The ACT is a nerve-wracking test considering the impact scores can have on college admissions prospects. But how hard is the ACT, really? It's intimidating, sure, but it's not as difficult as it seems. The material on the ACT becomes much less challenging if you're familiar with the structure of the test and the way questions are asked.
In this article, I'll go over a few aspects of the ACT that tend to make it more or less difficult and provide essential tips on how to get past some of these obstacles and end up with a great score!
Is the ACT Hard?
At its core, the ACT tests relatively basic concepts, so you’re unlikely to see any content that’s totally unfamiliar to you. However, it can definitely be challenging depending on how much you prepare and how well you’ve learned the material in school.
The English section tests grammatical and stylistic writing concepts that will be familiar to you based on your work in English classes in late middle school and early high school. The Math section doesn’t test any material past the concepts you would have learned in algebra II and trigonometry, classes which many students have taken by the end of their sophomore year of high school. The passages in the Reading section are written at approximately the reading level of an average college freshman, but they don’t contain obscure vocabulary words, and most questions rely on basic reading comprehension. The Science section deals with evaluating experimental scenarios and scientific theories that you’ll most likely be able to understand if you’ve taken a high school science class with a lab component.
The main challenge of the ACT for most students is its format. You have a very limited amount of time to answer each question, and there’s a significant amount of reading involved. You’ll need to overcome the challenges presented by the structure of the test before you can successfully apply your knowledge of the content.
5 Factors That Make the ACT Harder
There are a lot of considerations that go into answering the question "Is the ACT hard?" Here I'll list a few different qualities of the ACT that might make it difficult for you.
#1: Time Pressure
The ACT is challenging for many students because of its strict time constraints. On the English section, you'll answer 75 questions in just 45 minutes, which is equal to a mere 36 seconds per question. On the Math section, you’ll answer 60 questions in 60 minutes, so you have a minute at most for each question. On both Reading and Science, you’ll answer 40 questions in 35 minutes, meaning you get 52 seconds per question. There’s no time to linger on difficult questions, so if you’re not used to the test, you may run out of time before finishing one or more sections.
#2: Lots of Reading
The ACT includes long passages in both the English and Reading sections, and the Science section also requires quite a bit of reading (especially for conflicting viewpoints questions). There are four passages (or pairs of passages) on the Reading section that accompany sets of questions. Often, the questions don’t include line numbers for reference. This can mean spending lots of time searching through the passage to find the information you need. If you don’t have a good reading strategy in place before the test, you might not get to the end of the section.
#3: High-Stress Environment
As I've mentioned, the ACT is a high-pressure test because it can strongly impact your chances of admission to competitive colleges. Even on a test that doesn't contain extraordinarily challenging content, stress can make everything seem significantly more intimidating. If you’re too worried about making mistakes, you might get distracted by anxiety and inadvertently make the test more difficult for yourself.
#4: Unfamiliar Data
Some students find the science section of the ACT difficult because it asks you to interpret unfamiliar data from types of experiments that you might not have encountered before in class. It can be a challenge to interpret these charts and graphs if the units are in an unusual form or are measurements of things that you can’t easily visualize. Here’s an example:
At first glance, graphs like this are somewhat unintelligible (watts per meters squared? wut?). You can learn to get past all this to locate the core information that you need to answer the questions, but it’s tough if you’re not used to the test.
#5: Some Challenging Math Concepts (And No Formulas)
The ACT tests the occasional advanced math concept that you may not have learned yet, including a few questions on basic trigonometry. To make it even tougher, the ACT doesn’t provide commonly used math formulas at the beginning of the section like the SAT does. You’ll have to rely mostly on memory in that area. However, questions will provide you with the formulas you need to find the solution if they happen to be a bit more obscure. For example, this is always the case when trigonometric identities are involved.
You'll probably encounter the less exciting type of pi(e) on the ACT.
4 Factors That Make the ACT Easier
Now let’s look at the other side. Here are a few factors that might make the ACT an easier test compared to other exams you’ve taken in school.
#1: Consistent Structure and Question Formats
The ACT is always structured the same way with the same types of questions. This standardization means it’s relatively easy to predict what will show up on the test in what order. It’s much simpler to prepare for a test when you know exactly what to expect.
Every time you take the ACT, you can be positive that the order of the sections is English, Math, Reading, Science, and optional Writing. Within the Reading section, you can even predict the order of the passages in terms of subject matter. You can learn more about the structure of each section in this comprehensive guide to the format of the test.
#2: All Multiple Choice
Every question on the ACT (minus the optional essay) is multiple choice. Unlike the SAT, there are no grid-in questions on ACT Math. That means that you don’t have to come up with any answers independently. All the correct answers are right there in front of you! You just need to figure out how to eliminate the choices that don’t make sense.
#3: ACT Science Isn’t Really That Sciencey
Some people are very intimidated by the Science section of the ACT because it seems like you must have to know a bunch of obscure scientific facts to do well. That's not true! The science section is just reading comprehension and data interpretation combined with basic logic. You don’t need to dive back into your notes on electrochemistry or memorize physics formulas. Even if you lack confidence in your academic skills in scientific domains, you can learn to do very well on this section with some practice.
#4: No Guessing Penalty
The ACT doesn’t take points off for incorrect answers, so leaving a question blank and answering it incorrectly are functionally the same. This means that you don’t have to agonize over whether or not it’s worth it to fill in a random answer bubble on a question that totally stumps you. Provide an answer for every question just in case you get lucky!
Commit whatever guessing infractions you want - there's no penalty!
3 Tips to Make the ACT Easier for You
I just went over a bunch of fixed qualities of the ACT that might make it easier or harder, but the biggest factor in determining how easy the test will be for you is how you choose to approach it. Here are some tips that will help you manage the challenges of the ACT and reduce anxiety surrounding such an important test.
Tip 1: Take Lots of Practice Tests
The number one way to make the ACT easier for yourself is by taking practice tests at frequent intervals as a part of your studying. Practice tests help you get used to the format and timing of the real test so you can avoid any unpleasant surprises. As I’ve said, time pressure is one of the hardest aspects of the ACT, so if you learn to manage your time well on practice tests, you’ll already be much closer to a high score. Practice tests also get you accustomed to aspects of the test that appear scary at first glance but are totally manageable once you understand the format better.
Tip 2: Stay Calm
Test anxiety is the downfall of many students who are otherwise perfectly capable of understanding the content of the ACT. It’s important to find strategies to combat the stress that accompanies these high-pressure exams so it doesn’t ruin your performance. Mindfulness techniques can be helpful during the test, and being aware of the structure of the exam before you go into it can also alleviate stress. Keep in mind that your fate in life will not be determined by your score on this one exam. You’ll have multiple chances to take it as long as you start the process early enough.
Tip 3: Make Note of Your Mistakes
Always pay attention to where you encounter errors on practice tests so you can focus on improving in those areas. The more time you devote to addressing content areas that you don’t understand, the more comfortable you’ll feel on test day. If you keep taking practice tests without attending to your mistakes, you’ll have the format of the ACT memorized, but you won't fix any of the deeper issues that are causing you to lose points. Ultimately, if you want to gain confidence, you need to take the time to understand where you went wrong and how you can change your strategy to avoid the same mistakes on test day.
You should learn to catch yourself before you start taking an incorrect route to find the solution to a question.
Bottom Line: How Hard Is the ACT?
The first time you take an ACT practice test, you might perceive the difficulty level as challenging, average, or relatively easy depending on your educational background. The ACT may be more difficult for people who have a hard time reading quickly or who aren’t as comfortable with some of the advanced math concepts. However, it’s always possible to improve your performance by continuing to practice questions that are tough for you, getting more comfortable with the timing and structure of the test, and learning to relax even when things aren’t going perfectly.
For more tips, check out this article on when you should start studying for the ACT based on your goals.
Thinking about getting a review book to prepare for the ACT? Read our review of the official ACT prep guide for 2016-2017.
Aiming for a super high score on the ACT? Take a look at this article on how to earn a perfect or close to perfect score with the help of some expert study strategies.
Want to improve your ACT score by 4+ points? Download our free guide to the top 5 strategies you need in your prep to improve your ACT score dramatically.
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Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.