Compass Test Format and Content

The ACT Compass test is a computer-administered, multiple-choice formatted test with no time limitations, built to identify the necessary college-level skills in students applying to higher education institutions. The Compass is a computer adaptive test. This means that questions get easier or harder depending on your answers to previous questions. Computer adaptive tests can produce more reliable results using fewer questions than traditional tests. There are three primary sections: math, reading, and writing. Each section is scored separately on a scale of 1-99. Scores are determined by how many questions you answer correctly. Since the test is untimed and there is no penalty for guessing, it is best for you to try to answer as many questions as you can to the best of your ability.

Math Placement

The Compass math test assesses students’ skills in five fundamental concepts: 

  • pre-algebra 
  • algebra
  • college algebra
  • geometry
  • trigonometry

Test takers will be required to perform basic arithmetic operations, apply these operations in more complex ways, and demonstrate conceptual understanding of mathematical principles. The math Compass test begins with algebraic problems and either moves to higher or lower level math problems depending on the student’s current math skills; a calculator may be used on this section of the exam. The scores from this Compass test are used for placement in mathematics courses.

Preparation for the Compass math section can significantly improve your score by jogging your memory. It's likely that you've already learned some or all of the topics on the Compass math section in school. Many students find that with relatively little practice math skills come back to them, like still being able to ride a bicycle even if you haven't done it for years. Further practice can help fill in gaps and strengthen weaknesses.

Reading Placement

The Compass reading test uses following reading comprehension passages to evaluate standard college skills:

  • practical reading
  • prose fiction
  • humanities
  • social sciences
  • natural sciences

The test consists of 3-5 short passages followed by a set of questions that require using critical thinking skills, drawing logical conclusions and inferences, and analyzing complicated text. Scores on this Compass placement test are used for placement into reading and English classes.

Since the Compass test is untimed, you may take your time to read each passage carefully, mark it up in ways that are helpful to you, and identify main ideas and point of view. It is best to look back into the text to find reasons to support your answers on all of the questions. Even if an answer "sounds right," it's still best to check and find evidence. Even if a question asks about a specific part of the text, it can be helpful to re-read a little bit before and after that part in order to get an idea of context.

Doing any kind of critical reading in your free time can help you prepare for reading placement tests. Simply reading books or articles that interest you, summarizing them, and analyzing them (either by writing about them or telling a friend about them) can significantly improve your abilities.

Writing Skills

The Compass writing test consists of 2-4 “flawed” essays that require students to identify and correct errors. These may include mistakes in: 

  • punctuation
  • spelling
  • grammar
  • sentence structure
  • verb formation
  • relationships of clauses

There is also the e-Write, the ACT Compass essay test that is the only non-multiple choice formatted exam, requiring students to respond to a question or an issue by providing a persuasive position. These combined results are used as placement into composition courses or others that require a certain writing skills level.

Since the Compass test is untimed, it can be helpful to read the whole passage before choosing which sections contain errors. Then, go back and read the passage slowly, one sentence at a time. Sometimes, what seems correct is actually an error (or vice versa) due to the context of the sentence. Strike a balance between using grammar rules that you've learned and your intuition as a reader: pay attention to what "sounds" right or wrong, but whenever possible also know the reason why.

If you have access to old essays you've written for classes in high school, pay attention to where your teacher made grammar corrections, and try to understand why. The Compass writing test essentially asks you to mark errors in sample essays just as your teacher did for your essays.

Compass Practice Tests

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