How Hard is the ACT?

Difficulty is a relative term. On a difficulty scale that ranges from learning your ABC’s to building a space shuttle, the ACT test probably ranks about here:

How Hard is the ACT (Image 1)

Compared to your ABC’s and a typical state standardized test, the ACT probably ranks about here:


Of course, this is just an illustration. For some people, learning the alphabet is hard–maybe they are non-native English speakers or struggle with a learning difference such as dyslexia. But multivariable calculus might be a piece of cake. The point is that it is ultimately impossible to answer the question “How hard is the ACT?” because the answer is going to be different for everyone.

But I know you aren’t reading this post to discover that very unsatisfying answer. So here are some things I can tell you about how “hard” the ACT is:

It’s hard because it is very time-pressured.

The ACT gives you 3 hours and 25 minutes to answer 215 questions. The new SAT starting in March 2016 gives you 3 hours to answer 154 questions. Granted, certain questions take longer than others to answer, but many ACT test-takers end up feeling that they could have done much better if they only had more time. You won’t hear this from SAT test-takers to the same degree.

It’s hard because of the concentration and amount of reading demanded by the test.

On the ACT, there’s a lot more to read than on the SAT. There are longer reading passages, longer math word problems, and complex science scenarios to sort through. It can really tax your attention span. This is why full-length practice tests are so important–so that you can build the endurance and focus this test demands.

Relatively speaking, the ACT has gotten “harder” over the years.

As students start to do better on ACT, the test-makers gradually adjust the difficulty level of the test. And students have gotten better. In 1970, the average composite score nationwide was 18.6. In 2014, it was 21.0. Although this may initially may seem as if test has gotten easier, the opposite is true. The ACT has more than compensated for the fact that the average student has gotten better at the test by creating more difficult questions and passages that ensure only a small number of students are at the tippy-top of the scale. This, by the way, is true of all standardized tests, not just the ACT.

It is NOT hard because it is tricky.

The ACT is a pretty straightforward test. It’s not trying to play mind games with you (a common sentiment students have about the SAT). The ACT requires you to be very detail-oriented so you don’t make silly mistakes, but the answer is always in plain sight.

It is NOT hard because it has difficult vocabulary.

You can catch a break here. The ACT does not directly test vocabulary, and the vocabulary level of its passages is not as high as the SAT’s. The ACT, however, does reward reading speed. The faster you can read and understand a passage, the more time you will have to find the answers to the straightforward questions that follow.

The math level is “harder” than the SAT.

The ACT covers more higher-level math concepts than the SAT, including more trigonometry, logarithms, matrices, and conic sections. It also does not provide test-takers with formulas, and some questions will require you to apply common math formulas from memory. But remember, once again, that ACT math is very straightforward: the problems will look more like the ones you encounter in school than the “brain teaser”-style of questions you’ll see on the SAT.

Above all, it’s important to remember that the ACT is specifically designed so that not everyone can ace it. Only a small number of students score at the top, so this means that for the vast majority of students, the ACT is going to be a “hard” test. The best advice I can give is to set a goal score for yourself and then measure your success against that, not the perfect 36. If you hit your goal score, then consider yourself as having aced the test!

P.S. If you’d like to learn more about the ACT before you commit to prepping for it, check out our Magoosh ACT eBook. Skip to the parts you find the most interesting (or are the most worried about) and see if you think this is the right test for you. 🙂



  • Kristin Fracchia

    Dr. Kristin Fracchia has over fifteen years of expertise in college and graduate school admissions and with a variety of standardized tests, including the ACT, SAT, GRE, GMAT, and LSAT, with several 99% scores. She had a PhD from the University of California, Irvine, an MA degree from The Catholic University, and BA degrees in Secondary Education and English Literature from the University of Maryland, College Park. She was the recipient of the 2013 Excellence in Teaching Award and the Chancellor’s Club Fellowship from the University of California, Irvine. She’s worked as a high school teacher and university professor, as an independent college and graduate school admissions counselor, and as an expert tutor for standardized tests, helping hundreds of students gain acceptance into premier national and international institutions. She now develops accessible and effective edtech products for Magoosh. Her free online content and YouTube videos providing test prep and college admissions advice have received over 6 million views in over 125 countries. Kristin is an advocate for improving access to education: you can check out her TEDx talk on the topic. Follow Kristin on LinkedIn!

By the way, Magoosh can help you study for both the SAT and ACT exams. Click here to learn more!