In reaction to the ACT and SAT being canceled several times in 2020, more than half of all four-year colleges decided to go “test-optional” for Fall 2021 admissions—and possibly beyond.
With such radical changes to the college-application process, you’ll need to know just what purpose the ACT serves and how it contributes to what colleges consider when they evaluate applicants.
Rather than whether you’re required to take the test, the better question may be whether you should take the ACT.
The purpose of the ACT is to measure a high school student’s readiness for college and career
In 1959, the ACT was developed as an alternative to the SAT. Rather than testing cognitive reasoning (as the SAT did at the time), the ACT would test students on information they learned—or were supposed to learn—in school. In 2016 the SAT was redesigned to become a college-readiness test, thus making its format much more similar to that of the ACT.
What is the ACT? It’s a standardized test designed to assess the essential skills and knowledge students need in order to be ready for college and career, thus serving as a link between what students have already learned and what they are ready to learn next. When students take the ACT, educators receive valuable information for guidance and curriculum development that enables them to assist students with college and career planning, as well as evaluate the effectiveness of instruction and make improvements to curriculum.
While the ACT is similar to the SAT, there are still several important differences
It has now been more than 50 years during which the ACT and SAT have coexisted as college-readiness exams in the United States, with many students choosing to take both tests. The class of 2020 saw about 2.2 million students take the SAT and 1.7 million take the ACT. While there still are significant differences between the SAT and ACT, both tests now serve the same purpose: to measure a high school student’s readiness for college, and to provide colleges with one common data point that can be used to compare all applicants.
SAT vs ACT
Every university in the U.S. accepts scores from both tests, so you may naturally be wondering, Should I take the ACT or SAT? To answer that question, it helps to know the structure and design of each test. Here’s what’s on the ACT.
- The ACT begins with the English Test (45 minutes).
- Next is the Mathematics Test (60 minutes).
- After that is the Reading Test (35 minutes).
- Since the ACT has only one Math section, its fourth section is the Science Test (35 minutes).
- After the four required section is the “fifth section,” also known as the experimental section. This 20-minute section, which covers either English, Math, Reading, or Science, will not count toward your score.
- If the student signs up for it in advance, the final section will be the Writing Test (40 minutes).
- Including breaks, the total time for the ACT is 4 hours, 10 minutes with the essay and 3 hours, 25 minutes without it.
Contrast the above to the list below, what’s on the SAT:
- The SAT begins with two sections in the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing portion: the Reading Test (65 minutes) and the Writing and Language Test (35 minutes).
- After that are two sections in the Math portion: the No Calculator Test (25 minutes) and the Calculator test (55 minutes).
- Following the four required sections is the SAT’s experimental “fifth section” (20 minutes). Like the ACT, the SAT’s fifth section does not count toward your score.
- Including breaks, the SAT is 3 hours, 35 minutes long.
Not only do the two tests differ in format and content, but they also use two completely different scoring systems. While the SAT uses a scale from 400-1600 (200-800 for each of the two main portions), ACT scores range from 1 to 36 for each of its tests, with the composite score being an average of those four scores.
For those planning to take the ACT for college application purposes, it’s important to remember that essentially all institutions of higher learning will accept your superscore: rather than looking at your best individual composite score, colleges and universities will accept the highest average of your four best section scores, regardless of which tests those scores come from.
Submitting ACT scores is still a requirement for many colleges
As students progress through high school, they keep hearing about these tests they need to take to get into college—or at least that’s how they often view those tests. If that sounds familiar, then you’ve probably asked the question, Is the ACT mandatory? For some states, yes. Twelve states require every junior to take the ACT as a statewide assessment, with eight more states requiring the test in some of their school districts.
Is the ACT required?
Submitting ACT scores is indeed a prerequisite for many college applications, so it’s best that you check in advance to see if any of the schools you’re considering want you to submit ACT scores. Although many colleges and universities still have such a requirement, about 40% of the nation’s schools have made the move to test-optional—a broad category with policies varying significantly from college to college.
- Test-required: All applicants must submit an ACT or SAT score, with each college having its own standards on what scores qualify students for acceptance.
- Test-optional: Students get to decide whether they want to submit test scores with their application. While such schools will almost always consider submitted ACT or SAT scores, they tend to focus on factors they believe are stronger predictors of a student’s readiness for college: grades, coursework, essays, and recommendations.
- Test-flexible: Students are able to submit other test scores in place of the ACT or SAT, such as Advanced Placements tests or International Baccalaureate exams.
- Test-blind: Such colleges (less than 1% of all schools) will not consider test scores, even if you submit them.
Some test-optional schools may still require test scores in certain situations, such as for students pursuing specific majors, or for international or even out-of-state students. Others may use the ACT as a placement exam for the freshman class. Occasionally, applicants may be exempted from having to submit test scores if they meet a certain standard based on an index calculated from their GPA, test scores, and class rank. In some cases, colleges will ask for additional materials instead of test scores, such as samples of academic work, scientific research, or recommendation letters.
Due to all the disruptions caused by the pandemic, many colleges and universities temporarily suspended ACT and SAT requirements. Now more than half of American colleges and universities are test-optional in some way, so it’s best to check first in order to determine if the colleges you’re interested in require a test score on their applications. Schools still want as much information about you as possible, however, so it’s likely that other parts of your application—your grades, essays, extracurricular activities, and achievements—will be closely scrutinized to determine whether you will be admitted.
Even with the current trend, there are still benefits to taking the ACT
What are the benefits of taking the ACT? First and foremost, submitting ACT (and SAT) scores routinely increases a student’s chances of being admitted to college. Second students who submit scores are more likely to receive financial aid and place out of remedial and introductory courses, even at test-optional schools. For students with low grade-point averages, a high test score can provide admissions officers with additional information about their potential to succeed in college. Ultimately, it’s important to remember that few colleges and universities have completely done away with standardized tests as tool for assessing potential students.
Is the ACT necessary? Why take it if it’s optional? The quick answer is that just because ACT scores aren’t required on a college application doesn’t mean admissions officers totally disregard them. The ACT is still tied to college placement in a number of ways.
Some high schools require students to take the ACT in order to graduate, while a handful of others use the test as a sort of cumulative exam. Like colleges, some high schools dropped the requirement in light of Covid, so it’s best to make sure you know whether you need to take either the ACT or SAT in order to graduate highs school.
As a general rule, make you sure to confirm all requirements in advance, as many test-optional colleges are still considering test scores when awarding scholarships. Don’t put yourself at a disadvantage by not submitting your ACT scores.
Determining personal qualification
Although some schools do accept ACT alternatives on applications, the best gauge of personal fit for a particular college is to look at the range of ACT scores they usually accept. For example, if your ACT score is above average—say, a 27—but the college you’re applying lists the average score for applicants at 33, you may want to consider whether you can handle the academic rigors of such an institution. Yes, many schools have suspended ACT requirements, but their standards are still evident in the scores that qualifying students are normally expected to achieve.
Secure the help of an expert tutor if you choose to take the ACT
Ultimately, the ACT is a test of how well you can take the ACT, so the more you practice, the more you will recognize the different question types and thus settle more quickly on the right strategy. There are plenty of free ACT resources online, particularly the copies of previous tests that are available for download, along with the answer keys and tables by which you can determine your scaled scores. An expert ACT tutor gives you the best chance of achieving your target score by helping you review and evaluate your ACT results and practice tests. While you may recognize your mistakes after looking at the answers, a tutor can better identify which strategies may have been more appropriate so you can make quick and efficient strategy decisions.
If you’re like most students, you are especially in need of help with ACT Math prep. In addition to utilizing the excellent prep materials out there, you’ll want the extra edge of an ACT math tutor who can teach you how to study for the ACT. An experienced tutor will help you make a decision on ACT vs. SAT based upon all the differences between the math sections, as well as instruct you on how to use your graphing calculator most effectively. And thanks to the development of dynamic online learning platforms, your ACT tutoring can be just as effective as if your tutor were right next to you.
When do you take the ACT? After setting up MyACT account on the ACT website, you will be able to register for tests, view your results, and send scores to colleges. (If you are not a resident of the United States, there is a separate portal for test registration.) The ACT is administered seven times a year, in February, April, June, July, September, October, and December. Make sure you check for test centers near your location, as Covid restrictions continue to affect available capacity. Any changes in availability should be communicated through your MyACT account.
You can take the ACT multiple times, but you’ll have register for the entire test (for now)
You may have heard that ACT was planning to permit students to retake individual sections once they had taken the entire test. Since colleges and universities already do superscoring anyway, it made sense to offer students the opportunity to retake only the sections for which they wanted to raise their scores.
Although this proposed policy change is clearly appealing to students and tutors alike, the effects of Covid have led ACT to change course for now: “Though there are merits to this enhancement, we have renewed our commitment to provide students with as many opportunities as possible to take the full ACT test.”
If you have taken or are planning to take the ACT, you can get access to the actual test by signing up for the Test Information Release (TIR). For those of you taking the ACT more than once, TIR is a great study tool that can help you increase your score the next time you take the test. Once you receive your copy of the test questions, a list of your answers, and the answer key, you and your tutor can review your performance in depth to determine what improvements can be made.
The next steps to a 36 on your ACT
If you are wondering how to get a 36 on the ACT, this stage of the prep process is critical: identify your mistakes, make adjustments, retake the test, and repeat if necessary.
Whether your choice college still requires the ACT or has gone test-optional, you will want the advantage that comes with including your scores on your application. Given sufficient time to prepare and the right ACT tutor, you can surely realize your goals and get the ACT scores you desire.