The ACT–An Introduction
The ACT is used for admission to college. Your ACT scores are important for admission, but they are not the only factor. A student’s grades, extracurricular activities and recommendations factor heavily. It is our understanding that an ACT score can get you into the conversation for admission, but it cannot alone guarantee it.
What’s on it?
The ACT has five sections:
An English section that tests grammar
A math section
A reading comprehension section
A science section
An optional essay
All questions except the essay are multiple choice.
The test is roughly three hours and forty-five minutes with the essay, three hours and fifteen minutes without.
Can I take it at home?
No. There is a way to take the test online, but not from your home.
Are calculators allowed on the math section?
How is it scored?
Each section except the essay receives a score from 1-36. These four scores are then averaged for an overall score.
The essay is scored from 2-12. Your essay score is not factored into your overall score. Schools may look at it, however, so make sure your child tries their best.
The ACT allows superscoring, which means that you can combine your best scores for each section from different tests. For example, if you did better in math the first time you took the ACT, but better in English, reading, and science the second time, you can combine your math score from your first ACT with your English, reading, and science from your second, for one big super score.
The ACT was planning on letting students retake specific sections of the test (as opposed to the whole test), but this has been put on hold as of 2021.
How many times can someone take it?
Students can take the ACT as often as they like. Test dates and registration can be found here.
The ACT lets students completely delete an ACT score. As long as you haven’t submitted it to a college, you can make it completely disappear.
Are past tests available?
Yes. Many tests are available through a quick Google search. You can also order an ACT prep book with six practice tests and online content here.
The ACT changed slightly in 2016, making the math and science sections slightly more difficult and adding a paired reading passage to the reading section (but keeping the total number of passages the same). Old ACT exams are still useful for practice.
When should my child take the ACT and when should they start studying?
We think it’s best for a student to take the ACT early in their junior year. Many students wait until the end of junior year, but that’s a busy time. Throwing the ACT on top of AP exams and finals is not ideal. We usually aim for the December and February test dates.
The ACT math section does contain 4-6 trigonometry questions, so if your child is going for a top score without getting tutored, and they struggle learning math on their own, they may want to wait until they cover the topic in school. Otherwise, have them take a mock exam in May or June of their sophomore year to determine when to start the prep process. You should give your child at least four months to prepare, ideally six.
Thoughts on the test
The ACT is challenging, and students will need to work quickly and carefully to do well. Mock exams are absolutely critical.
In this section, students must spot and correct grammatical errors in the context of a passage. Students often struggle when they first try this section because in school, they learn how to use grammar correctly and not how to spot errors. This section is especially difficult for most public-school students, as public schools stress grammar much less than private schools do.
Like every standardized test, the ACT demands that students apply their knowledge to new types of questions. An example is below:
A circle in the standard (x, y) coordinate plane has center A(3, -2) and passes through B(6, 2). Line segment BC is a diameter of the circle. What are the coordinates of point C?
(A) (-6, -2)
(B) (-6, 2)
(C) (-3, -2)
(D) (0, -6)
(E) (3, 6)
This question is considered only moderately difficult, but many students have no idea how to approach it (the answer is D). Students need to be able to handle uncertainty and fight through questions that seem confusing/difficult at first read. Students usually don’t have to do this for school exams, so it’s an undeveloped muscle.
The good news about the ACT is that it’s very consistent, so practicing with real ACT tests and accurate mocks will pay big dividends on the actual exam. You can see the question types covered by the ACT math section here.
Reading passages on the ACT are challenging but not insane. The questions are all fair. The issue is speed. Students have only 35 minutes to read four passages and answer 40 questions. They need to move fast.
As always, the more a student reads, the easier the reading section becomes. Students should practice reading fiction and non-fiction.
There are 40 questions in the science section, split into 6-7 passages. Each passage is either data representation, a research summary, or competing hypothesis. The data representation and research summaries are accompanied by graphs, charts, and/or tables.
This section is really science reading comprehension. On only one or two questions will students need to bring in outside knowledge, and basic knowledge at that. That said, students usually get slaughtered the first time they try this section. The way students normally approach scientific data is counterproductive on this exam, and as a result, students don’t get anywhere close to finishing all 40 questions. This is an easy problem to fix, however, and we explain in detail how to do so here.
In conclusion, the ACT is challenging, and good grades in school don’t necessarily translate to high scores. ACT questions are very fair, but there are a lot to do in each section in not a lot of time. The ACT is very much a test of speed as well as knowledge, and good students who work slowly may want to consider the SAT. I do a deeper dive into the ACT vs. the SAT here.
The first step in a student’s preparation is to take a Biometric Edge ACT mock exam. One of the huge benefits of a Biometric Edge exam is that you can see how long your child spends on each question, and how long they spend reading each reading comprehension passage. This is always valuable, but never more so than on a test of speed such as the ACT. In addition, Biometric Edge mock exams can show you if your child is going back to check their work. Only our mock exams can tell you this information with certainty. Your child can excel on this exam, but you must know what they need to work on to structure their time efficiently. Sign up for Biometric Edge mock exam here.
To your child’s success!