Each year, high school upperclassmen around the country take exams as part of the college application process. While the SAT is the oldest such exam still in existence, the ACT has recently gained a lot of traction. In 2015, 1.92 million students took the ACT, (compared to the 1.7 million who took the SAT). If you decide to take the ACT, learn about its structure, registration requirements, and score reporting ahead of time. After all, part of acing the test is understanding its components.


What is the ACT?

The ACT is a college entrance exam consisting of four timed sections totaling two hours and 55 minutes. There are a total of 215 multiple-choice questions over science, math, reading, and English. An additional writing section is optional, adding 40 minutes to the overall testing time. Each section is scored from 1-36. The four section scores are then averaged into a composite score. Colleges will use your ACT score to compare you to other applicants.

Section Subsection Length
English
  • Usage/mechanics
  • Rhetorical skills
45 minutes to answer 75 questions
Math
  • Pre-algebra and elementary algebra
  • Intermediate algebra and coordinate geometry
  • Plane geometry and trigonometry (25-35%)
60 minutes to answer 60 questions
Reading
  • Literary narrative or prose fiction
  • Humanities
  • Social studies
  • Natural sciences
35 minutes to answer 40 questions
Science
  • Interpretation analysis, evaluation, reasoning, and problem-solving in biology, earth and space science, chemistry, and physics
  • Data representation
  • Research summaries
  • Conflicting viewpoints
35 minutes to answer 40 questions
Writing (optional) 40 minutes to respond to one prompt

When should I plan to take the ACT?

If you can, take the ACT for the first time early (January or February) in the spring semester of your junior year. This gives you plenty of time to address your weaknesses, if need be, before retesting in the following summer or fall. Your actual timeline depends on the admissions deadlines for your chosen schools, however. Early admissions applicants cannot take the ACT after October if they want their applications to arrive on time. The last time that regular decision applicants can take the test is in December. When you are planning for your test, think about your own coursework and pick the month that is the least busy for you.

Is it problematic to take the test multiple times?

Taking the ACT more than once is not a problem. In fact, your score might improve the second time. Many schools encourage students to test more than once by allowing them to submit their “superscores.” A superscore is a test score calculated by adding the highest score you earned in each section together, even if not all of your highest scores were from the same test date. That being said, it isn’t wise to take a college entrance exam just for the fun of it. First of all, they are costly. Second, there are a few schools out there that do not participate in superscoring. Instead, they require “all score reports,” which show all of your scores from every date of testing. Minimize your risk of having a less-than-exceptional score on your report by studying for the test and preparing ahead of time.

How do I register for the ACT and how much does it cost?

You can register for the ACT at www.actstudent.org after creating an ACT Student account. Plan to register at least five weeks before your preferred test date. The test fee for the ACT with writing is $56.50, ($39.50 without writing). If you register after the regular deadline, you will have to pay late fees. Check your school’s admissions requirements to see if they require the writing section. Your scores will be reported to your choice of four colleges for free.

Are there fee waivers for the test?

Some students may qualify for fee waivers that cover the cost of the ACT. If you are eligible, you may take the ACT twice free of charge. Your guidance counselor or an authorized organization can help you with a waiver if you meet the following requirements:

  • You are enrolled in or eligible to participate in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).
  • Your family’s annual income is within the Income Eligibility Guidelines set by the USDA Food and Nutrition Service.
  • You are enrolled in a federal, state, or local program that helps students from low-income families (for example, Federal TRIO programs, such as Upward Bound).
  • Your family receives public assistance.
  • You live in federally subsidized public housing or a foster home.
  • You are homeless.
  • You are a ward of the state or an orphan.

If any of the above describes you, refer to additional information about ACT fee waivers.

How do I request standby testing for the ACT?

If you missed late registration or need to change your test date or test center, you can request standby at a testing center up to eight days before a test. You must pay an additional standby fee, provide approved photo identification, and bring your standby receipt to the testing center on test day. You are not guaranteed a seat for the test. You will be admitted on a first-come, first-served basis after the check-in period for registered students ends. For more information, visit the ACT’s Standby Testing page.

How do I request extra time or accommodations for the ACT if I have a disability?

If you require a 50% time extension due to your disability, view the ACT’s National Extended Time page to understand the additional procedures required for registration. If you require a wheelchair accessible room, a booklet with large font, food or drink due to a medical condition, assistance marking answers, a seat close to the front of the room, a sign language interpreter, or any other accommodations for test day, visit the ACT’s National Standard Time Accommodations page for registration information.

How do I register for a non-Saturday ACT date?

If your religious beliefs prevent you from testing on Saturdays, you will find non-Saturday test dates after you create your ACT Student account and search for testing centers near you. To ensure that non-Saturday dates are visible, you will need to select “Show non-Saturday test centers” in your search criteria. Click the link provided for the non-Saturday date to learn about the registration procedure. If there are no non-Saturday testing centers within 75 minutes of your home, please see the question below.

How do I register for an arranged ACT?

If your religious beliefs prevent you from taking the ACT on Saturday and there are no non-Saturday test centers within 75 minutes of your house, you may qualify for an arranged test. In addition, any students living in the United States, Canada, or Puerto Rico who do not have an ACT test center within 75 minutes of their home; students who are homebound, confined, or in a correctional facility; or students living in a country without any ACT test centers can request an arranged test time. Accommodations for students with disabilities are not available for arranged tests. For more information, view the Policies for ACT Arranged Testing 2016-2017.

Should I study for the ACT?

It is wise to study for the ACT. Doing so can increase your confidence, decrease your anxiety, and prepare you for the format of the test. Not only must you know your material, but you must also know strategies for managing your time and venturing good guesses. Some students take test prep courses or consult with tutors. Others choose the less expensive route of studying on their own with prep books or online practice questions.

What do I bring to the test with me?

  • A print-off of your testing ticket
  • A valid government-issued or school ID (if it is a hard plastic card; paper IDs are not accepted) with your full name and picture. If you do not have either of these IDs, you can use the ACT Student Identification Form. It must be filled out, and your photo must be attached. A school or government official must notarize the document.
  • Two #2 pencils (no mechanical ones)
  • An effective eraser
  • A calculator approved by the ACT
  • Extra batteries
  • A watch with the alarm on silent (suggested)
  • Extra clothing layers (suggested)

If you want to bring a healthy snack or water bottle, note that you cannot take any food or beverages into the test room. The testing site may have lockers, or you may decide to leave these items in your car and access them on your break.

What do I do the night before and morning of my test?

For advice on how to prepare yourself for test day, read this Student Caffé blog.

How soon are scores available?

ACT scores are available for online viewing within two weeks of your test date, but official reports for colleges will take three to eight weeks (five to eight weeks if the essay is included).

How are scores sent to schools?

When you register for the ACT, you can pick up to four schools to which your scores will be sent free of charge. You will have until noon CST on the Thursday after your test to make changes to your college choices through your ACT Student account. If you wish to send your scores to more schools, you can do so for a fee through the ACT site.

If you are planning on taking the ACT more than once, it is not always a good idea to use your free score reports. This is because some colleges may allow you to select which test scores you would like them to consider. If you took the test during the spring of your junior year and again during the fall of your senior year, for example, you may have scored higher in certain sections on different test dates. Score Choice allows you to pick and choose which scores you would like your prospective colleges to see. You cannot participate in Score Choice if you use your four free score reports; these reports are automatically sent to the specified school as soon as your scores become available. These schools, then, will see your scores for your most recent test as soon as you do, and your most recent scores are not necessarily your highest scores. However, it is important to note that you should absolutely use your four free reports if you are cutting it close to an application deadline or if a school requires that you submit all of your scores. In these cases, submitting all of your scores will be the cheapest and quickest option for you.

If you do not use of your free score reports or decide to send your scores to more than four scores, there is a $12.00 fee for every additional school. If you need to rush the score report, the fee is $16.50.

Do all schools require students to submit their ACT scores?

Most school require students to submit scores from a college entrance exam, but some schools are now test optional. For a full list of “test optional” and “test flexible” schools, click here.

Do I need to submit score reports from all test days to schools?

The answer depends. To find out what your school requires, you need to check its website or contact the admissions office. Some schools ask that you submit just one score report from one date of testing. Others want to see all of your scores. That way, they can tell if you improved over time. Often, these schools will consider your superscore, meaning that they look at the highest score you earned in each section, no matter the test date. Say, for example, you earned a 25 in science and 27s in math, English, and reading the first time you took the ACT. When you retook it, your science score jumped to a 28, but the rest of your scores fell. If a school considers your superscore, it will look at the 28 in science and the 27s in the other subjects.

How do I choose the ACT scores I want to submit to a school?

The ACT requires applicants to choose which test date scores they would like to send to schools. Each report costs $12.00. If you are applying to a college that expects to see scores from every day of testing, you will need to pay to send each report. For example, if you are applying to a selective school like Yale that requires all score reports and you took the ACT four times, you will have to pay $48.00. If you do not have to send all your test reports and your school does not superscore, make sure you select your highest composite score to send. While you will still receive your four free score reports for each test date, if you choose to wait and see your results before you send them to schools, you will be required to pay.

How do I use my score reports to determine my chances of acceptance at a particular college?

Most schools brag about their most recent incoming freshman classes on their websites. They mention the cohort’s average test scores, usually giving the 25th, 50th, and 75th percentile range for both the SAT and the ACT. Look for these numbers. Did you score higher than the 25th percentile? That means that your score was higher than a quarter of the students’ who were admitted last year. Your chances of acceptance go up if you scored higher than the 50th percentile. That being said, colleges look at much more than test scores. They are looking for competitive applicants. Even if your scores are low, you can emphasize your other talents by participating in extracurricular activities, having strong recommendation letters, and taking difficult classes.

What is the national average for the ACT?

The average composite ACT score is a 21.

How long does it take for colleges to receive scores after the order has been placed?

It usually takes less than a week for schools to receive your scores, but processing isn’t always immediate. Your college may need another week to add them to your admissions profile. If you are concerned, you might want an ACT priority report. ACT priority report orders are processed in two business days and delivered in three to four. It costs $16.50 per test date per report. Still, it may take up to a week after delivery for colleges to add your scores to your admissions profile.

Page last updated: 04/2017