ACT Format: What to Expect on the Exam

Answer Sheet
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Students who take the ACT are really taking tests in four subject areas: mathematics, English, reading, and science. The ACT also has an optional writing test. The number of questions and time allocation varies by subject area:

ACT SectionNumber of QuestionsTime Allowed
English7545 minutes
Mathematics601 hour
Reading4035 minutes
Science4035 minutes
Writing (optional)1 essay40 minutes

The total exam time is 2 hours and 55 minutes, although the actual exam will take ten minutes longer because of a break after the math section.

If you take the ACT Plus Writing, the exam is 3 hours and 35 minutes long plus the 10 minute break after the math section and a 5 minute break before you begin the essay.

The ACT English Test

With 75 questions to complete in 45 minutes, you'll need to work quickly to complete the English section of the ACT. You'll be asked to answer questions about five short passages and essays. The questions cover several different aspects of English language and writing:

  • Production of Writing. This content area represents 29-32% of the English test. These questions will be focused on the big picture of the passage. What is the passage's purpose? What is the tone? What literary strategies is the author employing? Has the text achieved its goal? Is an underlined part of the text relevant to the overall goal of the passage?
  • Knowledge of Language. This part of the English section focuses on issues of language use, such as style, tone, conciseness, and precision. Questions from this category account for 13-19% of the English test.
  • Conventions of Standard English. This content area is the largest part of the English test. These questions focus on correctness in grammar, syntax, punctuation, and word usage. This content area makes up 51-56% of the English Test.

The ACT Mathematics Test

At 60 minutes long, the math section of the ACT is the most time-consuming part of the exam.

There are 60 questions in this section, so you'll have one minute per question. While a calculator is not necessary to complete the math section, you are allowed to use one of the permitted calculators, which will save you precious time during the exam.

The ACT Mathematics Test covers standard high school math concepts before calculus:

  • Preparing for Higher Mathematics. This content area represents 57-60% of the math questions broken down into several sub-categories.
    • Number and Quantity. Students must understand real and complex number systems, vectors, matrices, and expressions with integer and rational exponents. (7-10% of the Mathematics Test)
    • Algebra. This section requires test-takers to know how to solve and graph several kinds of expressions as well as understand linear, polynomial, radical, and exponential relationships. (12-15% of the Mathematics Test)
    • Functions. Students need to understand both the representation and application of functions. Coverage includes linear, radical, polynomial, and logarithmic functions. (12-15% of the Mathematics Test)
    • Geometry. This section focuses on shapes and solids, and students need to be able to calculate area and volume of different objects. Test-takers must be prepared to solve for missing values in triangles, circles, and other shapes. (12-15% of the Mathematics Test)
    • Statistics and Probability. Students need to be able to understand and analyze distributions of data, data collection methods, and probabilities related to a data sample. (8-12% of the Mathematics Test)
  • Integrating Essential Skills. This content area accounts for 40-43% of the questions on the math section. The questions here draw on the information covered in the Preparing for Higher Mathematics section, but students will be asked to synthesize and apply their knowledge to solve more complex problems. Subjects covered here include percentages, surface area, volume, average, median, proportional relationships, and different ways to express numbers. You may need to work through multiple steps to solve these problems.

The ACT Reading Test

Whereas the English Test focuses primarily on grammar and usage, the ACT reading test assesses your ability to understand, analyze, interpret, and draw conclusions from a passage.

The reading part of the ACT has four sections. Three of those sections ask questions about a single passage, and the fourth asks you to answer questions related to a pair of passages.

Note that these passages can be from any discipline, not just English literature. Your close-reading and critical-thinking skills are essential for the reading part of the ACT.

The questions can be broken down into three categories:

  • Key Ideas and Details. These questions require you to identify the central ideas and themes in the passage. You'll also need to understand how passages develop their ideas. Is it through sequential relationships, comparisons, or cause and effect? These questions make up 55-60% of the reading questions.
  • Craft and Structure. With these questions, you'll analyze meanings of specific words and phrases, rhetorical strategies, and narrative points of view. You might be asked about the author's purpose and perspective, or you might need to identify shifts in perspective. These questions account for 25-30% of the reading questions.
  • Integration and Knowledge of Ideas. Questions in this category ask you to differentiate between facts and an author's opinions, and you may be asked to use evidence to make links between different texts. These questions represent 13-18% of the reading section of the exam.

The ACT Science Test

The ACT science test questions draw from the four common fields of high school science: biology, earth science, chemistry, and physics. However, the questions do not demand advanced knowledge in any of the subject areas. The science portion of the ACT tests your ability to interpret graphs, analyze data, and structure an experiment, not your ability to memorize facts.

With 40 questions and 35 minutes, you'll have just over 50 seconds per question. Calculators are not allowed on this section.

The ACT science questions can be broken down into three broad categories:

  • Data Representation. With these questions, you'll need to be able to read tables and graphs, and you'll be asked to draw conclusions from them. You may also be asked to work in the opposite direction and translate data into graphs. These questions account for 30-40% of the science portion of the ACT.
  • Research Summaries. If given the description of one or more experiments, can you answer questions related to the design of the experiments and the interpretation of the experimental results? These questions represent about half of the science test (45-55% of the questions).
  • Conflicting Viewpoints. Given a single scientific phenomena, these questions ask you to explore how different conclusions might be drawn. Issues such as incomplete data and differing premises are central to this category of question. 15-20% of the Science Test focuses on this topic area.

The ACT Writing Test

Few colleges require the ACT writing test, but many still "recommend" the essay portion of the exam. Thus, it is often a good idea to take the ACT Plus Writing. 

The optional writing portion of the ACT asks you to write a single essay in 40 minutes. You'll be provided an essay question as well as three different perspectives related to the question. You'll then craft an essay that takes a position on the topic while engaging at least one of the perspectives presented in the prompt.

The essay will be scored in four areas:

  • Ideas and Analysis. Does the essay develop meaningful ideas related to the situation presented in the prompt, and have you engaged successfully with other perspectives on the issue?
  • Development and Support. Has your essay succeeded in backing up your ideas with a discussion of the implications, and have you backed up your main points with well chosen examples?
  • Organization. Do your ideas flow smoothly and clearly from one to the next? Is there a clear relationship between your ideas? Have you guided your reader through your argument effectively?
  • Language Use and Conventions. This area focuses on the nuts and bolts of proper English usage. Is your language clear, and have you used proper grammar, punctuation, and syntax? Is the style and tone engaging and appropriate?

A Final Word on the ACT Format

While the ACT is broken down into four distinct test subjects, realize that there is a lot of overlap between sections. Whether you're reading a literary passage or a scientific graph, you'll be asked to use your analytical skills to understand the information and draw conclusions. The ACT is not an exam that requires a remarkable vocabulary and advanced calculus skills. If you've done well in high school in core subject areas, you should earn a good score on the ACT.