The ACT is one of several college preparatory exams that future college and graduate students are required to take before they are officially admitted to a college or university.
This particular exam consists of several shorter tests that focus on different areas of knowledge in math, English, reading, writing, and science. Each of these tests is designed to measure the knowledge you’ve acquired in each area.
For instance, the science section covers all scientific functions, such as interpretation, analysis, reasoning, evaluation, and problem-solving. You will be tested in areas such as Earth/space sciences, biology, physics, and chemistry. Reading tests your ability to comprehend material you will usually encounter in your first year of college. The math portion measures the skills you have acquired in 12 years of schooling. The English portion tests your understanding of English and knowledge of language and writing/grammar skills.
Resources for Before and After College
ACT vs. SAT
While both exams are college prep exams, their similarity ends there. In 2016, the SAT was revised in a major way, making it look similar to the ACT exam’s format.
However, the math and science sections are noticeably different. In the SAT, you’ll see a heavier focus on trigonometry and geometry. In the ACT, you can use a calculator for all sections of the math portion; in the SAT, one section requires you to calculate your equations without a calculator.
The largest difference between the two exams is the scoring range. The ACT scores just an average of each section, with your score falling between 1 and 36. The SAT will assign a score for each section. These scores range from 200 to 400, with a total score ranging from 400 up to 1600.
Register to Take the Test
If you are younger than 13, or you cannot pay for your registration fee using a credit card, you should register by mail; this will be the only way you can register for this exam.
If you are older than 13 and will be using a credit card in your registration, you should create an online account with the ACT testing organization. Online registration takes about 40 minutes; this will require internet access, your high school course details, and a headshot photo (your yearbook photo will suffice).
You’ll also provide a parent’s email address and notification of any accommodations you need.
What Does the ACT Cost?
Your location affects how much you’ll pay for your ACT registration. Also, if you plan to take the writing portion, this will impact the final cost. In the U.S., with no writing test, you will pay $50; with the writing exam, you will pay $67. If you are not in the U.S. and you won’t be taking the writing exam, you will pay $150; if you will be taking the writing exam, your cost will be $166.50.
What Score do You Want?
You probably have a final score in mind. Once you get your scores back, you hope to score at or very close to 36. However, a couple factors enter in here. First, you will receive a composite score that shows how well you scored in comparison to other students who have taken the ACT. If your score is in a higher percentage, say 60%, this means you did better than 60% of the students who took the exam. If you have an ACT score of 26, you scored higher than 82% of other students taking this exam.
Second, you want a score that’s high enough to help you get into the colleges of your choice. Some state colleges are more competitive than others. Therefore, you want your composite score to be a little higher than it is for other students competing to get into the same school.
As an example, the University of Rhode Island takes several factors into consideration. One is the rigor of your high school curriculum; the second, your ACT composite score. Depending on the program you want to enter, you should have sufficient high school credits that indicate you already have the basics. If your high school GPA is lower than you’d like, then a higher ACT score helps to offset this. However, if you want to get into a prestigious Ivy League school, your numbers across the board should be as high as you have the potential to achieve.
Knowing What to Study
When you are studying for your ACT, do so in an orderly way. Take each subject area and study it separately. Subject areas include English, math, reading, science, and writing. Your study sessions will be much more productive if you use study guides, which are available in different areas.
For English, you’ll review and study the elements of writing. Pay attention to the writing styles used in each passage. For math, read and understand each question. Use your calculator only when needed, solve the problem. In reading, read each passage completely. Then, read each of the answer choices and choose the one that best answers the question. For science, read each question and refer to the scientific information found in each passage. Consider each answer choice and choose the one that best answers the question.
In practice testing, you’ll want to make sure you are studying in a situation as close to the actual testing situation as you can. This might mean setting up a desk somewhere in your home with no distractions, or using a room at the public library to give you a sense of what it will be like to take the test outside your home, in an unknown location. You should also consider using a digital timer set to chime five minutes before the section ends, so you get used to verbal reminders from the proctor and get a feel for how much time you actually have for each section.
Retaking the Test
The ACT site said that you can take this exam up to, but no more than 12 times total. If you do take the ACT 12 times, then ACT will give you an exception for state and district testing that is required by your district or your state Department of Education.
If you submit a Retest Exception Request Form by no later than the regular registration deadline for the test date that you want to use for your 13th test date, then other exceptions will be considered. If you do take the ACT more than once, all of your scores from one test date will be reported. In this case, you’ll need to designate a whole test record to be reported.
Accommodations for Those with Disabilities
If you are a student in an English as a Second Language (ESL) class, you may qualify for an accommodation that will allow you to do your best in this exam. If you suffer from a disability that has been documented by your school district and school, you may also qualify to request an accommodation for testing. You must be currently receiving accommodations in your high school because of a professionally diagnosed and documented disability. An ACT Policy for Accommodation Documentation will help you as you work through the process of requesting accommodations for testing.
Once you begin the registration process, you should indicate the need for English learner supports or accommodations. Just choose the type of accommodation or English learner supports needed. Then, you will receive an email from ACT about working with your school to submit a request. You have to forward this email to your school official, with a completed Consent to Release Information to ACT.
Next, your school submits your request to ACT, who will review your request and send a Decision Notification to the school official who helped you. Expect to get a request back from your school official within two weeks of submitting your special request. Make sure that your school official submits an accommodation or EL supports request, including any appeals, by the published late registration deadlines for the test date that you prefer.
ACT Study Guide Resources
You are probably comfortable and used to downloading and using mobile apps for fun. Use this as a resource to practice for your ACT. You and your parents will be able to find several of the study and practice apps on different platforms, such as iOS and/or Android. As you explore each app, make note of which ones provide what you need. These apps should be free, making it easier for you to gain access to the material you need.
CoCo E-Learning (Android) ACT Practice Test 2018
This is said to be one of the best-rated preparation apps you can find in the Google Play store. It is pre-loaded with different levels of practice on each subject you find in the ACT. This practice test allows you to keep track of each right and wrong answer; when you finish a practice test, you can go back and find the ones you answered incorrectly. You’ll also have access to a Test Simulator.
Ready4 ACT (Android and iOS)
This downloadable app allows you to create a roadmap so you can move through each section, using a topic page. This helps you to get ready for the questions that follow. You’ll also be able to find tutors, answer a Question of the Day, and use a School Matcher tab, inputting some basic information and preferences, so you can find schools that meet your needs.
Varsity Tutors LLC ACT: Practice, Prep Flashcards
You’ll find this app on iOS and Android. It contains several features, including the flashcards you can use to study. You can also practice test-taking and use the diagnostic tests on the app. If you need to find a tutor, this app enables you to do so. The tutor can be specific to the exam or specific to any subject in which you need additional support.
ACT Online Prep Technology
This app, found on the ACT website, is available on iOS and Android. The app is free when you order the ACT Online Prep. You’ll be able to take practice tests and questions, which have been taken from previous versions of the ACT.
Allen Resources, Inc. - ACT TestBank
This app is available for iOS systems. ACT TestBank allows you to study on-the-go for your ACT. You’ll be able to track your progress, so you see where you’ve improved and where you still need to do more work. The app is free at iTunes for download. If you want to access practice problems, though, you’ll have to buy them.
ACT Practice Tests
Khan Academy has paired with the College Board, which created the SAT. Both companies produce free test materials for the SAT only. Even though the test materials are geared only for the SAT, you could still use them for your ACT-specific studying. Because both the SAT and the ACT test you on similar subjects, you’ll be able to take your practice tests. This practice material covers material tested in the ACT (parts of speech and grammar).
The huge overlap between the SAT and ACT lets you cover similar material. Ever since the SAT had its major overhaul, the test prep materials have become much easier to use as you prepare for your exam. The SAT tests your critical reading, language, science, math, and writing skills, some of which are also in the ACT. While the questions won’t be the same as those in the ACT, they are now much more similar.
ACT Prep Courses and Study Groups
The ACT Academy is free and online so you can cover test prep, study sessions, and take practice tests. You’ll have interactive practice questions, video lessons, full-length practice tests, educational games, and other helpful materials to use.
An in-person prep class, which will involve you and a small group of students, is taught by an instructor who will help you to stay accountable. You’ll get in-class practice and homework.
Tutors can give you individualized attention as you prepare for your test. Your tutor can give you immediate feedback and help to customize your lessons for your learning style and needs. If you need help with one section, you’ll focus on that. This is the most flexible option for your needs.
Sometimes, you need a personal ACT tutor. Whether in-person or online, this professional will guide you through the preparation process for your exam.
- Caring tutors who work on an individualized study plan with students
- Flexible tutoring packages
- Access to a live, online classroom prep courses
- Exams with score analysis that point out areas for improvement
- Prep books to supplement private tutoring
- Practice questions to help your confidence level
Tips for Studying
The ACT will probably be the biggest exam you’ll ever take, not including entrance exams for graduate school. Still, this needn’t scare you. You can develop several strategies that will help you to feel more confident that you’ll earn a good score on test day.
Familiarize yourself with test content. Go over the information in the official ACT “Preparing for the ACT” booklet. Every exam covers English, Math, Writing (optional), Science, and Reading. You’ll have to answer a different number of questions in each section, with 40 to 60 minutes per section. The ACT is predictable, in that it tests a set number of concepts. In those concepts, you’ll see different topics being repeated throughout your test.
Bring your knowledge and skills up to date in the different content areas. Review, review, review. Study old material and refresh your knowledge in each content area. Each area will make up large sections of the entire exam. If you have text books in these content areas, go through them, focusing on math and grammar. As you are studying these areas, test your new knowledge. Write out a few practice questions and measure your progress.
Review (and re-review) content areas you aren’t sure of. If you can, take coursework in those areas before you’re scheduled to take the test. The most frequently tested areas are English and math. Focus on algebra, grammar, trigonometry, and geometry. The questions are predictable, so if you focus on these areas, you should do well. Study each content area as broadly as you can, because you’ll see questions in those areas coming up several times.
Buy two or more reputable ACT study books. Companies such as McGraw-Hill and Kaplan will be able to provide you with the books you need to round out your studies. As you are looking for your books, focus on finding those with supplemental areas that help you to study and prep more efficiently. If they have practice tests, all the better. You will also be able to find materials you need on the ACT website; the ACT Official Guide is an excellent source.
Learn to think the way test-makers think. Try to figure out what they “prefer” in the answers you choose. Economy of language, or “short and sweet” answers, in the English area are something they want. At times, you will be just guessing, but if you read between the lines of your study guide, you’ll figure it out. Order the ACT eBook, which is free.
Figure out your weaknesses, then focus on them. If you are not very strong in math, or you are a slow reader, you can work on these areas before test day. During every practice session, focus on making these weak areas stronger, so you have a better chance of passing the test with a high score. Also, take practice tests so you can pinpoint the areas where you need to work harder and where you are improving.
Register early, then plan a study schedule that doesn’t add unneeded stress. Ideally, you should register at least three months before you want to take your test. At the same time, determine how much studying you need to do so you can create a schedule that allows you to review and learn what you need. (If you are still in school, you still have to leave time to do regular homework assignments.) Decide how much time you can reasonably study each week. If you know you can only devote between 25 and 45 minutes daily to study, then it’s better to know this ahead of time.
Day of the Test Tips
Break test day down into four parts:
- Before you leave home
- Arriving at the test center
- During the test
- After the test
Write down any formulas or information that you particularly want to remember during the test. You’ll bring this with you to the testing center and review it.
Eat breakfast—a nourished body and brain function better in stressful times and when you are thinking.
Choose your outfit carefully. Wear something comfortable and warm enough—the test center may be cold.
Do everything in the morning that you normally do. You don’t want to make any more decisions than necessary. If you have a standardized testing ritual, stick to it. Your favorite song, wearing a good luck charm - do anything that helps you feel more confident.
What to Bring
- Test ticket — This helps identify you and allows you to receive you test score sooner. Print your ticket out. You must have it with you when you present yourself for your test.
- Photo ID — Your driver’s license, school photo ID, or any valid ID that has been issued by a city, state, or federal government agency will be acceptable. Your first and last names should match your test ticket.
- Sharpened Number 2 pencils with good erasers — Wood pencils only, no mechanical pencils. Do not bring a pen, because you won’t be allowed to use it.
- Watch — Use it to pace yourself. The watch should not have an alarm. If it sounds during testing, you may be dismissed from the test and your answers won’t be scored.
- Approved calculator — Figure out which calculators are permitted and get used to using one of them.
- Snacks — You’ll need to nourish yourself during test breaks.
- A backpack to store everything.
Finish studying the night before your test. Study enough to feel confident that you know the material, but don’t over study. Give yourself time between studying and testing to relax and decompress. If you need to remember a formula, write it down and look at it on your way to testing. You can’t use the paper during the exam.
Go to sleep early and get as much sleep as you can. You need to be alert and fully awake during your test. Aim for at least eight hours of sleep, adding in the time you need to actually fall asleep. If you are worried about getting enough sleep, plan out when you need to get up and count your sleep cycles backwards. This will tell you when you need to get to bed.
If you realize you have questions before the test begins, review the sheet of paper where you wrote down different answers and formulae. You shouldn’t strain, trying to remember the information you’re worried about.