Online Guide To The ACT Exam

Founded in 1959 as a competitor to College Board’s SAT test, the ACT is now an alternative test to the SAT in every regard with all four-year colleges and universities accepting both tests as part of their admissions process.

Though the ACT has always been second nationally of the two tests, it is currently the most common standardized college entrance exam in the middle states and is gaining ground on the SAT in many of the east coast states. Also, it is now becoming more common for students to take both exams as, at times, students who struggle with one will do better with the other. Furthermore colleges tend to weigh the exams slightly different, meaning it may be easier to meet the admissions requirements with one test than the other.

Much like the SAT, the ACT is a test that students need to prepare for and take seriously as it not only opens the doors to more restrictive universities and scholarships, but is increasingly being used in the non-academic world, such as for admission into the Triple Nine Society, a high-IQ society, requiring it or a similar test as part of their admission process.

Fortunately, like all standardized tests, the ACT is one that can be easily prepared for, especially if one starts early.

The Basics of the ACT

Much like the SAT, the ACT has gone through a series of changes over the past few years. However, the scoring of the test and the major sections have remained largely unchanged for the past few decades.

The current ACT exam consists of five parts, including four multiple choice parts and an optional writing portion, with each section designed to test a different set of academic skills.

1. English:
The English portion of the ACT is 45 minutes long and contains 75 questions related to five different passages of text. Students are asked to correct underline portions of the text for grammar, punctuation, spelling, brevity and other writing issues.

2. Mathematics:
The math test is a 60 minute test with 60 questions dealing with algebra, geometry and some triganometry. This is the only section of the test where five multiple choice answers are presented instead of four.

3. Reading:
The reading portion of the test is 35 minutes long and consists of 40 comprehension-oriented questions regarding four different passages of text including a passage on prose fiction, social science, humanities and natural science.

4. Science Reasoning:
The science reasoning portion of the exam has 40 questions and lasts 35 minutes. The test consists of seven different passages with varying number of questions including three data representation passages with 5 questions each, 3 Research Summary passages with six questions each, and one Conflicting Viewpoints passage with 7 questions.

5. Writing:
The writing test is an optional 30-minute essay portion of the test where the student responds to a prompt about a social issue and is scored on the basis of their writing skill. There is no particular format for the essay.

All totaled, the ACT takes between four and five hours to complete, depending on whether one chooses to take the writing portion. Each of the multiple choice portions of the test are scored on a scale of 1-36 with 36 being the highest. This is based on the number of correct answers given, meaning guessing is not penalized, and from those tests the “composite score” is averaged, which is also on a scale of 1-36.

The writing portion does not affect the composite score but is weighed into a new “English/Writing” composite and is also used to create a second writing score on the scale of 2-12 that is separate from the composite.

Preparing for the ACT

It is important to begin preparing for the SAT as early as possible. Unfortunately, the ACT does not have a pretest similar to the PSAT/NMSQT for the SAT, but there are still many great resources and tools for preparing for the ACT, many of them free.

Official ACT Preparation:
ACT provides an extensive test preparation area with a free 80-page booklet, sample questions, tips and guides to the different tests. ACT also puts out an official ACT guide that includes three previous tests and an online preparation center that offers diagnostics, sample tests and previews.

Yahoo! Education:
Yahoo! has partnered with Petersons to create a test preparation section, sample questions and strategies for each of the sections of the test. This resource is completely free. provides a free ACT test preparation course along with a question of the day and a word of the day column.

Princeton Review:
The Princeton Review offers a wide variety of online courses and books on taking the ACT including private tutoring and online classes. You can sit in on a free class or sign up and take one of their full courses.

ACT Prep Classes:
Many high schools and community colleges in states where the ACT is popular offer ACT prep courses either as part of their regular curriculum or as an after-hours program. These courses are often the best way to get help with the ACT and get help tailored to your needs.

Retaking the ACT

Students may retake the ACT as many times as you like so long as you wait at least 60 days between each test. Since the student controls which set of scores are submitted to colleges or for scholarships, there is no penalty for taking the test multiple times and, according to ACT, most students do improve their results by retaking it.

Unlike with the SAT, it pays to take the ACT as early as possible and as many times as practical as there can be no negative implications from having multiple scores.

Bottom Line

Like all standardized tests, preparation is key to doing well on the ACT. Students who study and practice for the test will almost always do better than comparable students that don’t.

While the ACT is just one factor to college admission and scholarships, usually combined with GPA, extracurricular activities, recommendations and other factors, it is one of the easiest factors to improve and also one of the few hard numbers college admissions offices have when trying to determine which students to accept.

As such, it is worth taking the test seriously and spending the time it takes to do well on it. It can easily be the difference between getting into a good school or receiving a needed scholarship or having to settle for something else.

With such high stakes, a little preparation really can go a long way.

Your Online Degree Finder