How Does the ACT Work, and What’s a Good Score?

ACT-test

The ACT is one of the two main college readiness exams. Like they do with the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), admissions offices use your ACT score to help determine if you’re a good fit for their college or university.

Both tests are widely used, but recently, the ACT has become more popular than the SAT. Over two million students take the ACT every year, while about 1.7 million take the SAT. It’s easy to feel like all standardized tests are the same, but these tests measure two different things.

The SAT measures your ability to learn, and the ACT measures what you’ve already learned. They’re two completely different approaches to determining your “college readiness,” but both are well-respected, and most schools don’t have a preference for one or the other.

The ACT was developed by a college professor in response to his frustrations with the SAT, which at the time was the only means of gauging how prepared students were for college. As an educator, he felt it was far better to know that your students had the necessary prerequisite knowledge than to know how good they were at learning.

Tomato, to-mah-to, you’re taking the ACT. Here’s what you need to know about it.

Quick facts on the ACT

Eligibility requirements: none

Length: three hours and 30 minutes

Sections: four required (English, math, reading, science), one optional (writing)

Number of questions: 215 (plus an essay prompt)

Types of questions: multiple choice, essay (writing section only)

Score range: 1–36

Cost: $46 without the writing section, $62.50 with the writing section

What does ACT stand for? ACT technically stands for American College Testing, but the test is administered by an organization of the same name, and they simply refer to it as the ACT.

What does the ACT test you on?

The ACT tests you based on things you should learn by the end of your senior year of high school. We’ll tell you what to expect from each section and give you some tips, but first, here’s a tip that applies to every multiple choice section:

Never leave a question blank. You aren’t penalized for wrong answers, so even if you have absolutely no clue what the answer is, take a guess!

ACT English Test

Length: 45 minutes

Number of questions: 75

The English section of the ACT will measure your mastery of the nuts and bolts of prose. Rather than asking you to retrieve information or think critically about a passage, you’ll examine individual phrases, sentences, or paragraphs.

The makers of the test say that the English section “measures your understanding of the conventions of standard English (punctuation, usage, and sentence structure), production of writing (topic development, organization, unity, and cohesion), and knowledge of language (word choice, style, and tone).”

There are several varieties of multiple choice questions, but they’re all based on passages. If a passage has underlined sections, some of the questions will ask you to improve those parts with one of the options provided. If none of the suggested changes improve the passage, you can choose “no change” (this is pretty common).

You may be asked to change a passage to create a specific effect, like building a stronger transition between two thoughts or rearranging sentences to form a more logical progression. You’ll also be asked about how particular changes might affect the passage, or what information a particular section provides.

According to national data from the ACT, this is the section most people score lowest on.

Tip: This test gives you the least amount of time per question, so don’t waste time on tough questions. Guess, and come back to them later if there’s time.If you don’t have extra time at the end, think about how many more questions you were able to get through!  It’s sunk-cost economics at work.

ACT Mathematics Test

Length: 60 minutes

Number of questions: 60

All of the questions of the math section of the ACT are solvable without a calculator. Still, using one could save you some precious time. Here’s how the makers of the test break down the questions:

  • Number and quantity (7–10%)
  • Algebra (12–15%)
  • Functions (12–15%)
  • Geometry (12–15%)
  • Statistics and probability (8–12%)
  • Modeling (less than 25%)
  • Integrating essential skills (about 15%)

You’ll need to know the basic terminology and formulas for basic high school math. Be sure to read how the ACT describes each math section.

The ACT has already done a huge favor for you: the questions in each section appear in order of difficulty, so the easiest ones come first. That doesn’t always mean they’ll be the easiest ones for you, so you’ll still want to skim ahead if you get stuck on one.

Tip: Before you start solving a problem, take a look at the possible answers. They may help you decide how to approach the problem.

ACT Reading Test

Length: 35 minutes

Number of questions: 40

The reading section of the ACT contains four passages with 10 questions each. These are designed to test your reading comprehension, and the questions will ask you to summarize pieces of the passage, make inferences from the text, and identify key information. The bulk of the questions will be about the ideas and details in the passages.

The four passages come from the same four subjects every year, and they always appear in the following order:

  1. Fiction
  2. Social science
  3. Humanities
  4. Natural science

According to national data from the ACT, this is the section people score highest on.

Tip: Answers on the reading section are deliberately trying to trick you. There may be multiple answers that look correct. Before you read the possible answers, try to answer the question for yourself when possible. Then it’ll be harder for those almost right answers to mislead you—because you’ll be looking for a specific answer.

ACT Science Test

Length: 35 minutes

Number of questions: 40

For the science section of the ACT, you won’t be expected to have advanced knowledge of any particular kind of science, but you will need a general understanding of these subjects:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Geology
  • Astronomy
  • Meteorology

The majority of this test involves interpreting data and working with experiment results. Like the reading and English sections of the ACT, science questions are based on a passage. You’ll have between four and seven questions per passage.

The passages you’ll work from will take these three formats:

  • Data representation (30-40%)
  • Research summaries (45-55%)
  • Conflicting viewpoints (15-20%)

Data representation questions will focus on tables and graphs, and they’ll test your ability to interpret scientific data.

Research summaries will focus on experiments, and you’ll be asked about the design of the experiment and the conclusions drawn from the results.

Conflicting viewpoints questions ask you to analyze and compare two hypotheses or views that are based on different premises or incomplete data.

ACT Writing Test

Length: 40 minutes

Number of questions: one

The writing section is the only part of the test that doesn’t affect your composite score. (It is optional, after all.) The test will present three perspectives on an issue, and you’ll respond with an essay.

Regardless of the prompt, your essay will have the same three expectations:

  1. Analyze and evaluate the perspectives given.
  2. State and develop your own perspective on the issue.
  3. Explain the relationship between your perspective and those given.

Should I take the ACT Writing Test?

It definitely won’t count against you if you don’t take the optional section of the ACT. So if you’re a terrible writer, that’s probably a good choice. However, since it doesn’t count towards your composite score, and it can provide the admissions office with a more personal representation of your academic capabilities, it’s a good idea to take it.

A big shiny ACT score can certainly make your college applications stand out, but people can only learn so much about you from a number. There’s no guarantee a college will use your ACT essay, but if you’re a good writer, this is a positive differentiator that not every applicant is going to have.

Personally, I’d recommend it.

How do ACT scores work?

On the ACT, you gain points for correct answers, and you don’t lose points for incorrect answers.

You’ll receive a separate score for each section of the ACT: English, math, reading, science, and writing (optional). Scores range from 1 to 36 on each section—with the exception of the writing section, where scores range from 2 to 12. These scores are averaged into your “composite score.”

Your score report will show your score and percentile in each section, plus two additional sections: STEM, and ELA (English Language Arts). These are good indicators of your competency in specific subjects, but when someone says, “What’s your ACT score?” they’re asking about your composite score. ACT.org can walk you through each part of your ACT score report.

You’ll be able to view your scores online about two weeks after the exam, and you’ll get your score report in the mail within 2-8 weeks.

What’s a good ACT score?

While a perfect SAT score is 2,400, a perfect ACT score is just 36. But less than .1% of all ACT test-takers get a perfect score. So what’s a good ACT score?

The average ACT score is 21. But sitting smack dab in the middle isn’t going to make your application stand out. And for schools that want to build on their reputation for excellence, a mediocre score may not be good enough (unless you have an exceptional portfolio or something else to show off).

A good score is different for every school

Unless a school explicitly states a minimum ACT score you need to be admitted, you have to look at the students who are actually accepted to determine a “good score.” Whatever schools you’re looking at, you can see the range of standardized test scores for students they’ve accepted. You can even compare the bottom 25% of accepted students and the top 75%. If the other pieces of your application are strong, you can probably get by with a lower score.

Ivy League schools, for example, have significantly higher standards than the national average, and their students’ average ACT scores range from as low as 29 to as high as 35 (or from the 92nd percentile to the 99th).

So a good score really depends on what school you want to go to. But unless you’re looking at a top-tier school—one with a notoriously low acceptance rate—scoring in the top 75% of all test takers should be good enough for most schools. That means a good score is 24 or higher.

But what do you mean by “a good score”?

Of course, good is a relative term. Maybe by “good” you mean scoring in the top 90%? In that case, you’re shooting for a 28 or higher. And yes, four points can make that big of a difference. Sometimes getting a single point higher on your composite score can make a difference of 7%.

While a score around 24 should get you into most schools, scoring 28 or higher will have some schools throwing money at you, begging you to be one of their students.

Now that you know more about what to aim for, let’s talk about what to do with a bad score.

What happens if you get a bad score on the ACT?

No matter how much you study, there are lots of factors that can add up to a bad test day. Lack of sleep, poor diet, not exercising regularly, health issues, stress, and distractions make it harder to perform your best under pressure.

Thankfully, you can retake the ACT as many times as you want. And ACT.org says that 57% of people who retake the ACT improve their score.

When it comes time to submit your ACT score to a school, you can choose to submit your highest composite score. So if you have a bad test day, no one even has to know. This doesn’t mean you can pick and choose your best results from each section, though. If you did really well on different sections on different days, you may want to share both scores—but you can’t blend them into a new composite score like some kind of ACT Frankenstein.

How do you prepare for the ACT?

Like all standardized tests, the best way to prepare for the ACT is to take practice tests. You should certainly study the terms and concepts you’ll need to be familiar with (especially for the math and science sections), but when it comes down to it, practice is the best route to a high score.

The best practice tests will give you explanations for why one answer is correct, and the others are wrong. To make sure you’re getting the most relevant practice, be sure to check out the materials provided by ACT.org, the makers of the test.

Here are some free practice questions they provide, with explanations for each answer:

Let us know in the comments if there’s anything else you wish we would’ve told you about the ACT. Good luck in your studies!

Ryan Nelson
Ryan has a B.A. in English Literature from Western Washington University. If he could rewind and go to college all over again, he'd do it a little differently. For now, he's living vicariously through people like you by helping you find the best online schools for your field.

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