If you’re trying to wrap your head around studying for the ACT, a good place to start is knowing the structure of the test. Being familiar with the sections of the test, how many questions they have, and what those questions are asking will help you be more prepared to score high – even if it seems like basic knowledge.

Let’s save us both some time and cut to the information you came here for: the ACT has 215 questions, split among 4 sections (5 if you choose to do the optional essay).

SectionTime (mins.)# of QuestionsTime per Question
English457536 seconds
Math60601 minute
Reading354053 seconds
Science354053 seconds
*BREAK* (only for essay writers)5
Writing (optional)401 Essay40 minutes
Total: 2 hours 55 minutes
(or 3 hours 35 minutes with the essay)
(+ 1 optional essay)

So, the ACT is 2 hours and 55 minutes (3 hours and 5 minutes if you include breaks) with 215 questions split among 4 (or 5) sections with varying time per question in each section. My head hurts. Let’s break it down to make it easier to understand what the ACT will look like for you.

If it wasn’t stated often enough already, there is an optional essay portion on the SAT. If you choose to take it, you’ll add 40 minutes to your test as well as an additional 5-minute break. To find out what that portion of the test looks like, and how to determine if it’s worth taking, read on below.

ACT English:

Referencing back to our handy-dandy table, we can see that the ACT English section offers 45 minutes to answer 75 questions, with roughly 36 seconds to spend on each question. Except, not really. ACT English is meant to test students on their ability to understand the purpose of writing, and their knowledge of English conventions (like grammar and mechanics). Because of that, you aren’t necessarily getting 36 seconds for each question; you would get 36 seconds per question if it took you 0 seconds to read the prompts (which would be, like, crazy impressive). Chances are, that’s not a skill you currently have, so it’s important to note that the longer you spend reading a prompt, the less time you’ll have to answer the questions about it.

Now, I’m with you – the ACT English section is NOT a victimless crime. 45 minutes to answer 75 questions? I hope you can understand the sincerity of my sympathy through the screen. The thing is, the ACT is a difficult test, not because of the severity of the questions, but because of the amount you have to answer in a limited amount of time. A majority of the questions you’ll see on the test are generally straightforward, similar to questions you would have seen throughout your high school career.

Where were we…? Right – the English section! On this section, you can expect to see 3 main question types. Not assuming here, the big fancy ACT people told us all about them. And remember: none of the English questions will be standalone questions, they will all refer to a passage.

1. Production of Writing

Think of Production of Writing as understanding the core of a piece of writing. These are concepts like the purpose of a passage, an author’s goal, organization of the text, flow, and identifying an effective introduction and conclusion of a passage. Questions in this category make up about 29-32% of the questions you’ll see on the ACT English section. Expect them to look something like this:

  • Suppose the writer has intended to write a brief essay focusing on [x]. Would this essay successfully fulfill the writer’s goal?
  • The main theme of this passage concerns the:

2. Knowledge of Language

This section seems simple in nature but is very broad. Knowledge of Language covers concepts like concise word choice, style consistency, and tone. About 13-19% of ACT Reading questions are Knowledge of Language questions. Even though this section is the least frequently tested of the three, that does not mean it doesn’t deserve a fair amount of study time. It’s not uncommon for students to really struggle on these. Some of these questions could read like this:

  • Questions that address wordiness or redundancy:
    • My grandmother’s cat was always nimble, quick on its feet, and graceful.
      • NO CHANGE
      • quick on its feet
      • nimble, and graceful
      • nimble and graceful. ()
    • A tip for these questions: if all of your answer options are grammatically correct, the shortest answer is going to be correct 99% of the time. The ACT loves concise writing and favors the quickest way to say the same information.
  • Questions that address ambiguity:
    • My grandmother’s cat left something on my doorstep.
      • NO CHANGE
      • something awful
      • the most disgusting, huge, and sticky hairball
      • a large, sticky hairball ()
    • Again, be concise! Option 3 and 4 mean the same thing, but option 4 clarifies the ambiguity in less words, making it the right answer.

3. Conventions of Standard English

These questions are probably what you envision when you think of classic English questions. The intention of these is to test your ability to revise and edit errors in text, recognize punctuation problems, and improve the text’s sentence structure and formation. While spelling is not tested on the ACT, vocabulary is important to ensure you best understand the prompts you’ll see on test day. These are the most common questions on the English portion of the ACT, with about 51-56% of questions reserved for this topic. Here are some examples of those:

  • After the discovery of gold in California settlers began traveling west in search of fortune.
    • California; settlers
    • California, settlers ()
    • California: settlers
  • The Emperor Augustus dog has the sniffles.
    • The Emperor Augustus’ dog has the sniffles. ()
    • The Emperor Augusts’ dog’s have the sniffles.
    • The Emperor Augustuses dog has the sniffles.

Final notes:

As long as you’ve been paying some attention in your English classes so far, the hardest hurdle for this section is going to be the time constraint. Your brain likely can already make assumptions about what “sounds” correct when reading for errors, which is the bulk of questions here. To study for this portion of the test, you should be practicing efficient reading and answering questions quickly IN ADDITION to the material that’s being tested.

ACT Math:

This section is actually super easy: no studying needed!

I think that’s a funny joke because I’ve already studied for and taken, the ACT; I have a feeling you’re less amused. Sorry.

Here’s the nitty-gritty of ACT Math: 60 minutes for 60 questions, meaning 1 minute for each question (if you are perfectly on schedule), and you’re permitted to use a calculator for the entire section.

Parks and Recreation • X = Y, obviously.
Try to do more math prep than him.

The questions within the ACT Math section are broken into two main categories: Preparing for Higher Math and Integrating Essential Skills. These can get broken into smaller subcategories, but we’ll get into those in a second.

Because of the wide variety of math problems available, I won’t add any example problems here, but you can find tons of free practice online. Instead, I’ll go as in-depth as I can on the kinds of topics that you can expect on the test. Preparing for Higher Math is 57–60% of the math questions, and Integrating Essential Skills is around 40–43%.

1. Preparing for Higher Math

Preparing for Higher Math is a bit of a catch-all for a majority of the math concepts you’ve learned in school before. The ACT considers these questions to have 5 subcategories:

  • Number and Quantity: These questions test your knowledge on concepts like integer and rational exponents, vectors, and matrices. (7-10%)
  • Algebra: For these, be prepared to solve, graph, and model multiple types of expressions. These can be linear, polynomial, radical, and exponential. (12-15%)
  • Functions: These include linear, radical, piecewise, polynomial, and logarithmic functions that ask to be manipulated or translated and applied to graphs. (12-15%)
  • Geometry: This set of questions asks you to apply your knowledge of shapes and solids, like surface area, volume, and composition of objects. May also ask you to solve for missing values in triangles, circles, and other figures using trigonometric ratios and equations. (12-15%)
  • Statistics and Probability: Be prepared to show your understanding of relationships in bivariate data and probability calculations. You may also be asked to describe center and spread of distributions and apply and analyze data collection methods. (8-12%)

2. Integrating Essential Skills

This category focuses more on your ability to solve complex problems. These are nonroutine problems that involve combining different steps and understanding connections in order to solve. Demonstrate fluency in rates and percentages, proportional relationships, area, surface area, volume, and averages and means.

Modeling is a category – but not really – because it’s integrated into all of the other categories on the math test. Modeling is a topic that is measured by other questions within ACT Math and involves producing, interpreting, understanding, evaluating, and improving models of all kinds. You’ll want to be fluent in modeling because it will be represented across the whole ACT math test.

Final Notes:

It’s easy to scan through this list and recognize that you’ve likely covered a hefty portion of Preparing for Higher Math before high school. That doesn’t mean these questions will be a breeze for you, in fact, it may make them more difficult. Because you began learning about them so long ago, it’s possible you’re rusty on those topics, and studying them is crucial to a good math score. Don’t sell the “easy” stuff short.

ACT Reading:

Before this section you’ll have what seems like the shortest 10-minute break ever, and if you aren’t opting for the ACT essay, it will be the only break you have throughout the entire test. Use it wisely!

ACT Reading consists of 40 questions to be answered within a 35-minute session. That gives you roughly 53 seconds per question, but similar to the English section, ACT Reading consists of prompts that you won’t get extra time to read. This time, however, they are longer and usually more complex than the prompts you’ll see on the English portion of the exam. Reading strategically, rather than thoroughly, will be key to succeeding on this section of the ACT.

The ACT reports that the questions on this section of the test fall into 3 main categories: Key Ideas and Details, Craft and Structure, and Integration of Knowledge and Ideas. Starting in 2021, a new element was added to the Integration of Knowledge and Ideas category, called Visual and Quantitative Information. I’ll explain more below.

1. Key Ideas and Details

This category tests your ability to understand central ideas and themes. Once again, this is a “big picture” section, similar to the Production of Writing section you saw earlier on the English portion of the Exam. You’ll need to summarize information from the passage accurately and draw relationships from the main ideas of the writing. These questions are the most common question type you’ll see on ACT Reading, accounting for about 55-60% of the questions. These questions will likely look something like this:

  • Which of the following statements about [x] is supported by the passage?
  • One of the main points made in the last paragraph is that:

2. Craft and Structure

Although vocabulary isn’t explicitly tested on the ACT, this question type is exactly why studying vocab is still important for performing well on the ACT. Craft and Structure asks you to determine word and phrase meanings within the context of the text, analyze an author’s word choice rhetorically, and understand text structure. 25-30% of ACT Reading questions are craft and structure. Here’s what you can expect:

  • As it is used in line 3, the phrase “[x]” most nearly means:
  • The author’s attitude toward [x] might best be described as which of the following?

3. Integration of Knowledge and Ideas

This category will require you to differentiate between facts and opinions, analyze how authors construct arguments, and evaluate reasoning and evidence from various sources. This category is the least frequent of the three, with about 13-18% of questions dedicated to it.

  • Which of the following identifies a piece of evidence for the author’s argument?
  • Which of the following is another logical assumption about [x]?

Visual and Quantitative Information:

This subsection of Integration of Knowledge and Ideas is all about your ability to integrate information from the passage and a graphic to determine the best answer. Starting in 2021, one passage in the reading section will have a graph, figure, or table that is relevant to the passage. You’ll be asked to make connections between the graphic and the writing provided. Those questions will appear like this:

  • Which of the following conclusions regarding [x] is most strongly supported by the graphics?
  • Based on the passage and the graphics, does the information in the graphics support the claim that [x]?

Final Thoughts:

This section of the test can seem really difficult to finish. Reading multiple passages and searching through the writing to find answers isn’t a quick task, giving you a matter of seconds to answer each question. If you struggle with reading quickly, it’s always helpful to read the questions first to know exactly what information to look out for, and can make it easier to move through questions more quickly. Also, don’t forget the value of vocab! The ACT may not be a vocab test, but having a thorough understanding of the language common on the test will give you an advantage on time and answer accuracy.

Feeling Overwhelmed? Get 1-on-1 ACT Help from a Test Geek Tutor

ACT Science:

Probably the biggest reservation students have when considering taking the ACT is this section. The name misleads science-challenged students into thinking they can’t succeed on this portion of the test, and science-savvy test-takers into studying all of the wrong things. A lot of articles will say that you don’t have to have any science knowledge to do well, and some will encourage you to do research on some scientific principles to be best prepared. So which is it? Does the ACT Science section have science or not?

To be honest, they are both wrong! While the test won’t outright ask you to identify elements on the periodic table, that doesn’t mean you have a pass to avoid creating a baseline understanding of scientific principles. These are simple though, you’ve likely already learned them in your high school classes. Here’s what you should consider studying if you aren’t already comfortable with these topics:

  • The steps of the scientific method
  • ACT science vocabulary
  • Understanding and making connections based on graphs, charts, and tables
His qualifications aren’t needed on the ACT, but he’s a national treasure, so I’m adding him in anyway.

Okay back to science – sort of. As mentioned above, you do need SOME (minimal) science knowledge to do well here, but other articles aren’t wrong to say that a majority of the ACT Science section questions aren’t actually asking about science. In this portion of the test, you’ll receive prompts and visuals and a series of questions asking you to analyze that information.

ACT Science has 40 questions to be answered in 35 minutes, giving you roughly 53 seconds per question. This is also the last required section of the exam, hooray!

Questions in this section of the test can be organized into 3 main categories: Interpretation of Data, Scientific Investigation, and Evaluation of Models, Inferences, and Experimental Results. Similar to math, most of the questions depend on context, so instead of providing sample questions, I’ll explain each category. Let’s dig in.

1. Interpretation of Data:

Almost half of the questions on ACT Science are reserved for this category of questions, and for good reason. With these, you’re being tested on your ability to manipulate and analyze scientific data in tables, graphs, and diagrams. These are concepts like recognizing trends in data, translating data from one form into a graph, and reasoning mathematically. Expect Interpretation of Data to be about 40-50% of questions you see.

2. Scientific Investigation:

This section is where most of your prior science knowledge will be necessary. Here, you’re looking to understand experimental tools and procedures and will be asked to modify or extend experiments through prediction. Understanding the steps of the scientific method is key here. These questions make up 20-30% of ACT Science.

3. Evaluation of Models, Inferences, and Experimental Results

Even though it has the longest title, it’s actually pretty simple to explain. These questions will ask you to judge the validity of scientific information and make conclusions and predictions based on that information. You may also have to find evidence, like data, to back up a scientific conclusion. 25-35% of questions fall into this category.

Final Thoughts:

So do you NEED scientific knowledge to succeed here? The answer is not really, but having prior knowledge of baseline scientific concepts can be incredibly beneficial. At the least, you should study some ACT Science vocabulary to better understand what some questions are asking of you. All in all, this section isn’t something you should be afraid of if you don’t perform well in science usually. Almost every question provides the information you need to answer within the text, but you’re being tested on your ability to find that information on your own.

ACT Writing:

If you’re reading this portion of this blog, you’re likely signed up to take the ACT with the essay, or debating taking the essay and looking for more information. Let’s break down what it looks like to give you a better idea.

ACT Writing gives you 40 minutes to write 1 essay based on a writing prompt. For each prompt, a complex issue will be presented along with three different perspectives on that issue. Your goal with the essay is to develop your own perspective on the issue and analyze the relationship between your perspective and the others provided. Don’t worry, there isn’t a right answer, and you won’t be scored any differently based on your perspective. Here’s a sample prompt:

Your perspective can align with one, multiple, or none of the provided perspectives. You’re tested on your ability to connect thoughts and analyze relationships, not your opinion.

Who should take the ACT Essay?

There are lots of reasons to take the ACT Essay, and lots of reasons not to. Unfortunately, there’s no firm yes/no decision-making process, it’s entirely up to you. Here are some pros and cons if you’re considering taking the extended exam.


  • Some colleges require it:
    • It’s not very common, but imagine that you found out that your dream school recquired an ACT Writing score for admission and you didn’t find out until AFTER you had already taken the test. Yikes! If you didn’t know, you can’t take the ACT Essay seperate from the test. So, if you took the test and found out later you were required by your colleges to submit an essay score, you would have to take the entire ACT again. This is something you can look up ahead of time, of course, but if you aren’t sure yet where you would like to apply, it may be best to do the essay just in case.

  • Advantages in college:
    • If you’re a strong writer, or believe you could pretend to be one for 40 minutes on your test day, you can actually reap the benefits of this in the long-term. When I took the ACT (like 100 years ago), I did pretty well on my essay. When I was applying to my first semester of courses at my college, I was waived out of all the lower-division English courses in my program because of my score. I got to skip those classes, and graduated early because of it (among other things). I didn’t include this to brag, but to show that you don’t have to be a kid-genius to benefit from your test scores.
    • This won’t apply for all colleges, but I’d encourage you to inquire with any colleges on your short-list if this could be an option for you.

  • Set yourself above other candidates:
    • Imagine a school is reviewing applications and they have the application of one student who didn’t take the ACT essay, and one that did. If they had the same composite score, but one student got a slightly above-average score on their essay and the other had no score at all, who do you think they’d admit? Having more examples of your qualifications is going to be beneficial for you during the admissions process, even if you don’t have crazy prodigy scores.


  • Not a strong writer:
    • Sometimes writing essays isn’t everyone’s strongsuit. That’s ok! If you don’t think your current writing skills are strong enough to be worth taking the essay, it may be more beneficial for you to use that time to prepare more for other sections of the test instead. If you’d like help becoming a better writer, speak to your English teachers to see if they have notes for improvement, or consider a tutor to better your performance in this area.
  • Costs money
    • College admissions can be an incredibly costly period for families. Costs of applications, college tours, SAT/ACT test fees can add up to be a little overwhelming sometimes. The ACT with the essay costs $88, while the ACT without the ACT costs $63. $25 may not seem like much, but could seem wasteful if you don’t think you’ll do well on it anyway.
    • If this is a factor for you, but you would like to take the ACT (with or without the essay), talk to your school counselors to see if you qualify for an ACT fee waiver.
  • Time!
    • Spending your Saturday morning testing is not a great experience, especially if you’re taking both the SAT and ACT, or taking the tests multiple times. Staying attentive and alert for 3 hours can be hard for many students, and by not taking the essay, you cut your time down by 40 minutes.

Final Thoughts:

I hate to say it, but deciding on taking the essay or not is entirely a you-decision. The essay can be a huge advantage for some students, and a waste of time for others. The best way to gauge where you fall in that spectrum is to consider how you normally perform on essay-writing, the admission requirements of the schools you plan on applying to, and your budget.


Phew! That was a lot. If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed, that’s normal. All in all, expect 215 questions on your test day.

Some concepts may seem easy already, and others probably need some work in order to feel confident when it’s time for the test. Knowing what questions to expect on the ACT is the best way to know how to start prepping for it.

Aenne Thom
Aenne is a marketing associate at Test Geek who loves to find the most creative way to problem solve. In her free time, she likes to make a mess in her kitchen and calls it baking.

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