What Does ACT Stand For?

What does ACT mean - image by Magoosh

What is the Meaning of the ACT Acronym?

First let’s talk about the term ACT and what it stands for.

When it was developed in 1959, ACT stood for “American College Testing.” But the ACT no longer formally calls it that. It’s just the ACT.

Did you know that KFC does not actually stand for Kentucky Fried Chicken, either? It used to, but in the 1990s, the fast food chain dropped its full name and went with KFC (some say it’s because “fried” food was no longer in diet-vogue; some say it’s because they couldn’t legally call it “chicken” anymore–yeesh!), and now KFC stands for….KFC. It’s kind of a similar story with the ACT and the SAT, minus the delicious biscuits.

The SAT, back in the day, stood for Scholastic Aptitude Test, until people were like, “Hey wait a minute, isn’t aptitude like an IQ test?” And the SAT responded, “Yeah, soooo…..about that…we’re not an exactly an IQ test. We’re a Scholastic Assessment Test.” So that became the new name of the SAT in the ‘90s. More recently, the College Board, like the ACT, has decided that students and the SAT were on a first name initials-basis and that the SAT can just stand for itself.

So now both the ACT and SAT don’t really stand for anything except their acronyms. And, of course, a looming hurdle for high school students.

The Definition of ACT in College Admissions

When the ACT was originally launched as the American College Test in 1959 by E. F. Lindquist and Ted McCarrel, it was pitched as an alternative to the SAT. Their argument was that the SAT was used by selective colleges in the northeastern US (aka the Ivy League), but not by many public institutions or schools in other parts of the country. Lindquist also took issue with the style of the SAT, saying (rightly-so) that the test was not well-aligned with what students were learning in school; in other words, students needed a test that more accurately assessed their high school studies.

This is why today (at least until the dawn of the new SAT, which is a lot more like the ACT in many important ways), the ACT still has a reputation among many students as being “more like what I’m doing in school” and/or “less tricky” and more “fair.” The ACT, though, is far from a perfect assessment, and it still is possible to prepare for its specific design and content in the same way as it is possible to prepare for the specific design and content of the SAT. So, although the ACT and College Board would probably like you to believe that you should just be able to walk into a Saturday administration of the test and your scores should perfectly align with your preparedness for college, this just isn’t the case.

Particularly with the overhaul of the SAT in 2016, a lot of questions have been raised about both tests and the role the ACT or SAT should play in college admissions. More and more universities are going test-optional or test-flexible, giving students options in what materials they want to submit as part of their admissions portfolio.

But from the perspective of many institutions, ACT scores provide simple numbers to easily compare students from different schools and backgrounds. It is far from a perfect metric, but it is the best one schools have right now.

But maybe you landed on this page because you are wondering about one of the various other ACT tests that exist beyond the most popular college admissions version. Or if not, hey, did you know there is a whole suite of ACT assessments covering everything from grade school to your adult performance in the workplace? Let’s take a look at them.

What Does ACT Plan Stand For?

The ACT Plan test is currently being phased out of schools; only schools that have an ongoing contract with the ACT to administer the Plan are continuing to give this test.

Plan is not actually an acronym; it’s just supposed to indicate that it is a part of a student’s educational “plan” leading up to (ding-ding-ding!) the ACT. The Plan was basically a pre-ACT (mostly given to sophomores) in the same way that the PSAT is a pre-SAT. It was very similar to the ACT in content and structure, only a little easier.

What Does ACT Aspire Mean?

Now that the Plan test has been phased out, the ACT Aspire test has taken its place. Again, Aspire is not an acronym, but presumably it’s meant to help inspire your hopes and dreams. The Aspire is a computer-based test given to students from grade 3 through grade 10. It changes for each grade level, but assesses all students on English, Math, Reading, Science and Writing. The format is very different from the ACT college admissions test, not only because it is computer-based instead of paper-based, but because the question types are more interactive: you may have to critique math solutions of other hypothetical solutions or organize events into a timeline. Scoring is also very different, although the Aspire 9 and 10 tests will give students a predicted ACT score.

What Does ACT Compass Mean?

Nope, Compass is not a really long acronym either. But it is a test used by mostly community colleges to help place students into the right level of courses. Alas, it too is being phased out as of the end of 2016.

What Does ACT WorkKeys Mean?

Finally, we have the ACT WorkKeys assessments. These ones are for the grown-ups folks. They are skills assessments in Applied Math, Locating Information, and Reading for Information that some employers use to assess applicants or existing employees.

Here’s some more fun facts about the development of the ACT:

1959: About 75,000 students take the very first American College Test (ACT).

1989: The ACT replaces the Social Studies test with a Reading test (yeah, there didn’t used to be a Reading test!)

2005: The ACT introduces the optional essay.

2012: For the first time, more high school students take the ACT than the SAT.

2015: The ACT changes the essay to a NEW format.

2015-2016: The ACT begins offering computer testing for schools that use it as a state assessment. (For the time being, it will continue to be a paper test for weekend college admissions testing).



  • 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!

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