The ACT is an increasingly popular standardized test for high school students applying to college. According to ACT, Inc., more than 1.6 million high school students who graduated in 2012 took the ACT. To perform well on a test such as the ACT and earn the score your colleges want, you should first familiarize yourself with the structure and content of the exam.

General Structure

The ACT consists of four multiple-choice test sections and an optional writing test. The test lasts about three hours with a short break between the second and third test sections. The composite ACT score that colleges receive combines the four test sections into one score ranging from 1 to 36. According to the Princeton Review, the national average score on the ACT is 21.


The ACT begins with a 75-question, 45-minute English test. The English test includes two subscores: Usage/Mechanics, including punctuation, grammar and sentence structure; and Rhetorical Skills, which includes the organization and development of a written essay.

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The ACT Mathematics test, which consists of 60 questions over 60 minutes, tests six content areas of high school–level math. These content areas include pre-algebra, covering topics from basic arithmetic operations to simple statistics; elementary algebra, including exponents and functions; intermediate algebra, including polynomials and the quadratic formula; coordinate geometry, including line graphs and slope-intercept equations; plane geometry, including angles, properties of shapes, such as circles and triangles, and volume; and trigonometry. Pre-algebra and plane geometry make up the largest portions of the test.


The ACT Reading test, which contains 40 questions and lasts 35 minutes, contains passages that students are asked to analyze using critical-reading skills. The ACT contains four types of reading passages: social studies, natural sciences, prose fiction and humanities.


The Science test, like the Reading test, contains 40 questions and lasts 35 minutes. The ACT emphasizes critical-thinking skills over detailed knowledge of scientific concepts; Science test questions require only background knowledge in introductory science classes. This section is divided into three categories: data representation, which requires analysis of charts or graphs; research summaries, which describe experimental methods and results; and conflicting viewpoints, which presents alternative viewpoints on a hypothesis or the meaning of experimental data.


The ACT also includes an optional Writing test: a 30-minute test in which students respond to a single writing prompt. The writing prompt defines an issue and gives two points of view; students may either choose one of the points of view in the prompt or take their own position on the issue. The ACT Writing test adds an additional fee to the cost of taking the ACT. Some colleges require the Writing test, while others do not; you should decide whether to take this section based on the application requirements of your prospective colleges.

About the Author

Chuck Lander holds a Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing from American University. In addition to working at university writing centers and teaching writing skills in high school classrooms, he has written for blogs and publications such as the American University Writing Center and "Practicing Planner" since 2008.