The ACT®—which used to stand for “American College Testing” but now stands for nothing—is a standardized test used to assess your content mastery in determining how likely you are to succeed in college. Many people are unfamiliar with the ACT, which makes it the scary stepsister of the SAT. But don’t ignore taking the ACT just because you don’t know much about it. Some students may do much better on the ACT, so it makes sense to give it a try. Here’s a quick and dirty description so you know what to expect:

The Skinny on the ACT:

1. What is it?

The ACT is used by college admissions officers when they're deciding whether to let you into their school. Unlike the SAT®, the ACT is meant to test mastery of high-school curricula. This means that, to do well, you should have been paying attention in class. 

2. What's on it?

The test is divided into five sections: 

  • English: 60 minutes
  • Math: 60 minutes
  • Reading: 35 minutes
  • Science: 35 minutes
  • Essay (optional): 40 minutes

3. How often and where is it given?

The ACT is given six times a year in the United States, and five times worldwide. Tests are given at official testing centers, which may be a high school, on a college campus, or in a community center, but there is certain to be one near you (in fact, the test might even be administered at your school). If you need help signing up, be sure to get to know your high school counselor

4. When should you take it?

When the sun rises in the west and sets in the east, and when the seas go dry and mountains blow in the wind like leaves…just kidding. You don't have to wait until Daenerys Stormborn Targaryen gets that baby bump. Aim for the spring of your junior year instead. (That may or may not coincide with the miraculous incident of George R.R. Martin finishing A Song of Ice and Fire.) What it will do is give you plenty of chances to take it again later that year or in the first part of your senior year before needing to submit scores to colleges.

Since the ACT tests content mastery as well as reasoning, it makes sense that your score might improve over time for a couple of reasons. First, familiarity with the test and with pacing can help improve your score. Second, you will have had more time in higher-level classes in between exams, exposing you to more content.

5. How will schools look at my scores?

Most colleges will look at the best composite score you got on the ACT; and for the most part, colleges don't require you to send all your scores if you take it multiple times. Some of the more selective schools though, like Princeton and Harvard, require you to send all of your scores.

A few colleges will be generous enough to take your "superscore," meaning they'll add up your highest score from each section of the exam (even if you took these sections at different times) and get an average of your composite from there. Check out the admissions pages of potential colleges to find out what their policy is.

Everything You Need to Know About the ACT

Registration and Test Dates

Who said the first step is the hardest? Because really, the first step to taking the ACT is the easiest: you have to register for the ACT to take it, and you can do this several months in advance, before you've started studying. Once you've committed to a test date, you'll be able to choose a study plan. This helpful guide answers some of those burning questions about registration, such as:

  • When are the test dates and registration deadlines for 2018-2019? 
  • How do I register for the ACT online?
  • When should I register for the ACT?
  • How many times can I take the ACT?
  • How much does it cost to take the ACT?
  • Other Registration Concerns, such as:
    • Can I pay for the ACT by check?
    • How do I register by mail for the ACT?
    • How do I make changes to my ACT registration?
    • What happens if I miss the ACT test?

Exam Format and Structure

Maybe you're the adventurous type and you prefer not to know what's coming before you dive in, head first. Unless you want to end up on Fail Blog, we highly advise against this strategy for the ACT. Here you'll learn about the setup of the exam, the skills tested by the exam, and what you should expect to see on each section of the ACT.

  • What is the format of the ACT?
  • What does the ACT test on?
  • What can I expect on the ACT English Test?
  • What can I expect on the ACT Reading Test?
  • What can I expect on the ACT Math Test?
  • What can I expect on the optional ACT Writing Test?
  • How is the ACT scored?

What's a Good Score on the ACT?

The first step to reaching your goal score is to define that goal score. What's realistic for you? What's achievable? How well does everyone else do on the ACT? Having answers to these questions will help you define a target and attain the best score for you.

  • How to figure out a target score on the ACT
  • What's the average score on the ACT?
  • What does my percentile ranking on the ACT mean?
  • What's a good ACT Writing score?
  • What will be on my score report?
  • When will I receive my ACT score?

ACT Study Plan

Maybe you're a senior googling anxiously the night before the exam; maybe you're a freshman planning way, way ahead. Either way, we've got tips and schedules for you, wherever you are on the test prep journey. For students with one to three months left before the exam, we have suggested schedules on how to use ACT test prep materials. For students looking for that last-minute cram session, we've got the most useful tips for game day strategy and preparation. 

  • ACT Study Plan (90, 60, 30 days)
  • Last Minute Cram Session
  • Taking the ACT (Game Day)
  • When do I need to show up for the ACT?
  • What should I bring with me to the ACT?
  • How do I prepare for test day?

ACT Tips and Strategies

Keep yourself sharp with some assorted freebie tips. We've got ideas for improvement for every type of student, from math whizzes looking to beef up their Reading and Writing score, to language-lovers fending off careless arithmetic errors. Here you'll also find in-depth guides to specific question types on the ACT.

  • ACT DOs and DON'Ts
  • How to do well on the ACT English Test
  • Five Common Concerns on the ACT English Test
  • How to do well on the ACT Math Test
  • How to do well on the ACT Reading Test
  • Five Common Concerns on the ACT Reading Test
  • How to do well on the ACT Science Test
  • How to do well on the ACT Writing Test

What's the purpose of the ACT?

Like the SAT, the ACT exam is designed to test how ready you are for college-level classes. Colleges will use your scores to figure out where you are in your educational career and if you would be a good fit academically with their university. There remains some debate over how valuable standardized tests are in terms of determining college preparedness, but debate or no debate, they're here to stay. We might as well embrace them like kooky Aunt Polly who never misses an opportunity to squish our face with her talon-like acrylic nails at every family holiday.

The ACT exam helps colleges compare students who may have had completely different educational experiences. Imagine you're a student at a huge public high school in Chicago. Now imagine you're a home-schooled student in Fresno, CA or a student at a rural school in Montana. These educational experiences could potentially differ by extreme amounts, and without standardized tests, there would be no way to establish how much or how little you truly took away from your high school experience besides an aversion to cabbage and the intriguing scar on your calf. Standardized tests are what make up this difference by helping colleges to understand what knowledge and skills students all across America have in common. That's pretty cool when you think about it. We're like one, big, happy family, it seems.

How do the ACT overlords decide what's on the exam?

For a good time (and to understand what they hope the exam will measure), check out the test's College Readiness Standards. It's riveting reading; we warn you.

In order to build the exam, the ACT demigods look at textbooks and work with middle school and high school teachers to figure out what you've been learning. The good news is the ACT exam tests stuff that you've been studying for years. That doesn't mean you have to get your flashcards out and remember what your 4th grade teacher taught you; it means they test you on the skills you've been practicing since grade school, like reading, writing, and math abilities. Chances are, there won't be too much on the exam that you haven't done before, at least in passing and before the nap you won't admit to taking. There's also a lot of problem solving involved, and by virtue of being a human being, you're probably really good at problem solving already.

Prepare for the ACT with Shmoop!