ACT Guide - Informative ACT Test Overview

The first step to being a great supporter for your child when it comes to the ACT Test is to be well informed. This informative ACT Guide will bring you up to speed on the current format of the test, how it fits into the college application, and when your child needs to start preparing for the test.

The ACT Exam Basics

The ACT Exam is a standardized test that is widely accepted wherever the SAT is accepted. In years past, the ACT was the distant cousin of the SAT, but now the ACT is actually taken by more students.

The SAT Test itself is made up of four main sections:

There is an optional Writing section that some schools require so make sure you take a look at the application guidelines of the schools your child is most interested in to see if they require it.

The ACT is administered six times a year in the U.S., U.S. territories, Puerto Rico, and Canada: September, October, December, February, April, and June. Outside of these areas, the test is given five times a year: October, December, February, April, and June.

Scoring on the ACT ranges from 1-36 points based on a calculation outlined on the ACTstudent.org website. Students receive points for correct answers, but no points are deducted if they get a question wrong. So, it’s OK to guess.

Not so on the SAT where ¼ point is deducted for each incorrect answer.

Why is the ACT Test important?

Standardized tests provide an opportunity to “level the playing field” for students. When college admissions counselors look at grades, an “A” in Algebra at one school is going to be different than an “A” at another school. It’s like comparing apples to oranges. Conversely, when they look at ACT scores, they are now comparing apples to apples.

Adding even more to the importance of ACT test scores are the only academic measure that a student can change in a short period of time. Grades, on the other hand, are not something that can be changed come application time. They are generally set in stone by the time your child is applying for colleges.

Should my child take the SAT or ACT?

Great question! And one that we felt needed it’s own parent resource. Check out “The Great Debate: ACT vs. SAT.” or "New SAT vs ACT: That is the Question." In a nutshell, we recommend taking both tests to determine which test your child feels most comfortable with. Whatever test they decide on, that’s the one they should take a second or third time, if they think their score will increase. We don't recommend taking any test more than three times.

How is the ACT structured?

The ACT includes 215 multiple-choice questions and takes approximately 3 ½ hours to complete (including breaks). If your child chooses to do the Writing portion of the test, they can plan on being there for 4 hours, similar to the SAT.

To survive this mental marathon, a short break is scheduled after the first two tests. And if your child is taking the ACT Plus Writing, a brief break is also scheduled before the Writing portion of the test. Bringing snacks and water to enjoy during the breaks is strongly recommended. This test sucks up a lot of brain power and your student needs to maintain his/her stamina to keep going strong.

In terms of content, the chart below gives you a good idea of what is included on each section of the test.

act guide test overview

*Right click image and open in new window to enlarge.

When should my child take the ACT?

We recommend taking the ACT test twice in your student's junior year and once senior year. Taking the first test in September/October of your child's junior year is the best option since it leaves him or her the time to take it again that year. It also comes fresh off the summer, when your child has had more time to prep.

The next opportune time for taking the ACT is either the winter or spring of junior year. It's important to take a break from such a huge test so that your child can properly reflect on his/her experience. Just make sure your student isn't taking finals or AP exams at the same time, no use pulling out more hair than necessary.

The final test should be taken during the fall of senior year. This is your child's last chance to get the scores sent out to colleges. Make sure you plan accordingly with SAT Subject tests, if your child is planning on taking these. While the ACT is important, it's not worth getting burned out over.

When should students prep for the ACT?

At Testive, we recommend that students study about 100 hours prior to the test. That may sound like a lot, but spread over a 3-4 month period, it is definitely manageable. With that said, you want to plan your child’s ACT prep and test accordingly. Try to avoid busy times in your child’s life, like during a sports season, musical, or any other extracurricular activity that takes up a lot of their time. The best time to prep for many students is over the summer, when a student has the most time.

One of the great benefits of prepping with Testive is that both our test prep and coaching is focused around our students’ schedules. Everything is done online so there is no need to worry about getting your child to a prep class at a certain time or place. They can do everything right from the comfort of their own home.

How does the ACT Test fit in with college applications?

By now, hopefully you know that the ACT is a really important part of your student's college application. But it's not the only part. For more context, we spoke to Andrew Magliozzi, Harvard alum, admissions expert and author of "How To Get Into Your Harvard," about the many components of your student's application. Andrew will tell you that the admissions process works like a funnel, with an admission officer evaluating each applicant's six admission components one by one starting with grades and ending with the interview (if applicable).

University Admission Guidelines for Harvard:

Your Academic Grades

Grades are the best indicator of academic success in college, and therefore are the most important component of any college application. All those moments of telling your student to keep his or her grades up are now going to pay off. Without good grades, your student would have a much harder time of getting into a school of his or her choice. They should not be taken lightly, which is a good thing for most students. They have worked hard to earn those grades and should be confident that they can use them to their advantage in the college application process. This is advice you have probably been telling them all along, so give yourself a pat on the back for that one.

ACT Test Scores

You had to know these would be on the list somewhere near the top. Otherwise, there would be no need to call on Testive to help your student out with test prep. Standardized tests are the only thing colleges have to objectively measure your student against others with a similar academic profile.

The good news! ACT scores are the easiest thing on this list to move in a short period of time. The difference between your student's scores helping or hurting a college application can be as little as a few points and at Testive, we’ve consistently seen students improve their scores 3x the industry average.

Extracurriculars during High School

These are the reason you never see your student around the house anymore. Sports, clubs, instruments, volunteer work, or anything else a student does outside of the classroom are all a part of creating the "well-rounded student" that colleges crave. One of the caveats to this request is that what colleges really want to see is that students held leadership roles in those activities.

So if your student is on the soccer team, they should make captain before they graduate. Are they active in their student government? Better make sure they land the role of president their senior year. If that isn't enough, students must also prove that they excelled in these roles. Awards, published work, and any other accolades are all welcome, too. Students who pick activities they are passionate about will naturally want to excel in these areas and won't mind putting in the extra time.

Professional Recommendations

Up to this point, college admissions have seen grades, scores, and lists of activities. But those things aren't going to show them all the times your student stayed up past 2 a.m. to finish a history paper or capture the hours your student labored over that student government presidential speech. The way they can get some of that color is through recommendations from their educational and extracurricular mentors. These are the people who know your student the best in their respective settings and will be able to share their view into your student's busy life.

But beware! What a recommender says about a student can be just as important as what is not said. That is why it is imperative that students do not find the most famous person they know to write them a recommendation. While it's tempting to choose the "biggest fish" your student knows, it's better to stick with the one who knows your student the best.

The University Application

Phew, almost there! The next part of the application is where your student gets to share who they are with admissions. Most colleges accept the Common App, which makes it easy for students to send their applications to multiple colleges. Included in the application are writing supplements required by specific schools and an essay that goes to every school.

The college essay, that daunting piece of writing that a many students break pencils, rather keyboards, over, is where students have the chance to explain why they are qualified to get into the school of their dreams. Or so they think. The truth is that it is where they get to share a small moment of their life that illustrates who they are. That's not even the best part! They're encouraged to do this in SUPER simple writing, as in something a fourth grader would understand.

Admissions officers are ready to pull their hair out by the end of the day. The last thing they want to read is an entire essay of SAT vocab words. Show, don't tell, should become your child's latest assignment. If it takes a taped piece of paper on your student's computer to help them understand that, then so be it. When they get into Harvard, they'll have you to thank.

The College Interview

Interviews, in any context, are nerve racking. The interview that determines which school your student will be a part of for four years can be even scarier than going to the dentist. Luckily, many colleges are doing away with the interview, but there are still a few schools that use them, Harvard included. Basically, interviewers are looking to confirm what they have already heard about the student. As long as your student didn't tell admissions that he is the real inventor of Facebook and is responsible for landing the first human on the moon, you have nothing to worry about.

Instead of sweating through the process and stuttering through a conversation with a complete stranger, your student can do some research on their interviewee ahead of time. Usually it's an alum from the school who would most likely rather be doing other things. To make it easy on them, your student should bring a resume with scores and a GPA on it so that the interviewer has the information in front of them. Doing a quick LinkedIn stalk is also a good way for the student to know who they're dealing with. Also, make sure your student is ready to answer the question "Why *insert school name here*?". Doing some research on the school beforehand will be a very important process that should not be skipped.

A lot of schools are doing away with interviews, but there are still some that use them. And, if you think it will help your cause, make sure you ask for one. This shows initiative. Just make sure when you get there, you sit up straight, look the interviewer in the eye, and ask intelligent questions. The worst thing you can do is show up, shirt untucked, slouch in your chair, look at the floor, and respond with a lot of, “Uh-huh” and “Yup.” This is a waste of everybody’s time and will work against you rather than for you.

Now that you know all about the ACT, schedule a call with us so we can help you create a personalized study plan for your student.