How to Choose Between Online and Paper ACT

Makers of the ACT announced in 2019 a plan to broadly offer their first computer-based ACT in September 2020. Students would still have the option to test on paper, and those who selected the digital format on a national testing date would have to test at a designated site.

The COVID-19 pandemic prompted postponement of those plans. No new date is available yet for students who hoped to take the digital ACT on a national testing date.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the digital ACT’s status, freshmen and sophomores who choose the ACT over the SAT can start thinking about whether they would prefer to take it online or on paper. While seniors will presumably not have this option due to the approaching deadlines for college applications, juniors may also be faced with this choice.

Here are three factors to consider before you opt for one testing format over the other:

? Where will you take the ACT?

? How quickly will you need your results?

? How comfortable are you with online testing?

Where Will You Take the ACT?

Students who take the ACT through their high schools, as opposed to independently registering for an ACT test date, should first determine how much autonomy they have in making this decision.

[Read: When to Take the SAT, ACT.]

Your high school will likely choose one exam format for all its students, so speak to your counselor or a knowledgeable teacher about your school’s procedures as they become available.

As of mid-2021, not all districts and schools offer the online ACT. In addition, no national exam dates and their related testing centers offer the online version of the exam yet..

Once you know whether you will take the online or paper ACT, spend time getting accustomed to that means of testing. The format you will sit for should guide how you study and prepare.

How Quickly Will You Need Your Results?

Students who take the ACT online will receive their scores much quicker than those who take the paper exam. The creators of the ACT have stated that, with the online format, students can expect to receive their scores on nonwriting sections within two business days.

On the other hand, students who take the paper version usually must wait at least 10 days, and possibly as long as eight weeks, to find out about their performance.

[READ: How to Read Your ACT Score Report]

There are generally three national ACT test dates scheduled for each fall: in September, October and December. The longer wait for results from the paper exam may not be problematic for students who apply to college under regular decision, since most regular decision deadlines are not until January or February.

However, early action and early decision applications are often due as early as the first half of November, but deadlines can vary by college. Students who plan to apply under early action, early decision or to colleges with rolling admissions deadlines should be aware of these important dates.

The October ACT may be too late for students who will take the ACT on paper and who have November college application deadlines. This is particularly true when you consider that the ACT cautions that scores from October and February are usually unavailable until three to eight weeks after testing.

How Comfortable Are You with Online Testing?

Before choosing between the paper and computer-based ACT, students should also consider their comfort level with the online format.

Comfort level is usually determined by how much previous experience a student has with digital testing. Students who use electronic practice tests and other virtual study materials tend to be more open to the idea of online testing than those who prefer to use printed materials.

There are several reasons why a student may prefer the paper format. Perhaps its biggest advantage is that it can be written on. Many students perform better on exams when they can freely annotate reading passages and math problems.

[READ: 3 Signs You’re Ready for the ACT or SAT.]

However, it is worth noting that students can use scratch paper when taking the online ACT. They can also highlight text and use a line reader.

The physical strain of looking at a computer screen for long periods, as well as the fear of facing technical issues, can also lead certain students toward preferring the traditional paper test.

The computer-based ACT has its lure, as well. One significant advantage of the digital format is the on-screen timer, which can help students better manage their time. If finishing the exam on time has been your biggest obstacle during ACT prep — or any other time you take an exam — online testing could be the right choice for you.

It is important to note that the online ACT, unlike the GMAT and some other exams, is nonadaptive. This means that a test-taker’s correct and incorrect answers will not determine the questions that they encounter later in the test.

During the pandemic, students universally gained more exposure to digital learning. Some students developed a love for the convenience of online classes while others missed the traditional classroom setting. Consider your experience with distance learning during COVID-19 when making the decision to test digitally or on paper.

Still not sure which ACT format to choose? Consider completing one online ACT practice test and one paper ACT practice test so you can get a feel for both.

More from U.S. News

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Getting Ready for the SAT, ACT: How Parents Can Help

What to Know About the ACT Science Section

How to Choose Between Online and Paper ACT originally appeared on

Update 08/09/21: This article has been updated with new information.

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