The ACT Test - What is the ACT Test and why do I need to take it?

The ACT was first launched in 1959, and ACT is an acronym for American College Testing. If you wish to apply to an American university, you may have to take the SAT or the ACT, the two standardised tests required for admission to the majority of colleges and universities in the USA. In general, the differences between these tests is minimal.

Both are accepted by admissions departments – although it is, of course, worth checking if one is specified in your chosen university’s syllabus – but their scoring systems are quite different. In addition, the ACT test includes a Science paper and individuals who are planning to take a STEM course at university often opt to take the ACT rather than the SAT Exam for this very reason.

The ACT Test - How is the ACT Test organised?

The ACT Test requires candidates to sit four papers. 

In addition, the ACT Test has an optional writing paper, which does not affect your overall score, but can often be substituted for the essay entry requirement demanded by certain universities.

The writing paper consists of planning and writing a short essay, in response to a prompt, and takes 40 minutes. The table, below, illustrates how the ACT Test is set up.

Paper Number of questions Time allotted
English 75 45 minutes
Mathematics 60 60 minutes
Reading 40 35 minutes
Science 40 35 minutes

You will be able to take a refreshment break.

All questions are multiple-choice.

Each section is scored between 1-36, and your ACT score is the rounded-up average taken from all four sections. 

The highest possible score is therefore 36.

The optional writing paper is scored 2-12 and, as noted earlier, has no impact on your ACT score.

The ACT Test - English Paper

The ACT English paper evaluates your knowledge of: usage, rhetoric and 

sentence structure.In this part of the test you will be provided with five passages, which increase in difficulty, with underlined sections, words, or sentences, which you will be asked to correct.

The errors could be poor punctuation, non-complete, fragmentary sentences, misspellings, lack of subject and verb agreement and the wrong choice of transition words etc.

Since you have 36 seconds per question, and it could take you 15 seconds to read through the options, speed is of the essence.

Many experts believe it is essential to read the passages before you start answering the questions; others disagree and argue that it is essential to focus on the question and only read around it, to find the answer.

Remember, too, that you will be given line and paragraph numbers in the question, so use this information to pick up the pace and keep focused.

The ACT Test - Mathematics Paper

In this section, you are given five answer choices, not four.

The 60 questions in this paper are divided into six different categories:

  • 14 pre-algebra questions: maths terminology, basic number theory, and fractions and decimals
  • 10 elementary algebra questions
    – inequalities
    – linear equations,
    – ratios, percentages,
    – averages
  • 9 intermediate algebra questions:
    -simultaneous equations,
    -quadratic equations 
  • 14 plane geometry questions :
    – lengths,
    – triangles,
    – quadrilaterals,
    – circles,
    – perimeter,
    – area,
    – volume
  • 9 coordinate geometry questions:
    – slope,
    – distance,
    – midpoint,
    – parallel
    – perpendicular lines,
    – points of intersection,
    – graphing
  • 4 questions:
    – basic sine,
    – cosine,
    – tangent functions, trig identities,
    – graphing

You may only use an approved calculator (check on the ACT website).Once again, be aware of time, because answering 60 questions in 60 minutes is not a simple feat. You are not penalised for wrong answers in the ACT, and if you see the seconds ticking away, it may be worth filling in the paper on a best-guess basis and finishing it!

The ACT Test - Reading Paper

The ACT Reading Paper is composed of four sections, three of which contain long prose passages.

The level of the texts is based on the prose you will be dealing with in your first year as an undergraduate.

The aim of this paper is to test your ability to understand main ideas as well as details, recognise structure, and combine ideas with knowledge.

The questions will include:

  • determining a meaning, which is either stated or just implied in the text
  • using your personal reasoning abilities to find major ideas, small details
  • comparing and contrasting
  • interpreting cause and effect
  • finding the meaning of a phrase or word in context
  • generalising from specifics
  • assessing what the writer thinks or feels
Be careful of three potential pitfalls , which could lead you to choose the wrong answer:
  • exaggeration – signalled by the use of words like “never”, “always”, “best” or “worst”
  • contradictions – where the answer is the opposite of what is stated in the text but the words are similar
  • distortion – familiar words, but used in a way which produces quite a different meaning

The ACT Test - Science Paper

In the ACT Test Science Paper you will have to answer 40 questions based on seven passages, each of which will have 5-7 questions.

These texts will be broadly divided into:
  • Data Representation – where you read graphs and explain tables and scatterplots
  • Research summaries- where you explain the methodology and results of experiments
  • Conflicting viewpoints and arguments -compare, contrast and analyse differing opinions

In the Science Paper part of the ACT Test, the content includes

  • biology,
  • chemistry,
  • physics
  • the earth/space sciences , such as  geology, astronomy, and meteorology. 

    You do not need to have advanced knowledge in these subjects,  simply general scientific knowledge in order to answer the questions, since this paper is assessing your scientific skills rather than what you have learned or memorised. 

To summarise, the ACT Test Science section assesses your scientific skills, not your knowledge of scientific facts.

Work quickly and efficiently because here, as in the ACT test as a whole, you have less than a minute to absorb what you are being told and to answer the question.

The ACT Test - The optional writing/essay in the ACT Test

During the ACT Test essay you will have 40 minutes to respond to a prompt on a social issue,  and you will be given three opposing points of view to discuss and use as a basis for outlining your own opinion.

Your essay will be marked by two or three Readers, in line with:
  • the ideas you express and your analysis
  • how your text develops
  • organisation of the material
  • language use

Although, in theory, you may find a place at an American university if you score below 21, you would be well advised to re-sit the ACT Test and try and improve your score.

The ACT Test - registering and taking the test

Registration for the ACT:
  • Register for the ACT online HERE  
  • Open a MyACT account ,and choose the centre where you wish to sit the test. You need to do this at least five weeks ahead of your preferred date.
  • Pay the fee
  • Once this step is completed, you can download your admission ticket

You will be able to get your ACT score from your account once the results are posted.

The ACT – test day

You need to bring your test ticket and valid photo ID, in hard plastic – a paper ID  or electronic ID will not be accepted.

You cannot choose where to sit, but will be assigned a place.

Make sure you have left all your electronic equipment at home. You are not allowed to use any internet-enabled devices, even during your break time.

Bring something to eat and drink. You will not have time to go and buy food or refreshments during the break.

You need to have two No. 2 pencils with erasers, and an authorised calculator – this will be checked by the invigilator. If your watch has an alarm, make sure you disable it. Your watch cannot remain on your wrist, but must be placed face-up on your desk.

Forbidden items:

  • Highlighters
  • Coloured pencils
  • Coloured pens
  • Notes
  • Dictionaries
  • Textbooks
  • Tobacco
  • Correction fluid or correction strips
  • Mechanical pencil 
  • Mechanical pen
  • Fitness devices
  • Electronic equipment

The ACT Test - Which exam is better, SAT or ACT?

There has been a great deal of debate on this topic, with experts disagreeing on the levels of difficulty of both exams. What is clear, however, is that the ACT includes two quantitative sections – Mathematics and Science –  and two verbal sections.

The SAT, in contrast, only has one non-verbal paper, Science, so if you have a slightly lower, or less nuanced and sophisticated,  level of English then you may find the SAT more demanding than the ACT.

One other factor which needs to be taken into account is distance. International students can sit the SAT at over a thousand centres, while the ACT is offered by approximately 400.

Check this out before you make your decision.

The ACT Test - I would like to study at university in the USA, what shall I do next?

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