If you’re a high school student preparing to apply for college, you may be considering taking the ACT. Back in the 1950s, when the test was created as a competitor to the SAT, “ACT” originally stood for “American College Test.” Even though "ACT" no longer stands for anything today, taking the ACT may still be right for you.
One of the biggest differences between the ACT and the SAT is the number of questions on each test. The ACT has more questions overall. The ACT sections are also slightly different than their counterparts on the SAT.
The ACT has four sections: English, math, reading and science. The writing section is optional.
What’s on the ACT? An Overview
There are four ACT sections: English, math, reading and science. If you choose to take the test with the optional writing section, the writing section will come last, giving you five ACT subjects to study in all. On each section except for writing, you can score a maximum of 36 points.
English, which has 75 questions, is the longest section by number of questions, but you will only get 45 minutes to complete it. The section with the longest time allotment is math, where you will get 60 minutes to answer 60 questions. The reading and science sections both have 40 questions each and time allotments of 35 minutes.
Due to the time constraints of the test, knowing how to pace yourself is a key factor in earning a high score. On each of the four main sections, you will have mere seconds to answer each question. If you want to complete the English section, you will have to answer a question every 36 seconds!
What’s on the ACT English Section?
The English section is the longest of the ACT sections, but it gives you the least amount of time to answer each question. Therefore, going into this section prepared is vital for scoring well. This section contains five passages with multiple choice questions about their grammar, punctuation, organization and rhetoric.
There are six types of questions on the ACT English section, and they can be split into two types: rhetorical skills and usage and mechanics. For all of these questions, you may be asked to add, remove or change part of a sentence or paragraph so that it reads more clearly than it did before.
Rhetorical skills questions will ask you about a passage’s argumentative strategy, structure and style. Usage and mechanics questions assess your knowledge of grammar, punctuation and sentence structure.
Tips for the English Section
Before test day, there are a few things you can do to increase your chances of earning a good score. One of the best things you can do is develop a reading strategy for passages. It is recommended that you read the questions first, so you know what to look for while you are reading.
Another beneficial strategy starts long before test day: learning the rules of grammar, especially ones that pop up on the ACT year after year. For instance, knowing how to write a sentence correctly, especially a compound sentence or a complex compound sentence with multiple clauses, may help you answer up to 20 percent of the grammar questions on the ACT.
One more thing to remember for this ACT subject is that sometimes the correct answer may be “no change.” When you see that answer option, it may feel like a trick question, but don’t doubt your grammar knowledge. “No change” might be right.
What’s on the ACT Math Section?
Of all the ACT subjects, the math section arguably covers the most topics. Not only does it cover algebra and prealgebra, but the math section also covers plane and coordinate geometry and trigonometry.
To do well on the ACT math section, you have to have mastered each of these areas. Questions will range from word problems with simple algebraic solutions to the interpretation of complex data sets, graphs and geometric shapes.
All questions in the math section will be multiple choice with five options each. In general, the questions will progress in difficulty from easy to medium to hard. The first part of the math section will contain more prealgebra and algebra, and the second part will contain more geometry and trigonometry, but there are no distinct subsections.
Tips for the ACT Math Section
Acing the ACT math section requires more than just problem-solving skills. You will also need to memorize some formulas because the ACT doesn’t give you a formula sheet.
Beyond memorizing a dozen or so helpful formulas, the best thing you can do to improve your chances on the ACT math section is to master pacing. Practice your timing on individual questions and on practice tests before you sit down to the real deal.
Don’t forget to bring the right kind of calculator. If you bring a calculator that isn’t on the ACT’s official approved list, you might not get to use one.
What’s on the ACT Reading Section?
Unlike some of the other ACT subjects, the reading section utilizes skills that you are probably already practicing every day. Whether you’re reading directions on how to put something together, cooking from a recipe or following written instructions for a homework assignment, you’re constantly putting your reading skills to the test.
The ACT tests those reading comprehension skills with sets of passages and multiple choice questions. You will be asked to read literary texts and passages from the humanities and the sciences, and then you will have to answer questions about their details and the choices their authors have made.
In this section, there are five types of questions. The most frequent question type will ask you about details from the text, so make sure you read carefully. If you read the questions before you read the passage, your search for details will be much easier.
Tips for the ACT Reading Section
The two most important things you need to practice for the ACT reading section are improving your reading speed and finding textual evidence to support your answers. You will know when you have the right answer for each question if you can find support for it in the passage. However, if you are a slow reader, this might take a long time.
Improve your reading speed by practicing reading every day. Learn to become aware of when your mind drifts while you’re reading, as this is a common reason some students believe they aren’t quick readers.
Train your brain to focus by practicing on longer works such as novels or narrative nonfiction books. Find quizzes about the books you read if you can. Active reading will become easier with practice and repetition.
What’s on the ACT Science Section?
When you hear “science section,” you might automatically assume that this section will test you on facts that you learned in science class. However, that isn’t the case on the ACT. Instead, the ACT science section will test you on your ability to apply the scientific method to ideas presented in charts, graphs and written passages, making this more of a logic section about scientific ideas.
In the science section, you will have to use your knowledge of the scientific method to answer questions about research summaries. You may have to interpret a researcher’s reasoning or intent by answering questions about why they designed their experiment in a certain way. On other questions, you may be asked to predict the outcome of experiments given information from a text or figure. You can also expect to answer questions that interpret the results of experiments as well.
Tips for the ACT Science Section
One of the trickier types of questions in this section will ask you to interpret conflicting viewpoints. This is when your reading comprehension skills will come into play. Learn to identify any author’s point of view by interpreting both his tone and the surface-level meaning of his word choice, and you will be able to answer the toughest questions in the science section.
Because of the amount of information presented in this section, you should read the questions first here as well. Don’t try to memorize everything about the passages and figures. Be strategic instead, and you will save a significant amount of time.
You can also save time by doing the questions in this section out of order. Look over the section before you start, and mark the questions, like the paired passage, that seem longest or most difficult. Complete the easier parts of this section first, and save the more difficult ones for last.
The Optional ACT Writing Section
If you choose to take the ACT, you will be asked to write a persuasive essay in under 40 minutes. Your prompt will give you a topic with a paragraph that introduces an important issue. The ACT writing topics are usually well-known ideas that have multiple arguable viewpoints. After the first paragraph, the prompt will give you three different positions on the topic followed by the essay task that tells you what you need to write.
As with most standardized writing tests, you should write a five-paragraph essay that includes an introduction, body paragraphs and a conclusion. In the body paragraphs, make sure you make use of supporting evidence to back up your claims, and don’t forget to address opposing claims in at least one of the body paragraphs.
Your essay will be graded out of six by two graders whose scores will be added up to total a number out of 12. The graders will be looking for how clearly you present your ideas, how well you develop and support your position, how well you organize your essay and your command of written English.
Tips for the ACT Writing Section
Before you go into the writing test, make sure you understand how your essay will be graded. Some students, especially those who are frequent readers or practiced writers, may go into the test with a different concept of what makes a good essay than what is on the ACT. The best way to get around this issue is to acquaint yourself with the ACT writing rubric before you sit for the test.
Another common issue is lack of argumentative clarity. Make sure you choose a single stance to argue from the prompt. If you try to argue for more than one point of view, your essay will lack focus, and your answer will ultimately be underdeveloped.
Lastly, remember to back up your stance with evidence. Flimsy evidence like personal anecdotes may dilute your argument, but quotes from trustworthy sources will go a long way toward boosting your credibility. How do you do that if you can't look things up? Before the test, read about controversial and important issues and study perspectives that you can reference while you write.
Rebecca Renner is a teacher and college professor from Florida. She loves teaching about literature, and she writes about books for Book Riot, Real Simple, Electric Literature and more.