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Why Choose the ACT? A Parents' Guide for College-Bound Students

Picture of Michal Goldstein
By Michal Goldstein on July, 8 2024 | 8 minute read

Imagine that your high schooler is starting to study for a college entrance exam. How would you help them decide what test to take and what content to focus on? What skills would they need to improve upon, and how would they go about doing so? As the Director of Instruction for the Collegewise Tutoring Team, I’m deeply familiar with this journey, and it’s one I guide students through each year. In this blog, I’ll speak to the content of the ACT, explore its benefits, and provide insights on preparing for the exam so you can better help your student navigate this stage of their academic career.


Understanding the ACT: A Brief Overview

The ACT is a standardized test universally accepted for college admissions in the United States. Comprising four sections — English, math, reading, and science — the ACT offers a broad assessment of a student's readiness for college-level academics. Unlike its counterpart, the SAT, the ACT places a greater emphasis on content mastery across multiple disciplines, making it an ideal choice for students who excel in these areas.

The ACT is currently administered seven times per year in either a paper-based or online multiple-choice format, featuring a familiar interface that is easily accessible and intuitive. On test day, students should be prepared to take a test that runs for just north of three hours, working at a steady pace throughout. Scores from national test dates are typically returned within 10 days of the assessment, allowing test-takers time to prepare for their next test, if they decide to test again.


The Advantages of Taking the ACT

There are many advantages that the ACT offers test-takers.

  • Content Alignment: By assessing a student's knowledge in core subject areas such as English, math, reading, and science, the ACT provides a reliable measure of academic proficiency while offering colleges a holistic view of the applicant's capabilities. When I begin to dig into the ACT with my own students, the first thing I point out is how familiar much of the exam’s content will look and feel, not just at first glance, but across exams as well.

  • Reliable Calibration: The ACT’s scoring metrics and difficulty level are well-established and well-understood, making it easier for test-takers to gauge their performance and find ways to improve. Most importantly, for students who have taken the exam once and are looking to test a second time, the next iteration of the test will look and feel much the same as the first. This stands in stark contrast to the SAT, which has a largely indeterminate calibration.

  • A Linear Test: The ACT’s nonadaptive formats both in paper-based and online, result in an easy-to-understand layout and predictable level of difficulty throughout. Where the SAT has become a computer-adaptive, multi-stage test — and as such, unpredictable for test-takers — the ACT will look and feel largely familiar from one section to the next, regardless of test performance level. If a student’s goal on test day is to minimize the number of surprises they’d expect to see on a high-stakes exam, the ACT allows for that throughout.        

  • Ample Study Materials: The ACT’s core content and structure have remained relatively consistent over a long period of time, allowing students to practice with a broad array of relevant materials through test day. To best help students prepare for this year’s tests, the ACT updates its Official ACT Prep Guide on an annual basis and releases three of its exams for review each year to those that register for the test through its Test Information Release service. Moreover, for serious test-takers who are looking to drill down into specific content areas, the ACT offers multiple subject-specific study guides featuring hundreds of retired official questions. 


Test Preparation Tips for Success

So, how does a high school student set about actually studying for the exam? Plenty of tutors, teachers, and organizations will tell you that they’ve got the tips and tricks to maximize performance, but I've found that the following points of guidance are the best places to begin.


  • Start Early: Good preparation takes time. Encourage your student to start studying for the ACT 6-10 weeks in advance of their first test, giving them time to understand the format of the exam, its pacing, its primary question types, and best practices for navigating the test as a whole.

  • Practice Regularly: Help your student set aside a little time each day to study, making it a regular part of their week up until the test. At least two times before test day, your student should take full-length practice exams to gauge their progress and build their endurance. Utilize official ACT practice materials and resources to help them become familiar with the types of questions they’ll encounter on test day. 

  • Focus on Areas of Strength and Need: Your teen can use these homework assignments and practice tests to create a feedback loop, helping them to identify areas of weakness and dedicate additional time and effort to improving them. Whether in math, reading, or scientific analysis, targeted practice can lead to significant score improvements. Similarly, and separately, encourage your student to take some time to practice the things they’re already good at: improvements actually come most efficiently from our areas of strength. 

  • Take Practice Tests Under Realistic, Timed Conditions: In sports and test prep, you’ll often hear coaches tell you, “Practice like you’ll play.” I tell my students this so that they’ll know exactly what it feels like to navigate their exams on the day of the ACT itself. Simulate test day conditions by taking full-length practice tests under timed conditions. This will help build endurance and familiarity with the pacing of the exam but also give your teenager a great sense of how they’ll feel working through the test’s four main sections. 

  • Seek Support: If there is content on the exam that feels difficult for your high schooler to navigate, find a tutor to receive personalized instruction and guidance tailored to your student’s specific needs or a study group to get some additional support to more effectively and efficiently meet their goals.


Who Should Take the ACT?

While the ACT is suitable for a wide range of students given its broad content focus, it may be especially well-suited for students with particular skills or coursework:

  • Reading-Oriented: Although the ACT’s four sections feature a balance between the humanities (English and Reading) and STEM subjects (Math and Science), three of the test’s four sections are reading-oriented and passage-based. For my most hardcore humanities-oriented students who often at first say, “A science test? Not for me,” I often encourage them to treat it like a reading comprehension task. Overwhelmingly, they see that the science test does test science-y material, but it favors a student who can process a short passage and respond to those questions in kind. 

  • For Writers: The ACT is also a test that is particularly well-suited for students with an interest in careers in writing, from marketing to teaching to technical work with language. The ACT’s English and Reading sections both ask test-takers to consider the ways in which language is constructed and applied, and the ACT’s optional Writing section allows students with strengths in essay writing to demonstrate their capacities in a relatively unique, 40-minute format. For students with an aptitude in writing, the ACT offers a variety of ways to demonstrate those capacities. 

  • STEM-Reflective: Of course, for math-and science-oriented students, the ACT is the only standardized test of its kind that features a test with any formal Science content and a prominently calculated STEM score on its score reports to reflect students’ abilities in those subjects. The ACT’s broad-based math assessment is especially favorable to students who can navigate varied, concrete mathematics content, and its Science section will look and feel especially accessible to those test-takers who do have science literacy skills.

  • Quick Pacing: The ACT is designed as a fast-paced exam in a relatively predictable format, which favors students who like to respond to questions rapidly before moving on to the next question. Note that the ACT’s pacing should not be viewed as a deterrent but rather something to adapt to: the SAT may provide more time per question, but those questions are complex, abstract, and often test skills not normally developed in a high school setting. My students uniformly love the look of the SAT’s reading questions: they’re short, punchy, and look like a breeze. But after a while, they also realize that those questions are much harder than they at first appear, and few of the skills they’ve developed in school prepare them for that complexity.  

  • Broad Math Familiarity: The ACT’s math section pulls from a variety of mathematics subjects, including Pre-Algebra, Algebra I & II, Geometry, Precalculus, and Statistics and Probability. That list may feel intimidating, but the good news is that it tests a little bit of anything you might have learned through parts of middle and high school. Most importantly, the ACT’s math sections test material very consistently: the concepts you might review for your first test will almost certainly appear on the next.


How can taking the ACT benefit your child’s college admission chances?

According to organizations like Common App and FairTest, nearly 95% of colleges and universities are test-optional for the year ahead. However, there are signs that the tides are starting to turn with more schools returning to test required. What’s more, approximately 50% of college applicants still submit test scores to one or more of the universities they apply to. This is to say that, given the option to do so, a disproportionately large percentage of college applicants submit ACT and SAT scores to their schools of choice. One reason is that strong data of any kind is always welcome, and the ACT represents one of the easiest ways to demonstrate particular academic proficiencies in a commonly understood set of scoring metrics. Even as a long-time test preparation instructor, I’d be the first to tell you that testing is never the centerpiece of an application, but strong test scores are an easy way to signal academic strengths early on in the reading of a college application.


Ready to show your skills on the ACT?

If your student plans to take the ACT in the near future, they should begin with a practice test to get a better sense of what the journey ahead will look like.  Explore dates, fees, and everything you need to know about your test day experience at Registration for the September, October, and December ACT tests begins on Monday, July 8, but you can sign up for a registration reminder now so you don’t miss a deadline. With a concrete starting point and a clear end goal, the study process for achieving your desired outcomes will feel that much more attainable. Collegewise and the ACT are here to help you get there.


About Us: With more than twenty years of experience, Collegewise counselors and tutors are at the forefront of the ever-evolving admissions landscape. Our work has always centered on you: the family. And just like we’ve always done, we look for ways for your student to be their best self - whether in the classroom, the applications, or in the right-fit college environment. Our range of counselingtest prepacademic tutoring, and essay management, all with the support of our proprietary platform, lead to 4x higher than average admissions rates. 


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