David Recine

ACT Compass: How to Prepare

Due to a decline in popularity, ACT phased out its Compass exam at the end of 2016. That being said, ACT Compass will remain an important exam for colleges and universities for the next twelve months and may be replaced by a similar exam in the future.

The most well-known ACT test is (of course) the ACT, which is commonly used as an admission test for four-year universities. However, the ACT also administers a placement exam for students who have already been admitted to colleges and universities. This exam is called the ACT Compass and for years it has been used to test the level of community college students, and sometimes university students as well.

How the ACT Compass is Used

If you need to prepare for the ACT Compass, it’s important to understand that the Compass is not an admissions exam like the ACT. By this I mean that the Compass does not determine whether or not you get into a school. Instead, the Compass exam is a placement exam.

Being a placement exam, your ACT Compass scores determine whether you will be able to take regular course-credit classes in all subjects right away, or will need to take some remedial courses. Remedial courses help you improve academic skills that you’re weak in. Since remedial courses are taught below the college level, they do not count as course credit toward your major or toward graduation.

Community colleges typically do not require actual admissions exams, they will accept any applicant who is interested in attending. Since they accept students regardless of academic ability, community colleges need to determine the level of each student in order to place students in their appropriate classes. These two-year degree institutions generally require the Compass for all students after they’ve applied and been accepted. To see an example of how ACT Compass scores correspond to placement in certain types of classes, check out Des Moines Community College’s Compass Score/Course Placement table here.

Liam got a 35 on the ACT. Get a higher ACT score with Magoosh.

Since universities do require admissions exams, they don’t make every admitted student take the Compass. Instead, universities administer the Compass to students who’ve been accepted into school in spite of having less than the minimum ACT or SAT score normally required. This kind of acceptance of low-scoring students is called conditional acceptance.

Typically, conditional acceptance is extended to applicants who got the minimum scores on most of the skills in their ACT or SAT, but did very poorly on one section. Suppose, for instance, that a university requires a minimum ACT score of 25. An applicant with a 29 in English, a 30 in Reading, a 24 in science, and a 19 in Math might still be very appealing to the university. Such a student is clearly doing well in most subjects, but will need some math help in order to succeed in the long run. So the university might accept the student, but ask the student to meet certain conditions in order to be accepted. In this case, the student would be required to take a Compass Math placement exam and attend a remedial math course selected on the basis of the student’s ACT Compass placement score.

Content and Format of the ACT Compass

The ACT Compass has a significantly different format than the ACT. The ACT itself is just one exam, with an optional writing section that can be added or left out. In contrast, the ACT Compass is a lineup of five different exams: Reading, Writing Skills (similar to the grammar and rhetoric questions on the ACT) Writing Essay, Mathematics and English as a Second Language (ESL).

Each of these exams can be taken separately from the other. Within the ESL and Math tests there are narrower-skills-focused “sub-tests.” ACT Compass ESL has separate exams for listening, reading, writing, and grammar. And Compass Math is customizable, offering assessment in one or more of the following areas: pre-algebra, algebra, college algebra, geometry and trigonometry.

The content of most of the ACT Compass exams is comparable to the ACT in terms of difficulty. However, content can sometimes be a little below ACT-level-assessment, depending on the exam. ACT Math and ACT Compass Math are virtually the same. ACT Compass Writing Skills are a little easier than English questions on the ACT and reading is also a little bit simpler. Similarly, a typical ACT Compass Writing Essay question will be a little easier than the average ACT essay.

ESL is the one ACT Compass Exam that is completely different from the ACT in terms of content and difficulty. Each of the Compass ESL skills tests is leveled for students with different English ability, with level 1 being the lowest level and level 4 being the highest. Level 4 exam questions are almost as complex as the questions on the ACT itself, while level 1 questions are very simple and designed to place students who are just beginning to learn English.

Studying for the ACT Compass

Since the ACT Compass is for placement, not admissions, students need to approach test prep differently than they would on a typical admissions exam.

Placement testing is meant to honestly assess your academic skills under normal conditions. So “cramming” for the ACT Compass is a bad idea. Studying a subject really hard can temporarily and unnaturally inflate your performance in it. This in turn could cause you to be placed in a class that really is too difficult for you, setting you up for academic failure.

In fact, if you really are weak in an academic area such as Math, Writing, Reading, etc. it may be best not to study. If you simply show up for the exam well-rested and focused, the results will accurately reflect the level you’re at. From there, you can be placed in a class that gives you the help you need to succeed in more challenging college-level coursework in the future.

There is a time when you definitely should study for the ACT Compass—when you are only a little weak in a college academic skill and may be capable of studying at the regular first-year college level. You certainly don’t want a difference in a point or two to cause you to take a semester of remediation when you probably could succeed in a non-remedial class. If you think you have a shot at avoiding remedial courses (with their extra costs and the delays they cause to graduation) do a reasonable amount of studying and get yourself placed in regular classes.

Because the ACT Compass is a relatively low-stakes test, the official website provides only a few practice questions and doesn’t offer the extensive library of prep materials available for the ACT itself. Since you only need to study for the ACT Compass if you are in striking distance of acceptable scores on the regular ACT, it’s best to use standard ACT prep materials to prepare. The skills in each section of the ACT correlate to the skills on the Compass exams, with the exception of ACT science—science is not assessed on the Compass.

So in Compass prep, aim for 20+ scores in regular ACT English, Reading, Math, and Writing practice. If you can meet typical university minimums on the ACT, you can ace the ACT Compass and start with your regular degree classes right away.


  • David Recine

    David is a Test Prep Expert for Magoosh TOEFL and IELTS. Additionally, he’s helped students with TOEIC, PET, FCE, BULATS, Eiken, SAT, ACT, GRE, and GMAT. David has a BS from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and an MA from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. His work at Magoosh has been cited in many scholarly articles, his Master’s Thesis is featured on the Reading with Pictures website, and he’s presented at the WITESOL (link to PDF) and NAFSA conferences. David has taught K-12 ESL in South Korea as well as undergraduate English and MBA-level business English at American universities. He has also trained English teachers in America, Italy, and Peru. Come join David and the Magoosh team on Youtube, Facebook, and Instagram, or connect with him via LinkedIn!

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