Expert Guide to Taking the ACT

The Expert Guide to Taking the ACT

Achieving a top score on the ACT can help you get into the college of your dreams. Understanding the format, question types, and scoring of the test is crucial to earning great results.

This helpful guide includes need-to-know info about sections, scoring, and strategies for ACT test prep, written by expert tutors on Wyzant. You’ll also find test taking tips, info about test day, and more resources to help you earn your 36.

What is the ACT?

The American College Testing (ACT) exam is a standardized test from the College Board that many colleges and universities use to measure the academic readiness of applicants. It was first offered in 1959, and was created as an alternative to Scholastic Aptitude Test (now known as the SAT).

The ACT assesses the essential skills and knowledge students need in order to succeed in college and beyond in their careers. Each required section of the test is scored out of a possible 36 points. Your final score represents a ‘composite score’ of your scores in all required sections.

There are four required sections or “tests” on the ACT , an experimental section, and an optional Writing test.

  1. English
  2. Mathematics
  3. Reading
  4. Science
  5. “Experimental”
  6. Writing (optional)

How long is the ACT?

Total testing time (without breaks) for the ACT is 2 hours and 55 minutes when taken without Writing, and 3 hours and 35 minutes if you’re opting to tackle the Writing test.

Here’s a glimpse of what to expect on test day:

  • Test day begins with the English Test (45 minutes).
  • Next is the Mathematics Test (60 minutes).
  • After that is the Reading Test (35 minutes). 
  • Next is the fourth section, the Science Test (35 minutes). 
  • Then comes the “experimental” section. (20 minutes).
  • If you signed up in advance, the final section will be the Writing Test (40 minutes).

Sections on the ACT

Read everything you need to know about each section of the test at the link below:

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1. ACT English

This portion of the test features 75 questions and takes 45 minutes. There are 5 passages to read, with 15 questions per passage. You have an average of 9 minutes to complete each passage.

The English section of the ACT places you in the position of a writer making decisions to revise and edit texts, presented as essays. Be prepared to do a lot of reading! Question types in this section of the exam are as follows:

1. Production of Writing: These questions require you to apply your understanding of topic development, organization, unity, and cohesion in a piece of writing.

2. Knowledge of Language: In this category, you’ll demonstrate effective language use through ensuring precision in word choice and maintaining consistency in style and tone.

3. Conventions of Standard English: These questions evaluate your ability to use English grammar and mechanics.

For more help strategizing for your ACT English test, click the article below.

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2. ACT Mathematics

You’ll have 60 minutes to complete 60 questions on the ACT Mathematics test.

This test evaluates mathematics skills acquired in courses taken up to the beginning of grade 12. Calculators are allowed when taking this portion of the ACT, and you can use one to answer questions in 3 different types:

1. Preparing for Higher Math: These questions require you to use algebra as a general way of expressing and solving equations. Types of math covered in these types of questions are number and quantity, algebra, functions, geometry, and statistics and probability.

2. Integrating Essential Skills: This category focuses on concepts like rates and percentages, proportional relationships, area, surface area, volume, averages and medians, and expressing numbers.

3. Modeling: This category represents all questions that require producing, interpreting, understanding, evaluating, and improving models; questions in the other categories above count as these question “types.”

ACT Math is the section of the test that most students struggle with. Pick up more easy-to-use prep tips from an ACT prep tutor below.

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Knowing how to use formulas, find answers with a calculator, and make educated guesses are all ways to increase the effectiveness of your ACT practice.

The answer to the big question about ACT Math is: yes! Calculators are allowed. Click the image below to learn which ones are permitted and useful math formulas for the ACT.

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You’re not penalized for guessing an incorrect answer on the ACT. Yes, you read that right! In the article below, you’ll find strategies for making the most out of guessing on ACT math.

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3. ACT Reading Test

In 35 minutes you’ll be expected to complete 40 questions. There are 4 passages to read, with 10 questions per passage. You have an average of 8 minutes, 45 seconds to complete each passage.

ACT Reading passages cover a number of topics in four different categories: literary narrative (fiction), social science, humanities and, natural sciences. There are three question types on the ACT Reading test, each of which evaluates reading comprehension skills:

1. Key ideas and Details: This category requires you to read passages closely to determine central ideas and themes.

2. Craft and Structure: For these questions, you’ll analyze an author’s word choice, text structure, purpose, perspective, and characters’ points of view.

3. Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: These questions will ask you to understand authors’ claims, differentiate between facts and opinions, and make connections between different texts.

Learn more about ACT Reading test passages and strategies at the link below.

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4. ACT Science Test

The ACT Science format consists of 40 questions with 6-7 passages in 35 minutes. You have an average of just under 6 minutes to complete each passage.

The ACT Science section does not test specific science knowledge or terminology; rather, it focuses on evaluating your ability to understand and apply scientific concepts. The College Board, makers of the ACT, describe this portion as measuring the “interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning, and problem-solving skills required in the natural sciences.”

Like other sections, there are 3 types of questions on the Science portion of the ACT:

1. Interpretation of Data or Data Representation: These passages ask you to interpret information presented to you in graphs or tables. There are 2 passages with 6 questions each.

2. Experimental Results or Research Summaries: This passage type requires scientific investigation skills, and usually have diagrams. There are 3 passages with 7 questions each.

3. Evaluation of Models or Conflicting Viewpoints: This passages will ask you to judge the validity of scientific information and formulate conclusions and predictions. There is only 1 passage of this type, with 7 questions. 

For a more in-depth breakdown of the ACT Science test, follow the link in the image below.

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5. “Experimental” section

The “experimental” section is required and can feature questions from English, Reading, Math, or Science. These questions do not count toward your score, though, but instead help the administrators of the ACT test out new questions.

6. ACT Writing Test (optional)

The ACT Writing test is a 40 minute essay test where you’ll be asked to read a prompt and construct a response.

Five scores are reported for the writing section: a single subject-level writing score, on a scale of 2–12, and four domain scores, scored based on an analytic rubric. Your subject score is the average of your four domain scores.

The four domains are:

1. Ideas and Analysis: Your ability to generate productive ideas and engage critically with multiple perspectives.
2. Development and Support: Your ability to discuss ideas, offer rationale, and build an argument.
3. Organization: Your ability to organize ideas with clarity and purpose.
4. Language Use and Conventions: Your ability to use written language to convey arguments with clarity and make use of grammar, syntax, word usage, and mechanics.

Learn everything you need to know about ACT Writing at the link below:

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What’s a “good” ACT score?

The ACT is a standardized test. That means your scores are based on how they correspond to the average score for all students taking the test.

Your raw scores (the number of questions you answered correctly in each of the four required sections) are translated into a scaled score ranging from 1 to 36.

Your composite score is the average of your scores in all the required sections.

Almost all schools, though, will look at your superscore: the highest average of the four sections from any ACT you have taken.

Read more about ACT scores in the article below:

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Is the ACT optional?

It’s best that you check in advance if any of the colleges you’re considering require ACT scores as part of the application process. Many of the nation’s colleges and universities have changed their requirements for the ACT test since 2020.

Policies relating to ACT score requirements now vary from college-to-college:

  • Test-required: All applicants must submit an ACT or SAT score. Each school has its own standards on what scores qualify students for acceptance.
  • Test-optional: Students decide whether they want to submit test scores with their application. Such schools will usually consider submitted ACT scores, but tend to focus on factors they believe are better predictors of a student’s readiness for college such as GPA, coursework, essays, and recommendations.
  • Test-flexible: Students may submit other test scores in place of the ACT, such as Advanced Placements (AP) tests or International Baccalaureate (IB) exams.
  • Test-blind: These colleges (less than 1% of all schools in the US) will not consider test scores, even if you submit them.

Even if schools you’re applying to don’t require your ACT score, you may still consider taking the ACT for other purposes, including:

  • Advising and placement
  • Financial aid and scholarships
  • Athletics recruitment
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If you’re trying to decide between taking the SAT and ACT, check out the differences between the two at the link below.

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How to prepare for the ACT

The ACT is not a typical high school subject test. You already have all the skills you need to do well on it.

The ACT does not require you to memorize facts or random knowledge. Solid preparation for the ACT test means understanding the material on the test itself and knowing your own strengths and weaknesses. Learn more about building an ACT prep plan that works in the article below:

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Here are three ACT study strategies from the College Board to help you prepare for the test:

  • Get familiar with the content of all the test sections.
  • Update your knowledge and skills in the content areas.
  • Review content areas that you have studied but are not fresh in your mind.
  • Refresh your knowledge in the content that make up large portions of the test.
  • Study things you are not familiar with, but don’t forget to also practice what you already know well.
  • Consider taking coursework or lessons in areas you’re struggling with before you take the test.

Experts also suggest that taking practice ACT exams can help with managing your time effectively. Since each part of the ACT has strict limits on how long you can (realistically) spend answering a single question, getting a handle on timing can make all the difference in your superscore.

Read ACT time management strategies at the link below:

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Connecting with an ACT tutor

To get your desired score on the ACT, you will need to set goals and make plans for how to reach them. However, this can seem like an impossible task if you do it all by yourself. One of the biggest advantages of working with an ACT prep tutor is that they guide you through every crucial step on your way to scoring your very best on all the sections of the test.

Read the article below to learn how ACT tutoring works and how it can make your scores skyrocket.

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