McGraw-Hill Education ACT 2017 (2016)


ACT Format



Following a 10-minute break, the optional 40-minute Writing Test will be administered.



Each year, more than 1 million students take the ACT in order to gain entrance into the colleges of their choice. The ACT is a standardized test designed to measure your critical thinking skills and to assess your ability to apply knowledge and logic when solving problems. Your ACT score will be evaluated along with your high school Grade Point Average, involvement in school and extracurricular activities, letters of recommendation, and college application essay. While the ACT is just one factor that is examined during the admissions process, it is essential that you maximize your ACT score so that you can remain competitive among the many other applicants hoping to gain admission.

The authors of the ACT insist that the ACT is an achievement test, meaning that it is designed to measure your readiness for college instruction. There is ongoing debate about how well the ACT accomplishes that mission. What is not debated is that the ACT is not a direct measure of abilities. It is not an IQ test. The ACT is certainly not a measure of your worth as a human being. It is not even a perfect measure of how well you will do in college. Theoretically, each of us has a specific potential to learn and acquire skills. The ACT doesn’t measure your natural, inborn ability. If it did, we wouldn’t be as successful as we are at raising students’ scores on ACT exams.

The ACT actually measures a certain knowledge base and skill set. It is “trainable,” meaning that you can do better on your ACT if you work on gaining the knowledge and acquiring the skills that are tested.


The ACT is broken up into four multiple-choice tests and one optional essay. The multiple-choice tests are called English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science. They are always given in this same order. In fact, there is a lot of predictability when it comes to the ACT. The current exam still has very much in common with ACT exams from past years. This means that we basically know what is going to be on your ACT in terms of question types and content. Refer to the chart on page 2 for more information on the structure of the ACT.


There is a company called ACT, Inc. that decides exactly what is going to be on your ACT exam. This group of experts consults with classroom teachers at the high school and college levels. They look at high school and college curricula and they employ educators and specialized psychologists called “psychometricians” (measurers of the mind), who know a lot about the human brain and how it operates under various conditions. We picture them as “evil genius” researchers in white coats somewhere, gleefully rubbing their hands together and trying to think up ways to keep you out of college. Don’t fear, however, we are the “good geniuses” trying to get you into the college of your choice. We’ll lay out the details of how you will be tested so that you can get yourself ready for the “contest” on test day.


You must register for the ACT in advance. You can’t just show up on test day with a number 2 pencil and dive right in. The best source of information for all things ACT is, not surprisingly, the ACT Web site: There is also a very good chance that a guidance counselor, and/or pre-college counselor at your school has an ACT Registration Packet, which includes all of the information that you need for your test registration.


Back in the mid-twentieth century, some people noticed that there was a disturbing trend in college admissions. Most of the people who were entering college came from a fairly small group of people who went to a limited number of high schools. Many had parents who had attended the same colleges. There wasn’t much opportunity for students from new families to “break into” the higher education system. Standardized entrance exams were an attempt to democratize the situation and create a meritocracy, where admissions decisions were based on achievement and not just social status. The ACT was not the first standardized college entrance exam. It came a little later as an attempt at improving on the older SAT.

Colleges use the ACT for admissions decisions and, sometimes, for advanced placement. It is also used to make scholarship decisions. Since there are variations among high schools around the country, the admissions departments at colleges use the ACT, in part, to help provide a standard for comparison. There are studies that reveal a fair amount of “grade inflation” at some schools. So, colleges cannot rely simply upon grade point averages when evaluating academic performance.

The ACT also measures a certain skill set that is not necessarily measured as part of a Grade Point Average (GPA). We’ll dig a little more into that in the individual test chapters.


Each of the multiple-choice sections of the ACT is called a Test (English Test, Mathematics Test, Reading Test, and Science Test). Each test is given a score on a scale of 1 to 36. These four “scaled scores” are then averaged and rounded according to normal rounding rules to yield a Composite Score. It is this Composite Score that is most often meant when someone refers to your ACT score.

Exam Tip

One important thing to say about scores is that you don’t have to be perfect to get a good score on the ACT. The truth is that you can miss a fair number of questions and still get a score that places you in the top 1% of all test-takers. In fact, this test is so hard and the time limit is so unrealistic for most test-takers that you can get a score that is at the national average (about a 21) even if you get almost half of the questions wrong.

Your actual score report will also refer to “subscores,” which are reported for your English Test, Mathematics Test, Reading Test, and Writing Test. These are based on your performance on a subset of the questions on each of these tests. Our experience has been that there is nothing to be gained from discussing them in detail with students. Reports from the field indicate that many college admissions professionals don’t even glance at them or have the faintest idea of how to utilize them when making admissions decisions.


Some research suggests that members of different ethnic groups and residents of different states have different average scores on the ACT. The reasons for the different scores are beyond the scope of this book. However, we would like to point out that the differences are small and that the variations among different members of any group are far more substantial than the differences in averages among groups. In other words, if you are a member of a group that does well on the ACT, don’t rely on that group membership to guarantee a good score. Conversely, if you are a member of a group with a slightly lower average, don’t turn that group membership into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those students who take the exam seriously and put time and effort into their preparation are the ones who succeed, regardless of ethnicity or state of residence.

Males and females, overall, score about the same. Males tend to do slightly better on Math and Science and females tend to do better on English, Reading, and, it is predicted, Writing. Nevertheless, the gender differences are not significant enough to allow anyone to make score predictions for any one individual. So, as with ethnicity and state of residence, disregard your gender and work hard if you want to maximize your scores.


Some students identify learning and other cognitive disabilities for the first time when they begin to prepare for the ACT. Factors to look out for include extreme anxiety or panic, a marked inability to focus, and major differences in scores between timed and untimed exams.

If any of these warning signs apply to you, it is recommended that you seek assistance from your parents, school counselors, and other professionals who can advise you regarding the screening process for learning disabilities.

If you have a diagnosis from a qualified professional, a law called the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states that reasonable accommodations must be granted that will allow you a level playing field. No discrimination is allowed against anyone who has a legitimate medical condition that affects performance on the ACT.

The most common accommodation is to allow extra time for completion of the exam. Previously, ACT, Inc. would flag score reports of students who were granted extra time. Such is no longer the case. Students with accommodations are not identified to the colleges anymore. Most people see this as a great step forward in fairness under the ADA.

Of course, accommodations are also allowed for physical disabilities. For more information on accommodations for disabilities, contact ACT directly. Be sure to contact ACT very early in the process. You must allow a reasonable length of time for ACT to confirm your diagnosis and for some back and forth discussion regarding proposed accommodations.


A “testing irregularity” is basically an accusation of cheating. You can avoid this situation by following all instructions and only working on the section on which you are supposed to be working. This includes marking the answer sheets. Don’t go back to a previous section or forward to a later section, either in the test book or on the answer sheet. Do write in the test booklet. We are aware of one student who could have saved himself the time, inconvenience, and expense of a testing irregularity accusation if he had merely shown some work in his test book. If you are accused of a testing irregularity, don’t panic. You have certain due process rights. Discuss the matter with your parents and perhaps an attorney as soon as possible so that you can react appropriately.


The SAT is another standardized college admissions examination. It includes multiple-choice sections and a mandatory writing test. Some of the material tends to be the same as on the ACT. For instance, the reading comprehension passages are often very similar in structure and content, and some of the math questions are very similar as well.

The SAT is a longer exam overall and includes an “experimental” section that does not count toward your score. The SAT math section doesn’t have any trigonometry questions at all, whereas the ACT does include four such questions. However, the SAT math section has more problems that are really logic questions and less like what you probably learned in your high school math classes. Visit for more information.

The SAT also tests vocabulary directly. The ACT only has a few vocabulary questions, as such. However, a solid vocabulary can really help you to understand the passages and questions on the ACT. See Appendix 3: “ACT Vocabulary List” for a list of words that are typical of the words that you will encounter on your ACT.

The vast majority of colleges and universities accept both SAT scores and ACT scores. There are persistent myths that say that schools in certain states either all require the ACT or all require the SAT. These myths simply are not true. Rather than relying upon generalities, you should investigate the colleges in which you are interested and find out for yourself which entrance exams they will accept and whether they have a preference for one or the other.