2021 ACT Test Dates and Deadlines

Although the number of test-optional colleges is on the rise, performing well on one of the two major college entrance exams, the ACT and the SAT, still plays a large role in admissions decisions at many schools.

If you’re planning to take the ACT, here’s a list of upcoming test dates, plus some tips for scheduling your test so you can perform your best.

What is the ACT?

The ACT is a standardized test that colleges use to assess a student’s preparedness for higher education. The goal of the test is to show what a specific student has learned in high school, and to give schools a common data point when comparing applicants. The ACT has four mandatory sections—English, Math, Reading, and Science—along with an optional writing section. Each section is scored between 1-36, and your composite score is the average of those four section scores (for non-integer averages, the composite score is rounded to the nearest integer). There is also an optional essay section. Without the essay, the test is 3.5 hours long, and with the essay, it’s 4 hours.

When Should You Take the ACT?

The ACT is offered seven times a year: February, April, June, July, September, October, and December. Although students are allowed to take the ACT up to 12 times, we recommend that students take it no more than three or four times.

On the flip side, we do recommend that students take the ACT more than once; studies show that students who take the exam more than once score 2.9 points higher than those who take it only a single time.

 ACT Test Date Registration Deadline Registration with Late Fee February 6, 2021 January 8, 2021 January 9-15, 2021 April 17, 2021 March 12, 2021 March 13-26, 2021 June 12, 2021 May 7, 2021 May 8-21, 2021 July 17, 2021* June 18, 2021 June 19–25, 2021 September 2021 TBD TBD October 2021 TBD TBD December 2021 TBD TBD

*No test centers are scheduled in New York for the July test date.

How is COVID-19 Impacting the ACT?

Because many students were unable to take the ACT this year, most colleges have gone test-optional for the 2020-2021 cycle. Currently, it’s unclear if that policy will be extended.

If you took the ACT but aren’t sure whether or not to submit your score, we recommend submitting if your score is within 3 points of the 25th percentile at the colleges on your list. For example, if your school’s middle 50% ACT range is 29-32, you should submit your score if you have a 26 or above.

Average standardized test scores have decreased in 2020, and many students were unable to take the ACT more than once, if at all, so superscores have also gone down.

For more info on whether you should submit your scores, see our post: Should You Apply Test-Optional for the 2020-2021 Cycle?

If your 2021 ACT is canceled, don’t panic. Many other students are likely in the same boat. If COVID-19 continues to disrupt testing, it’s likely that colleges will go test-optional for another application cycle.

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How to Register for the ACT

Registration for the ACT typically falls 4-5 weeks prior to the exam date, with a late registration available for an additional cost available 2-3 weeks in advance of the test. The vast majority of students will register for the ACT online—which is what we recommend students do—however, it’s possible to register for the ACT via mail. To do so, you’ll need to get a mail packet from your school counselor, or you can request one from the ACT.

Cost of the ACT

It costs $52 to take the standard ACT—the four mandatory sections. For$68, students can take the standard ACT along with the optional writing test. Included in both costs are reports for you, your high school, and up to four colleges. Students registering for the ACT late are hit with an additional \$30 fee.

The ACT also has a fee-waiver program for students with financial difficulties. To qualify for the fee-waiver program, a student is required to be enrolled in the 11th or 12th grade and be testing in the US, a US territory, or Puerto Rico. They must also meet one of these economic indicators:

• Enrolled in the federal free or reduced-price lunch program
• Registered in a program for the economically disadvantaged such as GEAR UP or Upward Bound
• Reside in a foster home, are a ward of the state, or homeless
• The student’s family receives low-income public assistance or lives in federally subsidized public housing
• The student’s family’s total annual income is at or below USDA levels for free or reduced-price lunches

Tips for Scheduling the ACT

There are a few main considerations as you schedule your test. You want to:

• Make sure you’ve covered the material in class before testing
• Allow ample time for retakes (finish ideally before senior year)
• Watch college application and scholarship deadlines
• Avoid scheduling a test during other time-consuming commitments

Make sure you’ve covered the material in class before testing.

The ACT Math section covers topics from Algebra 2, and some Pre-calculus concepts. Try to have finished at least Algebra 2 before your test.

Allow ample time for retakes (finish ideally before senior year).

One strategy is to get a jump on your college testing by taking the ACT in the summer between 10th and 11th grade, in either June or July. The belief behind this is that without school in session, students can better focus on prepping for the exam and aren’t dealing with the stress of regular school work. By taking the test this early in your high school career, you also allow the maximum amount of time for retaking the test.

At the very least, we recommend taking the ACT for the first time by fall of 11th grade, either in September or October. This allows students ample time to study and retake the ACT in the spring, either February or April, if necessary.

This schedule gives students at least 3 tries before their senior year, so they can conclude their testing before the stress of fall college admissions tasks.

Watch college application and scholarship deadlines.

An added benefit of this junior year timeline is that students have their scores in advance of early decision and early action deadlines, where you’d need your score by at least October of your senior year. Some colleges also automatically consider students for merit scholarships, if they submit a complete application (including test scores) by an earlier deadline than Regular Decision. Finishing your testing before senior year allows you to take advantage of these opportunities, too.

Avoid scheduling a test during other time-consuming commitments.

Finally, you should of course avoid taking the ACT during a busy season of your life. If you know you’ll have theater rehearsal in October, maybe take the December testing date instead. You want to have ample time to study; scheduling the ACT during a lighter period will help you do that.

ACT Tips and Strategies

What to expect: There are a lot of great resources available to students preparing for the ACT; because of this, you should enter your ACT exam with a clear understanding of how the test is ordered, the directions for each test section, what type of questions to expect, and how to pace yourself. The ACT itself offers a handful of online materials to help students prep for the test—and students who qualify for a fee waiver also gain free access to them. CollegeVine also offers a wealth of valuable info for those taking the ACT, including these section guides:

No Blanks: The best part about multiple-choice tests such as the ACT is that the right answer is on the page in front of you. The ACT doesn’t penalize for incorrect answers, so try to cross off one or two wrong answers, then, if the answer doesn’t become more obvious, you can at least make an educated guess. Also, because there is no penalty for wrong answers, you should never leave an answer blank. Pick a “lucky” letter and if you have to guess, use it each time. You’re more likely to pick up points if you’re consistent.

All About the Pace: The ACT is well-known for its fast pace. Test takers can prepare themselves to move swiftly through the sections by taking lots of practice tests and paying close attention to the clock. Another favorite strategy is to divide and conquer by categorizing questions into three categories: those you can answer now, those you can answer later but will require more time, and those that you’ll never get an answer to. Using this strategy, you can move quickly through the questions you know the answers to, not waste any time on the questions you’ll never get, and use the majority of your allotted time where you need.

Professional Help: Standardized tests require specific skills and knowledge, and even excellent students will sometimes struggle with the formatting, pacing, and test-induced anxiety of an exam such as the ACT. If you feel like you need help, seek out an established professional for guidance.

If you have questions about your college path, sign up for a free CollegeVine account. Our free college admissions platform is designed to help lead students through the various steps taken from high school to higher ed, including choosing a school, gaining acceptance, estimating the overall expense, and more.