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How Hard Is the ACT?

If you’re getting ready to take the ACT soon, you may be wondering how difficult the test really is. Should you be intimidated? How does it compare to the SAT? Have there been changes in its difficulty throughout the course of its history?

We’re here to answer all your burning questions! Read on to learn about the difficulty level of the ACT and how you can prepare to do your best on the test.

Challenging Aspects of the ACT

The ACT is designed to assess a student’s readiness for college, so it can be a rather challenging test depending on how well you pay attention in your high school classes. The exam tests students’ knowledge on four major subjects: English, Math, Reading, and Science. Here’s a brief breakdown of what you can expect topic-wise from each section of the test:

  • English: Grammar and writing concepts from middle and high school.
  • Math: Basic math concepts not exceeding Algebra II and Trig.
  • Reading: Basic comprehension with passages written at the average reading level of a college freshman.
  • Science: Theories and experimental concepts equivalent to high school lab sciences.

If you spend enough time preparing for the ACT, you shouldn’t find the subject matter of the exam to be too challenging. There are plenty of study materials and methods you can use to help yourself perform your best when test day rolls around.

Now that we’ve covered the subject matter, let’s go over a few other challenging aspects of the ACT.

Test Anxiety

If you’ve ever suffered from test anxiety, you’re certainly not alone. Test anxiety may affect more than half of all students. One 2023 study in which 200 students sat for the National Eligibility Entrance Test (NEET) concluded that an overwhelming majority of the students (151 or 75.5%) experienced some level of stress before the exam. Anxiety levels may vary for different students, ranging from mild, manageable stress to intense, overwhelming feelings.

Many students place a lot of weight on their ACT and SAT scores, and for good reason. High test scores could be part of the reason you earn a scholarship or gain admission to your school of choice, especially among competitive programs. 

Stress may distract you during the test, making the exam more difficult for you. However, there are techniques you can use to overcome your test anxiety:

  • Frequently take practice tests in the weeks or months leading up to the exam to familiarize yourself with the experience.
  • Avoid cram sessions and get plenty of rest the day and night before the exam.
  • Study to boost your confidence in your own abilities.
  • Wake up early and eat breakfast before the exam.
  • Remember that there are other aspects of your application that will also set you up for success and that many schools have adopted test-optional admissions policies.

The ACT’s incorporation of a digital format over the coming months may also help alleviate test anxiety for students who are more comfortable testing virtually.

Time Limit

Each section of the ACT has a time limit with the overall test coming out to a length of 2 hours and 55 minutes. The breakdown of the section time limits is as follows:

  • English: 75 questions in 45 minutes.
  • Math: 60 questions in 60 minutes.
  • Reading: 40 questions in 35 minutes.
  • Science: 40 questions in 35 minutes.

On the surface, these time constraints may not seem long enough for you to answer all the questions in the section. However, you will most likely find yourself moving through questions at a faster pace than you anticipate. It’s worth noting, though, that students who are not familiar with the test and the time limit may accidentally run out of time. Remember to take practice tests beforehand and time yourself to get a feel for how much time you will have to complete each section.

Be Ready to Read

You will be doing a lot of reading throughout the ACT exam. Not only will you need to read each question and its answer choices carefully, but you will also have to read several longer passages in the English, Reading, and Science sections. It can be difficult to read each passage and find the information necessary to answer questions within the time limit, so we recommend formulating a reading strategy beforehand. 

Some tips for reading on the ACT include:

  • Reading the questions before skimming the passage.
  • Trying to answer the question yourself before looking at the answer choices.
  • Using the process of elimination to narrow down the answer choices.
  • Starting with the passages you feel most confident about.
  • Marking or highlighting important information.

Has the ACT Changed Over Time?

It appears that the ACT has gradually increased in difficulty over time. But, what could be the reason for this change? Prior to the 2000s, more students in the United States took the SAT each year than the ACT, with mostly students located in the Midwest sitting for the latter exam. However, the ACT slowly grew in popularity among students until it surpassed the SAT for the first time in 2011. More high-achieving students taking the ACT each year shifted the score distribution and steepened the grading curve, meaning that missing only a small number of questions could hugely impact a student’s score. The ACT may have adjusted the difficulty of the test to account for this bump in popularity and even out the score distribution.

The ACT released a statement in response to questions about the exam’s changes in difficulty several years ago in which the makers of the test explained that adjustments had to be made to account for shifts in the knowledge and skills required to excel in college.

The entire statement reads: “ACT continues to measure college and career readiness in a way that is consistent with the past. The ACT is designed to reflect the knowledge and skills that are taught in schools and deemed necessary for success in first-year college courses and workforce training courses. When those skills and constructs become more complicated and difficult over time, the ACT reflects that. Those changes tend to occur very gradually, however, not usually within a two to three year span. So we would disagree with the statement that the ACT has been slowly and steadily changing the difficulty level of the test over the past two to three years.”

It’s also worth noting that the digital ACT will feature no changes in difficulty for the exam. The ACT has made it clear that the exam will be exactly the same as the traditional paper version with the only difference being the switch to a virtual format and the inclusion of more accessibility tools.

Comparing the ACT and the SAT

The ACT and SAT are both important pieces of the college admissions process. Some schools may accept one exam, some may accept both, and some will not require students to send scores from either. You can choose to take both exams, but remember to check the admissions policies for your top schools before making your decision if you will only be taking one of them.

Neither the SAT nor the ACT penalizes students for wrong answers, so you can answer every question even if you’re not completely sure of your response. Both exams test mostly the same subject matter too, setting out to assess the college-readiness of each student.

The differences in subject matter between the two tests occur in the Science and Math sections. The ACT features a dedicated Science section while the SAT does not. The Math section of the SAT includes a formula sheet and is split into 2 smaller sections, one that allows the student to use a calculator and one that does not. The ACT Math section lets students use calculators throughout, but it does not include a formula sheet.

Both tests used to be about the same length, finishing around 3 hours. However, the new digital SAT drastically reduces the length of the test, shaving off an entire hour to reach a total of 2 hours and 14 minutes. The digital and paper versions of the ACT remain the same length of 2 hours and 55 minutes.

Each exam has its own merits. If you’re unsure which test to take and your top schools’ admissions policies haven’t made the decision for you, we recommend taking a few practice tests from both the SAT and the ACT to see which one feels better to you. You can find SAT practice tests on the College Board site and ACT practice tests on the official ACT site.

How to Make the ACT Easier With Prep Expert

The best way to make the ACT easier is to prepare as much as you can. Create a detailed study plan, take lots of practice tests, and consider enrolling in prep and review courses for extra help. From guided courses and weekend reviews to self-paced video lessons, Prep Expert offers a wide variety of online ACT prep courses designed to fit the needs of every student. Our expert instructors provide valuable study tips you can use far beyond your exam to succeed throughout the rest of your educational career.

Check out our full catalog of courses and learn how you can make studying for the ACT fun and easy today with help from Prep Expert!

Prep Expert

Written by Prep Expert

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