Information about and links to learning resources for the ACT

The ACT: What It Is

“ACT” was originally an acronym for “American College Testing”; now, as with the SAT, the name is not treated as an acronym. Also like the SAT, the ACT was intended to predict the likelihood of students’ success in college by measuring their academic skills. In its current form it is designed to measure students’ mastery of the English, critical reading, scientific reasoning, and mathematics skills taught in high school to determine their level of “college readiness.” It is designed and administered by the nonprofit ACT organization; scores from the test are used by American colleges and universities as a factor in their admissions decisions.

ACT has recently developed the shorter PreACT (for 10th graders) and PreACT 8/9 (for 8th and 9th graders) to allow younger students to gain test-taking experience, familiarize themselves with the format of the ACT, and estimate their likely ACT score range. (And, of course, to promote the ACT.)

What It Covers

The ACT essentially consists of five parts, the last of which is optional:

English Test (45 minutes/75 questions): Passage-based, multiple-choice questions about grammar, usage, mechanics, and rhetorical strategy that measure students’ ability to understand how to correct and improve several pieces of writing.

Math Test (60 minutes/60 questions): Multiple-choice questions in two sections (with and without a calculator) primarily covering topics and skills in algebra and geometry.

Reading Test (35 minutes/40 questions): Passage-based, multiple-choice critical reading questions that measure students’ ability to understand different aspects of the meaning of several passages (e.g., articulating the main idea, identifying details, making inferences and comparisons, words in context).

Science (35 minutes/40 questions): Passage-based, multiple-choice questions covering data representation, research summary, and conflicting viewpoints.

Writing (40 minutes/1 prompt): An optional essay written in response to a prompt about a social issue and scored separately.

When It Is Given

The ACT is generally taken by 11th- and 12th-grade students. There are seven test dates throughout the year, including the summer. Current information about ACT test dates can be found here.

How It Is Scored

Students receive an overall composite ACT score of between 1 and 36. This composite score is the rounded average of the score for each of the first four sections (English, Math, Reading, and Science), each of which is also scored on a scale from 1 to 36. The number of correct answers in each section is converted to this “scale score.”

The score report shows the test taker’s performance on various skill areas within each section. There are also STEM and ELA (English Language Arts) scores based on multiple sections. For a detailed discussion of the scoring system, see the ACT’s Understanding Your Scores page. This interactive ACT Student Report is also helpful in understanding what the test measures and how these elements are reflected in the score.

Note that the ACT scoring system does not penalize incorrect guesses; the scaled score is based on the total number of correct answers, and there is no benefit to skipping questions.

The optional essay is scored separately by two scorers. Each scorer will give it a score of 1-6 in each of four domains: Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions. The two scores for each domain are added together to produce four separate scores of 2-12. The total Writing Test Score is the rounded average of these scores.

For a detailed breakdown of the essay scoring system, see the ACT’s Writing Test Scores page and Writing Test Scoring Rubric.

ACT Resources

The ACT: The main page on the ACT website with links to information about more specific topics.

ACT Registration: Get information about test dates and registration deadlines, registration fees, where you can take the ACT, and more.

Preparing for the ACT: A thorough, annually updated introduction to the test, including a full-length official practice test, presented as a PDF file.

ACT Test Preparation: The ACT website offers a number of options to help students practice and prepare for the ACT.

  • ACT Rapid Review: Live, online instruction and on-demand videos developed by the ACT and Kaplan.
  • The Official ACT Prep Guide: A book containing detailed information about the test, strategies and tips, and official practice tests. Note that the practice tests in the book may be duplicates of tests available online for free (see links below). Older versions of the book with other tests can also be purchased online from third-party sites like Amazon.
  • ACT Online Prep: Online preparation with official test questions through a browser or mobile app.
  • ACT Prep Pack: An Online Prep subscription bundled with a physical copy of the Prep Guide.
  • ACT Academy: A longer-term free online program to help students develop relevant skills and knowledge, designed for integration with lessons in school.

Free Official ACT Practice Test: The free test made available on the ACT website is included in the “Preparing for the ACT” pamphlet, also linked above.

Note: Don’t bother giving ACT your information (unless you just want to receive e-mail from them) at the “Free Practice ACT Test” link here. It simply gives you access to the same PDF file, which you can download directly here without giving your information.

Several other official ACT tests are freely available online at the links below. (Note that some of these pamphlets feature duplicate tests; I am posting them all here anyway in case any of the links go dead.) Since these PDFs are hosted by third-party websites, I recommend that you scan these URLs at Sucuri before clicking on them in case they have been compromised by malware. At the time of writing they appear to be safe.

As of this writing, no official practice tests or materials have been made available for the PreACT and PreACT 8/9, presumably because ACT doesn’t want to encourage students to do specific preparation for them.

ACT vs SAT: This thorough discussion of the differences between the tests is useful for anyone trying to decide which one to take.

Test Preparation Pages




SAT Literature