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What Is the ACT®?

Like the SAT, the ACT is a nationally administered, standardized test that helps colleges evaluate candidates. Colleges now accept your ACT or SAT scores interchangeably—in which case you may want to decide if the SAT or ACT is better for you. It’s also common for students to prepare for and take both exams.

Generally, you'll take the ACT for the first time in the spring of your junior year. This will allow you enough time to retake the test during the fall of your senior year if you're not satisfied with your score—and to reserve the summer months for college applications.

What’s on the ACT?

Without the optional Writing Test, the ACT exam lasts 2 hours and 55 minutes—or 3 hours and 35 minutes with the Writing Test. What do ACT test sections look like? The order of ACT test sections and the total number of questions covered in each ACT test section never change. Here’s how it breaks down:

Section Length Question Type
English 45 Minutes Sentence Structure and Formation
Punctuation
Usage
Organization, Unity, and Cohesion
Topic Development
Knowledge of Language
Mathematics 60 Minutes Essential Skills
Number and Quantity
Algebra
Functions
Geometry
Statistics and Probability
Reading 35 Minutes Global
Inference
Detail
Vocab-in-Context
Function
Writer's View
Science 35 Minutes Interpretation of Data
Scientific Investigation
Evaluation of Models, Inferences, and Experimental Results
Writing 40 Minutes You write in response to a question about your position on an issue

The ACT English Test

On the ACT English Test, you'll have 45 minutes to answer 75 questions—that's about 30 seconds per question. The test is divided into 5 passages, each with about 15 questions.

Almost all of the English questions follow a standard format. A word, phrase, or sentence in a passage is underlined. You're given four options in this ACT test section: to leave the underlined portion alone ("NO CHANGE," which is always the first choice), or to replace it with one of the three alternatives.

You're not being tested on spelling or vocabulary. Rather, the ACT English Test is designed to assess your understanding of the conventions of English—punctuation, grammar, sentence structure—and rhetorical skills. Rhetorical skills are more strategic and include things like organizing text and making sure it's styled clearly … Learn more.

The ACT Mathematics Test

On the ACT Math Test, you'll have 60 minutes to answer 60 questions—that's 1 minute per question. Questions include algebra, functions, geometry, statistics and probability, number and quantity, and essential skills.

Though the math questions—like those in other ACT test sections—are not ordered in terms of difficulty, questions drawn from elementary school or junior high tend to come earlier in the section. This doesn't necessarily mean that the easier questions are first … Learn more.

The ACT Reading Test

On the ACT Reading Test, you’ll be tested on passages from social studies, natural sciences, literary narrative or prose fiction, and humanities.

The passages in this ACT test section are about 1,000 words long and are written at about the same difficulty level as college textbooks. After each passage, you'll find 10 questions. You'll have 35 minutes to answer 40 questions—that's about 50 seconds per question. … Learn more.

The ACT Science Test

On the ACT Science Test, you’ll be given passages containing various kinds of scientific information drawn from the fields of biology, chemistry, physics, geology, astronomy, and meteorology, which you'll have to understand and use as a basis for inferences.

You'll have 35 minutes to answer 40 questions—that's about 50 seconds per question. The section contains 6 passages, each followed by 6–8 questions … Learn more.

The ACT Writing Test

The optional ACT Writing Test is 40 minutes long, includes one essay, and is always the last section of the test. You'll be given a topic or an issue and expected to take a position on it, supporting your point of view with examples and evidence. You don't have to be a great creative writer to succeed on the ACT Writing Test; you just have to show that you can focus on an issue and argue your point of view in a coherent, direct way using concrete examples … Learn more.

ACT Scoring

Some of the most common questions we get from students and parents are: “How does ACT scoring work?” "What does this ACT score mean?" and "What is a good ACT score?"

For ACT scoring, each of the 4 multiple-choice ACT test sections (English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science) is scored on a scale of 1–36. You will also receive a composite score, which is the average of your four test scores (1–36).

Your ACT score report also includes national rankings where you can compare your performance against students across the country, and understand what is a good ACT score. For instance, if you ranked in the 90th percentile on the Mathematics Test, you did better than 89 percent of other students, while 10 percent fared better than you.

What Is a Good ACT Score?

Knowing what is a good ACT score can help you have a solid goal to strive for. These are results of national averages we collected for 2015 and 2016, divided by ACT test sections.

ACT Test Section 2015 National Average 2016 National Average
English 20.4 20.1
Mathematics 20.8 20.6
Reading 21.4 21.3
Science 20.9 20.8
Total Composite 21 20.8

The ACT Writing Test has an overall score of 2-12.

Not all schools use the Writing Test score in the same way. Some schools that have traditionally required the SAT Writing Subject Test are using the ACT Writing Test as a formal piece of the admissions process.

Other schools have indicated that they will look at Writing Test scores, but that they will not give them much, if any, consideration. These schools are primarily trying to get an understanding of the scores in conjunction with their applications.

A third group of schools is still on the fence and is waiting for more information to become available before making a decision.

On the ACT website you can search for Writing Test requirements by school. As you refine your target school list based on your scores, you should reconfirm with each school to determine how they will be using your Writing score.

Receiving Your ACT Score

Most ACT scores are available online within 2½ weeks after each national test date. This service allows you to view your scores before your official score report arrives by mail. (Score reports for those testing outside the U.S. are not available online).

The ACT website offers a complete listing of score availability dates. Score reports are usually mailed to your home within 4 to 7 weeks after each test date. If you took the Writing Test, your score report will be mailed only after your Writing scores are available.

Taking the ACT More than Once

If you aren't happy with your score, don't despair! Many students take the official ACT more than once. Use the information in your score report to help you understand your strengths and weaknesses and to hone your preparation for your next ACT. Remember that with the ACT, you decide which scores are sent to colleges.

Keep in mind that you cannot combine scores from different test dates to create your best composite score, and you cannot report only your Writing scores (or only your multiple-choice scores) from a single test administration. All scores from a test date will be reported together.

Want to avoid taking the ACT more than once? Learn about free practice test opportunities with Kaplan.