What's in the ACT?

tl;dr: Ready to tackle the ACT? You'll need to know the 4 sections (English, math, reading, and science) and how long you have for each. English will focus on grammar and punctuation. Math will cover topics like pre-algebra, algebra, trigonometry, and geometry. And, you get to use a calculator! Reading will ask you to infer and understand main ideas of texts. Science will include passages with diagrams and experiments for you to interpret. There's also an optional essay section that will ask you to respond to a prompt. Check out Fiveable for resources and practice tests to help you ace the ACT! 💪

What sections are in the ACT? How does it work?

The ACT is split into 4 multiple-choice sections (English, math, reading, and science) and an optional essay section. Each multiple-choice section is scored out of 36, and your composite score will be an average of your scores for each of the four sections. 🧮 The essay section is scored separately.

ACT Test Overview

Hello! 👋 If you’re here, you’re probably wondering what you’ll need to know for the ACT. Breathe and buckle up: we’re going to break it down for you!

Before we start, you may be thinking, “What’s the difference between the ACT and SAT?” 🤔 The SAT gives you more time for each question, but the questions are more abstract and difficult. The ACT is more fast-paced ⌚, but the questions are more straightforward. Evaluate your test-taking style and then decide the best test for you. ✅

If the ACT is your cup of tea ☕, let’s keep going!

Breakdown & Scoring

Section # of Questions Time Allotment
English 75 MC 45 min
Mathematics 60 MC 60 min
Reading 40 MC 35 min
Science 40 MC 35 min
Essay (optional) 1 essay 40 min

ACT English

The ACT English section will provide 5 passages. 📚 Portions of the passage will be underlined, and it’s your job to figure out if the underlined portion is correct as it is, or if there’s a better replacement in the answer choices. Other questions may ask you to reorganize paragraphs of the passage or about the main idea. 💡

As you can see, you must use your knowledge of grammar and punctuation and apply them in your editing and organization skills. Focus on studying your grammar rules! ✏️

Example Question

The passage will be on the left side and questions on the right. Underlined portions will correspond to the question numbers.

ACT English practice text and question
Image from ACT, Inc.

More Resources

Want some more practice with these questions and some awesome tips on how to approach them? Check these resources out!

📝Read: ACT English - Topic Development and Organization

📝Read: ACT English - Word Choice, Style, and Tone

📝Read: ACT English - Grammar Conventions

ACT Mathematics

Good news: You’re allowed to use a calculator on the ACT Math section! 🙌 On such a fast-paced section, this will help you save time and check your work.

Although the Math section does cover a multitude of topics 📈, most of the information covered should’ve been taught in school, including pre-algebra, algebra, trigonometry, and geometry.  Make sure you brush up on old math topics and do lots of practice! 📝

Example Question

ACT math example multiple choice question
Image from ACT, Inc

More Resources

How about some ACT math resources and tips? Here they are:

📝Read: ACT Math - Modeling

📝Read: ACT Math - Geometry

📝Read: ACT Math - Calculator Tips

📝Read: ACT Math - Data Analysis & Representations

📝Read: ACT Math - Algebra & Functions

📝Read: ACT Math - Stats & Probability

ACT Reading

Okay, you’ve just finished your mid-test break. What’s next? Let’s hop 🐇 into the ACT Reading section! 🚀

You’ll be reading 4 passages, each paired with 10 MCQ. Some questions will ask you about specific details explained in the passage, while others will ask you to think about the main idea discussed or infer 🤓 based on the information given.

You’ll have access to the passages the entire time you’re answering questions, so make sure to refer back 📑 to them as often as you need to. And remember, unless they’re asking you to infer, all the information you need will be in the passage!

Example Question

ACT Reading example question and multiple choice answers
Image from ACT, Inc

More Resources

Here are two resources providing tips on how to get the highest grade you can, and how to master craft and structure:

📝Read: ACT Reading - Craft and Structure

📝Read: ACT Reading - How to Get a 36 on the ACT Reading

ACT Science

Congrats! You’ve made it through three sections. We’re going to dive right into the ACT Science section. 🧪

At first glance, the Science section may look daunting, with diagrams 📊 and terms that you may be unfamiliar with. Don’t worry! Just like with reading, most of the information you need to answer the questions will be in the passage. There will be around 3-4 questions that’ll require simple science knowledge. 🧬

You’ll be given 7 passages that’ll include both text and graphs/diagrams. The passages can be sorted into 3 categories: reading graphs/diagrams, interpreting a scientific experiment, and comprehending different viewpoints on a topic. 🔑

Example Question

ACT Science example question and multiple choice
Image from ACT, Inc

For some practice with models and experimental results, check this resource out!

ACT Essay

ACT Essay task example instructions
Image from ACT, Inc

We’re at the home stretch! It’s time to cover the optional ACT essay. 👓

You’ll be given a prompt covering a societal issue, with a short background description. The prompt will also include 3 perspectives. 🔬 You can choose to fully agree with a given perspective, partially agree, or even form your own opinion.

Make sure you manage your time ⏰ to write a well-developed essay in 40 minutes!

Example Question

ACT Essay example prompt and three perspectives
Image from ACT, Inc.

Resources for the ACT Essay

Struggling to get all the points on the rubric? Familiarize yourself with what they want and how to get them all!

📝Read: ACT Essay - Organization

📝Read: ACT Essay - Development & Support

📝Read: ACT Essay - Ideas & Analysis

📝Read: ACT Essay - Language Use & Conventions

📝Read: ACT Essay - Rubric Scoring


If you’ve made it this far, give yourself a pat on the back. 🥂 You should have a better sense of the breakdown of the different ACT sections, as well as a better idea on what content will be covered. 🧩

One of the biggest challenges that students struggle with is the timing. ⏳ The ACT is fast! Be sure to take lots of practice tests while simulating a realistic testing environment.

Good luck on your studying, and check out Fiveable for study resources, such as this list of some of the best ACT prep resources, for your next step on your ACT journey! You got this! 👏

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