ACT Test

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The ACT was launched in 1959 by University of Iowa professor Everett Franklin Lindquist.[1] The test's name was originally an acronym for "American College Testing", but today, the full name of the test and its administering organization is simply "ACT."[2] Before the development of the ACT, the SAT was the only national standardized college entrance examination in the United States.[3] In contrast to the SAT, which was designed to measure scholastic aptitude, the ACT was designed to be a test of academic achievement and preparation. As such, ACT scores can be used for course placement purposes as well as for university admissions.[3]

The test was originally divided into sections on English, mathematics, social studies, and natural sciences, each assessed on a grade scale from 1 to 36. In 1989, a major overhaul replaced the social studies section with a reading section and changed the natural sciences section to a science reasoning section.[3] Further, an optional writing section was added to the test in 2005.[4]

In 2010, the number of students taking the ACT surpassed the number of students taking the SAT for the first time.[5]

Function of the Test

ACT Study Guide

The ACT is primarily taken by college-bound students for university admissions and course placement purposes. Every four-year college and university in the United States accepts ACT results for admissions purposes.[6] Its scores are also used for diagnostic and monitoring purposes for high school students. For example, in twelve states, high school students are required to take the examination for statewide assessment purposes.[6] In 2012, 52% of students graduating from high school in the United States took the ACT; however, only 25% of those test-takers met each ACT sub-section's College Readiness Benchmark score, a score which indicates a 50% likelyhood of obtaining a B or higher in a corresponding first-year college course.[6] In fact, in 2012, the national average scores of the math (21.1), reading (21.3), and science reasoning (20.9) sub-sections all fell below the Benchmark score of 22.[7][8]

Historically, universities throughout the midwestern and southern United States were more likely to require prospective students to submit ACT scores, whereas the SAT was the dominant entrance examination on the East and West Coasts. In the 21st century, however, both examinations have become less regionally-defined as universities compete for students from all fifty states.[9] As such, ACT functions as a nationwide university admissions examination on par with the older SAT.

Test Administration

ACT Flashcards

The ACT is administered in all fifty states. Most testing sites are at schools and universities.[10] There are six test dates per year: one each in September, October, December, February, April, and June.[11] The ACT may also be taken in dozens of other countries worldwide, but test dates and availability may vary from location to location.[12] The registration fee for the basic ACT examination is $35, but students who also wish to take the optional writing section must pay a total of $50.50. The testing time of the basic ACT examination is two hours and 55 minutes, and the optional writing section adds another forty minutes of testing time.[6]

Students with disabilities or special needs may request one of three special testing protocols. National Standard Time with Accomodations is a testing protocol which allows students to receive appropriate accomodations in a normal examination setting such as a large-type test booklet, a sign language interpreter, permission for diabetics to eat snacks in the test room, or some other disability-specific accomodations. National Extended Time is a testing protocol which gives students 50% more time to complete the examination. Finally, Special Testing is a protocol for more specific needs, such as students who require testing to be spread out over multiple days or who use alternate test formats such as Braille or cassettes. Requesting a special testing protocol does not alter the cost of the examination.[13]

Students may only take the ACT a total of twelve times, not including mandatory state testing. [14]

Test Format

Sections of the ACT Test[15]
ACT Test Subject Areas # of Questions Time Limit
English 75 45
Mathematics 60 60
Reading 40 35
Science 40 35
Writing Test (Optional) 1 40
Total 216 175 (215)

Test Environment

The test begins at 8:00 a.m. Each student must bring their admission ticket as well as a photo ID in order to be admitted into the testing room. The exam is a written exam with a test booklet that allows test takers to answer questions from every section. Any four-function, scientific, or graphing calculators are permitted, but only for the math sections. Calculators with built-in algebra systems are prohibited. The ACT Test usually ends around 12:15 to 1:00 in the afternoon, depending on whether the test taker opts to complete the writing portion as well. Dress comfortably. Snacks and drinks are allowed during the breaks, so come prepared.[16]

Test Structure

The ACT Test is divided into four sections. Each of these four sections test students over what they've learned up to the beginning of 12th grade in English, Science, Mathematics, and Reading. Depending on whether it is the ACT (No Writing) or ACT Plus Writing, there will also be a writing test with one prompt. There is a total of 215 questions that, including the breaks, will take close to four hours to complete (four and a half with the optional essay.)[17]

Sample Questions

More free ACT practice test questions.

Test Content

The following are the topics covered by each of the four ACT tests along with what percentage portion those topics are of that particular test.

  • The English test includes questions on:
-Usage/Mechanics: Punctuation (13%), Grammar and Usage (16%), and Sentence Structure (24%).
-Rhetorical Skills: Strategy (16%), Organization (15%), and Style (16%).
  • The Reading test includes passages on: Social Studies (25%), Natural Sciences (25%), Literary Narrative or Prose Fiction (25%), and Humanities (25%). The focus of this test is reading comprehension rather than factual knowledge in any of the four domains.
  • The Mathematics test includes questions on:
-Pre-Algebra/Elementary Algebra: Pre-Algebra (23%) and Elementary Algebra (17%).
-Intermediate Algebra/Coordinate Geometry: Intermediate Algebra (15%) and Coordinate Geometry (15%).
-Plane Geometry/Trigonometry: Plane Geometry (23%) and Trigonometry (7%).
  • The Science test includes questions on: Data Representation (38%), Research Summaries (45%), and Conflicting Viewpoints (17%). The focus of this test is the ability to scientifically deal with information provided rather than advanced factual knowledge.


National Ranks for ACT Composite Scores, 2011-2013[18]
Composite Score National Percentile
33 99
24 74
20 49
16 22
11 1

Each of the four primary sections of the ACT—English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science Reasoning—are scored on a scale from 1 to 36. These scaled scores are calculated based on students' raw scores, meaning that there is no penalty for guessing or for answering questions incorrectly. Students also receive an overall composite score, which is the average of their four scaled test scores rounded to the nearest whole number.[19]

The ACT offers an optional writing test. This test does not affect students' scores on the other four sections or change the composite score. Rather, students who choose to take the writing test receive two additional scores: a Writing score and a Combined English/Writing score. The Writing section is scored by two trained readers on a holistic scale from 1 to 6. These two ratings are combined to yield a final score from 2 to 12. The Combined English/Writing score is reported on a scale from 1 to 36. It is a score which combines students' performance on the English and Writing sections, but gives more weight to the score of the English section.[20][21]

ACT, Inc. publishes national ranks for every composite score and sub-section test score to their website. For example, among recent test-takers, 26% of students achieved a composite score of at least 24, whereas 78% of students achieved a composite score of at least 16. Due to rounding, there is no precise "average" score, but 51% of students scored 20 or higher.[18] This score falls well within normal admissions boundaries for most universities. However, the more selective a school is, the higher its accepted students' composite scores tend to be.[22] For example, 75% of students entering Ivy League universities in 2009 scored at least 29 on the ACT, and 25% of them scored at least 34.[23]

Recent and Future Developments

In May 2013, ACT Inc. announced that a computer-based version of the ACT test was under development and is scheduled to be deployed in the spring of 2015. Its contents will be identical to the paper examination. The computerized version of the examination will be available on tablets in addition to traditional computers. Testing centers which lack the proper facilities to offer the computerized version of the ACT will be able to continue offering the paper-based version.[24]

Related Tests


  1. ^ ACT: Our Story February 19 2014
  2. ^ ACT: Our Story: FAQs February 19 2014
  3. ^ a b c ACT History - The evolution of the ACT February 19 2014 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "A (Mostly) Brief History of the SAT and ACT Tests" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "A (Mostly) Brief History of the SAT and ACT Tests" defined multiple times with different content
  4. ^ Educator's guide to the ACT Writing Test February 19 2014
  5. ^ ACT Surpasses SAT in Number of Test Takers February 19 2014
  6. ^ a b c d The ACT Test Fact Sheet February 19 2014
  7. ^ ACT College Readiness Benchmarks February 19 2014
  8. ^ ACT Average Scores by State February 19 2014
  9. ^ All four-year U.S. colleges now accept ACT test February 19 2014
  10. ^ The ACT: Test Center Locations, Dates, and Codes February 19 2014
  11. ^ What is the ACT? February 19 2014
  12. ^ The ACT: International Test Centers February 19 2014
  13. ^ The ACT: Services for Students with Disabilities February 19 2014
  14. ^ The ACT: Retest Restrictions February 19 2014
  15. ^ ACT Test Breakdown 20 February 2014
  16. ^ Tips for taking the ACT June 12 2015
  17. ^ General Description of the ACT June 12 2015
  18. ^ a b National Ranks for Test Scores and Composite Score February 19 2014
  19. ^ The ACT: Understand your scores February 19 2014
  20. ^ The ACT: Writing Test Scores February 25 2014
  21. ^ The ACT: How to Calculate Your Combined English/Writing Score February 25 2014
  22. ^ What's a good SAT score or ACT score? February 19 2014
  23. ^ What are respectable SAT or ACT scores? February 19 2014
  24. ^ ACT Announces Plans for Computer-Based Administration February 19 2014