Of the many tests that high school students take as they transition into higher education or employment, the ACT is one of the more important ones to include in college applications.

The nearly three-hour test measures a student’s college readiness. It is only one piece of data that college admissions officers will study when considering a student. The ACT is weighed along with the student’s SAT score and GPA. Any community service, extracurricular activities and awards are also part of the paper picture the admissions’ officers will study before accepting a candidate.

Should You Take the ACT?

If you are wondering whether or not you should take the ACT, there are a few things to consider.

  • Not all colleges require potential students to have taken the ACT. Know what score you need for the colleges you plan to attend and if they even require the ACT.
  • If you have a high GPA and SAT score, you may have enough to show college admission boards how strong you are as a student.
  • You can improve your college application and possibly your future job prospects with a strong ACT score.

What Is the ACT?

The ACT measures which subjects you have mastered during your tenure in high school as well as your critical-thinking skills.

The multiple-choice test takes two hours and 55 minutes to complete. If you are taking the optional writing portion, you are given an extra 40 minutes for that specific section. It covers English, math, science and reading with a total of 215 questions and a separate writing section.

What’s on the ACT?

There are four main ACT sections and one optional section of the ACT. These are:

  • Math
  • English
  • Reading
  • Science
  • Writing (optional)

You will be given a certain amount of time to complete each section that has a set number of detailed questions.

Math on the ACT

ACT parts that can give a test taker pause include the optional writing and the extensive math section. The 60-minute test has a total of 60 multiple-choice questions.

The many sections of the math portion include:

  • Algebra I
  • Algebra II
  • Geometry
  • Trigonometry

Pre-algebra has 12 to 15 questions, elementary algebra has nine to 12 questions, intermediate algebra has nine to 12 questions, coordinate geometry has nine to 12 questions, plane geometry has 12 to 15 questions, and trigonometry just three to six questions.

Reading Portion of the Act

Prepare to take your time studying the four passages during this 35-minute test. You will have to answer 40 multiple-choice questions regarding:

  • Prose Fiction
  • Social Studies
  • Humanities
  • Natural Sciences

There will be 10 questions per passage. The types of questions include:

  • Detail Questions 
  • Development and Function 
  • Inference
  • Vocabulary in Context 
  • Big Picture Questions 

All of these are approximate numbers because each version of the ACT is slightly different.

The Subject of Science on the ACT

The 40 multiple-choice questions relate to science-based passages that are presented with charts, graphs, tables and research summaries.

Each question is worth the equal amount of points for your science subscore. The paired passages tend to eat up the test takers time more than the other questions. Try to focus on facts and pull those from the passage as you skim.

Optional Writing Test

The essay portion of the ACT is optional and not always a good idea if writing is not your strong point. Some colleges may require it while others may see your willingness to take on this challenge to be an excellent quality above and beyond your score.

You are allotted 40 minutes to complete the one essay that typically asks the test taker to discuss a current global event or issue.

English on the ACT

There are 75 multiple-choice questions on the English portion of the ACT. You will have 45 minutes to complete this section that will test the following subjects:

  • Grammar
  • Punctuation
  • Sentence Structure
  • Rhetorical Skills

Your subscore is based on your usage and mechanics and rhetorical skills.

The usage and mechanics consists of grammar, which takes up 12 to 15 of the total questions while sentence structure has 15 to 19, and punctuation has seven to 12 questions. The rhetorical section is broken down into strategy with 12 to 15 questions, organization with seven to 12 questions, and style has 12 to 15 questions.

Average Score on the ACT

Most students will walk away from the ACT with a score of 21. That puts the student firmly in the middle of the pack. The highest score you can get on the ACT is 36.

If you are pursuing a college major in the science, math or related fields, an ACT score of 30 and above is preferred.

What the ACT Score Means

A high score can give you a significant advantage over other applicants. A score of 25 or above on the ACT gives a student an edge over other applicants vying for college admissions. A score above 30 is more than satisfactory and puts you in the 94th percentile.

If you have a low-grade point average due to unforeseen circumstances, a high ACT score may offset that. The higher your ACT score, the better your chances are of gaining admittance to top-level and highly competitive schools such as MIT and Stanford.

ACT Scaled Score

To get to your scaled score, the number of correct answers you completed in each section of the ACT are calculated. You receive no points for incorrect answers nor do you receive penalties of any kind.

Your raw score of calculated correct answers is then converted into your ACT scale score of one to 36. The two official test graders divide your correct answers by the number of categories. The ACT score table is adjusted to fit every test so that all of the scaled scores are comparable across the test dates. It can be confusing.

To clarify, the sum of questions that you answered correctly are added up and divided by four to get your overall ACT score.

When to Retake ACT

If your ACT score is 21 or less, you may think about retaking the test. Before you plunk down another study fee, there are a few important factors to consider. You may retake the ACT up to 12 times within a year, but it’s not always a good idea.

  • What score do you really need in order to gain entry into the school of your choice? If you only need a 21, and your score hovers around this solid ACT score, then it may not be helpful to retake the test.
  • Studying to move from a score of 23 to an enviable 30 is noble and a lot of work. Do you necessarily need a 30, which is in the top 10 percent of test takers? A 30 can help you skip remedial classes in your first year of college, but the studying is laborious and time-consuming.
  • Each version of the ACT is slightly different, so if you retake the ACT, don’t expect to have the answer to a question in mind. This can be a careless mistake test takers make when retaking the ACT. If you assume you know an answer you can flub up a simple question.
  • Some colleges may ask to see all of your ACT scores. They may frown on an excessive number of tests or question your score if it jumped significantly in a short amount of time.

When the ACT Is Offered

The standardized test is only available at certain times of the year. These are:

  • September
  • October
  • December
  • February
  • April
  • June
  • July

Your local testing center will have the latest dates and times available for the ACT.

ACT Prep Classes

Complete an ACT overview before you officially sit down to take the test. College placement test prep books or online exams are highly recommended for students taking the ACT for the first time.

ACT overviews with an online practice test or local study group before taking the test can seriously improve your chances of a high score and shore up your test-taking abilities. This can also help you to familiarize yourself with the ACT format and style.

High Score on the ACT

If you scored a 33 on your ACT, then you should consider your options carefully. Top colleges will be lining up to consider you. Ivy League schools and top tech schools such as MIT will give a gander at your other standardized test scores as well as your high school grade point average. A score of 33 on the ACT is comparable to a 1460 on the SAT exam, both of which are well above average.

Benefits of Taking the ACT Test

A good score on the ACT opens doors. With your ACT score in hand, you can apply to a wide variety of colleges that cater to your interests rather than hope for admittance.

For those who are hoping to also apply for financial aid, a high ACT score can give a student access to lucrative scholarships, grants and programs in the subjects where they excel. A student’s application will rise to the top of the thick pile of college hopefuls with an ACT score that is well above average.

Taking online practice tests will help you to pass this challenging test in order to gain access to better job positions, financial aid and get the attention of college admission officials.

How to Improve Your ACT Score

Advanced Placement (AP) classes help a student to develop the study habits, skills and abilities that can give them an advantage when taking the ACT. AP classes also give students who plan to take the ACT a plan on what and how to study for the test.

AP classes can be challenging. Students are expected to complete more independent study, research and analysis. This creates a good foundation for test taking as well as navigating the first year of college.

Online practice tests and flashcards can help you to increase your score by up to five points, on average. Increasing your score depends on the amount of time you put into studying the ACT sections, format and question style.

When to Accept Your ACT Score

Some students hope for high scores and are blinded by the number. A score of 21 is more than satisfactory and something to be proud of. If your score is above 21, and you have a healthy, diverse application that shows you are a strong student with varying interests, you are in a good position for most of the colleges around the country.

It takes a lot of dedication and determination to study the ACT parts in order to raise your score. If the online tests show that your score only improved by two points or less, you may want to reconsider retaking the test.

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About the Author

Kimberley McGee is an award-winning journalist with 20+ years of experience writing about education, jobs, business trends and more for The New York Times, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Today’s Parent and other publications. She graduated with a B.A. in Journalism from UNLV. Her full bio and clips can be seen at www.vegaswriter.com.