How to Prepare for the ACT

The ACT is a common, standardised entrance test used by US universities and colleges to assess both US and international applicants. The ACT score you achieve will form a key part of your college application and determine which colleges you have a realistic chance of getting accepted into.

This guide provides all of the key information you need to know about the ACT, including what sections are included and what a ‘good’ score looks like, and top tips on how to prepare.

What is the ACT?

The ACT is an entrance exam administered by ACT Inc and used by many colleges and universities in the US to make admissions decisions. It is a multiple-choice, pencil-and-paper test consisting of four compulsory sections (English, Maths, Reading, and Science) and one optional section (Writing).

How important is the ACT?

The ACT is an important part of your US college application. It is a standardised test which means it provides colleges with one common data point that can be used to compare applicants from across the world and from different educational backgrounds.

How important ACT scores are in the application process varies from college to college. It will always be considered alongside other aspects of your application, including your qualifications, letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities, personal essays, and admissions interviews (if required). For particularly competitive universities/colleges, a high ACT score is crucial in order to give your application a good chance of success.

What is included in the ACT?

The ACT consists of four compulsory sections (English, Maths, Reading, and Science) and one optional section (Writing). The test lasts for 2 hours and 55 minutes (3 hours 40 minutes if you take the Writing section) and consists of 215 questions in total. Read more about the sections in the table below.

Section Time No. of questions Description
English 45 minutes 75 The English section consists of several passages, each followed by a set of multiple-choice questions.
Questions refer to underlined portions of the passage or the passage as a whole, and offer several alternatives/options to change the text. You need to decide which choice is most appropriate in the context of the passage. Many questions offer ‘no change’ to the passage as one of the choices.
This section ultimately puts you in the position of a writer and asks you to make decisions to revise and edit a text. The passages you will encounter are chosen specifically to assess your writing and language skills.
Maths 60 minutes 60 The Maths section is designed to assess the mathematical skills you’ll typically have acquired up to the beginning of grade 12 (equivalent to year 12 in the UK). This is based on the American schooling system, so if you are an international student, you will need to check how your past syllabi compare to the US.
The topics covered include: Number and Quantity, Algebra, Functions, Geometry, Statistics and Probability, Rates and Percentages, Proportional Relationships, and more.
Most questions are self-contained, however some questions may belong to a set of several questions (for example, questions about the same graph or chart).
You will be expected to know basic formulas and computational skills as background for the problems you’ll face.
Reading 35 minutes 40 The Reading section assesses your ability to read closely, reason logically about texts using evidence, and use information from several sources.
This section is composed of multiple parts. Some parts consist of one long prose passage and others consist
of shorter prose passages. The passages represent the kinds of texts you will encounter in your first year of college.
Once you’ve read each passage, you will be asked multiple-choice questions that require you to:

  • Determine main ideas
  • Locate and interpret significant details
  • Understand sequences of events
  • Make comparisons
  • Comprehend cause-effect relationships
  • Determine the meaning of context-dependent words, phrases, and statements
  • Draw generalisations
  • Analyse the author’s or narrator’s voice and method
  • Analyse claims and evidence in arguments
  • Integrate information from multiple texts
Science 35 minutes 40 The Science section measures your interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning, and problem-solving skills. This section presents you with several scientific scenarios, each followed by multiple-choice questions.
The content includes Biology, Chemistry, Earth/Space
Sciences (such as Geology, Astronomy, and Meteorology), and Physics.
The questions will require you to:

  • Recognise and understand the basic features of the provided information and draw on concepts related to it
  • Critically examine the relationship between the information and the conclusions/hypotheses
  • Use the information provided to draw conclusions, make predictions and/or gain new information
Writing (optional) 40 minutes 1 essay The Writing section is an essay test that assesses your ability to write an essay in which you develop your own perspective on a given issue. You will be given one writing prompt that describes a complex issue and provides three different perspectives. You can either choose to adopt one of these perspectives as your own, or introduce your own perspective not from the list. Either way, you must analyse the relationship (e.g. similarities and differences) between your own perspective and the perspectives provided.

How much does the ACT cost?

The ACT costs $63 without the Writing section or $88 with the Writing section. There are also fees for additional services, including if you need to change which test option you are taking ($25), if you require late registration ($36), and for additional score reports for 5th and 6th college choices ($16).

When is the ACT?

The ACT is sat six times per year (February, April, June, July, October, and December). See all ACT test dates on the test website.

You’ll need to register for the ACT via the ACT website. There are multiple ACT dates you can register for throughout the year. Each test date has its own deadline, for example if you want to sit the ACT in early June, you need to register by early May.

Where do you take the ACT?

ACT exams are taken in-person in a test centre. If you’re applying from the US or Canada, you can use the ACT test centre locator to find a suitable test date and centre local to you. If you are applying from outside the US/Canada, you’ll need to register for a free MyACT account using your school’s unique code. Find out more about how to do this on the ACT non-US student page.

How is the ACT scored?

Your overall ACT score will be between 1 and 36. This overall score is the average of your four section scores, which are each also on a scale from 1 to 36. If you take the Writing Test, you will receive a separate score for this section.

You are marked on different skills for each section:

English section scores

Four scores will be reported for the English section: a score for the section overall and three reporting category scores based on specific knowledge and skills. According to ACT, the approximate percentage of the section devoted to each reporting category is:

  • Production of Writing (29–32%) – This category requires you to demonstrate an understanding of the rhetorical aspects of texts, identify the purpose of texts, organise texts logically and smoothly, and determine whether a text has met its intended goal.
  • Knowledge of Language (15–17%) – This category requires you to demonstrate effective language use through ensuring concise word choice and maintaining consistency in style and tone.
  • Conventions of Standard English (52–55%) – This category requires you to apply an understanding of the conventions of standard English grammar, usage, and mechanics to revise and edit text.

Mathematics section scores

Nine scores are reported for the Mathematics section: a score for the section overall and eight reporting category scores based on specific mathematical knowledge and skills. The approximate percentage of the section devoted to each reporting category is:

  • Preparing for Higher Math (57–60%) – Number and Quantity (7–10%), Algebra (12–15%), Functions (12–15%), Geometry (12–15%), and Statistics and Probability (8–12%).
  • Integrating Essential Skills (40–43%) – This category focuses on measuring how well you can apply your understanding and skills to solve more complex problems. It covers topics such as rates and percentages, proportional relationships, area, surface area, and volume, average and median, and expressing numbers in different ways.

Reading section scores

Four scores will be reported for the Reading section: a score for the section overall and three reporting category scores based on specific knowledge and skills. The approximate percentage of the section devoted to each reporting category is:

  • Key Ideas and Details (52–60%) – This category requires you to read texts closely to determine central ideas and themes, summarise information and ideas accurately, and show an understanding of relationships and draw logical inferences and conclusions.
  • Craft and Structure (25–30%) – This category requires you to be able to determine the meaning of words and phrases, analyse authors’ word choices, purpose and perspective, analyse text structure, analyse characters’ points of view, and differentiate between various perspectives and sources of information.
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas (13–23%) – This category requires you to differentiate between facts and opinions and use evidence to make connections between different texts that are related by topic.

Science section scores

Four scores will be reported for the Science section: a score for the section overall and three reporting category scores based on scientific knowledge, skills, and practices. The approximate percentage of the section devoted to each reporting category is:

  • Interpretation of Data (40–50%) – This category asks you to manipulate and analyse scientific data presented in scientific tables, graphs, and diagrams (e.g., recognise trends in data, translate tabular data into graphs, interpolate and extrapolate, and reason mathematically).
  • Scientific Investigation (20–30%) – This category requires you to understand experimental tools, procedures, and design (e.g., identify controls and variables) and compare, extend, and modify experiments (e.g. predict the results of additional trials).
  • Evaluation of Models, Inferences, and Experimental Results (25–35%) – These questions ask you to judge the validity of scientific information and formulate conclusions and predictions based on that information (e.g. determine which explanation for a scientific phenomenon is supported by new findings).

Writing section scores

Five scores will be reported for the writing section: four domain scores and a single subject-level writing score reported on a scale of 2–12 (the rounded average of the four domain scores). The four writing domains are:

  • Ideas and Analysis – Scores reflect your ability to generate productive ideas and engage critically with multiple perspectives on the given issue.
  • Development and Support – Scores reflect your ability to discuss ideas, offer rationale, and bolster an argument.
  • Organisation – Scores reflect your ability to organise ideas with clarity and purpose.
  • Language Use and Conventions – Scores reflect your ability to use written language to convey arguments with clarity.

What is a good ACT score?

An outstanding ACT score can be the difference between receiving an offer from a top university or not. It’s therefore really important to prepare for the ACT in advance and aim for the best score possible.

The average composite ACT score, based on the scores of 5 million students who took the ACT and graduated in the last three years, is 20.7. However, the most competitive universities in the US will be looking for an ACT score far higher than the average. For example, the average composite score of successful MIT applicants is 34-36, while the average score of successful applicants to Princeton, Harvard and Columbia is 33-35.

Our ACT tutors know exactly what is required in order to succeed in every area of the exam, from Science to English. If you’re looking for an expert who can provide a clear preparation plan, guide you through everything you need to know, and maximise your chance of success in the final ACT exam, get in touch with our team today.

5 tips on how to prepare for the ACT

1. Start early and create a plan

Amongst attending school, revising for exams, fulfilling other extracurricular commitments, and applying for college, finding time to prepare for the ACT can be a challenge. That’s why it’s important to start thinking about the ACT early and create a plan that ensures you are able to prepare for everything in the test before the day.

We recommend that you give yourself at least 2-3 months to prepare for the ACT. However, if you’re applying from a country other than the US, it may be wise to leave yourself a little more time than this as there may be topics and question styles you are less familiar with.

2. Read widely and engage with school work

The ACT requires a broad range of school-level knowledge and a deep understanding of the English language, Maths and Science. Reading from a wide range of reputable sources in your free time and keeping on top of your school work are therefore great starting points when it comes to preparing for the ACT.

Pay close attention to modules you have covered at school that include topics that you are likely to cover in the ACT. For example, in preparation for the Maths section of the ACT, ensure that you are up to date with all school-level content you’ve covered on: Number and Quantity, Algebra, Functions, Geometry, and Statistics and Probability.

Top tip: As with performance at school in general, you should make sure that you are getting enough sleep and are maintaining a suitable work-life balance in the months running up to the ACT. Your brain simply cannot function at its fullest potential unless you take care of your health – both physical and mental – so this is key to preparing as effectively as possible.

3. Prepare for every section individually

Each section of the ACT tests different skills and abilities. In order to perform well overall, you need to make sure you have prepared for each section adequately. Look at the information provided by ACT on exactly what you will be assessed on, and ensure that you understand each of these topics before the day.

For example, for the English section, you should make sure to practise reading English in a range of styles and from a range of sources, as this will help you familiarise yourself with the sorts of passages you’ll face in the exam. By contrast, for the Science section, it is important that you practise interpreting different types of data, as you could face scientific tables, graphs, and diagrams in the ACT.

You should also set aside dedicated time in your preparation plan to look at past/practice questions for each section. Like most other tests, the SAT does not purely test your subject knowledge, but your ability to write well, solve problems, and answer the specific questions you are presented with.

Top tip: It can be easy to fall into the trap of revising topics and practising question styles that you are already familiar/comfortable with. However, while this may boost your confidence in the short-term, it will not prepare you effectively for the actual test and may mean you miss out on learning new information and developing vital skills. Make sure that you practise not only what you already know, but also what you find difficult, especially topics or question styles that you have never come across before.

4. Take practice tests under timed conditions

Like most tests, the ACT is taken under timed conditions and it is crucial that you complete as much of the test as possible within the allotted time you are given (2 hours 55 minutes).

Taking practice ACT tests under timed conditions is the best way to simulate the environment you will be faced with in the real exam. It also allows you to identify areas that you may struggle with more under time pressure (for example, Maths questions that require mental maths) and try out strategies to help you stay calm and perform well.

Good quality practice tests and preparation resources are not always reliable or easy to find. There are some practice tests recommended by ACT you can use as part of your preparation, and you may be able to find other mini practice tests elsewhere. However, when it comes to resourceful preparation, nothing compares to The Profs’ specialised ACT tuition.

Over many years of successfully tutoring US college applicants, our tutors have developed a wealth of knowledge and resources to help you prepare for every element of the ACT, from time management strategies to specialised English, Maths, Reading, Science, and Writing support. Get in contact with our team today to find out how we can help you.

5. Work with an expert ACT tutor

Preparing for the ACT can be stressful. There’s a lot of pressure to perform well so that you can get into your dream college. Unlike school, you won’t necessarily have a structured learning plan that ensures you are prepared for all of the content, or teachers who understand the test specifications. The solution to this is to work with a qualified ACT expert.

Working with a tutor will provide so many benefits to your preparation. An ACT tutor can:

  • Identify and focus on areas in which you need extra support.
    It can be tricky to identify your own weaknesses, especially if you don’t know what exactly your examiners are looking for. Our experienced ACT specialists can help you tailor your preparation to areas where it’s most needed.
  • Offer insider knowledge on the admissions test you are taking and what the assessors will be looking for.
    The Profs’ ACT tutors have first-hand experience of the specific test structure, question types, and content you will face – all of which will be invaluable to your preparation.
  • Make the preparation more fun and engaging.
    It can be difficult to stay self-motivated and engaged when you’re juggling ACT preparation with normal schoolwork, and all of the other requirements of applying for college. Ensuring the preparation process is enjoyable will take some of the pressure off while still maximising your chances of success.
  • Support with your wider US college application.
    Applying to a US college can be an unfamiliar and confusing experience, especially if you are applying as an international student, as there are lots of important factors to consider. The Profs’ experts will ensure that you are not only prepared for the ACT, but also for the wider college application process.

To find out more about our ACT tuition and wider US application services, get in touch with our team today.

FAQs

How long is my ACT score valid?

Your ACT score is valid for five years from the date you took the test. Therefore, if you don’t get into your chosen university the first time around, you could use the same test for another application in the following year, or for another university. You can also resit the ACT up to 12 times if you are not happy with your score.

Should I take the SAT or ACT?

Unless specified by the university, you are usually free to take either test, however it’s important to think about which best fits with your application. For example, if you’re applying to study a science-based degree like Engineering or Medicine, it is best to do the ACT to showcase your scientific knowledge.

Some universities do specify either the SAT or ACT, so it’s important to check with their international admissions office directly to double check before registering. An increasing number of college applicants are taking both the SAT and the ACT to give themselves the highest chance of a competitive score and the most options when it comes to college choices.

When is the deadline for registering for the ACT

In general, the registration deadlines for the ACT is around five weeks before the testing date. For example if you want to sit the ACT in early June, you need to register by early May.

What does ACT stand for?

The ACT is a standardised entrance exam used by colleges and universities in the US. The ACT stands for ‘American College Test’.

Can I take both SAT and ACT?

Although you are unlikely to need both scores to apply for US colleges, you can take both the SAT and ACT exams. Many applicants choose to take both tests in order to give themselves the highest chance of a competitive score and the most options when it comes to college choices.