What is an ACT test?

The ACT test is a standardized examination for prospective college students in the United States. It is used by colleges to make admissions decisions. ACT stands for American College Testing. The ACT test measures a student’s college readiness and provides colleges with one common data point to help them compare all applicants. College admissions officers will examine your standardized test scores, high school GPA, high school classes, letters from mentors or teachers, extracurricular activities, personal essays, and admissions interviews. The importance of ACT scores in college applications varies from one school to the next. 

Students who take the ACT are required to answer multiple choice questions based on what they have learned in their high school coursework. Many colleges require or recommend that applicants take the ACT or the SAT (which is another standardized test used for college admissions purposes). Students can choose to either take the ACT or the SAT when applying for colleges. Students’ scores on the ACT or the SAT can affect their admissions into colleges, with a higher ACT or SAT score being looked more favorably on by admissions officers. In addition, getting a high SAT or ACT score not only means that you have more options to attend college, but it also means that you have more options to pay for college. If you are applying for scholarships, some scholarships will let you submit your SAT or ACT score as an added element of your application. You can read my post on how to get a perfect score on the SATs.

As of recently, however, submitting an ACT or SAT score has become optional for students because COVID has made it difficult to secure a testing center to take the test in. However, students can still submit an ACT or SAT score and doing so will be a plus to one’s college application. Not submitting a score will not hurt you in the process, however. If you don’t choose to submit a score, college admission officers will look at other aspects of your application such as your GPA, essays, and recommendation letters. You can read my post on what qualities colleges are looking for.

what is an act test

ACT Basics

ACT Length2 hrs, 55 minutes (plus 40 minutes if taking ACT with writing)
ACT Sections
  • English
  • Math
  • Reading
  • Science
  • Writing (optional)

US without Writing: $50.50 USD

US with Writing: $67.00 USD

Non-US without Writing: $150.00 USD

Non-US with Writing: $166.50 USD

Max. Score36
Avg. Score21

The structure of the ACT | What is an ACT test?

Section# of Questions & Time LimitContent/Skills CoveredQuestion Types
English75 questions in 45 min.grammar & usage, punctuation, sentence structure, strategy, organization, and stylefour-choice, multiple-choice usage/mechanics and rhetorical skills questions
Math60 questions in 60 min.pre-algebra, elementary algebra, intermediate algebra, coordinate geometry, plane geometry, and trigonometryfive-choice, multiple-choice questions
Reading40 questions in 35 min.reading comprehension of what is directly stated or impliedfour-choice, multiple-choice referring and reasoning questions
Science40 questions in 35 min.interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning, and problem solvingfour-choice, multiple-choice data representation, research summaries, and conflicting viewpoints questions
Writing (optional)1 essay in 40 min.writing skillsessay prompt

All four-year colleges and universities in the U.S accept the ACT | What is an ACT test?

Each school has its own admissions criteria. Easier to get into colleges place more emphasis on standardized test scores and GPA than others. However, other colleges, especially the top tier colleges also weigh extracurricular activities and personal essays, when making their admissions decisions. In general, most four-year colleges and universities in the U.S accept ACT scores as part of your application packet; however, some institutions do not accept or require standardized test scores at all. It is important to do research before deciding if an institution is right for you (and vice versa).

More about the ACT | What is an ACT test?

If you are wondering what people are referring to when they say “ACT composite score” know that the composite score is your total score out of 36 possible points in each section. The composite score ranges from 1-36 with a mean of 21 for students nationally taking the test. If you look at all scores across the country over time, it has been relatively consistent. However if you were to compare two different years (say 2002 vs 2012), they would likely be different depending on what was tested during those years. 


College readiness is a top concern for families and students. It’s important to know what the ACT test is and how it compares with other standardized exams like the SAT.

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