Standardized tests are an important (sometimes dreaded) part of the college admissions process.  Standardized tests like the ACT are important, not just for college admissions, but also to minimize future college debt by increasing the scholarships and financial aid you earn. But what is the ACT and how do you prepare to increase your score?  Learn the basics of the ACT, how to register, how scores are calculated, and how to increase your score.

Keep reading and do what you can to jump your score and invest in the best-paying job a high school student can have. 

What is the ACT test?

Colleges use the ACT as a standardized test to make admissions and scholarship decisions, and assess college readiness among students. The ACT includes four sections—English, Math, Reading, and Science—plus an optional Writing section.

The test is multiple choice with specified time limits for each section. It has a total of 215 questions, with a composite score range from 1-36 (writing section scores range from 2-12). You can take the test at locations across the country seven times each year. Some high schools also offer the test during the school day.

How long is the ACT test? 

The ACT test is 2 hours and 55 minutes. With a ten-minute break, the test takes 3 hours and 5 minutes. During the test, you have 45 minutes for the English section, 60 minutes for the Math section, a 10-minute break, 35 minutes for the Reading section, and 35 minutes for the Science section. If you take the optional writing exam, you’ll  have a five-minute break after Science.

How do you register for the ACT test?

Register for the ACT test on the ACT website. Answer questions about your high school, background, family, and provide identifying information such as your name, address, and social security number. Upload your photo to be verified when you arrive at  the test site. Note: ACT is piloting online testing in December 2023. You may need to choose “paper” as your testing option to see available test centers in fall 2023.

During this process, you also select a test site and test date. You can choose up to four colleges to send their scores to (although not required). Later, you’ll pay $18.50 per test date report to send scores to each college.


How much does the ACT cost?

In 2023-24, you’ll pay $68 to take the full ACT test without writing. Including the writing portion increases the cost to $93 per test.

But, if you are on a federal free and reduced lunch program, you can receive 4 ACT tests at no cost. You are also eligible to send unlimited score reports to colleges.

Even for $68 each try, taking the ACT multiple times can be worth your time and money. In addition, some states use the ACT as their state-wide testing which adds another potential option for you to take the test for free.

When are the ACT test dates? 

The ACT schedules tests nationally (in most states) each year in September, October, December, February, April, June, and July. Therefore, you have multiple opportunities to take the test and improve your scores.

Many schools also offer the test to their students once a year during the school day, typically in states where the ACT is mandated as the required standardized test.

How is the ACT scored?

The ACT uses a scale from 1-36. But it gets a little more complicated when it comes to how that score is calculated.

First, the ACT counts the number of questions on each section that were answered correctly. It’s important to note the ACT does not deduct points for incorrect answers. So, there is no penalty for guessing. Be sure to fill in one bubble for each question.

Next, ACT converts the raw scores to scale scores,  then uses these to calculate your composite score. ACT scores vary based on the specific test, but here is a sample from the ACT website:

ACT Scale Scores

The composite score is the average of your four section test scores rounded to the nearest whole number. Colleges receive your composite score and the scores from the four sections only for the tests you submit.

What is a good ACT score?

According to the most recent data from the ACT, the average score on the ACT test is 19.5. However, what’s considered a good ACT score depends on each student and their goals.

A good score for the ACT varies based on the college or university you want to attend. A 33 might get you a full-ride scholarship at a large public university but isn’t a guarantee you’ll get admitted to an Ivy League school.

Start by researching the colleges you are interested in attending. Many include average and minimum ACT scores on their websites and in their admission criteria. Next, look at their scholarships, and see what score you need to make that college affordable for you.

Ultimately, don’t just settle for a good score: work toward your best score! Challenge yourself, and study hard for the test. You might surprise yourself and get a better score than you thought you could.

How important are ACT scores for college?

Colleges use ACT scores for a number of reasons. Ultimately, they offer an objective measure to determine college readiness and class placement. This helps colleges to:

  1. Determine which students get admitted.
  2. Determine which students get merit-based scholarships (many college scholarship grids consider test scores combined with high school cumulative GPA).
  3. Place students in classes (ACT or SAT scores are one way to waive out of remedial classes).

Some colleges have test-optional admissions, but that doesn’t mean that scores don’t matter. Test-optional does not mean test-blind. Colleges see your score if it you submit it, and that score can help gain admission and win scholarships. Many test-optional schools still use ACT scores to determine merit-based scholarships.

At the University of Chicago, over 80% of freshmen still submit test scores to distinguish themselves beyond their solid GPAs. Taking the test is only truly optional for students unconcerned about admission AND looking to pay full price.

What ACT score is needed for college? 

The average ACT score varies based on the college, primarily the type of school you want to attend.

While high ACT scores aren’t a necessity for admissions to most community colleges, they are still important. For community colleges, a score of 19-23 can get you merit-based scholarships, decreasing the already low cost of community college.

For larger public universities, the minimum score for admissions is typically 20-22.

However, more selective private or public colleges may have minimum ACT scores much higher than public universities. Research the university or college you want to attend to see what their average (and minimum) scores are.

Also, while a minimum ACT score may earn you admission,  rarely will it earn you merit-based financial aid. Jumping your ACT score can lower your college costs and help you graduate college with minimal debt.

What ACT scores are needed for scholarships? 

Similar to admissions, the ACT score requirement of scholarships varies by school. Research the scholarship and financial aid websites of the schools you want to attend. Or contact their admissions offices to learn more about the requirements for merit-based scholarships.

In the meantime, work to increase your test score and become eligible for more merit-based and private scholarships, as well as more generous need-based aid.

How do SAT scores compare to ACT?

The SAT test has four sections consisting of 154 total questions and lasts 3 hours. The SAT was significantly reformatted in March 2016, and, while the content is generally more challenging than the ACT, more time is given per question. The Digital SAT will launch in March 2024 and will require a new comparison chart.

ACT scores range from 1-36 while SAT scores range from 400-1600. While it’s not always a perfect gauge, here is a chart to help you see how your score on one test may compare to the other.

SAT scores compared to ACT

All colleges accept both the ACT and SAT, so try both, then decide where to focus your effort. The SAT has two Math sections compared to only one for the ACT. The ACT, however, has a Science and Data Interpretation section. In general, the content on the SAT is more challenging, but more time is given per question, compared to the ACT. The most important thing is to take either test multiple times. Improve your scores through practice.

While some states mandate one test over the other, all colleges accept both exams. Thus, you could take both tests one time, and then focus on your preferred test, taking it three more times. Consider your results and decide where to invest your time and effort.

When do you receive your ACT scores?

The ACT typically releases scores within 10 days of the test date but can take up to eight weeks. Writing scores are typically available within four weeks.

When your scores are available, they are posted online to your ACT account. If you haven’t received your scores in this timeframe, consider these factors.

  • Your information on the test admission ticket didn’t match the information on your answer sheet
  • Answer documents came late from a test center
  • You may have submitted incomplete or inaccurate test form information
  • You owe registration fees
  • An irregularity was reported at your testing center

Keep an eye out for your scores based on the ACT timeline.

How much does it cost to send ACT scores?

When you register for the ACT, you can choose to send your scores to up to four colleges. However, you will not be able to see your scores before they are sent.

Or, you can wait to send your scores to  colleges after you’ve taken the test. However, these score reports will cost you $18.50  per test date report, per college.

If you are enrolled in federal free or reduced-price lunch programs, you can send your score reports to as many colleges as you wish for free. You can also take four ACT tests for free.