The University Network

Should New ACT Changes Affect How Students Prepare For It?

On October 8, 2019, the ACT announced a few changes to its college entrance exam.

Starting in September 2020, students who’ve already taken the ACT and wish to boost their scores can opt to retake specific parts of the five-section, three-hour-long test. They won’t have to retake the entire test, unless they want to. 

Students will also be able to combine their best overall scores in each section (English, reading, science, math and optional writing) to create a “superscore.” 

And lastly, all students will have the option of taking the ACT online at testing centers instead of a paper and pencil test, as they typically would. 

In the college admissions world, these changes to the ACT are a huge deal. Already, admissions counselors and testing coaches across the United States are reshaping their approaches to preparing students to take the ACT. 

In addition to doing extensive research on the topic, we at The University Network spoke with Allen Koh, the CEO of Cardinal Education, an admissions, tutoring and test-prep company in California, to better understand how students should go about preparing for and taking the ACT. 

Here’s what we’ve gathered.

Students may have to start studying earlier

Historically, because the ACT is so long and includes so many academic subjects, the highest scores have typically gone to innately gifted test-takers. 

With these recent changes, however, achieving a high score will become more attainable for all. It will just require hard work and persistent studying. 

Once September comes around and students can retake the ACT in parts, they’ll be able to focus on preparing for the test section by section. With their high school counselors or hired tutors, students could concentrate on improving their score in English, for example, before moving onto math or science. 

For the strongest test-takers, these adjustments to the ACT don’t really change much, Koh said. “It just gives them additional chances to focus on one section at a time after the first test or two.”

But for those who aren’t as naturally strong test-takers, these changes mean they should start preparing earlier, Koh explained. 

Students might still want to retake the full ACT

It’s important to note that just because the ACT will soon allow students to create superscored tests doesn’t mean colleges and universities will have to recognize them. 

“Colleges are not unanimous in terms of how they are going to treat this,” Koh said. “Some universities have already put it out there that they will not accept this ACT superscore — they don’t like it for a number of reasons.” 

For example, Georgetown University’s Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Charles Deacon has already indicated that the university likely wouldn’t accept the superscored ACTs, and The University of Oklahoma is mulling it over.

However, Koh assumes that colleges and universities that choose not to accept the superscored ACTs will likely be the most elite, competitive schools. 

“Schools that are not as competitive tend to be flexible,” he said. “They don’t want to do anything to discourage applicants.”

So, depending on where they intend to apply to, students may want to consider retaking the ACT in full. However, they should first check each school’s policy on it. This can be done by looking at the school’s website or by contacting its admissions department. 

Retake some sections, but don’t go crazy 

It’s important for applicants to try to achieve their best score possible in each section of the ACT. But for a couple of reasons, it might not be in their best interest to take each section of the test more than a few times. 

First off, some colleges and universities force applicants to disclose the scores of every ACT they’ve ever taken, Koh explained. And, historically, if a student takes the test more than, say, three times, it starts to look pretty bad. 

Secondly, these changes are coming at a time when schools’ admissions departments have been caring less and less about their applicants’ standardized test scores. Some colleges and universities have even gone as far as to make standardized tests like the ACT and SAT an optional part of applications.

Some worry that these changes will cause students to fixate on improving their test scores, which may result in them ignoring more important things like their GPA, for example. 

“I worry that most of the high-achieving kids in my orbit will retest and retest until they can bump subsections of 33 and 34 up to 35 and 36. So standardized testing will become even more of an extracurricular activity than it already is,” Sally Rubenstone, senior contributor at College Confidential, told The New York Times

Most students should stick to one tutor

After hearing about these changes, some students and their parents — at least those who can afford to — will be tempted to hire specific tutors for each section of the ACT. But that isn’t the best idea in most cases, according to Koh. 

“For some students, it is better to have a specialized tutor for each section,” he explained. “For a lot of students, though, it’s actually not a good idea. There is a very unified test taking mindset to all of the sections. And so, we believe it’s better to hire exceptional people who are very skilled at all of the sections. It’s hard to find these people, and they typically cost a lot more, but then that way there is a consistent message regarding test taking mindset.” 

Don’t take the test online

Many high schoolers may be tempted to take the ACT online because they feel more comfortable on a keyboard than with a pencil and paper. 

But Koh advises against it. 

In the online version of the reading section, for example, students can’t mark up a passage while reading it, which may hurt them and cost them time when they have to answer questions on the passage, Koh explains. And in the math section, students tend to show less work on scratch paper when taking the exam electronically. 

International students wishing to attend college in the United States have been able to take the ACT online for some time now. In fact, in the vast majority of other countries, that’s the only option. 

But Koh and his team at Cardinal Education feel so strongly against the online exam that they’ve successfully encouraged many students fly to the United States just so they can take the paper version. 


Without a doubt, these recent changes to the ACT can be advantageous for students. Not only will they likely make it easier for students to improve their scores, but they will also take away some of the stress and anxiety attached to it. 

But that doesn’t mean students should sit back and relax. As Koh said, those who aren’t naturally gifted test takers may have to allot even more time for studying. And, it’s important to remember that schools can individually decide whether or not to acknowledge these new changes. So before students decide to retake the exam section by section, they need to check and make sure the schools they’re applying to will accept the new changes.