What is the ACT?

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  • 0:02 The ACT
  • 1:11 ACT Then & Now
  • 3:25 ACT vs. SAT
  • 5:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Elizabeth Foster

Elizabeth has been involved with tutoring since high school and has a B.A. in Classics.

In this lesson, you'll learn where the ACT comes from, why it's important, and whether it's the right test for you (including a comparison with the SAT).


The world of standardized testing can be pretty overwhelming at first - suddenly there's a whole new world of weird acronyms, unfamiliar scoring standards, and creative new heights of bubble-sheet torture. If you were an alien from outer space studying the ACT, you'd probably think humans were all insane!

Why would human teenagers across the world voluntarily get up early on a Saturday morning to agonize over several hours of multiple-choice questions?
(A) They are suffering from the late stages of brain fever.
(B) They are attempting to attract potential mating partners (boyfriends and girlfriends) with an extreme display of devotion.
(C) They are engaging in a traditional ritual of respect for Scantron forms, which are powerful symbols of wisdom in Earth culture.

Okay, maybe it's not quite that bad. But even for the native earthlings of the world, standardized testing doesn't always make much sense.

In this lesson, we'll start from the beginning and go over just one of the standardized tests you might see as you start applying for college: the ACT. We'll cover where the ACT comes from, what it is, who takes it, and whether or not it's right for you.

ACT Then & Now

The ACT is a standardized test designed to measure your readiness for college. It got started in 1959 as the brainchild of an education professor who wanted a fair way to test students from different schools. That's how standardized tests work: they're exactly the same for every student, so regardless of who you are, you get the same questions, and they're all scored objectively in the same way. The point is to get one benchmark measurement for all students, regardless of where they went to school or what kind of tests their individual teachers gave them.

The ACT has had several different forms over the years, but as of 2014, it has:

  • Four required multiple-choice tests in Math, English, Reading, and Science
  • One optional essay, called the Writing test

A few states require everyone to take the ACT to graduate high school, but most ACT test-takers are high school students applying to college. Colleges use ACT scores to compare students from different schools or to gauge students who were home-schooled and don't have a formal GPA.

The ACT isn't the only factor in college admissions decisions - your grades, extracurriculars, and application essay count, too. But the ACT is important.

Taken altogether, the test is supposed to measure your readiness for college-level work in each of the subject areas. It's not a test of IQ or abstract intelligence, but it's also not like a test for a class, where you have to remember a lot of information about each specific subject. There's some subject-area knowledge involved, but it's mostly a test of reasoning skills, problem solving, and critical reading. And there's no denying it: the ACT is also a great barometer of how much test prep you did. A solid prep program can give your score a huge boost.

The ACT gets a lot of criticism for the test-prep factor from teachers and colleges alike. But even if you think it's the worst test you've ever taken, you won't get anywhere by refusing to take it. If it really bothers you, then study hard, ace the test, and then go on to a college where you can start a career developing a better testing alternative.

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