What to Bring to the ACT: Essential Items for Test Day

Most students are aware that getting a good score on the ACT typically requires extensive preparation. You’ll memorize math formulas, “re-learn” grammar rules that you never really learned in the first place because you slept through the grammar unit in English class, and take plenty of timed practice sections and full practice tests. Even with all of that work, though, the stress of test day still catches many first-time testers off guard. The reality is that it’s impossible to fully prepare for the tension and pressure of sitting for the ACT for the first time—this is one of the reasons I always recommend that students plan to test at least twice—but the fact that you can’t control everything makes it even more important to control the things over which you do have agency. One of those small, often-overlooked things is knowing what to bring to the ACT.

Being fully prepared with the essential items, such as your admission ticket, and the optional but beneficial items, like a snack and water, will help control the stress associated with the morning of the test and put you in a position to earn your best possible score. In this post, we’ll provide all of the details you need about what to bring to the ACT and what not to bring so that you’re as ready for test day as possible. Let’s jump in.

Essential Items to Bring to the ACT

There are a few items that are must-haves for test day; if you forget to bring any of the things in this section, you’ll either be delayed when you get to the test center or outright prevented from taking the ACT that day.

What to Bring to the ACT: Admission Ticket

This is the document that shows the date when and location where you are registered to take the ACT. You’ll be able to print the admission ticket out prior to your test date by accessing your MyACT account. If you forget to bring your admission ticket, you may still be able to gain access to the test center; however, your scores are likely to be delayed, according to the ACT’s website.

It’s also important to note that your admission ticket must be printed. I know it sometimes feels like printers have gone the way of the Brontosaurus, but the ACT’s website specifies that you must bring a hard copy of your ticket with you to the test center; don’t take the risk of showing up with just a screenshot of your ticket or anything like that.

What to Bring to the ACT: Photo Identification

This is probably the single most important thing that you must bring to the ACT on test day. If you don’t bring a photo ID, or if your ID doesn’t meet the standards outlined on the ACT’s website, you won’t be admitted to the test center and you’ll have to wait to test until the next administration. See below for a table with information about what constitutes an acceptable form of photo ID.

ACCEPTABLE FORMS OF PHOTO IDUNACCEPTABLE FORMS OF PHOTO ID
Current official photo ID

-Must be original, current, and valid
-Must be issued by federal/state/city government or by your school
-Must be in hard plastic card format
-Must have your first and last name on it, as well as a recognizable picture

Literally anything other than the two forms listed in the other column; common examples include:

-ACT admission ticket with no accompanying photo ID
-Birth certificate
-Social security card
-Credit, debit, or bank card, with or without photo
-ID issued by employer
-Driving permit or temporary driver’s license that does not include a photo
-Photocopies or reproductions of valid forms of ID
ACT Student Identification Form with photo

-Only acceptable alternative to official photo ID
-Form found on ACT’s website
-Must be fully completed by a school official or notary public, neither of whom can be related to you

If you’re wondering whether a form of ID other than the examples listed above is acceptable or unacceptable, ask yourself this simple question: does it fall into one of the two categories listed under “Acceptable Forms of Photo ID”? If the answer is no, then that form of ID can NOT be used to gain admission to the ACT test center.

If you’re looking for more details, you can find a VERY complete list of unacceptable forms of ID on the ACT’s website.

What to Bring to the ACT: Writing Utensils

Another essential item on the list of what to bring to the ACT is at least one writing utensil, and preferably more than one so that you have back-ups. It’s important to note that the only writing utensil allowed on the ACT is a non-mechanical #2 pencil. If you bring mechanical pencils, highlighters, etc., you won’t be able to use them. It’s possible that the test center will have extra pencils that you can borrow if you forget your own; however, it’s better not to take that chance, and so writing utensils land in the category of essential items to bring to the ACT.

Mask*

Oh the times we live in. This one has an asterisk attached to it because we’re far enough into the Age of COVID that the ACT no longer requires students to wear face coverings during the test. I’ve put it in the Essential category, though, because it’s possible that there are still states, cities, or even specific test centers that do make masks mandatory. Make sure you do your research before the morning of the test so you know whether or not you’ll need to pack a mask.

Optional (But Recommended) Items to Bring to the ACT

The items listed above are categorized as essential because you may not be able to take the test at all if you forget to bring them. That’s far from a complete list of what to bring to the ACT, however: there are several other items that, though they’re not strictly mandatory, will be a huge help to you on test day.

Graphing Calculator

Probably the most important non-mandatory item to bring to the ACT is a graphing calculator. Remember that the entire ACT Math section is calculator-active, which means that you’ll be able to use your calculator for every question.

It goes without saying that doing complex arithmetic in your calculator rather than by hand will save you time and boost your accuracy. What many students don’t realize, however, is that there are a ton of other ways your calculator can save you time and effort on test day. Graphing equations to find intercepts; evaluating logarithms, radicals, or exponents; and multiplying matrices are just a few examples of instances where your calculator will come in handy. So make sure to bring a graphing calculator on test day, and take the time before your test to familiarize yourself with the different functions if you’re not already experienced with using it.

One important note about bringing a calculator to the ACT is that you must make sure that your calculator is allowed. The ACT has a detailed calculator policy on its website. In case your finger hurts and you don’t feel like clicking on a link and scrolling, however, I’ve summarized some of the most common banned types of calculators below.

Examples of Calculators that are NOT Permitted on the ACT

  • Calculators with built-in or downloaded computer algebra system (CAS) functionality, e.g. TI-Nspire CAS or Casio fx-CP400
  • Calculators that are part of devices with communication or internet functionality, e.g. smartwatches or cell phone calculators
  • Electronic writing pads or pen-input devices
  • Calculators that have QWERTY-style keyboards
  • Calculators that have paper tape (which are apparently still a thing), unless the tape is removed

Make sure your list of what to bring to the ACT includes a calculator that doesn’t fall into one of the categories listed above, and make sure that you know how to use it—your Math section score will thank you.

Water and Snacks

Though you won’t be able to eat or drink during the test, you’ll have a short break after the Math section; at that point, you’ll be able to step out of the test room and take advantage of any culinary masterpieces—and/or granola bars—that you brought with you.

I highly recommend that students bring at least a water bottle for the break; ideally, though, you should also bring something that will give you a bit of an energy boost for the second half of the test. Don’t go out into the hall and chug a Red Bull unless your body is used to that, but a Chewy bar or some trail mix can provide substance while also giving your brain a little bit of a sugar kick.

Timing Device

Yes, there will be a clock in the testing room. And yes, the proctor is supposed to give you updates when you have 10 minutes left, 5 minutes left, etc., and some of them even do! I’ve heard too many horror stories from students who couldn’t see the clock from where they were sitting and whose proctors were too oblivious to do their jobs to trust either of those things, however, so please, for my sanity—bring a watch.

My recommendation for students is always to bring a digital watch to the ACT. Not only are digital watches easier to read for most students, but they also typically come with a stopwatch feature. This is incredibly useful during the test, as most stopwatches include a ‘lap’ functionality, which allows you to time each passage of the English, Reading, or Science section individually while still being able to see your overall time. That ability can be a massive help to students who are concerned about pacing on the ACT, as it provides significantly more information than a wall clock and allows more agency over your timekeeping.

Related Reading: How Much Does The ACT Cost?

If you do bring a digital watch to the test, make sure the alarm and all other noises are turned off. If your watch makes noise during the test, the ACT’s website states that you will be dismissed and that your test will not be scored. Many test centers don’t necessarily follow that rule to the letter, but you’re always better off being safe rather than sorry.

What NOT to Bring to the ACT

Just as important as the things you should bring to the ACT are the things that you shouldn’t. Most of this stuff is fairly common sense; however, it’s still worth reviewing in order to be sure you have all the information you need for test day.

  • Textbooks, dictionaries, notes, or other study aids: No, the ACT is not an open-book test.
  • Scratch paper**: This is the one that might surprise students, and there are a couple of things to note (hence the asterisks). First of all, if you’re taking the ACT in the US, you’ll be taking it using paper and pencil as of the time of writing. That means that you can and should write in the test booklet. You should have plenty of room for calculations, margin notes, etc., so take advantage of it. The second note is that scratch paper may be permitted for international students taking the ACT online. The ACT’s website is rather unclear on this, so I encourage international testers to reach out to their test centers directly for more information on specific policies.
  • Any electronic device besides a calculator or timing device: No, you will not be able to use your cell phone during the test or during the break. Yes, you will survive. Probably.
  • Reading material: As someone who always finished tests early, this one hurts my soul. Nonetheless, you won’t be able to occupy yourself with reading after finishing the test, so make sure you use all of the time available to you.
  • Tobacco in any form: I mean, duh, dude. You also shouldn’t be bringing this to any other aspect of your life—it’s terrible for you and also gross.

Preparing for the ACT

Now that you have a clear picture of what to bring and what not to bring to the ACT, let’s talk preparation. Here are a couple of general tips for the days leading up to the test.

Gather your materials the night before the test.

With most ACT administrations occurring on Saturdays, when many students would normally be able to sleep in, there’s a decent chance that you’re going to be grumpy and frazzled the morning of the test. Don’t add to that stress by waiting until the morning of to get your stuff together. Pack your test-day bag the night before; make sure that your admission ticket is printed, your photo ID meets the criteria discussed earlier, and your calculator is charged.

Get plenty of sleep.

This should be kind of a no-brainer, but I’ve included it anyway because it’s so important. Most people have heard the statistic that teenagers need approximately 9 hours of sleep a night to be fully rested; this may not be feasible for you all the time due to your school workload, but try as hard as you can to adhere to this rule for at least 2-3 nights before the ACT.

Don’t cram.

Staying up until 2am the night before the test doing practice sections is not going to help you; in fact, it’s likely to hurt your performance, as you would be in direct violation of my very clear instructions in the previous point. It’s totally fine to spend some time the day before the test looking back over previous work, reviewing math formulas, etc., but make sure that you stop early enough to give your brain time to power down and relax for a couple of hours before you go to bed.

Know where your test center is.

This may seem obvious, but again, it’s all about minimizing the number of things you need to worry about on the morning of the ACT. Know which test center you’re going to and approximately how long it will take you to get there; this will allow you to calculate when you need to wake up in order to allow yourself plenty of time to get ready and get there while still getting the maximum amount of sleep possible.

What to Expect on Test Day

So you’ve successfully gathered all the stuff on your list of what to bring to the ACT and you’ve arrived at your test center with plenty of time to spare. The first thing you’ll do is check in—the staff at the test center will take your admission ticket, check it against your photo ID, and then direct you to your testing room.

When it’s time for the test to start, the proctor will hand out test materials and read a bunch of instructions. You’ll likely need to fill out some information on your answer sheet before the test begins—most of it will be biographical, but there may also be some questions about your college plans, academic interests, etc.

Then the fun begins. As a reminder, the structure of the ACT is as follows:

act format and structure

Source: ACT.org

As I mentioned earlier, you’ll have a break after the Math section, as well as another shorter break after Science if you’re taking the Writing portion of the test. During the slightly longer break after Math, you’ll have the opportunity to leave the test room to stretch your legs, use the bathroom, and eat/drink.

Frequently Asked Questions About What to Bring to the ACT

Can I bring a water bottle to the ACT?

Absolutely; you can and you should. As we discussed earlier in the post, you won’t be able to eat or drink in the test room, but you’ll have a break in the middle of the test; at that point, you can step out into the hallway to drink water and eat any snacks you may have brought.

Can you bring a bag to the ACT?

Yes, you can. Most test centers will require you to either store the bag under your desk in the test room or even possibly leave it at the front with the staff; either way, you will not be able to access it during the test, except at the break. Make sure that everything you need for the test itself—pencil(s), calculator, watch—is out of your bag and on your desk when the test begins.

Is there a dress code for taking the ACT?

No specific dress code is listed on the ACT’s website. With that being said, the test center staff does have the right to turn you away if they deem that you do not meet “health and safety rules in place at the test center”, so I would recommend, like, wearing pants and stuff.

Do ACT test rooms have clocks?

They are supposed to, yes. As we discussed above, however, I don’t recommend relying on the clock in the test room as your method of timing. Even if you can see it clearly from your seat, which isn’t a guarantee, the act of looking up from your test and calculating how much time you have left based on when the section started will take up valuable time and effort. Bring your own method of keeping time—it will make things easier.

Can students use the restroom during the ACT?

You will generally be allowed to leave the test room to use the bathroom. While out of the room, you will not be able to access your phone or any other communication device, and the testing clock will continue to run; this means that the time you spend going to the restroom is time that you will not have to work on the test. Because of this, it’s better to wait until the break to use the restroom if at all possible.

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