ACT Basics – All about the ACT

What is the ACT?

The ACT is a standardized test administered primarily to high school students in the United States, typically in their junior and/or senior years. Some students voluntarily take the ACT for college admission, while others undergo the exam as part of state-wide mandatory assessments. First offered in 1959, the modern ACT is the result of many revisions. In its current format, the test consists of five sections: English, Math, Reading, Science, and Writing. The first four of these sections are entirely built from multiple-choice questions, while the last involves writing a single essay.

Total test timing is 3 hours and 35 minutes (including the optional 40-minute Writing test). Scoring for the multiple-choice sections is on a scale of 1 to 36 each, in one-point intervals. The ACT total score is the mean of these four section scores (the section scores are added together, and the sum is then divided by four and rounded up or down to the nearest whole number). Writing test scores are based on the judgments of two ACT readers and are reported on a scale of 2 to 12. ACT also reports scores in a variety of categories within each individual section, along with percentile rankings nationally and statewide.

ACT Availability

The ACT is administered at test centers around the world. In the United States, U.S. territories, and Puerto Rico, there are seven annual test dates (one each in September, October, December, February, April, June, and July). International test dates are held six times per year (September, October, December, February, April, and June). Testing is always held on Saturdays, unless the student has religious restrictions (these students take the exam on Sundays).

The ACT and College Admission

The ACT is universally accepted for undergraduate admission by universities in the United States. The ACT is an option for all students wishing to pursue undergraduate degrees at American colleges and universities, including those who completed their secondary education in other countries. These institutions require standardized testing because they cannot possibly be familiar with the academic rigor of all American high schools, not to mention secondary schools in other countries. Tests such as the ACT are thought to be objective assessments of student potential (whether or not this is the reality is a matter that is hotly debated). American students wishing to study abroad may or may not be required to take the ACT or SAT. Some universities in Canada, for example, will want to see test scores from American applicants, while others do not mandate standardized testing at all. The test scores required or expected for university admission largely depend on the selectivity of a specific institution. ACT's College Readiness Benchmarks for each section average out to a total score of about 21, but selective universities generally report mean scores that are significantly higher.

The ACT and College Grades

ACT vigorously asserts the validity of the exam, on which it has been publishing supporting research for many years. Independent studies of the ACT (those produced by researchers not employed or contracted by the organization) have contributed to less favorable views of the test's credibility. A 2011 paper co-authored by a faculty member and doctoral student at Stanford University's Graduate School of Education found significant discrepancies in the validity of the individual ACT sections. These investigators concluded that the English and Math tests were highly correlated to college performance, but that the Reading and Science tests had almost no predictive value. A paper published in 1994 compared the ACT composite score ranges and undergraduate GPAs of 428 students at Chicago State University (CSU), and established some fairly strong connections between the two (CSU students with ACT scores of 16-20 had a mean GPA of 2.67, while ACT scores of 21-25 were associated with an average GPA of 3.02). However, the study also noted that the graduating class with the highest ACT scores also had the lowest GPA.

Preparing for the ACT

Students have a number of options for ACT study and preparation, from group ACT classes and individual tutoring to books, videos, and online resources. Formal ACT instruction in any of the available formats (on-site or online) is likely to produce the best results. Experienced ACT teachers implement coherent learning plans, adjust study programs as necessary, and improve student abilities and confidence through encouragement and feedback. The cost of these courses may discourage some students, but the results are difficult to dispute.