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

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When the ACT was first introduced in 1959, its name was an acronym for American College Testing. 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.


Not everyone who’s applying to college chooses to take the ACT; historically, it’s been more popular in the Midwestern and Southern regions of the U.S. Still, millions take it every year, whether because they’re required to or because they choose to.


If you fit into either category, or if you’re considering adding the ACT to your college prep schedule, here’s our quick guide to the basics of this important exam.


Introducing the ACT


As you may already know, the ACT is a standardized academic test designed to measure a high school student’s readiness for college. In this sense, it’s quite similar to the SAT; however, it arose from a different educational philosophy. In fact, it was designed explicitly as an alternative to the SAT’s approach, and its content and goals differ accordingly.


The ACT has been around since 1959, but it’s been revised and updated multiple times since then. It’s also dramatically extended its reach. Once used primarily in the Midwest and South and much less popular on the coasts, it’s now popular nationwide and accepted by most colleges. Starting in 2012, it actually surpassed the SAT in number of test-takers per year.


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 Makes Up the Test?


As of the fall of 2018, 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
Reading 40 35 minutes
Science Reasoning 40 35 minutes


After each section is assessed and given a section score, the section scores are averaged together and converted into a composite score out of 36. The average student score on the ACT varies from year to year, but it’s usually around 20.


The ACT also includes an optional Writing section, which is 40 minutes long and requires test-takers to write essays in response to prompts. The Writing section is scored out of 12, and 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, as it’s known. 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.

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Should I Take the ACT?


As we’ve noted, the ACT is now popular nationwide, and it’s accepted by almost all major colleges for admissions purposes. Some students in any 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. Chances are that the 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.) Again, specific scholarship programs can provide you with the details about their particular requirements.


On a more personal level, you may find that the ACT simply suits you better. There may be something about its particular setup and philosophy that makes you comfortable—and perhaps even able to achieve a higher score as compared to the SAT. It’s worth at least looking into the ACT and taking some practice tests to get a sense for how you perform.


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.


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 how to register and prepare for the test to how to interpret and report your eventual 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


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


Should You Take Both the SAT and the ACT?


Many students take both tests, but is this the right path for you? This is what you’ll need to consider as you make your choice.


Finding and Achieving Your Target ACT Score


Every test-taker wants to achieve the best score they can. Here’s how to set goals that are realistic but challenging for you—and then go on to meet them.


A Complete Guide to Your ACT Score Report


You may be most focused on that single composite score out of 36, but there’s a lot more useful information on your ACT score report. Maximize what you get out of your testing experience with this guide.


Your Official ACT to SAT Score Conversion Chart


With two immensely popular and competing college admissions tests in the mix, it’s often useful to be able to compare your ACT score to its equivalent on the SAT’s scoring scale. Here’s our most updated conversion chart.


What You Need to Know About Submitting ACT & SAT Scores to Colleges


The process of choosing and submitting your test scores to colleges is more complicated than it might appear. Here’s what you should keep in mind about when and how to send scores, especially when superscoring and score choice come into play.


Want more help in prepping for the ACT or SAT? Consider CollegeVine’s online SAT Tutoring. Our expert tutors streamline the process for you by analyzing your diagnostic for you and providing guidance about strategies to implement. Plus, we have proven results: our students accounted for 3% of perfect scorers in the world. 

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Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
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.