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The Computer-Based ACT Might Not Be as Bad as You Think

Let’s be honest, no one really wants to take the ACT on the computer.

It’s different from most tests to which you’re accustomed, and that can always be daunting. But shifting to a Computer-Based Test (CBT) doesn’t have to be an insurmountable task. If you thoughtfully consider the pros, cons, and alternatives, you might end up surprising yourself with the realisation that the ACT CBT is the right-fit test for you.

So, let’s break it down: what does this computer-based change mean for you, the student? 


Typically, students will not notice much change in the English section (for example, working through a question on comma rules does not require hard-copy considerations with a pencil in your hand). You might even find the CBT advantageous; for each question, the relevant words in the text are highlighted in turn. This can save time, compared to a paper-based test, where students need to skim the text to match question numbers with underlined areas of the passage.


You’ll be completing your paper calculations out on scrap paper or a whiteboard and then selecting the answer choice via computer. Although different from most tests you are used to, this hasn’t typically been a concern for students. In some cases, it’s been better: when coming back to a flagged question you’ve skipped, for example, you’ll be tackling the question with a fresh approach (not distracted by your previous attempts at solving it). The CBT also offers great tools for eliminating incorrect answer choices off the screen, so that you can narrow your choices and not get distracted as you think through a question.

There are two more important considerations in Maths. Geometric figures often need to be redrawn on your scrap paper, so you can work directly on them. Equations and simple calculations (e.g. when simplifying a given fraction) sometimes need to be written by hand, whereas in the past they could be solved directly on the test paper. However, the time invested in this is certainly made up for in other ways (for example, by not needing to hand-fill your answers into a bubble sheet at the end).


Since we cannot annotate as we read the text, our approach to the reading section has evolved. No matter how you slice it, this is a disadvantage. However, it’s important to remember that this is a challenge for everyone taking the ACT computer-based test, not only for you!

An approach to note taking on a whiteboard—which entails using empty boxes for each paragraph, highlighting proper nouns and key takeaways (similar to the paper-based approach) —works well. It requires a little more practice, but it’s a viable strategy.


Here’s some good news: the science section is arguably easier on the computer-based test as you can scroll up or down to the required figure/table/scientist in the Data representation or Research Summary passages. This makes quick work of assessing the data while having the question right in front of you. The test also has a magnifying glass tool, which allows you to zoom into figures. This is useful when you need to analyse trends in graphs and extract specific values from the data.


Editing your essay on the computer is arguably easier than on paper.

Composite Score:

On the positive side, the ACT is now able to produce your composite score for the ACT CBT exam within 3 working days, rather than the normal ~3 weeks for paper tests. This means that the ‘dead’ time between taking an exam and receiving your score is minimized, allowing students a better opportunity to shore up relative weaknesses before the next test.