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Introduction to the ACT

Written by tutor Jana P.

Welcome to our introduction to the ACT Exam section! Here you will find valuable information on test format and content, test-taking tips, and time-saving strategies to help you excel on this important exam. Remember, preparation can make a difference in your score, and your future!

But first, let's answer some of those burning questions you may have about the ACT exam.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the ACT?

The ACT is a national college admissions exam. It consists of subject tests in English, Math, Reading, and Science. The ACT Plus Writing exam includes the four subject tests plus a 30-minute Writing test.

Which schools will accept ACT test results?

All four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. accept ACT exam results.

How long does the test take to complete?

The ACT exam includes 215 multiple-choice questions and takes approximately 3 hours and 30 minutes to complete, which includes a short break at the mid-point. (The ACT takes just over four hours if you take the ACT Plus Writing exam.)

How many times per year is the test administered?

The ACT exam is administered in September, October, December, February, April, and June within the United States, U.S. territories, Puerto Rico, and Canada. In other locations, the ACT exam is administered on all of the above dates except September, and the ACT Plus Writing exam is not available on the February test date.

How much does the test cost to take and what does it cover?

The ACT registration fee includes score reports for up to four colleges of your choice, if you list valid college codes on your registration form.

How long does each subject test take to complete and what is covered in each section?

Subject Minutes Questions
English 45 75
Math 60 60
Reading 35 40
Science 35 40
Writing 30 One Essay

The English subject test is 45 minutes and has 75 questions. It tests knowledge of punctuation, grammar and usage, sentence structure, and rhetorical skills. If you are comfortable with English rules and conventions, this test may be relatively easy for you.

The Math subject test is 60 minutes and has 60 questions. It tests concepts in pre-algebra, elementary algebra, intermediate algebra, coordinate geometry, plane geometry, and trigonometry -- topics you likely have covered up to the beginning of grade 12. Questions generally become more challenging as this test progresses.

The Reading test is 35 minutes and has 40 questions. It has four reading passages in the following areas: Prose Fiction (fiction), Social Studies (non-fiction), Humanities (non-fiction), and Natural Science (non-fiction), always in that order. Many students run out of time on this test, so be sure to figure out a test-taking strategy beforehand that works for you. This test is less about "reading" and "comprehension" than it is about "treasure-hunting," or finding the evidence to support your selected answer choice.

The Science test is 35 minutes and has 40 questions. It has seven passages of the following types: Data Representation (3 total), Research Summary (3 total), and Conflicting Viewpoints (1 total), in no particular order. There is no need to study science topics beforehand; instead, you'll want to practice your skills in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning, problem-solving, and treasure-hunting (see Reading test above) to do well on this test.

The optional Writing test is 30 minutes long. In response to a prompt - usually education-related - you will demonstrate your writing skills and your ability to defend your point of view. A lack of detail in supporting examples is a primary reason many students lose points on the essay. For this reason, brainstorming your topics prior to writing the essay is an important and effective exercise when taking the Writing test. Essay-writing practice is key to getting a high score on your ACT essay.

Preparing for the ACT

How long should I plan to prepare for the ACT exam?

This question is a very common one and cannot be answered with a universal reply. Your prep time will depend on several factors, including your competing obligations, attention span, test-taking experience, content knowledge, level of commitment, available time and resources, and specific goals. Give yourself adequate time to prepare, and take plenty of timed practice sets and tests. Use whatever time you have to your full advantage, and do not allow yourself to be distracted during your homework time. Learn to study not harder, but better.

Should I test again?

Some test-takers earn a better score when they retake the exam - some do not. Keep in mind that some colleges now "superscore" the ACT. Superscoring is when a college takes the highest subscores from various test dates to get a new higher superscore.

What resources do you recommend to help me make the most of my study time?

  • You can find free resources on the internet, including full-length practice tests and sample test questions in each subject.
  • Want to try a little-used strategy for recalling those tricky ACT Math formulas? Program your calculator for easy retrieval of formulas at test time.
  • Look for workbooks, manuals, and online support from reputable companies and tutors.

What are the best test-taking tips?

  • Simulate the test-taking experience weekly, if possible, taking timed full-length tests and timed essays. You are not penalized for guessing, so aim to answer every question.
  • Answer the easy questions first, then go back and answer the more difficult ones.
  • Use process of elimination on questions of each subject type. On difficult questions, eliminate as many incorrect answers as you can, then make an educated guess among those remaining.
  • Examine your errors carefully to avoid repeating them.
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