What does ACT stand for? Here’s the answer for those trivia seekers! The ACT originally stood for American College Test, but now it’s just called by its three letters — A–C–T.

Kind of like deciding on a major, it’s a big deal. Here’s what your child needs to know to get ready for this all-important test.

What is the ACT?

The ACT is a multiple-choice entrance exam used by most colleges and universities — from liberal arts colleges to large state universities. This test is one component of your entire profile that admission committees use to make admission decisions. 

The test, administered by ACT Inc., simply measures your college readiness. It also provides colleges with a yardstick to compare all students who apply to their school.

But don’t worry, your ACT isn’t the only factor. College admission committees review your high school GPA, the classes you take in high school, letters of recommendation from teachers or mentors, extracurricular activities, admission interviews and personal essays.

This can be a tad confusing: Various schools put a different weight on the ACT. Some schools might not consider the ACT for admission at all. Generally, the higher you score on the ACT, the more options you’ll have for attending and paying for college.

What is the History of the ACT?

Everet Franklin Lindquist, professor of education at the University of Iowa, launched the American College Testing Program in 1959. He designed the ACT to test students’ general educational development. In other words, Lindquist wanted to test practical knowledge — academic achievement over intelligence. The ACT’s rival, the SAT, tested mainly theory-based reasoning skills. 

The first ACT was a four-part exam. It included 45-minute sections for English, mathematics, social studies and natural science. Lindquist’s test was scored using a 36-point system — and that scoring system is still used today.

Many of the 75,000 students who took the test in 1959 were Midwesterners. The SAT is still more popular on the coasts and the ACT is still taken more heavily in the middle of the country.

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ACT Changes Over the Years

The ACT has changed a bit over the years:

  • The ACT underwent a makeover in 1989. It swapped out the social studies and natural science sections and replaced them with reading and science reasoning.
  • ACT added a writing section in 2005. This was a clear countermove in response to the SAT’s writing section.

ACT recently unrolled some new options — but they won’t be officially available until September 2020:

  • Single section retesting: You will be able to retest just one, two or three section(s) without having to take the whole test again. For example, let’s say you take the full test on one of the national test dates. You’re not crazy about your math score, so you take only the math test at a later date and try to achieve a higher score the second time. 
  • You can report your superscore: Superscoring means that you average your four best individual subject scores from each individual ACT test. For example, let’s say you take the ACT once and get a 24 on the math test and a 32 on the English test. Let’s say you take it again. This time, you get a 25 on the math test and a 30 on the English test. You can send colleges two of your best scores from these two different test dates — the 25 on the math test and the 32 on the English test. You will also be able to submit these ACT superscores directly to colleges and universities. Just make sure the colleges you’re applying to accept superscores — not all of them do.
  • You can opt for online testing: Bye-bye, traditional paper testing — if you choose. You can now take every ACT online during national test dates. Traditional paper testing is still available if you’re more comfortable with that method. The advantage to online testing? You’ll get your scores back much more quickly — in as little as two days. 

What is on the ACT?

The ACT is divided into four specific testing areas, with an optional writing section. The tests are in this order: English, mathematics, reading and science.


The first test on the ACT is the English test. The English test is 45 minutes long and contains 75 questions. You get to edit the text — the ACT tests you on grammar, sentence structure and punctuation. In other words, you’ll need to insert where you think a passage needs a semicolon or a period, for example. It’ll also test your ability to critically understand how a passage flows and more.


Next, you’ll take the mathematics test. The mathematics test is 60 minutes long and contains 60 questions. It’s roughly divided into these types of math problems:

  • Pre-algebra: About 20 percent
  • Elementary algebra: About 20 percent 
  • Intermediate algebra: About 20 percent
  • Coordinate geometry: About 15 percent 
  • Plane geometry: About 20 percent
  • Trigonometry: About five percent

The ACT math section requires you to answer various word problems and others are straightforward math problems. Some have graphs or charts.

They range from easy to hard. The first 1-20 questions are easy, questions 21-40 are somewhat challenging and questions 41-60 are difficult. You might need to budget more time on the more challenging questions toward the end of the test.


Next, you’ll take the reading test — but not before you get a break! There’s a 10- to 15-minute break between the math and reading tests. The reading test is 35 minutes long and contains 40 questions. Specifically, you’ll read and answer questions about themes, tone and purpose. Overall, you’ll answer questions about how well you understand a particular passage. Specific topics include: 

  • Prose fiction/literary narrative: This section involves fiction passages and literary memoirs. You’ll be asked to read and then answer these multiple-choice questions.
  • Social science: You’ll also answer questions about passages in psychology, sociology and education.
  • Humanities: You’ll be asked to read and answer questions in the humanities — including essays and memoirs, plus nonfiction pieces on philosophy, literature and the arts.
  • Natural science: This section involves science topics like biology, chemistry, physics and medicine.

Note: You will not need to be a subject matter expert in any of these topics. You should be able to read (quickly, though!) and use your reading comprehension skills to answer any of the questions involved.

Science Reasoning

Science reasoning is the last required section. The science section is 35 minutes long and contains 40 questions. The science section doesn’t actually test your specific science knowledge — it tests your ability to interpret scientific information using charts and graphs.


Finally, the ACT writing test is a 40-minute essay test that measures your writing skills. Many colleges and universities don’t require you to take the writing test — that’s good news for those of you who really don’t like to write! You can decide whether to sign up for the writing test after you ask the admission offices at the schools you’re applying to whether you should take the writing test.

Here’s how it works:

You’ll get a prompt that describes a complicated issue and which presents three different perspectives on that issue. You must write your answer in pencil on the lined pages of an answer folder. Students with a disability who cannot handwrite the essay will not have to write it by hand. (Check out information for students with disabilities on ACT’s website.)

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When is the ACT Offered?

The ACT is always offered during the following months: 

  • February
  • April
  • June
  • July (Note: The ACT is not offered in New York state in July.)
  • September
  • October
  • December

Don’t forget to sign up for the ACT by the registration deadline. The registration deadline is usually during the month preceding the test date, but if you don’t manage to sign up on time, there’s always a late registration deadline. 

Visit ACT for more information about test dates and learn how to register for a test.

Take the ACT

Knowing what’s on the ACT and what it stands for is great — but don’t forget to practice! Go through a few practice tests online or get a tutorial book from your local library.

Ask about the ACT when you’re on college campuses. You might already be asking, “What is the FAFSA?” and “What is rolling admission?” during your college visits. But don’t forget to ask each admission counselor when you should take the ACT.

Even more importantly, ask your admission counselor what ACT score each college requires. It’ll give you something to shoot for.

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