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Duke University
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Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


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What Does ACT Stand For? Plus, 10 Free Resources to Help You Ace It.

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Wondering what “ACT” stands for? ACT was an acronym for American College Test and was used when the exam was first introduced in 1959. These days, that title has been dropped, and ACT actually no longer stands for anything. However, the test has continued to be an important part of the college application process for many students in the U.S.


History of the ACT


The Founding of the ACT: The father of the ACT was Everett Franklin Lindquist, a Professor of Education at the University of Iowa, who had been working on standardized testing since the 1920s. Working with the University of Iowa Registrar Ted McCarrel, the duo sought to remedy flaws they perceived with the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test)—namely, it tested a student’s capacity for learning rather than what they’ve learned. 


Why Middle America Favors the ACT: Thanks to its midwestern roots—the ACT was founded in Iowa City, Iowa, and is still headquartered there today—the exam has historically been more popular in the Midwestern and Southern regions of the U.S. The popularity within these geographic regions is also a counterbalance to the SAT, which has its origins in prestigious east coast institutions such as Princeton and Harvard. Even today, the SAT is favored on the coasts while the ACT remains popular in the middle of the country. 


The First ACT: In 1959, the first ACT test was administered to just over 75,000 test takers. Consisting of four sections—English, Mathematics, Social Studies, and Natural Sciences—and taking 3 hours and 45 minutes to complete, test takers received a score on a scale of 0 to 36 and a composite score for the four sections. (One noticeable difference between the ACT then and now is that today the ACT is scored on a 1 to 36 scale.) In a little over a decade, the ACT established itself as a very popular alternative to the SAT with a million students taking the exam in 1972. 


Changes to the ACT: The first major changes to ACT happened in 1989 with a redesign called “enhanced ACT” which replaced the Social Studies and Natural Science sections with Reading and Science Reasoning sections. The next notable change to the ACT occurred in 2005 with the addition of an optional writing test in response to the SAT’s decision to add an Essay section. 


The ACT vs. the SAT: Today, the ACT rivals the SAT in popularity. For much of the 2010s, the ACT was the more popular of the two tests, only relinquishing its title in 2018 when the SAT hit an all-time high of 2.1 million test takers, compared to 1.9 million students sitting for the ACT. 


New Changes for the ACT: Starting September 2020, the ACT will allow students to retake single sections of the exam to improve their score, rather than requiring them to retake the entire test. Additionally, they announced a new “superscore.” The superscore will allow students who’ve taken the test more than once to use the best scores they received for each section. Also starting in September of 2020, students will have the choice of taking the ACT with paper and pencil, or online—making it more familiar to a generation that grew up with technology. 


To learn more about the recent changes to the ACT, check out our blog ACT Will Allow Students to Retake Specific Sections.


Now That You Know What the ACT Stands For: Currently, the ACT is developed and administered by a nonprofit organization, ACT Inc. If you’re interested in learning more about the philosophy behind the test, its history, and the ongoing educational research performed by ACT Inc., check out their official website at act.org.


What subjects are on the ACT? How long does the ACT Take?


The ACT consists of four sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science Reasoning. Each of these sections is made up of multiple-choice questions. The number of questions and time allowed per section are listed below:


Section Number of Questions Time
English 75 45 minutes
Math 60 60 minutes
Break 10 minutes
Reading 40 35 minutes
Science Reasoning 40 35 minutes
Break (it taking the Writing section) 5 minutes
Writing (optional) 40 minutes
TOTAL (with breaks and essay) 3 hours 50 minutes


After each section is assessed and given a section score, the section scores are averaged and rounded to the nearest whole number to form a composite score between 1-36. The average student score on the ACT varies from year to year, but it’s usually around 20-21.


The ACT also includes an optional Writing section, which is 40 minutes long and requires test-takers to write an essay in response to a prompt. The Writing section is scored from 1-6 by 2 essay graders, and those two scores add up to form your total Writing score, ranging from 2-12. The Writing score is not integrated into the overall composite score.


While the Writing section isn’t required by the ACT itself, some colleges may independently require you to register for and take the ACT with Writing. Check with the colleges you’re interested in to find out about their specific requirements, and if you need to take the ACT with Writing, make sure you register for that version of the test.


Should I Take the ACT?


The ACT is popular nationwide and it’s accepted by almost all major colleges for admissions purposes. Some students in the applicant pool will take the ACT, some will take the SAT, and many choose to take both.


In general, the choice on whether to take the ACT is up to you. There’s no notable advantage to taking one of these college admissions tests over the other. Colleges you apply to will accept either or both, and don’t treat either test preferentially when assessing applicants. (Check with a specific college’s admissions office if you’re not sure about their policies.)


You may run into specific situations where one test offers opportunities that the other doesn’t. For instance, some scholarship programs are based on your scores from one specific test. A major example is the National Merit Scholarship Program, which considers only your scores on the PSAT and SAT, not the ACT.


Or, maybe your state requires the ACT for graduation, and offers it for free. In this case, it would be more efficient to take only the ACT instead of studying for both the ACT and the SAT.


On a more personal level, you may find that the ACT simply suits you better. Maybe you get nervous about the idea of a no-calculator section on the SAT, so ACT Math would be better for you, as the math section allows calculators at all times. Or, maybe you like Science, and would excel on the ACT’s Science section. It’s worth at least looking into both the SAT and ACT and taking a practice test or doing some practice questions to get a sense for how you perform.


For more information about the differences between the ACT and SAT, see our post: ACT vs. SAT/SAT Subject Tests.


In the end, what’s most important is that you fulfill your requirements and present yourself in a way that maximizes your strengths. Feel free to take the ACT if you think you can make a strong showing, or if it’s required by your high school, college, or scholarship program. However, if you aren’t required to take the ACT and think that you’ll do better on the SAT, you won’t face a penalty for not taking it.


How Much it Costs to Take the ACT


The cost of taking the ACT is $52 without the writing section and $68 with the writing section—those fees include reports for you, your high school, and up to four colleges. Additional score reports cost $14 apiece. You can receive a copy of your ACT—including test questions, your answers, answer key and essay prompt scoring rubric, and scores for an extra $22. 


Beginning Fall 2020, students will be allowed to retake a single section of the ACT, rather than having to retake the entire test. The ACT has not yet released the expense of retaking single sections of the exam, but ACT Chief Commercial Officer Suzana Delanghe told CNN that “the single-section retake will be less expensive than taking the complete ACT again, so that should help make retesting more affordable for many students.”


There are some ways to minimize the cost of taking the ACT, the first of which is to register for the test on time: there is a $30 fee for late registration. 


Fee waivers are also available for economically challenged students. The fee waiver covers the cost of the ACT (with Writing or without), one report to the student’s high school and 6 colleges at time of registration, and up to 20 additional score reports.


The ACT recommends working with your high school to determine eligibility for a fee waiver, but you must meet a few requirements to qualify: 


  • Currently enrolled in high school in the 11th or 12th grade
  • Be testing in the U.S., U.S. territories, or Puerto Rico
  • Meet one or more indicators of economic need listed on the ACT Fee Waiver form
    • Enrolled in a federal free or reduced-price lunch program at school
    • Enrolled in a program for the economically disadvantaged (for example, a federally funded program such as GEAR UP or Upward Bound)
    • Resides in a foster home, is a ward of the state, or is homeless
    • Your family receives low-income public assistance or lives in federally subsidized public housing.
    • Your family’s total annual income is at or below USDA levels for free or reduced-price lunches 


For more information on fee waivers, see the ACT Fee Waiver Eligibility Requirements.


Learning More About the ACT: Resources from CollegeVine


This post, of course, presents only a brief overview of the ACT. If you decide to take this test, there’s a lot more you’ll need to know, from preparing for the test to interpreting your scores. Knowing what to expect is key to a successful test-taking experience.


Fortunately, CollegeVine has your back. In the ACT Info and Tips section of our blog, you’ll find a wide range of posts that delve deeply into all the ACT details you need to learn. Here’s a selection of posts to read to get started on building your ACT knowledge.


ACT Section Guides + Other Articles


Each section of the ACT has its own content and structure, and we’ve got helpful tips to navigate each one. You’ll find all the nitty-gritty details in these section guides.


A Guide to the English Section of the ACT


A Guide to the Math Section of the ACT

A Guide to the Reading Section of the ACT

A Guide to the Science Reasoning Section of the ACT

A Guide to the Optional ACT Writing Section


Other CollegeVine posts:


CollegeVine YouTube Channel

Links to All Official ACT Practice Tests + Other Free Resources

What is a Good ACT Score?


Additional ACT Resources 


In addition to CollegeVine’s ACT section guides, you’ll find numerous great resources for getting yourself prepared to score well on the ACT.


The Princeton Review: The Princeton Review offers free pen-and-paper practice ACT tests, along with free online practice tests. According to the ACT, repeat testers scored 2.9 points higher on the exam than those who take the exam only once—signaling the more familiar you are with the test, the better you’ll score. 


ACT Academy: The ACT’s own test prep tool—ACT Academy—is a free online resource designed to help you reach your ACT goals. Using a variety of tools such as video lessons, interactive practice questions, full-length practice tests, and educational games, ACT Academy will help you master the information and strategies necessary to score well on the ACT. 


PrepFactory: Accessible, interactive, fun, and free the engaging nature of PrepFactory’s ACT prep might actually make you excited to study. With personalized study paths to address your specific weaknesses, quizzes, and interactive game-like questions, PrepFactory is an awesome and appealing way to prepare for the ACT. 


Wondering how your ACT score impacts your chances of acceptance? Our free chancing engine takes into consideration your ACT score, in addition to other profile factors, such as GPA and extracurricular activities to give you your odds of acceptance at over 500 schools. Create your free CollegeVine account to discover your chances at admission today!

Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.