taking the ACT qualifies students for these opportunities.

Taking both the ACT and SAT is highly recommended as most students have nothing to lose and much to gain.


Each subject test is graded individually, and based on the total number of correct answers a student has for that section. There is no "penalty" for incorrect guesses—you do not lose a fraction of a point for each incorrect answer, so guessing is highly encouraged as it cannot hurt your score. The total number of a student's correct answers (a student's "raw score") gets compared to all other students who took that same test and converted to a "scaled score" from 1 to 36. We commonly think of this as grading on a curve.

Scaling is done to make sure that the same percentage of people on each test receive the same score to maintain consistency between ACT tests. This process of taking a raw score and computing the equivalent scaled score based on all students' performance on that test is what makes the ACT a standardized test.

For example, on one test date the test may be relatively easy so receiving 50 correct answers on the English section may be enough for an ACT score of 30 in English, but on another test date the test may have been much more difficult and therefore the average student would have missed more questions. This means your raw score could be lower (say 48) but your scaled score would be the same, a 30.

The ACT composite score is just an average of the scores for each of the four sections.

The ACT Writing test is optional. If you take the ACT Writing test, your essay will be scored by two readers, each giving your essay a score from one to six. Your Writing score will be the sum of these two scores. This score (from two to 12) will appear as a sub-score of the English Subject Test. The combined English/Writing score ranges from one to 36, giving a weight of two-thirds to the English test score and a weight of one-third to the Writing sub-score. Your report will also have comments from the two readers to give you feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of your essay.

In addition to a scaled score, each student receives a percentile rank. This percentile score is a comparison of your score to other students who took the test and represents the percent of students who scored the same or lower than you. Thus if your percentile rank is 75th percentile, this means 75% of students taking the ACT scored no higher than you did. Scaled scores map to percentiles consistently from year to year, thus a 25 in one year is the same percentile as a 25 in another year.

On test day you should make sure to bring:

  • At least two number two pencils
  • An approved calculator: any four function, scientific, or graphing calculator other than the TI-92 should be fine, but you should confirm when you receive your registration materials (in which you will be sent a list of approved calculators).
  • A picture ID: if you have a driver's license this will be fine, if not bring your school ID. Remember to make sure that the ID has your picture on it
  • A bottle of water and finger foods such as a bag of grapes to snack on during breaks between sections

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