What Is the ACT Test?

Stacy Zeiger
girl taking a test

Every year over 1.5 million students take the ACT. Students spend hundreds of dollars on test prep materials and numerous hours studying, hoping to get the elusive perfect score of 36. Of course, according to the ACT, less than one-tenth of one percent of students who take the test earn a perfect score, but many students earn a score strong enough to get them into their top choice school.

About the ACT

Unlike its counterpart, the SAT, the ACT does not measure reasoning and problem-solving skills. Instead, it tests a student's general knowledge, focusing on the skills a child should have learned in high school. Included on the 2 hour, 55 minute test are sections in English, math, reading and science. Students who opt to take the ACT Plus Writing exam have an additional 30 minutes. Also unlike the SAT, there is no penalty for answering any of the 215 questions incorrectly.

Registering for the Test

You must start thinking about when you want to take the ACT a few months before you plan to take the test. Not only must you register for the test at least a month in advance, but you must also make sure you will receive your results in time to include them with your college applications. The ACT is given six times a year in September, October, December, February, April and June. Most students take the ACT for the first time during the spring of their junior year in high school. Since this is a popular time for students to take the exam, test centers for the April test date can fill up quickly.

How to Register

Registration for the ACT may be completed online and online registration is the preferred method. Those who are younger than 13, or who do not have a credit card also have the option of registering by mail. When you register for the test, you must also pay the registration fee. Students whose families face economic hardship may register for a fee waiver through their high school counselor and will follow specific directions for using the waiver when registering online.

A simple search engine is available to help you find where the test is being offered near you. If your preferred testing center is full, the ACT system will automatically register you for the nearest testing center or you may register for standby testing. A late registration option is also available for an additional fee. Whatever test you register for, make sure you can make your test date because your fees are non-refundable and there is an additional fee for changing your test date or test site.

Preparing for the Test

Since the ACT tests general knowledge, one of the best things you can do to prepare for the test is to pay attention in your high school courses. However, you can also take steps to familiarize yourself with the format of the test, and make sure you are able to complete the test in the required time frame. Multiple companies will "guarantee" an above average score if you pay for their test prep services, and the bookstore is full of study guides and other ACT prep materials you can use to help learn about the test.

  • Kaplan is one of the many companies that offers ACT study courses for high school students seeking to improve their scores. Kaplan Test Prep options include classroom courses, online instruction, private tutoring, books, and software. Kaplan also offers a money-back higher score guarantee.
  • Sylvan Learning Center is another extremely popular ACT preparation service. Sylvan courses teach students how to break down difficult questions into easy-to-understand problems.
  • Cracking the ACT from the Princeton Review comes with three full-length practice exams, strategies for simplifying math questions and additional online review lessons.
  • The Real ACT is the official ACT test prep guide and features descriptions of the types of questions found on the exam and five previously administered exams to practice with.
  • Barron's ACT Flashcards do more than simply offer sample questions, they also provide step-by-step information on how to answer each type of question and tips for each section of the test.

Preparing for Free

If you cannot afford test prep classes or materials, there is a lot you can do for free. The ACT posts a free test question every day and offers a free guide called Preparing for the ACT, which contains an overview of each section of the exam, tips for taking the test and sample test questions. Ultimately, the best thing you can do to prepare is to practice answering as many questions as possible. Reputable organizations such as The Princeton Review, Peterson's and McGraw-Hill offer free practice tests online.

Taking the Test

The day before the test, get a good night's sleep and be prepared to get up early. You are required to report at 8 a.m. to take the test and may not be allowed to take the test if you show up late. You must bring the following with you on the day of the test:

  • A printed copy of your ticket
  • A photo ID
  • Number two pencils
  • An acceptable calculator

When you take the test, it's important not to stress. Focus on the preparation you did for the test and have confidence in your ability to do well. You may also want to remember to:

  • Read the instructions for every section
  • Be sure to read all questions thoroughly
  • Answer all questions since there is no penalty for guessing
  • If you have extra time, be sure to check your answers
  • Make sure all answers are completely bubbled in

Importance of the ACT Test

While all four-year colleges in the United States accept scores from the ACT, not all schools require the results of the ACT for admission. Those that do, however, use the scores to help make admissions decisions. Whatever your school requires, if you submit your ACT score along with your college application, it will be used to help determine whether you should be admitted or not. Your ACT score may also be used to help place you in the appropriate freshman courses and develop academic plans. If you plan to apply for financial aid, your ACT test score will also help determine which scholarships you are eligible to receive.

What Is a Good Score?

A good score on the ACT depends on the colleges you are applying to. For 2012, the average score of test-takers was a 21. The higher your score is compared to the national average, the more likely your chance of being accepted to the college of your choice. However, because your score is an average of your four subject area scores, if you scored extremely high in three areas and bombed the fourth area, a college may be more forgiving of a lower score. It's also important to remember that if you don't get the score you want the first time, you can take the test again, although you will have to go through the registration and pay for the test again. Of those who take the test more than once, 55 percent succeed in increasing their composite score after the second exam.

Don't Stress

With so much riding on your ACT scores, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed by the test. However, the more you stress, the less likely you are to do well. If you take the time to review the components of the test and become familiar with the test by taking as many practice tests as possible, you can be confident in your ability to perform on the test.

What Is the ACT Test?