Let's Get Basic with the ACT: What You Need to Know

Updated: Nov 15, 2019

What is the ACT?

The ACT is a college admissions test accepted by universities in the United States for admissions consideration. It is a standardized test intended to show colleges you’re college readiness based on your knowledge of general skills learned throughout your academic career. It is common for students to take the ACT during their Junior year of high school since they will have taken the math they will need and there is time to retake the test if you aren’t satisfied with your score. The test consists of 4 subject sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science with an optional Writing test. The test is offered on Saturdays throughout the year and takes approximately 4 hours with a 10-minute break between Math and Reading. The breakdown of questions per subject and time allowed can be found below:

Section Number of Questions Time

English 75 questions (5 passages) 45 minutes

Math 60 questions 60 minutes

Reading 40 questions (4 passages) 35 minutes

Science 40 questions 35 minutes

Writing (optional) 1 essay question 40 minutes

To sign up, follow the link:

It is important to remember that the ACT offers special accommodations to students who need extended time or other accommodations. If you have any questions regarding how to navigate the process to request accommodations, call your local tutoring center (in the Des Moines Metro, this would be Des Moines Learning Center at 515-216-0983) and they should be happy to help. In addition to the accommodations above, the ACT also provides two ACTs at no cost for students whose families are experiencing financial hardship. You will need to talk to your guidance counselor for more information on this program.

As one additional note, we highly recommend signing up for the ACT Test Information Release if you can afford it. It’s $20 and gets you a copy of your answers and the test booklet for your test. This is only offered for a few of the tests each year but is an invaluable resource when preparing for any retakes. It allows you to see exactly what types of questions you missed, where your weaknesses are, and helps you build a more focused plan for your preparation. We can not recommend this highly enough.

How is the ACT Scored?

The ACT is scored on a scale from 1-36 with 36 being a perfect score. There is NO PENALTY for guessing on the ACT: a difference from its cousin, the SAT. The required sections listed above are scored individually on a scale from 1-36. The scores from those sections are then averaged to get your composite score. The formula for this can be found below:

English Score + Math Score + Reading Score + Science Score


Note: The Writing Test is not included in the calculation of your composite score, whether you take it or not.

If you’re wondering whether or not you should take the optional Writing test since it is not included in the composite, I would reach out to the schools you would like to attend to see if they require it. If you’re not sure where you will be applying, take the writing test to keep your options open. After all, it doesn’t hurt if you don’t need it.

Scores are typically released 3 weeks after you take the ACT. If you registered online, you will be able to access your scores through You can also choose to have your scores mailed to you, although this may delay when you receive them.

What to bring on test day

We recommend gathering all of the ACT materials listed and putting it into a clear plastic bag the night before. To ensure all of our Des Moines area ACT prep students are prepared, we provide a plastic bag with a checklist. You must not break the rules or forget anything.

· Photo ID (This is a must. The ACT has more stringent security now)

· ACT Registration Ticket

· Number 2 Pencils. We recommend an abundance of them—at least a dozen

· A calculator. For calculator rules please visit the ACT Calculator Policy

· A snack for the break

· A watch that will not make noise or have an alarm go off during the test

DO NOT BRING YOUR CELL PHONE INTO THE TEST. I repeat, DO NOT BRING YOUR CELL PHONE INTO THE TEST. If you are caught using your cell phone, even in the bathroom or during breaks, your score will be thrown out and will not count.

ACT Prep Tips

The following ACT preparation tips are for short, ACT specific prep periods. It is recommended that students take a rigorous and challenging course schedule, read consistently, and practice essay writing, but many of those skills take years to build. Under a limited preparation period (under 1 year), the following will be useful:

· Learn your punctuation rules

· Practice organizing passages by analyzing transition words

· Practice translating word problems into equations

· Try several reading strategies to find what works best(Check out our Timeline Method)

· Identify axis info and trends in charts and graphs.

· Practice comparing arguments for competing scientists passages.


For ACT Books, we recommend Barron’s ACT (Third Edition), Barron’s Math and Science Workbook (Third Edition), and Barron’s ACT 36 (Second Edition). If you can get ahold of the Second Edition of the ACT 36, do it. Their approach to the ACT English in the Second Edition is much better than the approach in the Third Edition: less is more.

If you need additional practice tests and other resources, the subreddit r/ACT is a valuable resource when used correctly. They have a repository of old ACTs that you can use as practice tests.

Lastly, check out your local tutoring or test prep center. Des Moines area students can book a free assessment here or call us at 515-216-0983 to schedule. We also offer tutoring and test prep for the surrounding areas like Ames, Norwalk, Newton, Boone, Grimes, Clive, West Des Moines, Waukee, Urbandale, Ankeny, Johnston, Dallas Center, Van Meter, and more.

We hope this helps and look forward to seeing you succeed! For more tips and tricks for studying and ACT or SAT prep, subscribe to our newsletter. To get more of this content in person and delivered in an easy to learn manner, book your first appointment with us today.