The ACT is an important college admissions test that has traditionally been administered on paper. But according to a press release by ACT, Inc., more and more students will soon be able to take the ACT in an online, computer-based format. So can you take the ACT online, or not?
Below, we go over who can (and will soon be able to!) take the ACT test online, what this computer ACT looks like, and the pros and cons of both the computer and paper versions of the ACT.
Can You Take the ACT Online? Overview
Can you take the ACT test online? If what you're talking about is taking the ACT online on your own computer at home, then no, you can't. Nobody can do this! You must always take the ACT at a school or test center.
But if you're talking about taking the ACT online at a school or test center, then the answer is a little more complicated. The vast majority of US students take the paper version of the ACT, whereas all students abroad must take the computer version of the ACT. Weird, right?
Let's look at these rules a little more closely.
As of September 2018, all students taking the ACT abroad (which includes Canada) can only take the ACT test online at a test center. This is because the traditional paper ACT format is no longer available outside the US. The only way you can take the paper ACT abroad is if you require certain testing accommodations due to a disability.
This new online version of the ACT is known as the ACT Computer-Based Test (ACT CBT).
What about domestic students, though? Can you take the ACT test online if you’re based in the US? While most US students must take the ACT on paper, this is changing. Currently, some states and districts do administer the CBT but only on school-day test dates—not national test dates.
Starting in September 2020, however, the ACT CBT will become available on national test dates across the US. The CBT will initially be available only at select test centers around the US before being made available at all domestic ACT test centers.
So what does this mean? Clearly, ACT Inc. is finally following through on its promise to expand access to an online version of the ACT. (The group has been planning to implement a fully computer-based ACT for several years now.)
But why go digital at all? What advantages does it offer ACT, Inc. and test takers?
The point of this transition to an online ACT test is to be able to send students their test scores faster, improve security, and increase overall student access to the test.
Here’s what ACT, Inc. says about its transition to digital testing in an FAQ:
"There is nothing wrong with the paper test. The computer-based ACT test, however, will provide a personalized and secure experience for test takers. ACT is moving away from paper testing in order to provide students with more opportunities to test and provide scores more quickly. Although there is nothing wrong with the current paper test, it is ACT’s mission to continue looking for ways to better meet the needs of its customers."
Note that you cannot choose which version of the ACT you want to take. Here are the current rules on who must take the ACT CBT and who must take the paper version:
Type of Test Taker
US student on national ACT test date
Paper only (until September 2020)
US student on school testing day
Varies depending on state/district
International student (outside US)
Computer only (since September 2018)
Now then, what exactly does the online ACT test look like? Let's take a look.
Taking the ACT Test Online: Structure & Tools
The ACT CBT is the same exact test as the paper ACT: they have the same sections, number of questions, time limits, and scoring system. In addition, with the ACT CBT, you'll still get access to a calculator and scratch paper. For more information on the ACT content and structure, check out our guide.
The only real difference between the two test versions is their administration format (paper vs computer).
Here's what a typical question on the ACT CBT looks like:
You’ll get the overall problem or passage on the left and the question (with answer choices) on the right. To select an answer choice, simply click the circle next to it (you can always change this if you change your mind later). The bottom of the screen shows you which question number you are on in that section to help you keep track. As with the paper ACT, you can skip questions and come back to them later.
What’s different about the ACT CBT, however, is that you now have a timer and several helpful tools you can use as you take the test. These tools can be found on the header of the screen:
There are five tools you can choose from:
- A magnifier to zoom in or out on certain parts of the problem or question
- A highlighter to select specific parts of the text or passage
- A line reader to home in on specific lines in the text or passage
- An answer eliminator to cross out clearly incorrect answer choices
- Answer masking to focus on a specific answer choice and eliminate distractions
Here’s what each of these tools looks like in action:
This is what the online ACT test will look like for you if you end up taking it. Now that we’ve covered what the ACT CBT looks like and who can and must take it, let’s look at the pros and cons of this online version compared with the original paper ACT.
Online ACT vs Paper ACT: Pros and Cons
There are advantages and disadvantages to taking the ACT test online and on paper. Below are the biggest pros and cons of both formats, starting with the ACT CBT.
Pros of Taking the ACT Test Online
- You get your scores faster. This is one of the biggest draws of the ACT CBT. While paper test multiple-choice scores take about 10 days to come out, online ACT scores take a mere two business days.
- Special digital tools make it easy to keep track of things as you test. With the online ACT, you’ll get access to a highlighter, a magnifier, a line reader, a timer, an answer eliminator (for using the process of elimination), and an answer-masking function.
- There are (and will be) more test dates available. The international ACT CBT is offered up to six times per testing window every year, providing students with more flexibility in terms of test-taking options. This will likely be the aim in the US as well starting in fall 2020, when the national CBT is rolled out across the country.
- You don’t have to worry about erasing things or making permanent marks. Just click on a different answer choice or backspace a word in your essay. It’s that easy!
Cons of Taking the ACT Test Online
- The online format can take some getting used to. The majority of tests you take in high school are given on paper, so if you’re not used to computer tests, then it might take you a few tries before you truly feel at ease and can strategize more effectively.
- Fewer practice tests are available for the online ACT. ACT, Inc. offers six free ACT practice tests for the paper version, but there is only one ACT CBT practice test available. Though you can still use the paper tests in your prep, they won't help you get more comfortable with the computerized format.
- Typing out your essay can take longer if you’re not a fast typist. If you’re planning to take the ACT with Writing, be aware that you’ll need to type out your whole essay instead of writing it by hand.
Pros of Taking the Paper ACT
- Your high school exams have prepared you for the paper format. More than likely, the vast majority, if not all, of your high school tests were given to you in the traditional paper format; therefore, taking the paper ACT means you don’t have to prep for any new format you’re not used to.
- There are way more practice tests and materials geared toward the paper ACT. Besides the six official practice test PDFs you can download for free, most test-prep companies and ACT prep books offer practice tests in a paper format.
- Some students prefer to write directly in their test booklets to circle things, highlight sentences, etc. While the tools in the ACT CBT allow you to do things like highlight passages and cross out incorrect answer choices, you might find it easier and less time-consuming to do all these things with a pencil rather than having to click back and forth to toggle a specific tool you want to use.
Cons of Taking the Paper ACT
- Fewer test dates are available. With the online ACT, students in the US will get multiple testing opportunities per national test date rather than just one, offering more flexibility in terms of scheduling options.
- It can be harder to keep track of timing. Not all school districts will provide you with an exact clock you can refer to throughout the test (as the ACT CBT does), which can make it difficult to figure out how you should organize your time.
- You have to write out your entire essay by hand. Some students might prefer this over typing it, but if you’re concerned about getting hand cramps or having to erase and cross out words, then the ACT Writing section might pose a bit of a problem for you.
Recap: Can You Take the ACT Online?
So can you take the ACT test online? Yes, but only if you are a student in the US whose state or district does online testing or you are taking the test abroad, since the ACT Computer-Based Test (ACT CBT) is the only version of the ACT administered outside the US, as of September 2018.
At present, the ACT CBT is not administered on any national ACT test dates in the US—just in certain states and districts on school-testing days. That being said, starting in September 2020, ACT, Inc. will roll out the ACT CBT at ACT test centers in the US on national test dates.
The only difference between the online ACT test and paper ACT is how they are administered; both exams have the same content, timing, question types, structure, and scoring.
In terms of which version of the ACT is better, both have their pros and cons. For example, while the ACT CBT offers more test dates and handy tools you can use while taking the exam, the paper ACT is more familiar to students and has far more practice materials available for it.
Ultimately, it seems likely that ACT, Inc. will completely get rid of the paper ACT and only use it in situations that require it, such as when somebody cannot use a computer due to a disability.
Until then, though, you’ll need to be prepared for the possibility of taking either version of the ACT if you’re in the US!
Getting ready to take the ACT? Then check out our step-by-step guide to ACT registration and learn about critical ACT registration and test dates here.
Aiming for a high score on the ACT? Our expert guide on how to get a perfect 36 is exactly what you need. In it, we give you our best tips and tricks for acing this notorious test—and the best part is, they all come from a real full scorer!
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Hannah received her MA in Japanese Studies from the University of Michigan and holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern California. From 2013 to 2015, she taught English in Japan via the JET Program. She is passionate about education, writing, and travel.