How Hard is the ACT Test, Actually?

The ACT may seem difficult, but it’s not really too hard if you’re properly prepared for it. If you have a clear idea of what you’re going to face, the ACT is a challenge you should be able to face.

The American College Testing exam may seem somewhat intimidating when you first consider it. After all, it’s the one test that basically decides your academic future and your career options. If you can’t get into a good college because you screwed up in the ACT, then it becomes unlikely that you can become a famous lawyer or doctor in the future.

So, it’s a big deal. But that just says that it’s an important exam. So, how hard is the ACT, really?

The first thing we need to acknowledge is that the answer will depend on the person taking the test. The class valedictorian will most likely find it easier than the class joker who barely got by during high school. Still, you can find out the actual difficulty of the ACT by looking more closely at certain factors and features.

The ACT Has Become More Difficult Over the Years

If you compare the general difficulty levels of the ACT exams over the last few years with the ACT exams during the 1970s, you will probably note that today’s version of the test involves much more difficult questions. This evolution occurred to compensate for the average increase in ACT scores over the years.

In 2014, the average composite score was 21. That was a significant increase from the 1970 average, which was 18.6. The people behind the ACT therefore had to put in tougher questions to balance things out.

Time Pressure

The test involves 215 questions, and you have 3 hours and 25 minutes. That’s a time limit of 205 minutes, which means you have less than a minute per question.

That can be rather bad for some students who get flustered over a question they don’t fully understand, or which may require lots of thinking and calculating.

But if you learn proper time management for tests, then the time pressure shouldn’t be too much of a big deal. Many experts advise test takers to skip the harder questions and answer the easier ones first. That way, you won’t miss the easy questions because you took all the time with the difficult ones.

Focus and Endurance

It’s a truism with the ACT that students who like to read a lot do better with the test than those who don’t read much for pleasure. That’s because there’s a lot of reading involved before you even get to the questions.

In the science section, you have passages and scenarios that are quite complex to read first. The reading passages are quite lengthy, and the math word problems are longer as well.

If you’re not used to reading long passages, then you may lose concentration. It’s also very tiring, especially for those who aren’t used to reading a lot.

It’s for this reason that you may want to start getting into the habit of reading, starting with the newspaper. Also make sure you take practice ACT tests so you can get more used to reading the length passages you’ll encounter in the real thing.

“Tricky” ACT

Some students over the years have complained that the test is tricky, and it’s not as straightforward as it ought to be. It’s as if the test is trying to get one over them in some unfair way.

That’s not really true at all. It’s more accurate to say that the test focuses a lot on details, and some of these details may have escaped the notice of these test-takers. But if they read the passages more carefully and noted the details, they may have answered the questions correctly instead.

This is another thing you have to be mindful about. Don’t just take the “gist” of the passages. Take note of the details as well, as they may contain the answers you’re looking for.

Comprehension Over Vocabulary

To be honest, the vocabulary level of the passages isn’t all that high. The test doesn’t check your vocabulary level at all.

Instead, the exam focuses more on your comprehension skills, including your reading speed. You need to read and understand faster, so you have more time to find the answers needed for the questions following the passages.

Reading Test Difficulty

The Reading section gives you 35 minutes to answer 40 questions, so you can’t take your time with a single question. It’s best if you practice this section by taking just 30 seconds to answer each question. That way, you may have extra time to devote to the questions you’re having more trouble with.

You have 3 non-fiction passages, plus 1 prose passage. To prepare for this section, you may want to practice more with nonfiction passages as well to get used to the tone and style.

One example of ACT “trickiness” here is that you may have “correct” answers among the choices that don’t really answer the question. You have to read the passages carefully so you can keep from choosing these wrong options.

Math Difficulty

Make sure you know your math formulas, since you won’t have to formulas provided to you. Study more on logarithms, trigonometry, conic, and matrices.

A lot of people say that the Math section in the ACT is harder than the SAT math, so be ready.

“Easy” English

This section is considered the easiest, and it’s the section of the ACT where most students get the most point gains. But it’s not really a walk in the park.

You have to read 5 passages and you have to determine whether the underlined portion is correct or not. That’s not really clear for some people, which is why it’s crucial you take practice tests to get familiar with the format.

Science Data Interpretation

It’s not uncommon for some students who have excelled in high school science (Chemistry, Biology, Physics) somehow don’t do as well in the Science portion of the ACT. That’s because of the unusual format of the test. You’re required to interpret the scientific data presented to get the right answer.

Again, you should be able to handle this section better if you’re more familiar with the style of the format. That means lots and lots of practice!


The ACT is easier if you prepare for it. That’s the cold, hard truth. Some of the formats are unusual, but should be able to take them in stride if you’re already familiar with the style. So, practice for the test, develop proper time management, and develop a reading habit. At the end of your ACT prep, you may find that it wasn’t as hard as you feared it would be!