The ACT Part 1: Intro

This is the first in a six-part series on the ACT.

Note: The SAT referred to in this article is the current SAT. For information about the new SAT coming in 2016, click here.

Many people think of the ACT as the SAT’s less important little brother, and while that may have been true in some parts of the U.S. years ago, times have changed. In fact, the ACT has been accepted by all U.S. colleges since 2007 and actually surpassed the SAT in popularity in 2012. For some students, it’s a great alternative to the SAT. Students applying to highly selective universities may want to submit scores for both tests.

The ACT was introduced in 1959. (The SAT dates back to 1926.) For many years, universities on the East and West coasts (and Texas) preferred the SAT, while those in the Midwest and South preferred the ACT. Today, all U.S. colleges and universities will accept the ACT, though regional differences in popularity remain, probably due to misconceptions about which test is “better” or “preferred.”

For a quick overview of the differences between the tests, see our post on the SAT vs. ACT. We’ve also got a handy chart.

The two most important things to know if you’re taking the ACT are:

1. There is no penalty for wrong answers. If you don’t know the answer to a question, just guess and move on.

2. You do not have a lot of time per question. If you’re spending too long on a question, guess and move on. If you’re about to run out of time on a section, fill in the rest of the bubbles in a straight line (A, F, A, F, A, F, etc.). You should get about 25% of them right (20% on the Math section).

What’s “too long” to spend on a question? That depends on the section. Over the next few days, we’ll be devoting an entire post to each section: English, Math, Reading, Science, and Essay. But first, let’s talk about scoring.

A perfect score on the ACT is a 36. The average score is around 20. This composite (overall) score is an average of the English, Math, Reading, and Science scores. The Essay is scored separately and not factored into the composite score. It is optional but required by some colleges. If you choose to take the ACT without the essay and then apply to a college that requires it, you will have to retake the entire test. So we recommend that students take the essay.

What’s a good score? Well, it depends on what schools you’re applying to and what the rest of your application looks like, but here’s an informative (if somewhat oversimplified) chart to give you a rough idea. To better understand how colleges view your test scores, you should read this.

The short-short version: 20 is average, and 30+ is very good.

It’s unusual for a student to get the same score on every section; most of us have strengths and weaknesses. The best way to identify yours is to take a diagnostic test. (If you live in the Austin area, come take one with us; if not, you can download a free ACT with grading instructions here.)

Many people assume that students should focus on their weaknesses. I’ve heard parents say, “My kid doesn’t need any help on the math; he got a 30.” Okay, but if he could bring it up to a 34, he’d bring his composite score up one point, and on the ACT, that’s significant. So, while it makes sense to work on your weak areas, you shouldn’t neglect your strengths.

In addition to the scores for the four main sections and the essay score, every ACT score report (and practice test) comes with a chart outlining “subscores” for things like Usage/Mechanics on the English section, and Arts/Literature on the Reading section. Colleges don’t use these scores, but they can help students identify areas they need to work on.

Next time, we’ll take a detailed look at the English section. See you then!

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