What is the ACT Test?

As your child embarks upon the college application process, two major components are preparing for and taking a college entrance exam. Standardized assessments like the ACT® and SAT® measure your child’s achievement in core academic areas and provide college admissions a deeper look into your child’s capabilities and how prepared she is for the rigors of college coursework. If your child decides to take the ACT, it’s a great choice because the ACT is the leading US college admissions test and is accepted at every college and university, with more students taking the test every year.1 In fact, more than 2 million US high school graduates—60 percent of the 2017 graduating class—took the ACT last year.

In addition to testing students on what they’ve learned in their courses, the ACT also helps create opportunities beyond the high school years. Some of these “life-prep” features include an Interest Inventory, which features custom college and career planning information for each student, as well as a Student Profile that assesses college and career readiness based on the student’s aspirations, abilities, and accomplishments. When students opt into the ACT Educational Opportunity Service (EOS), their data is sent to institutions so that they will then receive recruitment, scholarship, and career opportunity information.


  • ACT test scores are accepted by all four-year US colleges and universities, including highly selective institutions.
  • The ACT is not an aptitude or an IQ test; questions are directly related to the knowledge students have gained from high school courses.
  • The ACT is administered on seven national test dates each year (five international test dates), plus additional state and district testing dates.
  • The ACT is approved for use in state models for federal and state accountability.2

Part 1: What to Know Before You Register

ACT research shows that 49% of students have an interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) college majors and careers.

The ACT is offered nationally and internationally several times a year at either national testing centers or through your child’s school, school district, or your state. Your first step is to ask the school’s guidance counselor if the school/district offers the ACT or if your child will need to take it at a national testing center.

Your child can take the ACT on a school day if his school, the school district, or your state administers the test. However, if the ACT is not offered at your child’s school, you’ll need to find out where and when your child should register for a convenient test date and test location that will give him plenty of time to send his scores to the college and scholarship agencies of his choice by their deadlines, as well as retake the test if he is not satisfied with his initial scores.

Many colleges and scholarship agencies require ACT test scores to be submitted during the junior year of high school, so it is important to determine those deadlines to ensure your child has enough time to study, take the exam, and submit scores. Although you can view scores online as soon as two weeks after taking the test, you’ll receive the official ACT Score Reports three to eight weeks after the test date. If your child takes the optional writing portion of the test, his score report will be available only after all of his scores are ready, typically within five to eight weeks of taking the test.1 To be on the safe side, your child should plan to take the ACT at least 10 weeks prior to the earliest deadline he needs to make.

act testing junior year

The Benefits of Testing in Junior Year

There are several advantages to your child taking the ACT in her junior year. For instance, if she’s enrolled in a rigorous college-prep program, she most likely has completed much of the coursework that corresponds to the material covered on the ACT.

Additional advantages are:

  • She will have her ACT scores in time to help make final decisions about senior year coursework.
  • If she finds herself learning a significant amount of material during her senior year, she can always retake the test during that school year.
  • If she has opted in, colleges will have her contact information and be able to send details about admissions, scholarships, advanced placement, and special programs the summer before senior year.
  • She will receive ACT scores and information from colleges in time to plan campus visits to the colleges of her choice.
  • She can take the ACT again if she feels the scores aren’t reflective of her capabilities and achievements (in this case, retaking the test in the spring of junior year or fall of senior year).

Easy Steps to Register for the Test

Your child can register for the ACT at www.actstudent.org. Here, you can search for test dates and registration deadlines as well as testing centers in your area.

What you’ll need to register:

  • Desktop or laptop with Internet connection (mobile or tablet are not recommended)
  • 40 minutes (the information your child provides will be presented on his Score Report to help him explore possible careers that align with his interests and strengths)
  • Credit card or other form of payment High school course details
  • Headshot photo of your child (to be submitted when registering or before the photo deadline)2

Once you set up an account on the ACT site, you can register for the test, access test-prep solutions, view scores online, send additional Score Reports to colleges, and register for future tests.2 Only at the time of registration are you able to select up to four colleges or universities to send your child’s scores to free of charge. If you want to send scores to additional schools, you can do so on the ACT site once scores are available.

Registering Under Special Circumstances

To request special accommodations for your child to take the ACT, you must first create an ACT account on www.actstudent.org or log into your existing account. Once you register for a test date, you can review which accommodations are available to meet your child’s needs.2

Special accommodations may include:

  • Non-Saturday test dates if religious affiliations prevent your child from test-taking on a weekend
  • More than 50% time extension
  • Testing over multiple days or alternate test formats (e.g., Braille, DVDs, or a reader)
  • Use of a scribe or computer for the writing test
  • Wheelchair accessible testing room
  • Large type test booklet
  • Seating near the front for lip-reading spoken instructions for the hearing impaired
  • Sign language interpreter to sign spoken instructions2

Details on the procedures for applying to take the ACT with accommodations can be found on the ACT site



Consider the following when choosing the best test date for your child:

  • Available national test dates and test centers near you
  • College and scholarship application deadlines
  • If he will take the test more than once
  • Whether or not he decides to take the optional writing test

Part 2: How to Help Your Child Prepare

Test day will likely be filled with a healthy dose of anticipation and stress. Help your child prepare in advance—and ease those test-day jitters—by going over the four subject areas of Math, English, Reading, and Science she’ll be tested on so that she can mentally prepare to ace them.

Here’s a breakdown of what is covered on those four subject area tests:

Math: Preparing for Higher Math, Number & Quantity, Algebra, Functions, Geometry, Statistics & Probability, Integrating Essential Skills, and Modeling

English: Grammar, Punctuation, Sentence Structure, and Rhetoric

Reading: Comprehension

Science: Questions about Scientific Charts, Graphs, and Research1

Each of the above sections is graded on a scale of 1 to 36, based on the number of correct answers, and these four scores are averaged to get the Composite Score.1 The optional writing test doesn’t contribute to the Composite Score. If your child decides to take the writing test, the essay will be scored on a scale of 2 to 12.

The essay is evaluated based on the evidence that your child can:

  • Clearly state her own perspective on the issue and analyze the relationship between her perspective and at least one other perspective
  • Develop and support her ideas with reasoning and examples
  • Organize ideas clearly and logically
  • Communicate ideas effectively in standard written English

Getting Plenty of Practice

Although the best way to prepare for the ACT is to take rigorous high school classes and do well in those classes, it also helps to know the test format and types of questions your child will be asked so that there are no surprises on test day. Your child’s level of comfort in taking the ACT also plays an important role in how well he will do, and the best way to build that confidence is by taking practice tests.

ACT practice

One of the best ways to mentally prepare for the ACT is to identify strengths and areas of needed improvement that should be addressed in order to improve test performance. For example, if time runs out while he’s taking a practice test, then your child needs to work on pacing. The practice test is a good indicator of where your child excels and which subject areas may need further reinforcement.

9 Ways to Get the Most Out of Practice Tests

  1. Write notes in the practice test to highlight key details, or work out a problem on paper.
  2. Mark answers on the answer sheet carefully, and write the essay neatly and in the correct place in the practice test (essay must be written using a soft-lead pencil).
  3. Make sure only one answer is marked on the answer sheet for each question and that there are no stray marks.
  4. Check math calculations using scratch paper or the permitted calculator.
  5. Answer all the questions on the answer sheet—using logic to eliminate incorrect answer choices if unsure, since he will not be penalized for guessing on the test.
  6. Divide the available time per section by the number of questions (if your child has 60 minutes to complete 60 math questions, then he can plan to spend one minute on each question). If your child is taking the writing test, he should divide his time into planning, writing, and then revising the essay.
  7. Review the directions ahead of time to prevent wasting time.
  8. Read each question carefully to avoid preventable errors.
  9. Tackle the easy questions first and then go back to the more difficult questions if time allows (mark a skipped question on the practice test, not the answer sheet, to quickly refer back later).

After taking several practice tests, your child will become more familiar with the question types and format of the test, which will help boost his test-taking confidence. In addition to understanding the test itself, certain mental strategies will help your child think clearly and have a positive outlook on test day:

  • Set up small amounts of time over an extended period of time to practice and study so that he’s not overwhelmed.
  • Keep a flexible study schedule to accommodate for homework or unexpected school assignments.
  • Use a reward system, even if it’s as simple as creating a checklist to visualize progress.
  • Practice positive thinking and eliminate negative thoughts by imagining he will do well on the test (and believing that he can).
  • Remain calm by taking slow, deep breaths to relax or allowing for a 20-30 second time out.
  • Work at an efficient pace so that he’s not rushing through the test, which can lead to making unintentional errors.
  • Keep the test in perspective by remembering that it is only one part of the college application process and that it also serves to identify possible careers that match his interests.

ACT is the only college entrance exam to offer a science section.

Part 3: Tips and Strategies for Test Day

It’s common for nerves to set in as the test approaches. To help your child maintain a sense of control, you can help guide her in what she’ll need in order to feel prepared for the day of the test.

What to Bring (or Leave at Home) on Test Day

To make sure your child is prepared for test day, she should bring certain items with her, while leaving others at home.

Make sure to bring the following:

These items are either not allowed in the test room or cannot be used during the test:

  • Textbooks or study or reference materials
  • Highlighters, pens, or mechanical pencils
  • Electronics other than the approved calculator (this includes mobile phones, headphones, fitness bands, cameras, and smart watches)
  • Food and beverages (not permitted in the test room)
  • Tobacco2

What to Expect at the Testing Center

If the testing center is an unfamiliar location, it’s best to allot an extra 15-20 minutes in case your child gets lost or has to park farther away than expected.

Upon arrival, your child will need to  produce  both  his  printed  ticket and  photo  identification  before  being  admitted  to  the  testing room.2

He will then be directed to a seat and provided the testing materials. Once everyone is seated, the testing will begin.

There will be a short break after the first two tests. No electronics can be used during the designated break.2

Gearing Up for Test Day: Five Test-Taking Tips

Concentrate on one section at a time.

Your child can’t skip ahead in the test, so he should concentrate on the part that he’s working on. Even if he feels like he might not have done well on the previous section, he should do his best to move forward.

Be mindful of time.

The ACT must be completed in a certain amount of time, so he should be mindful of how much time is spent on each question. However, to avoid making unintentional  errors, he  shouldn’t  race  through the test.2

Double-check work.

If your child finishes with several minutes to spare, he can use that time to double-check work or calculations. He should make sure he’s answered all the questions and that there are no stray marks that could be misread on the answer sheet.

Take a shot at hard questions.

There’s no penalty for guessing, so your child should go ahead and make an educated guess.2 Remind him that only correct answers count toward the final scores.

Don’t skip a question.

If for some reason your child leaves an answer blank and doesn’t guess, advise him to make sure he didn’t mistakenly fill in the answer for the next question in that empty slot


Quick tip: Remind your child to dress in comfortable layers on test day to plan for different temperatures at the testing center.

Part 4: ACT Test Scoring

Taking the ACT is an accomplishment in itself, but once the test is over the anticipation of waiting for the scores to arrive begins. See our infographic – A Breakdown of the ACT Scores – for a better understanding of how the test is scored.

Timing and Notification of Test Scores

Test scores are typically available online within two weeks of taking the test, and Score Reports usually are released three to eight weeks after the test date.2 Remember, if your child opted to take the writing portion of the test, the Student Report will be available only after all of your child’s scores are ready—including the writing score—which is typically within five to eight weeks after taking the ACT.1

Making Sense of the Student Score Report

The Student Score Report provides insightful data that will help you make the most of the test results. See a sample score report here. The numbers across the top signify your child’s score for that particular test. The report contains first the overall composite score, which averages Math, Science, English, and Reading.2 Then, it breaks down each individual test score, with a STEM composite score (for Math and Science) and an ELA composite score for English, Reading, and Writing (if taken).2

Each section is graded on a scale of 1 to 36. This means the number of correct answers  converts to a score that ranges from 1 to 36 for each of the four tests (English, Math, Reading, and Science). The Composite Score is the average of the scores on these sections. Remember, the writing section does not contribute to the composite score.

The number scores correspond to lines on the columns below them. There is also a benchmark line on the report, which indicates the level where students typically perform well in their freshman courses for that corresponding subject.2

There is also a section that includes comparison graphs of how well your child did compared to other students who took the test both nationally and statewide.2

Positioning Your Child for Future Success

The outcome of the ACT test is more than just a score report. Since your child provided information on her interests and career goals before taking the test, the enhanced Student Profile Report provides valuable information that can help her succeed after high school—and even choose the right career.

In the Detailed Results section, you’ll  see a breakdown of how many points were earned out of the total number  possible for each subsection, along with a Readiness Range that indicates how your child’s scores compare to those who are considered college ready for that particular subject.2 The College and Career Planning Section outlines the areas and professions where your child might excel based on her interests, and the Interest-Major Fit section indicates whether or not your child’s interests match her intended major.2 Be sure to take advantage of these additional ACT reporting features that can help your child assess her strengths and plan for future success.

retake act

Deciding Whether or Not to Retake the Test

Although the ACT can be taken up to 12 times, most students typically take the ACT once as a junior and once as a senior.2 Keep in mind that when students retake the test:

57 increase their Composite Score

21 have no change in their Composite Score

22 decrease their Composite Score2

At the time of registration, your child can order a Test Information Release (TIR) if she will be testing at a national test center on a national test date that offers this service. After the test,  the  TIR  provides your child with a copy of the multiple-choice test questions used to determine her score, a list of her actual answers, and the answer key. If she took the writing test, she also will receive a copy of the writing prompt, the scoring rubric, and the scores assigned to her essay. This can help her understand areas she still may need to work on.

If your child does decide to retake the test, she can determine which scores she wants sent to colleges, but she cannot combine scores from different test dates.2

You can send the Score Report to four colleges free of charge if you selected these schools at the time of registration. Once you receive your child’s scores, you can then send scores to additional colleges through www.actstudent.org. Additional requests are processed after all the scores for your child’s test option (the ACT or the ACT with the writing section) are available.2</sup


Keeping in mind that ACT scores are intended to reflect individual academic development and achievement unique to each child, here’s a snapshot of national averages:

English: 20.3
Math: 20.9
Reading: 21.3
Science: 20.8
Composite Score: 21
Writing: 17.2

A composite score of 21 is considered average and a score of 16 or below is considered low.1

1 “Comparative Features of the ACT and SAT 2016-2017.” (nod): n. pag. 2016. Web. 6 Sept. 2016.

2 ACT. ACT, n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2016. <http://www.act.org/>.

3 Smith, Amy M., Victoria A. Floerke, and Ayanna K. Thomas. “Retrieval Practice Protects Memory Against Acute Stress.” Science 354.6315 (2016): 1046-048. Web. 14 Dec. 2016. <science.sciencemag.org>.