What is the ACT?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 20 July 2019
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The ACT is a standardized test which is designed to demonstrate college readiness for people who wish to attend college in the United States. The test was first administered in 1959, as an alternative to the SAT Reasoning Test, another college admissions test which is widely used in the United States. Both SAT and ACT score can be used to fulfill testing requirements on college applications, although some colleges may weigh one test more heavily than the other.

There are four sections to the ACT: English, math, reading, and science. Test takers can also choose to take an optional writing test, in which they have 30 minutes to respond to an essay prompt. Each section is scored between one and 36, and the test-taker's final score is calculated by averaging the scores on each section. The writing test is graded by two readers who assign it a value between one and six; their scores are averaged to yield the separate writing score.


The first function of the test is to allow students to demonstrate their academic accomplishment and ability by answering questions which are based on standard American school curricula. The test also demonstrates college readiness, by ensuring that the test taker has at least a basic knowledge of subjects which college and universities assume that their students are familiar with. Some high schools in the United States use the ACT as a yardstick to assess the quality of their educational offerings, and to identify areas where they need to improve.

Like other standardized tests, the ACT is offered in a multiple choice format. Students use an optical answer sheet to fill their best choice of answer for each question. These sheets are fed through a scanning machine which rapidly returns scores. Students can also receive a percentile score which is based on their performance in comparison with other students who sat for the same exam.

Some students who take both the SAT and the ACT find that they perform better on one than the other. In regions where people are concerned about biases on the SAT, students may choose to take the ACT because they think they stand a better chance of doing well. Many colleges set up comparison charts so that they can compare SAT and ACT scores; these charts are usually based at least roughly on percentile ratings, although these charts may be slightly imperfect due to inherent differences in the two exams.



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