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The ACT has four sections. Each section is scored from 1 to 36. The composite score is the average of all four sections (also from 1 to 36). This is your official ACT score. Here is a sample ACT score report. Below is a breakdown of the four sections:
This is a hard question to answer since everyone's goals are different. Here are the national norms for ACT test scores during the 2020-2021 school year. From this chart you can see that a composite score of 29 equals the 90th percentile nationwide. A composite score of 25 is the 80th percentile. These change year by year but these are good benchmarks (for composite scores):
COLLEGES DON'T CARE
One test isn't better than the other. This is completely a preference thing. Before studying, take both tests (there are plenty of practice tests linked here). See which one you like better. Though if you prefer the SAT but consistently score higher on ACT practice tests, there's your answer!
COMPARING THE MATH SECTIONS
The math questions on the SAT are longer, but there are less of them (58 instead of 60). Also they're split up into two sections. The ACT's math section is one mad sprint -- 60 questions in 60 minutes. But the questions are shorter and more surface-level. I've had very strong math students dislike the speed of the ACT math section. I've also had weak students prefer the brevity of the ACT math questions. The only way to know is to try both tests. The SAT also has a brief grid-in section. This means there are no multiple choice answers. You have to grid in the answer yourself.
A WORD ABOUT CALCULATORS
The ACT allows a calculator. The SAT has one no-calculator section.
The ACT has a science section. But it's not really a science section (see below) and this sadly scares off kids with excellent reading comprehension scores! This is such an issue I've created a whole section addressing it.
Note also that the ACT has an optional essay (depending on whether the school you're applying to requires it -- more on the essay below). The SAT has discontinued the essay.
SAT: 3 hours
ACT: 2 hours and 55 minutes
The science section is a second reading comprehension section. You don't need to know any science to score well on this section! In fact I find it gets in the way. Kids are trying to remember obscure things about the mitochondria from freshman science instead of just reading the chart -- the answer is right there!
Yes, but it's optional. Some schools require an essay and others don't. Here's the ACT's official explanation of the essay.
The ACT essay prompt involves an issue ("Should kids be given homework?") and three perspectives on the issue. The essay is scored by two independent readers who each give it a score from 1 to 6. You can agree with one of the perspectives or all of the perspectives, but the best essays (5s and 6s) incorporate all three perspectives (including the perspective(s) you disagree with!) into a well-organized argument. This can be done by acknowledging a different point of view but explaining how and where it breaks down.
Here is an official prompt along with sample essays and their scores. Read the high scoring essays (and their explanations) carefully!
You can take the ACT 12 times. Most students take it 2-3 times.
Guess away! There's no guessing penalty on the ACT.
Make an official request here!
Yes. Here is the ACT's explanation of superscoring. Basically if get a 32 on the science section on your first test but tank and get an 18 on the science section on your second test, you can still use that 32! Superscoring means you can pick your best section scores from each test and use them to get your best possible average composite score.
The earlier the better but you can get an excellent score with three months of dedicated, concentrated effort. Emphasis on "concentrated." Thirty minutes of focused studying with no phone and no social media is much much more productive than 4 hours of meandering studying!
Take a practice test. Score it. Find patterns in your mistakes. Are you getting clumps of nonfiction passages wrong? Questions about semicolons? Geometry? Craft smaller study sessions to attack those areas. Then take another practice test.
Right here! These are all official ACT practice tests. The answer keys are at the end of each PDF. Enjoy!
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