Standardized tests are an important (sometimes dreaded) part of the college admissions process. It’s a hurdle that students can overcome with the right preparation and support. But what is the ACT and how do you get your best score so you can get into the college of your dreams—and win scholarships in the process? This guide to ACT prep walks you through the details of the test, how to register, when you’ll get your scores, and what to expect!

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?

The ACT is a standardized test used by colleges to make admissions decisions, to make scholarship decisions, and to assess college readiness among students. It consists of four sections—English, math, reading, and science—and 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 (the writing section scores range from 2-12). The test is administered at test locations across the country seven times each year. 

How long is the ACT test? 

The ACT test is 2 hours and 55 minutes. With its ten-minute break, the test takes 3 hours and 5 minutes. During the test, students 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 students sign up for the optional writing exam, a five-minute break is given after Science, prior to the 40-minute writing exam.

How do you register for the ACT test?

Registration for the ACT test takes place on the ACT website. Students will be asked questions about their high school, background, family, and more. They will also be asked for identifying information like name, address, and social security number. Students must provide a photo of themselves that will be verified when they go to their testing site. 

During this process, students also select their testing site and test date. Students can choose up to four colleges to send their scores to (although not required). Later, it costs $13.00 per test date report to send scores to colleges.

How much does the ACT cost?

In 2020, it costs $55 to take the full ACT test without writing. Including the writing portion increases the cost to $70 per test. 

Recently, the ACT announced that students who are on a federal free and reduced lunch program can receive 4 ACT tests at no cost. These students are also eligible to send unlimited score reports to colleges. This makes the ACT an option for all students, no matter their income. 

However, when you consider the amount you can earn in scholarships, taking the ACT multiple times can be worth the time and money. Some states even use the ACT as their state-wide testing adding another option for all students to take the test for free. 

What are the ACT test dates? 

The ACT has tests scheduled throughout the year. The ACT is offered nationally (in most states) every year in September, October, December, February, April, June, and July. You have multiple opportunities to take the test and consistently improve your scores. However in 2020, due to test site closures and rescheduled tests, the ACT offered additional dates. 

While national test dates are an option for students, many schools also offer the test for their students once a year during the school day, typically in states where the ACT is mandated as the required standardized test for students. 

How is the ACT scored?

The short answer is that the ACT is scored on 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 that they do not deduct points for incorrect answers. That means there is no penalty for guessing. So, be sure to fill in one bubble for each question.

From there, the raw scores are converted to scale scores. Those scale scores are used to calculate your composite score. They vary based on the specific test, but here is a sample from the ACT’s website: 

ACT Scale Scores

The composite score is simply the average of your four test scores, rounded to the nearest whole number. Colleges receive your composite score and the four scores from the four sections only for the tests you submit.. This means you should take the test 3 or 4 times because colleges will not see your lower scores. 

What is considered a good ACT score?

According to the most recent data from the ACT, the average score on the ACT test is 20.7. 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 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?

ACT scores are important to colleges for a number of reasons. Ultimately, they offer an objective measure to determine college readiness and class placement. This objective measure 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 are test-optional when it comes to admissions, that doesn’t mean that these scores don’t matter. Test-optional does not mean test-blind. Colleges see the score if it gets submitted, and that score can help you gain admission and win scholarships, as many schools still use ACT scores to determine merit-based scholarships.

In fact, at the University of Chicago, one of the forerunners in test-optional policies, over 90% of their freshmen still submitted test scores as a way of distinguishing themselves beyond their solid GPAs. Taking the test is only truly optional for students looking to pay full price.

What ACT score is needed for college? 

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

While high ACT scores aren’t a necessity for admissions to most community colleges, that doesn’t mean they aren’t important. For community colleges, a score like a 24 can get you merit-based scholarships, decreasing the already low cost of community college. 

Guide to ACT Prep

For larger public universities, the minimum score for admissions is typically between 20-22. For example, at the University of Nebraska, when scores are considered for admission, the minimum ACT score is a 20. The University of Arkansas has the same minimum ACT score of 20.

More selective private or public colleges might have minimum ACT scores much higher than public universities. It’s best to research the university or college you want to attend to see what their average (and minimum) scores are. 

But a quick reminder: the minimum ACT score means you get in but rarely receive merit-based financial aid. Jumping your ACT score can greatly increase your chances of lowering the cost and graduating college with minimal debt.

What ACT scores get scholarships? 

Similar to admissions, the ACT score requirement for scholarships varies based on the school and each year’s applicants. Research the schools you want to attend and see if they have scholarship information on their website. Or contact their admissions office to learn more about the requirements for merit-based scholarships.

In the meantime, work to increase your 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 is made up of four sections consisting of 154 total questions and lasts 3 hours. 

Composite scores range from 400-1600, with SAT essay scores reported in 3 dimensions, of 2-8 each. The SAT was significantly reformatted in March 2016, and, while the content is generally more challenging that the ACT, more time is given per question.

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

SAT scores compared to ACT

While some states mandate one test over the other, all colleges accept both exams. For many students, it makes sense to take both tests and see which might be right for you. Consider your skill set, and, after taking both, decide where to invest your time and effort.

When will I get my ACT scores?

According to the ACT, multiple choice scores from the ACT are typically available within two weeks of the test dates. In some situations they 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, it might mean a few different things: 

  • Your information on the test admission ticket didn’t match the information on your answer sheet 
  • Answer documents came late from a test center
  • There was incomplete or inaccurate test form information
  • You owe registration fees
  • An irregularity is 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 up to four colleges to send your scores to, included in your registration fee. However, you will not be able to see your scores before they are sent to these colleges.

If you choose to send your scores to additional colleges after you’ve taken the test, you can request score reports from the ACT. It costs $13.00 per test date report (unless you are requesting scores from before 2017). 

Guide to ACT Prep

Students enrolled in federal free or reduced-price lunch programs can send their score reports to up to six colleges at the time of registration and then receive unlimited regular score reports for free.

How can you improve your ACT score?

Now that you know all about the ACT, how can you improve your ACT score? Two ways: effective preparation and lots of practice. 

Effective preparation

Not all ACT prep is created equal. Some offer flashy guarantees and tricks they say will work for any student. Others give you an overwhelming curriculum covering every topic that could be on the test. And some ACT test prep books are just plain boring. 

Find ACT prep (like OnToCollege) that is fun and engaging while still being efficient and effective. There are strategies to learn that can help you take the test, but more information isn’t always the solution.

Consistent practice

It’s one thing to learn about the content on the ACT. It’s another to practice taking the test. When you actually take the test, you learn how to manage your time and energy. As you study for the ACT, use actual ACT practice tests to learn the format of the questions and see how you can improve your score. But even practice tests can’t fully prepare you for the actual test. That’s why it’s important to take the ACT test multiple times. We typically recommend students take it four times: twice your junior year and twice your senior year. 

This helps you get a feel for the test and earn your best possible score!

Ready for ACT prep? 

As you prepare for the ACT, remember that it’s not a judgment but a vehicle to help you get into the best college for you, at the lowest cost. 

Learn more about the test and put what you’ve learned into action. With hard work and effective ACT prep, you can increase your ACT score.