The ACT® at a Glance

Like the SAT, the ACT is a nationally administered, standardized paper-and-pencil test that helps colleges evaluate candidates. Colleges now accept your ACT or SAT scores interchangeably. This means that you have the opportunity to decide on which test you’ll perform better. And in many cases, students prepare for and take both exams.

Generally, you’ll take the ACT for the first time in the spring of your junior year. This allows you to reserve the summer months for college applications or enough time to re-take the test during the fall of your senior year if you’re not satisfied with your score.
 

The Anatomy of the ACT

How long is the ACT test? Without the optional Writing Test, the ACT exam lasts 2 hours and 55 minutes, or 3 hours and 25 minutes with the Writing Test. The order of test sections and the total number of questions covered in each test section never changes:

Section Length Question Type
English 45 Minutes 40 Usage/Mechanics Questions
35 Rhetorical Skills Questions
Mathematics 60 Minutes 14 Pre-Algebra Questions
10 Elementary Algebra Questions
9 Intermediate Algebra Questions
9 Coordinate Geometry Questions
14 Plane Geometry Questions
4 Trigonometry Questions
Reading 35 Minutes 10 Social Studies Questions
10 Natural Sciences Questions
10 ​Literary Narrative or Prose Fiction Questions
10 Humanities Questions
Science 35 Minutes 15 Data Representation Questions
18 Research Summary Questions
7 Conflicting Viewpoint Questions
Writing Test 30 Minutes You write in response to a question about your position on an issue

 

The ACT English Test

On the ACT English Test, you’ll have 45 minutes to answer 75 questions—that’s about 30 seconds per question! The test is divided into 5 passages, each with about 15 questions.

You’re not being tested on spelling or vocabulary. Rather, the ACT English Test is designed to assess your understanding of the conventions of English—punctuation, grammar, sentence structure—and of rhetorical skills. Rhetorical skills are more strategic including things like organizing the text and making sure it’s styled clearly.

Length Question Types
45 Minutes 40 Usage/Mechanics Questions
35 Rhetorical Skills Questions

 
ACT English Question Format

Almost all of the English questions follow a standard format. A word, phrase, or sentence in a passage is underlined. You’re given 4 options: to leave the underlined portion alone (“NO CHANGE,” which is always the first choice), or to replace it with one of the three alternatives.

Some English questions don’t follow the standard format—usually about 10 per exam. These items pose a question and offer four possible responses. In many cases, the responses are either “yes” or “no,” with an explanation.

Many of the nonstandard questions occur at the end of a passage. Some ask about the meaning, purpose, or tone of individual paragraphs or of the passage as a whole. Others ask you to evaluate the passage. And still others ask you to determine the proper order of words, sentences, or paragraphs that have been scrambled in the passage.


The ACT Math Section

On the ACT Math Test, you’ll have 60 minutes to answer 60 questions—that’s 1 minute per question! Questions include Pre-Algebra, Elementary and Intermediate Algebra, Coordinate and Plane Geometry, and Trigonometry.

Length Question Types
60 Minutes 14 Pre-Algebra Questions
10 Elementary Algebra Questions
9 Intermediate Algebra Questions
9 Coordinate Geometry Questions
14 Plane Geometry Questions
4 Trigonometry Questions

 
ACT Math Question Format

All of the Math questions follow the same basic, multiple-choice format. They ask a question and offer 5 possible answer choices. The questions cover a full range of math topics, from pre-algebra and elementary algebra through intermediate algebra and coordinate geometry, to plane geometry and even a little bit of trig.

Although the Math questions, like those in other sections, are not ordered in terms of difficulty, questions drawn from elementary school or junior high tend to come earlier in the section. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the easier questions are first.

We’ve found that students perform better on the material that’s freshest in their minds.; Do you remember the math you learned in 7th grade?


The ACT Reading Section

On the ACT Reading section, you’ll be tested on Social Studies, Natural Sciences, ​Literary Narrative or Prose Fiction and Humanities. You’ll have 35 minutes to answer 40 questions—that’s about 50 seconds per question! The section contains four passages, each followed by 10 questions.

Length Question Types
35 Minutes 10 Social Studies Questions
10 Natural Sciences Questions
10 Literary Narrative or Prose Fiction Questions
10 Humanities Questions

 
ACT Reading Question Format

There are four categories of reading passages: Social Studies, Natural Sciences, Humanities, and Literary Narrative or Prose Fiction. You’ll get one passage in each category. The passages are about 1,000 words long and are written at about the same difficulty level as college textbooks. After each passage, you’ll find 10 questions.

The Social Studies, Natural Sciences, and Humanities passages are usually well-organized essays, each with a specific theme. Questions—including Specific Detail, Inference, and Big Picture questions—expect you to recognize the theme, to comprehend specific facts, and to understand the structure of the essay. Literary Narrative or Prose Fiction passages require you to understand the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of fictional characters, even when these are not explicitly stated in the passage.


The ACT Science Section

On the ACT Science Test, you’ll be given passages containing various kinds of scientific information—drawn from the fields of biology, chemistry, physics, geology, astronomy, and meteorology—which you’ll have to understand and use as a basis for inferences. You’ll have 35 minutes to answer 40 questions—that’s about 50 seconds per question! The section contains seven passages, each followed by 5-7 questions.

Length Question Types
35 Minutes 10 Social Studies Questions
10 Natural Sciences Questions
10 Literary Narrative or Prose Fiction Questions
10 Humanities Questions

 
ACT Science Question Format

Usually there are six passages that present scientific data, often based on specific experiments. Also, there’s usually one passage in which two scientists state opposing views on the same issue. Each passage is followed by 5-7 questions. A warning: some passages will be very difficult to understand, but they’ll usually make up for that fact by having many easy questions attached to them. The test makers do show some mercy once in a while.


The ACT Writing Section

The optional ACT Writing Test is 30 minutes long, includes one essay, and is always the last section of the test. You’ll be given a topic or an issue and expected to take a position on it, supporting your point of view with examples and evidence.

Length Question Types
30 Minutes You write in response to a question about your position on an issue

 
You don’t have to be a great creative writer to succeed on the ACT Writing Test. You just have to show that you can focus on an issue and argue your point of view in a coherent, direct way with concrete examples. Furthermore, essay graders are not primarily concerned with your grammar and punctuation skills. In terms of ACT Writing, clarity is what they’re looking for.

The biggest challenge of the ACT Writing Test is the time frame. With only 30 minutes to read the issue, plan your response, draft the essay, and proofread it, you have to work quickly and efficiently. Coming up with a plan and sticking with it is key to success.

ACT Writing Test Format

The ACT Writing Test consists of one prompt that lays out the issue and gives directions for your response. There are no choices of topic; you have to respond to the topic that’s given. But don’t worry; test makers craft topics that are relevant to high school students and about which you can be expected to have a point of view.


Your ACT Score

Some of the most common questions we get from students and parents are: “What does this ACT score mean?” and “What is a good ACT score?”

Each of the four multiple-choice ACT test sections (English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science) is scored on a scale of 1-36. You will also receive a composite score, which is the average of your four test scores (1-36).

Your score report also includes national rankings where you can compare your performance against students across the country. For instance, if you ranked in the 90th percentile on the Mathematics Test, you did better than 89 percent of other students, while 10 percent fared better than you.

If you take the Writing Test, you will receive a Writing Test subscore (ranging from 0 to 12) and a combined English/Writing score (ranging from 1 to 36), along with comments about your essay.

Keep in mind that you must take both the English and Writing Tests to receive Writing scores. The Combined English/Writing score is created by using a formula that weights the English Test score two-thirds and the Writing Test score one-third to form a combined score. This combined score is then reported on a 1-36 scale.

Not all schools use the Writing Test score in the same way. Some elite schools that have traditionally required the SAT Writing Subject Test are using the ACT Writing Test as a formal piece of the admissions process.

Other schools have indicated that they will look at Writing Test scores, but that they will not give them much, if any, consideration. These schools are primarily trying to get an understanding of the scores in conjunction with their applications.

A third group of schools is still on the fence and is waiting for more information to become available before making a decision.

On the ACT website you can search for Writing Test requirements by school. As you refine your target school list based on your scores, you should reconfirm with each school to determine how they will be using your Writing score.

Receiving Your ACT Score

Most ACT scores are available online within 2 ½ weeks after each national test date. This service allows you to view your scores before your official score report arrives by mail. (Score reports for those testing outside the U.S. are not available online).

The ACT website offers a complete listing of score availability dates.
Score reports are usually mailed to your home within 4 to 7 weeks after each test date. If you took the Writing Test, your score report will be mailed only after your Writing scores are available.

What’s a Good ACT Score?

Test Section Class of 2007 Class of 2008
English 20.7 20.6
Mathematics 21.0 21.0
Reading 21.5 21.4
Science 21.0 20.8
Writing 7.6 7.3
Total Composite 21.2 21.1

 
Taking the ACT More Than Once

If you aren’t happy with your score, don’t despair! Most students take the ACT officially more than once, and some even take it three times! Use the information in your score report to help you understand your strengths and weaknesses and to hone your preparation for your next ACT. And remember that with the ACT, you decide which scores are sent to colleges.

Keep in mind that you cannot combine scores from different test dates to create your best composite score, and you cannot report only your Writing scores (or only your multiple-choice scores) from a test date. All scores from a test date will be reported together.