The ACT: Everything You Need to Know

Bonus Material: Want your FREE Step-By-Step Guide to Making an ACT Prep Plan? Download it FOR FREE here!

The ACT (American College Testing) is a standardized test that colleges use to measure how well a student will do once they enroll in college. It’s an important part of any college application, and a high score on the ACT can distinguish you from among other applicants. 

While a standardized test such as the ACT or SAT won’t make-or-break your application, it’s still an important element of your application and a high score can help make up for other weaknesses on your application such as a less-than-perfect GPA. For students applying to competitive schools like the Ivies, a great ACT score is crucial. 

Sound intimidating? It doesn’t have to be! One of our expert tutors can guide you through the process. Contact us to learn more about how we’ve helped thousands of students gain admission to their dream schools.

In the meantime, read below to learn more about the ACT, and check out the wealth of resources we’ve gathered to help you ace the ACT. 

Jump to section:
Why should I take the ACT? 
What’s on the ACT? 
The ACT English Section
The ACT Math Section
The ACT Reading Section
The ACT Science Section
The ACT Essay
What is considered a “good” ACT score? 
When should I take the ACT? 
How do I know if I’m ready to take the ACT? 
What are some ways to prepare for the ACT? 
What’s the difference between the ACT and the SAT?
Next steps

Why Should I Take the ACT?

The point of the ACT is to try to measure what students have learned in high school. The ACT evaluates a student’s abilities in core academic areas, providing insight into how the student will perform on college-level coursework and their readiness for college. The test assesses a college-bound student’s written, quantitative, verbal, and scientific skills. 

That means taking the ACT and doing well on it can help make your college application more competitive. If you can achieve a high score on the ACT, that can help your application stand out to the admissions department at your dream school– it shows schools that you’re ready for college-level courses!

High standardized test scores aren’t make-or-break, but they can definitely give your application a boost during the admission process, especially for selective schools!

You should identify what admitted students at your target school usually score on the ACT. This will help give you a better idea of what your target score should be in order to be a competitive applicant at your target schools. 

Want to learn more about average ACT scores, and what’s considered a competitive score for admission? Skip right to our section on What is considered a “good” ACT score?

Over the pandemic, some schools went “test-optional,” meaning that students could decide whether or not to take the ACT as part of their admissions application to their chosen schools. 

Some schools have since started requiring the ACT again – you should make sure to check if your target school requires the ACT or not. 

If your target school or schools do not require the ACT, you still might want to take it anyway. Why? A good ACT score can help distinguish your application, especially in comparison to other students. 

At PrepMaven, we strongly recommend taking at least one standardized test – either the ACT or the SAT– if you plan to apply to colleges. Many schools require at least one test as part of the admission process, but even if your schools don’t, an impressive score on the ACT or SAT helps you stand out from the crowd, especially in an increasingly competitive admissions environment. For selective schools, you’ll definitely want to take either the ACT or SAT. 

Plus, a high score on the ACT can mean that you find yourself eligible for merit scholarships, better course placement once you get to college, or better financial aid. Plus, a competitive standardized test score can help make up for weaker spots on your application, such as a weaker GPA or lack of extracurricular activities, or it can make an already strong application even stronger. 

Ready to get started? Download our Step-By-Step Guide to preparing for the ACT for free here!

What’s on the ACT?

The ACT consists of four sections that test your college readiness in English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science. There is also an optional writing section that includes one essay.

Now, what about each section of the test? 

The ACT English Section

The ACT English has five passages with corresponding multiple-choice questions. You’ll be asked to evaluate each of the passages and decide whether the grammar and punctuation are correct. This will test your understanding of the English language and verbal reasoning skills. 

You’ll be asked to be an editor when you look at each passage– not only will you be asked about the basics of grammar and punctuation, you’ll also be asked to evaluate the rhetoric and flow of sentences within a passage.

Broken down more precisely, you’ll be asked to prove your knowledge on: 

Production of Writing (29-32% of the test)

  • Topic Development: Determine whether a text or part of a text has achieved its intended goal and demonstrate a mastery with the rhetorical part of a text. 
  • Organization, Unity, and Cohesion: Demonstrate that you know how to best make a text flow smoothly and ensure that it is logically organized.

Knowledge of Language (15-17%)

  • This section of the ACT English will ask you to show your ability to use precise and concise word choices while maintaining the core meaning of the sentence.

Conventions of Standard English (52-55%)

  • Sentence Structure and Formation: You will be asked to make revisions to improve the writing of given sentences. 
  • Punctuation: You will need to recognize punctuation errors and revise the writing accordingly. 
  • Usage: You will need to recognize any errors with English language usage and make revisions to improve the passage.

One of the trickier aspects of the ACT English section is that it moves fast. In standard timing conditions, you only have about 36 seconds per question!

That’s why getting to know the test and what strategies you’ll use is crucial for success on this section. One way to maximize your chances for success on the English ACT is to learn core grammar rules: 

  • Punctuation
  • Pronouns
  • Verb forms: tense and agreement
  • Word Choice
  • Comparisons
  • Sentence construction
  • Idioms
  • Parallel construction
  • Faulty modifiers

Another way to maximize your ACT English score is to learn to identify the types of questions you’ll encounter. Make sure to read the full text, then determine what the question is really asking. Is the question testing your knowledge of Production of Writing, Knowledge of Language, or Conventions of Standard English? 

Once you’ve identified the type of question, remember that there’s only one right answer. Don’t get tripped up by answers that are “close” to being right. Prove each answer wrong, and then use the process of elimination until you get to the exact right answer. 

To take a deep dive into the ACT English section, which includes tips and strategies on how to maximize your score, check out our other post here: ACT English: Everything You Need to Know

The ACT Math Section

The Math section of the ACT is the longest section of the ACT at 60 minutes. Therefore, making sure to fight fatigue is important in this section. The math tested on the ACT Math will not only test your problem-solving skills, but also require you to have knowledge of certain essential concepts in many areas, including algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and statistics, as well as general quantitative reasoning skills.

The breakdown of the math section is as follows: 

Preparing for Higher Math (57-60%)

  • Number & Quantity (7-10%)

Questions like these will require students to demonstrate their knowledge of real 

and complex number systems. This will include knowledge of integer and rational 

exponents, and vectors and matrices.

  • Algebra (12-15%)

Students will be asked to evaluate different algebraic expressions. They will also 

be asked to evaluate linear, polynomial, radical, and exponential relationships.

  • Functions (12-15%)

Functions include linear, radical, piecewise, polynomial, and logarithmic functions. Students will also be asked to manipulate and translate functions.

  • Geometry (12-15%)

Students will be asked to define and apply the relationships of shapes and solids, as well as solve for missing values in triangles, circles, and other figures.

  • Statistics (8-12%)

Using their knowledge of statistics, students will calculate probabilities and analyze data. 

Integrating Essential Skills (40-43%)

This section will cover skills such as rates and percentages; proportional relationships; area, surface area and volume; and average and median. You will also be asked to solve more complex problems that combine different concepts into one problem. 

For maximum success on the Math ACT section, identify any gaps in your mathematical knowledge by using an ACT diagnostic test. Once you’ve identified any concepts you need review on, make a plan to go over each concept until you feel confident tackling every type of math question that appears on the ACT. 

Here’s a brief look of the concepts you’ll need to master for the Math ACT: 

  • Geometry
  • Statistics & Probability
  • Functions
  • Algebra 1 and 2
  • Number and Quantity
  • Pre-Algebra
  • Rates and Percentages
  • Ratios and Proportions
  • Volume, Surface Area, Area
  • Average and Median
  • Modeling

For a further breakdown of every math concept you need for the Math ACT section, check out our post: ACT Math: Everything You Need to Know

Learning basic standardized testing strategies will help to make the ACT Math not only less fatiguing, but will improve the accuracy of your answers. Make sure to work on: 

  • Using the process of elimination to your advantage
  • Interpreting word problems to make sure you know what the question is asking
  • Plugging in your own numbers for variables to make abstract concepts more concrete
  • Plugging numbers from the answers back into problems to improve both speed and accuracy for questions with variables
  • Becoming confident in your quantitative reasoning abilities 

Sometimes it helps to consult an expert to learn standardized testing strategies. Our private tutors can help break down the ACT Math section in a way that makes it easy and doable. Contact us today to learn more about how our private tutors can help you. 

The ACT Reading Section

The ACT Reading test asks students to answer 40 questions in 35 minutes. Therefore, time management is crucial in this section! 

This section has four sections which have either one passage or two shorter passages, along with a set of accompanying multiple-choice questions, and will test your reading comprehension abilities. The topics of the passages include social studies, natural sciences, prose fiction, and the humanities. 

While the reading section can seem intimidating at first, the types of questions that will appear are very predictable. The types of questions students can expect to see on the test are questions that ask students to: 

  • Find and interpret details
  • Identify the main idea of a passage or paragraph
  • Interpret cause and effect relationships
  • Draw inferences
  • Identify the meaning of vocabulary in context
  • Determine sequence of events
  • Identify “tone,” or an author’s point of view or attitude

How can you succeed in getting correct answers for all these different types of questions? First, make sure to answer the easiest questions first. Conquer the easier passages to preserve your mental energy for the harder passages later. Take notes on the passage as you read, highlighting important information you’ll need later. 

Then, make sure you can always prove your answer in the text. Lastly, get to know common wrong answer choices, such as extreme answers, vague answer choices, answers that make too large of a leap from the text, or answers that have the right facts from the passage, but don’t actually answer the question being asked. 

Our private tutors are experts on identifying common incorrect answers on the ACT Reading. You can contact us to learn more about how private tutoring can help you become an expert on the most common “wrong” answers. 

That being said, sometimes using the above test-taking strategies might not be enough– in that case, make good use of the process of elimination to disprove every wrong answer until you’re absolutely positive that your answer is correct. 

Want to take a deep dive into the ACT Reading section, which includes more tips and strategies on how to maximize your score? Check out our other post, ACT Reading: Everything You Need to Know

The ACT Science Section

The ACT Science section tests basic science concepts, but in ways that might be confusing to students. Since the science concepts have to be standardized to students across the country, the concepts themselves aren’t advanced, but the way they’re presented require a high level of analysis and thought. 

The breakdown of the ACT Science section is as follows:

Interpretation of Data (40-50%)

Students will be asked to interpret data presented in scientific tables, graphs, and diagrams; they will need to recognize trends and reason mathematically based on the data presented. 

Scientific Investigation (20-30%)

With questions that utilize Scientific Investigation, students will need to understand experimental tools, procedures, and designs, such as in scenarios that involve controls and variables, as well as the possible outcomes of experiments. 

Evaluation of Models, Inferences, and Experimental Results (25-35%)

In this section, you’ll be asked to make predictions about the outcomes of experiments based on given models or data. You’ll also be asked to evaluate the validity of information based on how an experiment is designed or data is presented. 

For maximum success on the Science ACT section, get familiar with quickly scanning the text to find the evidence that will answer each question. You’ll need to work efficiently and accurately, especially when analyzing different charts and tables. 

Regular practice and a dedicated study plan will help you work with precision on test day. A private tutor can help you hold you accountable to your study plan. Contact us to learn more about how one of our private tutors can help create a personalized study plan for you. 

Want to take a deep dive into the ACT Science section? Check out our other post, The ACT Science Section: Everything You Need to Know

The ACT Essay

You’ll also have the opportunity to write an essay that will be evaluated on a scale from 2-12. You’ll receive a score from 1-6 from two trained readers. This part of the ACT is optional and won’t be factored into your final score, known as your composite score. Your essay will be graded on the strength of your: 

  • Ideas and Analysis
  • Development and Support
  • Organization
  • Language Use and Conventions

Since the essay is optional, should you bother writing one as part of your ACT test? 

Very few schools actually require the ACT writing, and we recommend taking it only if you’re targeting one of the few schools that does. 

Remember that every reader will probably spend a short amount of time analyzing your essay for quality. That means, you need to make it clear to the reader right away that you’ve organized your essay in a logical way, and that you’re ready to prove your perspective. 

Make it clear what your perspective is on the issue. Then, use concrete and specific examples to illustrate each point you make. It’s also important to show sophistication of organization in your essay. Use topic sentences that make it clear what point you’ll make in each paragraph, and use transitions to help your essay flow logically from point to point. 

How is the ACT scored?

It’s important to know how the ACT is scored, especially if you want to take diagnostic and practice tests– which you definitely should! To learn about how to proctor your own ACT diagnostic, check out our post here: How to Proctor Your Own ACT Test 

For the ACT, you get a raw score which is then computed into a scaled score for each section: English, Reading, Math, and Science. (Your writing score isn’t part of your composite score). Then, these four scores are averaged to give you a composite score, which can range from 1 (the lowest) to 36 (the highest). 

To calculate your raw score on a diagnostic test, give yourself a point for every answer that you get right. Don’t give yourself any points for any answers you get wrong or leave blank, but don’t take any points away, either. There’s no wrong answer penalty on the ACT. 

Once you add up all your points for a section, you can convert them using one of ACT’s scaling charts. Each test is slightly different, so each scaling chart will be a little different from test to test, but it should give you a close estimate. 

Scale ScoreTest 1 EnglishTest 2 MathematicsTest 3 ReadingTest 4 Science

Excerpt from scoring table from the 2022-2023 Preparing for the ACT from

Once you’ve scored each section using the scaling chart, average your four sections. That will give you your composite score. 

What is considered a “good” ACT score?

A good ACT score depends on what your goals are. What schools are you trying to gain admission to? The average ACT score in 2022 was 19.8 – so if you do better than that, you’re doing better than the national average! You can learn about the latest average scores in our post here: Average ACT Scores: The Latest Data

However, better than the national average might not be enough to get you into your target school. You should check out what your target school’s incoming freshmen score on the ACT on average. The average test score at your target school will give you a better idea of what to aim for when taking the ACT. 

To give you an idea, Class of 2025 admits to Harvard had an average ACT score of 34. To learn more about what’s a “good” score on the ACT, check out our post here: Your Guide to a Good ACT Score in 2023

When should I take the ACT?

You should take the ACT at least one year before you plan to enroll in your chosen college or university – so for example, if you’re going to enroll in Fall 2025, you should take the ACT in the fall of 2024 the latest, so that you have the opportunity to possibly take multiple tests before January, when most schools have their deadlines. 

However, many students elect to take the ACT in the spring of their junior year for the first time, so that they have a chance to improve their score if needed. Make sure to keep track of the testing dates for the year, so you have plenty of opportunities to retake the test if you want. 

For a more in-depth guide as to when to take the ACT and sample testing schedules, check out our post When should you take the SAT or ACT

How do I know if I’m ready to take the ACT?

One of the easiest ways to know if you’re ready to take the ACT is to take a diagnostic test. You should take the test under conditions as close to the real test as possible – you should do the test timed, asking a parent or friend to help you if at all possible. 

If you want a guide to proctoring your own test, check out our post here: How to Proctor Your Own ACT Test 

Since one of the challenges of the test is the short amount of time given to answer a lot of questions, it’s important to get a sense of the timing of the test. 

What are some ways to prepare for the ACT?

One of the most important ways to prepare for the ACT: practice, practice, practice! The more you can get familiar with the types of questions you’ll see on testing day, the more likely you’ll snag a higher score. 

Our Step-by-Step Guide to the ACT helps you plan out a study timeline to help you figure out how much time you’ll need to put aside for studying leading up to the test once you’ve set your goal score. Download it for free to begin planning how you’ll prep for this important test!

Try to set aside regular time to do practice problems, especially focusing on practice test questions you struggled with. The ACT website offers from free options for online ACT practice: 

You don’t have to do it all alone, either. Finding a private tutor to help you make a strategic study plan is a great way to find out what concepts and question types you should be focusing on. A private tutor can help you not only make your study plan, they can hold you accountable with homework and study time. If you’re ready to learn more about what services we offer, contact us today: 

We also have a comprehensive guide to preparing for the ACT so that you’ll be your best on test day. You can check it out here: 

What’s the difference between the ACT and the SAT?

You might have asked yourself, should I take the ACT or the SAT? What’s the difference? While schools accept both for admissions, it is important to consider the key differences between both tests and take whatever test plays to your advantages. 

Because the ACT has four separate sections, it’s easier to “bury” a weaker math score, since it will be averaged in among three other sections, whereas on the SAT, the math score will make up 50% of your total score. 

On the other hand, the ACT tests a few advanced math concepts (like matrices and logs) not tested on the SAT. 

The ACT is also a fast-paced test – students will be expected to answer more questions in a shorter amount of time. Some students also find the ACT more straightforward and the questions less ambiguous. 

However, more and more students are choosing to take both tests and see which test they can score higher on. 

To see the ACT and SAT compared in greater detail, check out our post SAT vs ACT.

Next Steps

Only you can decide if taking the ACT is right for you. If you’re looking to score admission into a competitive school, you’ll likely want to take either the SAT or the ACT. Taking one or both of these tests can improve your chances of admission. 

You’ll also need to decide if your strengths are more suited to the SAT or the ACT. (That’s why you should check out our post, SAT vs ACT!) 

And if you do decide to take the ACT, you’re not alone! We can help you prepare for this important test with tutoring services from our highly skilled private tutors. They’ve helped hundreds of students get into the schools of their dreams and conquer standardized tests like the ACT. 

Contact us today to find out more about what we can offer you to help boost your ACT scores and get into the school of your dreams. And don’t forget to download our FREE Step-By-Step Guide to Making an ACT Prep Plan!

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Alexis graduated from Princeton University and holds a Masters in Music from Mannes College. She was a Fulbright scholar to Austria and a research fellow at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York. She is enrolled in a doctoral program at City University New York, where she is on a prestigious Five-Year Fellowship. She has over a decade of subject tutoring and test prep (SSAT / ISEE / SAT / ACT) experience.