What’s on the ACT? All 5 Sections, Explained

The ACT is designed to assess whether a student is ready for college. When most people think of a test as being part of college applications, they think of the SAT. That’s because until the 1950s, the SAT (formerly the Scholastic Aptitude Test) had been the only standardized college entrance exam in the U.S. for half a century. Then in 1959, Everett Franklin Lindquist launched the ACT test as a competitor to the SAT.

Originally standing for American College Testing, the company ACT that makes the test presented data announcing its predictive value. Created in response to changing patterns in college attendance in the United States, ACT sought to make an exam that more accurately judged the ability of a student to perform well in college or university.

What is the ACT?

It’s a standardized test designed to assess the essential skills and knowledge students need in order to be ready for college and career, thus serving as a link between what students have learned and what they are ready to learn next. When students take the ACT, educators receive valuable information for guidance and curriculum development that enables them to assist students with college and career planning, as well as evaluate the effectiveness of instruction and make improvements to curriculum.

It has now been more than 50 years that the SAT and ACT have coexisted as college-readiness exams in the United States, with many students choosing to take both tests. The class of 2020 saw about 2.2 million students take the SAT and 1.7 million take the ACT. Every university in the U.S. accepts scores from both tests.

The ACT has four required sections that make up your composite score

How many sections are on the ACT? Well, it depends on how you count them. It has four required sections and one optional Writing section. There’s also the mysterious “experimental section”—a fifth section that does not contribute to your final score.

  • ACT English Test: 45 minutes to complete 75 questions. There are five passages to read, with 15 questions per passage. You have an average of 9 minutes to complete each passage.
  • ACT Mathematics Test: 60 minutes to complete 60 questions.
  • ACT Reading Test: 35 minutes to complete 40 questions. There are four passages to read, with 10 questions per passage. You have an average of 8 minutes, 45 seconds to complete each passage.
  • ACT Science Test: 35 minutes to complete 40 questions. There are six passages to read, with 6 or 7 questions per passage. You have an average of just under 6 minutes to complete each passage.
  • ACT “Experimental” Test: 20 minutes to complete a section on only one subject area, but can cover English, Math, Reading, or Science.
  • ACT Writing Test (optional): 40 minutes to read a prompt and construct an essay in response.

You will receive on 10-minute break after the Math section and a 5-minute break before the Writing test. Without the Writing section, the ACT is a 3-hour, 25-minute commitment. With the Writing section, you’re looking at 4 hours, 10 minutes.

The makers of the ACT are sympathetic to those who may need more time to complete the test. If you are a student with accommodations at school for extra time on tests, you should be able to qualify for extended time on the ACT. In 2018, ACT revised its policy on what they call “Timing Code 6,” so it’s best to get acquainted with the new guidelines. In short, extended time on the ACT gives a student one-and-a-half times the regular time, but test-takers must contact ACT to make sure they qualify for this accommodation. 

Like the SAT, the ACT is a standardized test, meaning student scores are based upon how they correspond to the average score for the test. Unlike the SAT, though, the scoring scale ranges from 1-36 rather than 400-1600. Each of the four required sections is also scored on the 1-36 scale, and those scores are then averaged to make your composite score.

Almost all schools will look at your Superscore—the highest average of the four sections from any ACT you have taken—rather than your highest single composite score. ACT now provides an automatically calculated ACT Superscore to all students who have taken the test more than once. 

Should you even take the ACT?

For those who have taken the SAT or are planning to take it, you may be wondering whether you should take the ACT. Well, it’s best to keep your options open. With all the differences between the two tests, it’s impossible to predict which one may appeal to each individual student. So, go ahead and take both tests, then decide which one suits you best. After you have been able to take each test once, you should meet with your tutor and settle on which test to focus on.

Rather than stretching yourself thin by going back and forth between the SAT and ACT, you can throw all your effort into preparing for one test. After several sessions of concentrated test prep with your tutor, you’ll be able to attack the ACT with everything you have and reach the score you’ve been hoping for.

The ACT English section tests your knowledge of writing and language

Comparable to the SAT Writing & Language Test in its general format, the ACT English Test presents students with five passages to read and 15 questions per passage to answer.

Everything in the English section is about the context of the passages, so you won’t be required to cite specific grammatical rules or define obscure vocabulary words. All 75 multiple-choice questions deal with two broad areas: questions on usage and mechanics cover punctuation, grammar, usage, and sentence structure, while rhetorical skills questions focus on your comprehension of the passage as a whole, including its strategy, organization, and style.

The ACT Math section tests your skills in algebra, geometry, and precalculus

After you complete the English section, you will move on to the ACT Mathematics Test, which is the only section in the ACT where the questions get progressively more difficult. The good news about the Math section is that all the questions are multiple choice, although each question has five choices rather than the four that occur elsewhere on the ACT. That means you won’t see any questions that are “student-produced” (as the SAT labels them) where you have to generate the answer on your own. 

Maybe even better news for some students is that the entire ACT Math Test permits the use of a calculator. The ACT calculator policy is quite liberal, so you’ll be able to use advanced graphing calculators like those in the TI-84 series. 

While the prospect of a math test that is all multiple-choice and all calculator-allowed may seem incredibly appealing to students, it’s important to recognize that the ACT Math section covers a much broader range of math topics than the SAT does. Yes, you will constantly have access to the correct answer as one of five choices and always be able to use your calculator, but you’ll also need to be familiar with concepts up through all the topics of precalculus. 

The ACT Reading section tests your abilities in comprehension, analysis, and evaluation

Once you complete the Math section, you’ll bounce back to language arts with the ACT Reading Test. Like the English test, this section is essentially the same structure as what you’d see in the SAT in its Reading test. Each ACT Reading section comprises four passages, always in the same order: literary narrative (fiction), then social science, followed by humanities and, finally, natural science. One of the last three will be a passage comparison that includes questions about each individual passage and about the relationship between the two passages.

Every passage has 10 multiple-choice questions on key ideas and details (summarizing, identifying central themes, and drawing inferences and conclusions), craft and structure (determining word and phrase meanings, analyzing text structure and word choices, and understanding authors’ perspectives) and integrating knowledge and ideas (understanding author’s claims, differentiating between fact and opinion, making connections between different texts, analyzing authors’ arguments, and evaluating evidence and reasoning).

In contrast to the SAT, both the ACT Reading section and the ACT English section do not have any infographics—visual images such as diagrams, tables, or graphs used to represent information or data images. That’s because the ACT doesn’t use those sections to test your knowledge of science. Instead, the ACT has a section dedicated solely to science. 

The ACT Science section tests your expertise in synthesizing scientific text and data

While you will likely see a few questions that require some basic scientific knowledge, the truth is that the ACT Science Test is not really about testing your knowledge of science itself.

Instead, it’s a deeper examination of your skills of reading comprehension and data analysis. The vast majority of the questions cover information about scientific theories, experiments, and observations presented to you in texts and infographics. While the Science section does not permit the use of a calculator, you will see some questions requiring mathematical skills like extrapolation, interpolation, estimation, and basic arithmetic.

The ACT Writing test is optional, but the “experimental” fifth section is not 

The final section of the ACT is the ACT Writing Test, which students decide whether to take based on the requirements of the institutions they are considering. Because postsecondary institutions make their own decisions about whether to require the results from the Writing test for admissions or course-placement purposes, ACT makes it optional. Keep in mind, though, that “optional” doesn’t mean you decide on test day whether you want to write the essay; rather, it means that you have the option of signing up for the Writing test in addition to the rest of the ACT. 

For the Writing test, you will be given a short passage, a writing prompt, and three different perspectives on the prompt. You will then write an essay that analyzes the topic, evaluates each of the three viewpoints, and presents your own argument based on the prompt. Your essay will be scored from 1-12 in four areas: Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions. Because the ACT Writing Test is optional, your scores on that section are separate from those of the four required sections and do not affect your composite score in any way. 

The ACT “experimental” section

After the four required sections, you will be asked to complete a fifth section—the so-called “experimental” section. This is short section covering either English, Math, Reading, or Science will NOT count toward your score…

So why on earth is the experimental section included in the ACT?

The makers of the test are always trying to gather data about what students know, so they create these “experimental” sections to test-drive new content and questions. Yes, doing your best helps researchers, but don’t push yourself unnecessarily for their benefit.

Just remember that your answers to that fifth section won’t count toward your composite score. 

You can take the ACT multiple times, but you’ll have register for the entire test (for now)

Once you have decided to take the ACT, you should go to the website and set up your MyACT account. From there you will be able to register for tests, view your results, and send scores to colleges. If you are not a resident of the United States, there is a separate portal for test registration.

Make sure you check for test centers near your location, as restrictions may affect available capacity. Any changes in availability should be communicated to you through your MyACT account. 

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020, ACT was planning to permit student to retake individual sections once they had taken the entire test. Since colleges and universities already do superscoring anyway, it made sense to offer students the opportunity to retake only the sections for which they wanted to raise their scores. While this proposed policy change is appealing to students and tutors alike, the effects of Covid have led ACT to change course for now: “Though there are merits to this enhancement, we have renewed our commitment to provide students with as many opportunities as possible to take the full ACT test.”

An experienced, a skilled tutor is the “secret weapon” for improving your scores

By this point, you’re surely want to know how to study for the ACT. How does ACT tutoring work? What do ACT lessons look like? What if I’ve already taken the SAT?

An experienced ACT tutor is definitely the key to getting the score you desire, whether your goal is qualifying for a certain college or getting a perfect 36. Ultimately, your success on the ACT isn’t linked as much to what you have learned in high school as it is to your test-taking skills. Many students have the prerequisite knowledge but struggle with the structure of the questions and the pacing of the test. That’s where tutors are most effective, as they can teach you to recognize what terminology to look for, what strategies to use, and what moves the makers of the ACT employ to “trick” students into the wrong answer. 

Lessons vary in design and length depending on the tutor, but one thing they all will incorporate is practice tests. Not only has ACT provided official practice tests, but previous tests and their answer keys are available online. Your tutor will use those practice tests both during the lessons and as part of additional practice between sessions.

There is even a way to get access to the actual ACTs you have taken or are planning to take. Sign up for the Test Information Release (TIR), and you’ll receive a copy of the test questions, a list of your answers, and the answer key. If you’re planning on taking the ACT more than once, TIR is a great study tool that can help you increase your score the next time you take the test.

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