5 Things You Need to Know About the ACT

Of all of the decisions facing hopeful college applicants, the choice between admissions tests can be one of the most confusing. Should you take the SAT or the ACT? Do you need to take the ACT Writing Test? Will colleges think less of you if you submit scores from one test or the other? This quick guide provides an overview to understand the ACT.

1. What is the ACT?

The ACT is a college admissions exam that tests material typically learned in high school. It includes five tests: English, Math, Reading, Science, and an optional Writing test. Most colleges often recommend or require applicants to submit ACT scores with the Writing test.

2. What does the ACT “test”?

The English test assesses students’ ability to correct grammatical errors in 5 passages. The math test presents students with 60 math problems in algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. On the reading section, students read and answer questions about four passages: prose fiction, social sciences, humanities, and natural sciences. The science portion consists of 7 passages that present a scientific concept or experiment about which students answer questions (the science test deals mainly with reading comprehension and data analysis and does not test specific scientific knowledge). The optional writing test gives students an essay prompt about a controversial issue, generally dealing with high school or teenagers. Students have 30 minutes to take a position on the prompt and write an essay supporting their position. The ACT (with Writing) takes about 3.5 hours to complete.

3. How does the ACT differ from the SAT?

The SAT consists of ten sections in three major subjects (math, critical reading, and writing) and is scored on a scale of 600-2400. The ACT consists of five tests and is scored on a scale of 1-36. The writing (essay) score is reported separately on a scale of 2-12, so that composite ACT scores can be compared between students who took the writing portion and those who didn’t. In general, the SAT requires more logical reasoning and “tricks” than the ACT does, and the ACT is often described as a more “straightforward” test. However, students are given less time per question on the ACT. For example, SAT math gives students about 18 seconds more per question than ACT math. The ACT also includes a science test, which focuses on data analysis, and a few more difficult math concepts that don’t appear on the SAT. The SAT focuses much more heavily on obscure vocabulary words than the ACT. Students can greatly improve their performance on either test by diligently reviewing content and learning and applying appropriate test-taking strategies.

4. Which test should I take?

The short answer: take the test you believe you will perform your best on. Fortunately, by using practice tests, you can take the guesswork out of that choice. There are official practice tests available for both tests, which means that students can do timed practice runs of each exam, and then compare scores using the official concordance table. The College Board (SAT) and ACT, Inc. work together to create a table that allows you to roughly convert scores between the two tests. This table is available on the websites of each organization. Because the SAT includes the essay in its composite score (2400) and the ACT doesn’t, the concordance table compares the sum of a student’s SAT critical reading and math scores with his or her ACT composite score.

For example, if a student scores 28 on the ACT and 600 Math / 610 Critical Reading on the SAT, she would want to submit her ACT score, because the concordance tables state that a 28 ACT is roughly equivalent to a 1250-1280 SAT.

5. What’s a “good” score on the ACT?

The idea of a “good” score varies depending on the schools you apply to. Colleges provide the composite ACT scores of the middle 50% of their incoming classes. This information is helpful in goal setting for test prep. For example, if a student wanted to apply to Duke University, she could look up ACT score data and find that first-year students at Duke typically have composite scores between 30 and 34, and set her goal accordingly.

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Emma Chomin is a Veritas Prep ACT/SAT instructor and recent graduate of Ohio State University in Columbus. She earned her Bachelor’s in linguistics and gender studies in less than two years while working on multiple research projects and taking graduate courses. Emma has tutored dozens of students in strategies for success on the ACT and SAT!