Everything You Need to Know About the ACT Test

Last updated: Dec 18, 2020

The most important thing to know about the ACT test is whether it’s important to you. If college is the path to your dreams and the ACT is the best fit for you, the answer is a resounding yes. So, in case, as teachers often say, there will be a test, here’s everything you need to know about the ACT test.

African-American student sitting in front of his laptop preparing for the ACT test.

What Is the ACT?

The ACT and SAT are the gold standards of standardized testing for college purposes. The SAT has a longer track record, dating to 1926, versus 1959 for the ACT, but college admissions offices will accept either, or both.

Both tests are academic fixtures, so familiar that each goes by its initials. In fact, a lot of people wouldn’t recognize them as the American College Testing exam or the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Here are the basic facts about the ACT that you should recognize:

  • The four-section multiple-choice test takes two hours and 55 minutes without the optional writing test. The optional portion, an essay question, adds 40 minutes, making the test three hours and 35 minutes long.
  • The four sections, in the order administered, are English (45 minutes for 75 questions), math (60 minutes for 60 questions), reading (35 minutes for 40 questions), and science (35 minutes for 40 questions).
  • The English section involves passages and questions about sentences or construction. The focus is on grammar and style. Questions address usage/mechanics and rhetorical skills.
  • The math section keys on pre-algebra (up to 25 percent of the test), elementary algebra (up to 20 percent), intermediate algebra (up to 20 percent), coordinate geometry (up to 20 percent), plane geometry (up to 25 percent), and trigonometry (up to 10 percent).
  • The reading portion, which has four subsections, assesses comprehension of passages involving prose fiction/literary narrative, social sciences, humanities, and natural science.
  • The science section involves analyses of data presented in passages, tables, charts, and other graphics. Subject matter includes biology, physics, chemistry, and Earth and space science.
  • The cost is $52 for the ACT without the writing test and $68 with it. There also are fees for late registration, $30, standby testing, $55, and for a test date change or test center change, both $32. There also are fee waivers for the financially challenged.

Why Take the ACT?

Once you’ve dismissed the myths about standardized tests (“If I bomb the ACT/SAT, my life is over”), you can study the differences and choose the test that suits you best.

Or you can take both tests. In 2013, The New York Times reported that more students were taking both the ACT and the SAT, and that has continued. As for student preferences: In 2012, ACT logged more test takers than the SAT, and ACT has continued to push that edge.

If you opt to take both tests, admissions offices get more information. That option also gives you a better shot at the high scores that drive merit scholarships.

Taking the ACT also can cover you if you flub some of the SAT subject tests. And last but definitely not least, your test-taking skills will improve with use.

If you must choose, consider these points about the ACT that ScoreBuilder Test Prep makes in comparing the tests:

  • You get less time for each ACT question, but the questions are more straightforward.
  • ACT usually is better for fast readers who can work quickly through a lot of the simpler problems.
  • ACT has a science section, and those who excel at reading charts and graphs and have a command of science terminology will have an advantage on the ACT.
  • Fast readers who quickly can recall the location of information in the passages they read will have a big advantage on the ACT.
  • ACT has only one math section (only 25 percent of the total score is math-based), and you may use a calculator.

If the ACT sounds like a good fit, there are a couple of things you need to know.

To register online for the ACT, you will need:

  • A computer and internet access
  • At least 40 minutes
  • A credit card or other means of paying online
  • Your high school’s code
  • And a recent headshot/picture

Once you’ve registered and chosen your test date, familiarize yourself with what to expect on test day. Will you need food? What should you bring (and not bring)? Test rules? Setting?

A high school student fills in answers on the ACT test

Should You Take the Optional Writing Test?

Several hundred schools require or prefer that students’ ACT results include the optional writing section. The takeaway? Check with the schools you are targeting. Also:

  • A good score on the ACT writing section can give your application the edge you need.
  • The essay portion can be an unnecessary expenditure of time and money if the schools on your list don’t consider writing scores.
  • If your transcript shows a weakness in language skills, performing well in the writing section can help.
  • It’s better to take it and not need it than vice versa.

What’s the Best Way to Prepare for the Test?

There are three steps that can get you where you want to be on test day:

  • Take preliminary tests such as PreACT, which is billed as the "first step toward practicing for the ACT test."
  • Begin test prep early; that includes being a good student from Day One and scouring online sources for free tests.
  • Have a plan, even if you have to borrow one. Peterson’s has a great infographic that advises you, in this order, to take a diagnostic test to clarify your needs, get a study schedule on paper, take practice tests, study by ACT section, do a final review as the test day approaches, and have a checklist of things to do on test day.

You should get serious about ACT prep in your sophomore year of high school, with a goal of taking the test in the fall of your junior year. This timeline gives you two years of high school to prepare for the test and time, if needed, to retake it in the spring of your junior year.

Four students take the ACT exam in a classroom

What if You’re Not Satisfied with Your Score?

So, you take the test and do bomb, or perhaps fizzle a bit. If you follow the advice on the timeline for success with the ACT, you have time for a do-over – with the benefit of actual ACT experience.

You can retake the whole test, or, beginning September 2020, you can do retests by section or sections.

USF Can Help You with the ACT

If you need resources to shape your ACT plan or could benefit from an ACT prep course, USF can help.

Or maybe you just want the lowdown on getting your application and scores to the USF Office of Admissions? Contact us online, or reach us by phone at 813-974-3350. We’re ready to engage.

Check out our one-page ACT Test Basics, an easy-to-access list of ACT pointers and facts.

Download ACT Test Basics Guide