Acing the ACT

As you plan the process of applying for college, you'll need to decide whether to take the ACT or the SAT. Here's some information about the ACT that can help you make this decision.


Take both ACT and SAT Practice Tests

You have nothing to lose here, and you'll get a good sense for the ways in which these two exams are different. The ACT is more knowledge-based, and more tied to curriculum topics. If your strength lies in remembering facts, you may find that the ACT gives you a better opportunity to display what you've learned. If you're better at reasoning, however, then the SAT, which is more abstract and puzzle-like, will suit you better.


What's in the ACT?

The ACT is made up of four tests: English, Reading, Math and Science. These four tests together take 3 hours. It also has an optional essay portion, which takes an extra half hour.


The ACT English Test

The content areas for the English test are Usage/Mechanics and Rhetorical skills.  You are given a passage to read, which contains some mistakes in grammar and word usage. Parts of the passage are underlined. Each underlined part corresponds with a multiple choice question, which presents you with different versions of the underlined words and asks you to choose the correct one.


The ACT Reading Test

The Reading test is about your ability to derive overall meaning from written material. The content areas in reading are: Social Studies/Natural Sciences reading skills, and Arts/Literature reading skills. In the Reading test, you are given a passage to read and then afterwards you are presented with a series of multiple-choice questions. The questions focus on your ability to come to meaningful conclusions about what you've read, and they extend beyond mere facts. For example, a question about a particular character might ask you to decide about the character's philosophy regarding something completely outside of the passage you read.


The ACT Math Test

For the ACT Math test, content areas are: Pre-Algebra/Elementary Algebra, Intermediate Algebra/Coordinate Geometry, and Plane Geometry/Trigonometry based. The Math test consists of 60 questions to be answered in 60 minutes, and they are pretty straight-forward math problems with multiple-choice answers. Certain types of calculators are permitted, but the ACT is designed to be taken successfully without a calculator. The ACT website lists which particular models of calculators are prohibited, and this MUST be checked before you show up for the test.


The ACT Science Test

The Science test doesn't have special content areas. It gives you passages to read, followed by multiple-choice questions that require you to be familiar with concepts and terminology from the physical and life sciences.


The ACT Writing Test

The Writing test is one single essay, based on a writing prompt. The prompt presents two sides of an issue that is relevant to high-school students (for example, the idea of extending high school from four years to five years). The prompt will present the basic arguments for both sides of the debate, and then it will ask you to write an essay presenting your viewpoint. You can agree with one of the sides, or you can invent your own perspective, but you must present your arguments in a logical and fluent manner. You'll be scored on the quality of your thinking as well as your skill at expressing your thoughts.


How ACT scoring works

You'll get one score for each of the four regular tests, and then these four scores will be averaged to give you an overall composite score. ACT scores range from 1 to 36, with a national average around 21. If you take the optional writing portion as well, your writing and English scores will be combined, and integrated into your overall score. Colleges to which you send test results will also be able to see a digital image of your actual essay, together with the reader's comments.


What are subscores?

In addition to receiving content area scores for each of the tests, you will also receive 7 "subscores." (Or 8, if you take the writing portion.) These subscores are for your personal information, but they are not sent to colleges. The sections below list the content areas for each test, and describes the questions.

Since the ACT is very content-based, you can feel confident that once you sit down with the test, you can imagine that you're simply in an ordinary classroom, taking one of your teacher's weekly quizzes. You've seen all this material before, so relax, pick up your pencil, and have faith in yourself!