If ACT time is approaching, you might be feeling nervous. Channel those nerves into preparing to get the best ACT score you can. Knowing how to score well on the ACT will give you more confidence when it's time to take the test. Or perhaps you've already taken the ACT but want to retest if you're not happy with your scores.

What Is the ACT?

The ACT is the leading college admissions test in the United States. Incidentally, when the ACT was first devised in 1959, it stood for "American College Testing." However, it's now simply the ACT.

The ACT is not an aptitude or IQ test, but it measures what you learn in high school across four academic areas – English, mathematics, reading and science – to determine whether you're ready for college. The four subject area tests are in multiple-choice form.

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The ACT is prepared in accordance with the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing, American Educational Research Association, American Psychological Association, and National Council on Measurement in Education (1999), the Code of Professional Responsibilities in Educational Measurement, National Council on Measurement in Education (1995) and the Code of Fair Testing Practices in Education, Joint Committee on Testing Practices (2004). Every four-year college and university across the United States accepts ACT results.

ACT Writing Test

As well as the four mandatory multiple-choice tests, there is an optional 40-minute writing test, which is scored separately. This is optional because not all colleges require a writing test for admission and use different methods to measure a prospective student's writing skills. You can find out about the policies of different colleges by visiting the ACT website and searching by the name of the college. The results reveal whether that college has decided to require or to recommend that their applicants submit scores from the ACT writing test, has decided writing test scores aren't required and therefore their applicants don't need to take the test, or have not yet reported their decision on writing tests to ACT.

For example, the University of California-Los Angeles does require an ACT writing test score, while Cornell University decided it wasn't required.

When to Take the ACT

When you choose an ACT date, go for one no later than two months before the application deadline of the colleges you want to apply to. ACT scores are typically reported within two to eight weeks of the test date. If you choose to take the optional writing test, scores may take a little longer to be reported, typically within five to eight weeks after the test date.

There are advantages to sitting the ACT in your junior year. For starters, you've probably completed all the coursework you need to sit the test. Also, you'll have your test scores in plenty of time to help you plan your senior year. Having your test scores and a clearer idea of what schools you might enroll in before you visit campuses is also better for planning your future.

Good ACT Score

If you're wondering, "is a 35 good on the act?" the answer is yes, absolutely. In fact, the maximum score on the ACT is 36. Out of the 1.8 million students who take the test every year, only about 1,000 get a perfect score of 36. Remember, your ACT score is a composite score, meaning you need to aim for a 35.5 average or higher. This means you can get two 35s and two 36s, or one 34 and three 36s. If you get even one 33, you're already not going to get a perfect ACT score.

Preparing for the ACT

The best way to prepare for the ACT is to take challenging courses in high school. ACT also offers a number of free resources, including online practice tests, testing tips for each subject area and the student booklet "Preparing for the ACT." This booklet includes complete practice tests (with a sample writing prompt and example essays). Another tool developed by ACT to help you prepare for test day is an online program called "ACT Online Prep."

Before you take the ACT, familiarize yourself with as much preparatory material as you can. Take the practice tests in order and assess your responses. Identify your weakest areas and spend more time preparing for those questions.

ACT Test Secrets

Ultimately, the harder you work in school, the better you'll perform on the ACT. However, there are some tips to score well on the ACT that you'll want to bear in mind.

First of all, pace yourself during the ACT test. Each test has a time limit to give you sufficient time to complete the test. The English, reading and science tests contain the most text, so make sure you don't spend too much time on one passage. If you're struggling with a particular question, move on to the next one and go back to the difficult one if you have time. You'll be told when you have five minutes left to complete the test.

Read the directions for each test carefully. If you skip over the directions to save time, you may answer incorrectly. For example, the English, reading and science tests require you to provide the "best" answer. This means more than one answer may be correct. Avoid choosing the first answer you identify as correct before you've considered all the possibilities.

On the other hand, the math test asks for the "correct" answer. A good approach is to work out the answer for yourself and then select it from the multiple choice options. If your answer isn't there, your workings may be wrong. Go back to the question, make sure you understand it and reconsider all of the multiple-choice options.

A good test strategy is to answer the questions you know the answers to first. When you're satisfied with those answers, go back and deal with the more difficult questions with the time you have left.

The ACT doesn't penalize you for guessing, so answer every question within the allocated time, even if you're not sure of the correct answer. It's better to guess than not answer at all. If you have time after you've answered all the questions, go back to the beginning of the test and check your work.

ACT English Test Tips

The ACT English test consists of five essays or passages with a series of multiple-choice questions. There are 75 questions in total, which you have 45 minutes to answer. The test measures how well you understand punctuation, grammar, sentence structure and other standard written English conventions. However, spelling and vocabulary are not tested.

If you have a passage with an underlined section, pay close attention to what is underlined. Consider what the question asks of you. For example, do you need to focus on the tone of the writing? Other questions don't refer to underlined sections, and ask questions about part or whole of the passage in the context of a rhetorical situation.

If a question asks you to choose the best alternative to an underlined section of a passage, read each alternative very carefully. If you can't decide which one is best, try switching the underlined section with each alternative.

ACT Math Test Tips

The math test contains 60 questions with a time limit of 60 minutes. This gives you one minute for each question. Try to spend less than one minute on each question to give yourself time at the end to go back and review your answers. Some questions are stand-alone while others belong to a set of several questions, such as a set of questions about a graph. You don't need to remember complicated formulas or lengthy computations, but you do need to know basic formulas.

While you're allowed a calculator on the math test, try not to rely on it too much. Every question is answerable without a calculator, and many of them are best done without it.

ACT Reading Test Tips

The ACT reading test is made up of 40 questions, which you have a total of 35 minutes to answer. You need to apply referring and reasoning skills to several texts to find important details, understand sequences of events, make comparisons, analyze voice and determine the meaning of works, phrases and statements.

You must read the texts carefully, while being aware of your time limit. If you spend between two and three minutes reading the text in each section, you have about 35 seconds to answer each question. If you can, spend slightly less time than this on reading and answering to give you time to review your work before the end of the test.

ACT Science Test Tips

The ACT science test is another 40-question, 35-minute test. You're given sets of scientific information followed by a series of multiple-choice questions. You're required to use interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning and problem-solving to answer the questions.

The science test assesses your knowledge of biology, chemistry, physics, geology, astronomy and meteorology, but you don't need advanced knowledge in these areas. However, you do need general, introductory science course knowledge to perform well on the test.

Make sure you read the entire text and study any related figures, graphs or tables. If the information describes an experiment, consider its design, controls and variables. You may be given opposing viewpoints and asked to distinguish between them. It might help you to make notes summarizing each viewpoint before you answer the question.

Taking the ACT Writing Test

The ACT writing test involves writing an essay. Again, pace yourself, but do so according to your most effective writing strategy. For example, you may spend part of the time planning your essay, the majority of the time writing your essay, and the last part of the time checking your essay to make any necessary changes or modifications. Think about how you have written high-scoring essays in the past (particularly those under timed exam conditions) and adopt the same approach.

Test Day Essentials

You'll perform best on the ACT if you're organized and have everything you need. You need to take your paper ticket to the test center if you test on a National or International ACT test date. You won't be able to take the test without this. You also need photo identification to be able to take the test. Your paper ticket tells you what forms of photo identification are acceptable.

The only writing instruments you're allowed to use during the test are sharpened soft lead No. 2 pencils and good erasers. Mechanical pencils and ink pens are strictly prohibited. You're allowed to bring a watch, but make sure it doesn't have an alarm that could irritate your fellow students. You're also allowed to bring a permitted calculator for the math test. Call 800.498.6481 for the ACT's current calculator policy, which tells you what types of calculators are permitted on the test.

About the Author

Claire Gillespie has been writing and editing for 18 years. She has written about high school and higher education for private clients and various websites, including SheKnows and Reader's Digest.