What’s on the ACT?

Friday, May 3, 2019

SAT and ACT DiagnosticsHere’s What Students Can Expect on the ACT

Before deciding whether to take the SAT or ACT, it’s important to understand each exam’s content, format, and timing. Here we’re going to take a look at the ACT in order to help students become more familiar with this college entrance exam.

The ACT is a multiple-choice test comprised of four sections: English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science. The fifth section, Writing, is optional. The ACT aims to measure skills and knowledge that students have acquired through their education thus far.

What’s on the Test?


1-36 Points

45 Minute Section40 Usage/Mechanics Questions
35 Rhetorical Skills Questions

1-36 Points

60 Minute Section


14 Pre-Algebra Questions
10 Elementary Algebra Questions
9 Intermediate Algebra Questions
9 Coordinate Geometry Questions
14 Plane Geometry Questions
4 Trigonometry Questions

1-36 Points

35 Minute Section


10 Prose Fiction Questions
10 Humanities Questions
10 Social Studies Questions
10 Natural Sciences Questions

1-36 Points

35 Minute Section15 Data Representation Questions
18 Research Summaries Questions
7 Conflicting Viewpoints Questions

2-12 Points

40 Minute Section


1 Essay


TOTAL TIME3 hours, 35 minutes (with essay)


English Test
The ACT English section is broken into two categories, the Usage/Mechanics questions and the Rhetorical Skills questions. The test is comprised of a series of passages, each of which are associated with a series of multiple-choice test questions.

Within these passages, the section focuses on the following six pillars:

Punctuation – Your knowledge of sentence punctuation and the meaning of the punctuation. Ex: What does the coma in this sentence represent? Is it needed in this context?

Grammar and Usage – The comprehension of agreement of subject/verb, pronoun/antecedent, and modifiers/word modified; the formation of verbs, pronoun case, idiomatic usage and the formation of superlative/comparative adjectives and adverbs. Ex: Identifying Run-ons & Fragments

Sentence Structure – Tests a student’s ability to properly form an effective sentence. Ex: Placement of modifiers.

Strategy – Development of a topic a writer chooses in order to best communicate the theme effectively to the desired audience. Ex: Making a sentence or paragraph more clearly written.

Organization – Presenting the information provided in the most logical order by choosing effective opening, transitional and closing sentences.

Style – Structuring the style and tone of the essay by choosing the most appropriate words for rhetorical effectiveness. Ex: Minimizing wordiness.

Math Test
For this section of the ACT, a calculator is permitted for all 60 multiple-choice questions. The purpose of this section is to use reasoning skills to solve for the problems. While all the questions in this section can be solved without a calculator, it’s important to know when to utilize the calculator and when not to.

Number & Quantity – Tests students on real and complex number systems to assess their understanding of numerical quantities, integers, exponents, vectors and matrices. Ex: Decimals, Real Numbers.

Algebra – Asks students to solve, graph, and model multiple types of expressions. Interpret and use many different kinds of equations, such as linear, polynomial, radical, and exponential relationships. Find solutions to systems of equations, even when represented by a simple matrix equation, and apply results to real-world contexts (Preparing for the ACT, 2019)

Geometry – Use your knowledge of shapes and solids to understand the composition of objects and solve for the missing values. Ex: Right Angels, Parallel and Perpendicular Lines.

Functions – Assess knowledge of function application, definition, notation and representation. Ex: Domain and Range, Arithmetic Sequences.

Statistics & Probability – Requires student to “Describe center and spread of distributions, apply and analyze data collection methods, understand and model relationships in bivariate data, and calculate probabilities, including the related sample spaces.” (Online ACT Prep Pack, 2018) Ex: Factorials; Mean, Median and Mode.

Reading Test
This portion of the ACT includes 40-questions for students to answer by utilizing reading comprehension and reasoning skills. The test is comprised of four sections, each containing one longer passage or two short passages. There are four different themes of passages found within this section: social studies, natural sciences, literary narrative, and the humanities.

Literary Narrative or Prose Fiction – These are from short stories, novels, memoirs and personal essays. Prose fiction passages are from short stories and novels.

Social Studies – Passages based on topics such as economics, history, political science, psychology, sociology, etc.

Natural Sciences – May discuss biology, ecology, geology, physics, zoology, etc.

Science Test
The Science portion of the ACT is comprised of 40-questions and presents scientific information followed by multiple-choice test questions. Information may be displayed as graphs, tables, research summaries or conflicting viewpoint passages. While the test itself does not require students to know outside scientific knowledge (other than that provided in the section), the test does include topics featuring biology, chemistry, physics and Earth/space content. The focus of this test is reasoning skills and not math or scientific content knowledge.

Data Representation – Questions correlating to schematic data representation found in journals and texts.

Research Summaries – Descriptions of related experiments.

Conflicting Viewpoints – Expressions of multiple hypotheses with different premises and inconsistent with one another (opposing views.)

As you can see, there is a lot of different information tested on the ACT. It is important to begin reviewing the materials well in advance of test day to feel comfortable and confident in your performance. In addition to reviewing the materials above individually, it’s highly recommended students take full-length practice exams to be exposed to simulate a realistic test-day experience.

For more information on how to prep for the ACT, check out our Academics and Test Prep Checklist!

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