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College Resources

Understanding the ACT

What is the ACT?
The ACT is a standardized test used in college admissions. The exam measures skills in four areas: English, reading, science and mathematics. Just shy of three hours (2 hours and 55 minutes to be exact), the ACT consists of 215 multiple choice questions. Additionally, there is an alternate version of the test known as the ACT Plus Writing. As you might have surmised, this version includes an optional writing test. The writing section adds another 30 minutes of testing time. Some colleges require/request a writing score while others do not.  We recommend researching the policies of all of the schools you’re considering.

Who should take the ACT?
College-bound high school juniors and seniors should consider taking the ACT. Most colleges and universities will accept the exam in lieu of the SAT. Learn about the differences between the two exams here: SAT vs. ACT.

When should I take the ACT?
The ACT is offered five times a year between October and June, with a few states offering a test administration in late September as well. Most test-takers will find it beneficial to wait until spring of their junior year before taking the exam as math topics commonly covered in the third year of high school are included on the test. This timing allows students to retake the exam in the fall of their senior year if they desire and still meet most application deadlines.

How do I register for the ACT?
Your high school guidance/college counseling office should have test registration materials available. You can also register online at This website also includes upcoming test dates, registration deadlines, information on fee waiver eligibility and other helpful information.

How is the ACT scored?
Each of the four test areas (English, mathematics, reading, and science) is scored on a scale of 1 to 36, with 36 being the highest possible score. In addition, the four scores are averaged to obtain a single composite score on the same scale. For those taking the ACT Plus Writing, two additional scores will be reported: a writing subscore on a scale of 1 to 12 and a composite English score that is a combination of the writing subscore and the English score (1/3 = essay, 2/3 = English score).

What should I bring to the ACT test site?
Aside from accepted photo id and your admission ticket, you should bring sharpened No. 2 pencils, an eraser, a watch without an alarm and a calculator. The calculator can only be used during the math test and must be of an approved type. Ink pens, mechanical pencils and highlighters are not permitted. For more information, visit the ACT website.

How can I prepare for the exam?
You should approach your test prep thoughtfully and strategically. In other words, don’t simply sit down and complete pages and pages of practice problems. While that might make you more familiar with the test overall, it will only be of minimal help with regards to your problem areas. Instead, take a practice test (preferably timed) and assess your performance. From there, you can easily identify and address your weaknesses. Your preparation should be a mix of reviewing the concepts tested on the exam and practicing questions that test those concepts. There are a variety of free prep materials available on the ACT website and in our Test Prep section, as well as elsewhere on the Internet.

How long should I spend on each question?
If you are aiming for a top score, you’ll want to tackle every question. This means you’ll have about a minute for every math, reading and science question and about 30 seconds for each English question. Of course, these are averages and you’ll find yourself spending more time on certain questions and less time on others. Many test-takers find it helpful to go through each section twice, leaving the more difficult questions for the second pass. Keep in mind - the harder questions aren’t worth any more than the easy questions. 

If I don’t know the answer to some questions, should I guess?
Absolutely YES! Contrary to the SAT (where a quarter of a point is subtracted for wrong answers), there is no guessing penalty on the ACT. If you answer a question incorrectly, you simply don’t get a point. Therefore, guessing can only help your score, not hurt it.



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Don Munce