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How the ACT Works

ACT Format

As far as standardized tests go, the ACT is very standardized. There are no trick questions. The sections are exactly the same every time, in the exact same order, with the exact same numbers of the exact same types of questions [source: Martz, et al.]. Every time. Here's the breakdown:

English -- 45 Minutes

This section presents five essays with certain portions underlined. Students then answer 75 questions, determining if the underlined portions are correct, or if they include grammatical mistakes, punctuation errors or other general structural problems.

Math -- 60 Minutes

This is a very straightforward multiple choice math test. It covers pre-algebra (14 questions), elementary and intermediate algebra (10 and nine questions, respectively), plane trigonometry (14), coordinate geometry (nine), and elementary trigonometry (four).

Reading -- 35 Minutes

Students read four passages, each one about one-third the length of the article you're reading right now (roughly 750 words). The four passages are on the following topics, in order:

  • Prose fiction
  • Social science
  • Humanities
  • Natural science

There are ten questions to answer about each passage, for a total of 40 questions.

Science Reasoning -- 35 Minutes

In this section, scientific information is presented in six groups in the form of charts, graphs, summaries of scientific research, or as the conflicting viewpoints of two or three scientists. Students then answer 40 questions, the answers to which can be extrapolated from the information provided. You don't have to know any equations, animal classification systems, the moons of Saturn or any other specific data.

There are two other sections of the ACT that you may or may not encounter.

Writing (Optional) -- 30 Minutes

Students only take the writing test if they chose a version of the ACT that includes it (it costs extra). It's recommended that you take the optional writing test, because some colleges require it. If you skip it, then decide you later want the writing test, you'd need to go back and retake the entire ACT.

The writing test is a single essay about a provided topic the ACT test-makers feel is relevant to high school students. Students must state and support their position on this topic.

Experimental Section -- 10 to 15 Minutes

This section, found at the very end of the test, doesn't show up all the time. You'll probably notice when it does, because it's much shorter than the other sections. ACT is literally experimenting on you, trying out questions or types of questions that they may use in future versions of the ACT. Whatever happens on this section is irrelevant -- it won't affect your score in any way.

Next, we'll take a close look at how the ACT is scored, and what kind of score you should aim for to get into the college of your choice.