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The ACT is intended to test college readiness and reflect what you have learned during high school. The ACT sections align roughly to the subject areas you likely had in high school. Let’s break down some of the most commonly asked questions about the ACT sections.

How many ACT sections are there?

There are 4 sections on the ACT + an optional Writing (essay) section.

What are the ACT sections?

English, Math, Reading, Science and an optional Writing test (think free-response essay).

How are the ACT sections scored?

Your score report will provide section scores, each out of 36, as well as a single composite score out of 36. This composite score is calculated by taking the average of all your section scores.

How long are the ACT sections?

You’ll spend 2 hours and 55 minutes testing without the Writing section and 3 hours and 35 minutes if you opt to do the essay. Let’s look at a breakdown by section:

ACT SectionNumber of QuestionsTime Limit
English75 multiple-choice questions45 minutes
Math60 multiple-choice questions60 minutes
Reading4 passages
40 multiple-choice questions
35 minutes
Science40 multiple-choice questions35 minutes
Writing (Optional)1 free-response essay40 minutes

Looking for a little more detail? One of the best ways to begin preparing for the ACT is to understand what is tested. You can think about each ACT section as a separate test, with its own objectives and score. I’ll break each ACT section down for you, starting with ACT English.

students taking a test in a classroom

ACT English Section

Time limit: 45 minutes

Questions: 75 multiple choice

Structure: 5 reading passages, 15 questions each

What it tests: Your ability to use the English language.

  • Grammar and standard English usage
  • Choosing what should and should not be included in a passage
  • Choosing the most logical order of sentences in a passage

The English section is what I would consider the most straightforward, easiest-to-study-for section on the ACT. Most students find meaningful score gains on this section even with a small amount of preparation.

The ACT English test consists of five passages, throughout which you’ll be asked a series of questions. There are no stand-alone grammar questions. All questions will be passage-based. The type of questions break down into two categories:

  1. Grammar
  2. Effective Writing

Grammar Questions – ACT English

You’ve likely been learning English grammar your whole life and most high school curriculums involve some intense study in this area. While English might not be the most straightforward language, there are a series of rules, that, if studied, will help you ace these questions.

In short, grammar questions on the ACT English section ask you to fix grammatical errors in sentences.

The key is to feel so confident in your English grammar skills that you can answer the questions with a high degree of accuracy and speed. You only have 36 seconds per question, so speed really does matter on this section.

There are 13 grammar topics that you could see on this ACT section:

  1. Subjects and Verbs
  2. Sentences
  3. Semicolons
  4. Commas
  5. Colons
  6. Dashes
  7. Pronouns
  8. Adjectives and Adverbs
  9. Modifiers
  10. Logical Comparisons
  11. Idioms
  12. Apostrophes
  13. Redundancy

Effective Writing Questions – ACT English

The ACT doesn’t just test your grammar knowledge. It also tests your ability to use the English language in a clear, concise, and effective manner. These questions are going to be a little trickier to study for than the grammar questions, but with some practice, you should start to see some improvement.

Top tip: The ACT prefers clear, succinct language. Avoid fancy phrasing and redundancy.

If you know two options are grammatically correct, the shorter one usually wins (99% of the time!).

You’ll likely see questions that fall into one of four common question types:

  1. Adding or deleting information – An evaluation of if the sentence or paragraph makes the passage easier to understand or more informative. If not, leave it out!
  2. What would be lost? – Essentially the reverse of asking what a sentence or paragraph provides to the overall idea of the passage.
  3. Order of sentences – Arguably the worst questions type. This is going to involve reading and re-reading a paragraph to arrange sentences in the most effective way.
  4. Specific objectives – The ACT tells you exactly what they want from you. Read carefully and give them what they want.

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ACT Math Section

Time limit: 60 minutes

Questions: 60 multiple choice

Structure: Generally questions get more difficult as you move through this section.

What it tests: Mathematical and reasoning skills students have learned through the end of high school. You’ll see questions that span the following math areas:

  • Basic Math
  • Pre-Algebra
  • Algebra 1
  • Algebra 2
  • Geometry
  • Trigonometry

One thing you’ll notice is that you only have 1 minute per question. This is really tight. And, it isn’t accidental. The ACT is relying on this tight time constraint to make this section challenging. While you will find questions that would be challenging regardless of the time constraint, for the most part, the ACT math section asks questions in a relatively straightforward way. You will likely find that the style of questions is similar to what you’ve seen in school.

Concepts on the ACT Math Section

You’ll find the following concepts testing on the ACT math section:

This list might feel overwhelming. Take a step back and remind yourself that most of these concepts you have learned in school; you just might be rusty. One step at a time. Work your way through the list: brush up on each concept and work through real practice questions for each.

Note: You are allowed a calculator on the entire ACT math section.

ACT Reading Section

Time limit: 35 minutes

Questions: 40 multiple choice

Structure: 4 reading passages:

  • Literature/Prose Fiction
  • Social Sciences
  • Humanities
  • Natural Sciences

What it tests: Your ability to read critically and reason through evidence:

  • Reading comprehension
  • Vocabulary in context
  • Structure analysis
  • Scientific reasoning
  • Logical arguments

As with the ACT math section, the ACT reading section relies heavily on a tight time constraint for difficulty (but perhaps even to a greater degree on this section). The good news here is if you can overcome the timing issue, you’ll see a significant score improvement. The bad news is, the timing issue can be really tough to solve.

8 Reading Question Types

The ACT reading section is pretty predictable. For one, we know what kinds of passages we’ll see. And, we also know what kind of questions we’ll see. This is great news. Get better at recognizing these question types and you’ll get better at this section.

In order of frequency tested, you’ll find 8 types of questions on this ACT section:

  1. Big picture – ask you to give a broad analysis of the passage. These are all about the main ideas expressed in the passage.
  2. Details – ask you to find specific information in the passage. Get in the habit of flipping back to the passage to verify your answer to these questions.
  3. Author questions – deal with the author or narrator’s perspective or role.
  4. Vocab in context – all about figuring out the sense in which an “easy” word is used in the passage.
  5. Inferences – ask you to reason with information in the passage to arrive at the answer.
  6. Connections – ask you to connect bits of information within the passage. It might involve asking what one person would think about a certain idea or how two ideas relate to each other.
  7. Function questions – deal with how information acts within the passage and how they relate to the rest of the passage.
  8. Support questions – require you to figure out which bits of information have strong support in the passage and which ones don’t.

ACT Science Section

Time limit: 35 minutes

Questions: 40 multiple choice

Structure: 7 passages

  • 3 data passages, which primarily ask you to interpret charts and graphs
  • 3 experiment passages, which ask you to interpret experiments
  • 1 conflicting viewpoints passage, which asks you to analyze competing viewpoints

What it tests: Your ability to read scientific passages and answer a variety of questions about
them.

One of the biggest misconceptions about the ACT is that it tests science content that you learned in school. This is just wrong. There’s absolutely no reason to pull out your physics, chemistry, or biology textbooks for review. Instead, the ACT is testing your ability to read and understand passages that relate to science as well as your ability to read and interpret various charts and graphs presenting scientific information.

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Strategies for the ACT Science Section

The key: PRACTICE! Lots of it.

You need to become familiar with the type of content on the ACT Science section in order to get better at it. This section is much less about studying a list of rules or concepts and more about practicing with real ACT science passages.

We won’t get into all of the details here, but one of the main strategies for the Science section is working through the types of passages in different ways, optimizing the very little time you have.

  • Data passages – start with questions first.
  • Experiment passages – read the introductory information and skim the rest.
  • Conflicting viewpoints – save these for last and read all of the text before moving to the questions.

Final Thoughts: ACT Sections

There are 4 sections on the ACT: English, Math, Reading, and Science, with an additional optional Essay (Writing) section.

Each section has a distinct time constraint and predictable patterns. One of the best ways to begin your ACT preparation journey is to dive in and understand each ACT section in detail.

Ally Kotwica
Ally is the Director of Marketing at Test Geek. She is passionate about connecting with students and families and helping them craft an actionable plan to a score improvement. In her free time, you'll find her sewing her own wardrobe or cuddling with her pup, Penny.

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