ACT Test Overview: Get the Facts


ACT Test Overview

This ACT test overview will help you sort fact from fiction as you decide which college entrance examination tests you need to take. Most colleges require either the ACT or its rival test, the SAT, along with your high school transcript and letters of recommendation along with your application in order to be granted a place at the school. The ACT has a reputation for being the easier of the two tests, but it can be just as rigorous if you’re not prepared.

ACT Test Overview

Unlike the SAT, which purports to measure critical thinking and college readiness, the ACT website states that the ACT test, “Reflects what students have learned throughout high school.”  The questions directly relate to things that students have learned in their four years of high school, making it a good marker for colleges to assess whether or not students are ready for a rigorous program of education.

More than 1.8 million graduating high school students took the ACT in 2014, and it is now the leading college entrance admissions test. It is accepted at all 4-year institutions throughout the United States.

The ACT is given only six times a year in the United States. International students have five possible testing dates. A few additional dates for states and school districts have been granted as well.

ACT Test English Overview

The ACT contains two major test sections: English and Mathematics. There are also sections on Reading, Writing and Science. The Writing Sections is optional; only some colleges require it.

The English section contains 75 questions. You are given 45-minutes to complete this section. All questions are multiple choice.

The questions in the English section fall under two umbrellas: 1) Usage and Mechanics and 2) Rhetorical Skills.

Under Usage and Mechanics, the test breaks down into the following types of questions:

  • Punctuation: This section accounts for approximately 10 to 15 percent of the English section. Multiple choice questions present a sentence and you will be asked to choose an answer based on the use of specific punctuation in the sentence. The emphasis is on the relationship of punctuation to the overall meaning of the sentence.
  • Grammar and Usage: In the Grammar and Usage section, you will be asked questions around major points of English grammar. This includes subject/verb agreement, verb tenses and endings, verb formation, use of modifiers, pronoun case, idiomatic usage and more. This section account for 15 to 20 percent of the questions on the English section.
  • Sentence Structure: This section accounts for 20 to 25 percent of the overall English section score and tests your understanding of general sentence structure concepts.

All of the questions are multiple choice.

In the Rhetorical Skills section, you’ll be given five passages to read. After each passage is a series of multiple choice questions. These questions will test your knowledge of:

  • Strategy: 15 to 20 percent of the score is based on how well you understand an author’s strategy in a written paragraph. Questions are asked around your knowledge of how adding, changing or editing specific portions of the essay will change the meaning. Other questions assess how well you understand the relevance of specific information to the whole of the passage.
  • Organization: This section tests your understanding of how well you understand how to organize an essay. Questions are based on effective opening, closing and other sections. This section accounts for 10 to 15 perfect of your overall grade.
  • Style: These questions test your ability to precisely choose words, images, and phrases to reflect what you mean. It accounts for 15 to 20 percent of the overall score.

What’s interesting about the ACT is that it does not test vocabulary, spelling, or basic grammar. The questions focus on how well you can use what you know. Think of the elements of English like tools. Instead of testing whether or not you know what a hammer or a saw is, the test wants you to build a simple bookcase or dog house with the tools. The ACT assesses how well you can put all the pieces together to see if you are ready for college.

ACT Test Overview: Mathematics Section

The Mathematics section presents 60 multiple choice questions. You’ll have 60 minutes to complete this section.

The Math questions assess how well you can understand and apply major mathematical concepts that you should know by grade 12. Calculators can be used throughout this section. You’ll need to know basic mathematical formulas by memory, as well as be able to compute some basic and slightly advanced problems, too. You can use your calculator throughout. All answers are multiple choice, so you won’t be judged on how you got to the answer.

You’ll see questions in the Math section on the following topics. You should have covered all of these topics in your high school courses before taking the ACT.

  • Pre-Algebra: Pre-Algebra questions account for 20-25 percent of your overall mathematics score on the ACT. The questions include operations, whole numbers and fractions, decimals, integers, square roots, probability and data collection, and other questions that are based on concepts presented by the 9th grade.
  • Elementary Algebra: This is 15 to 20 percent of the questions. Exponents, square roots, substitutions in algebraic expressions, and factoring with quadratic equations are included.
  • Intermediate Algebra and Geometry: These questions will make up about 20 percent.
  • Plane Geometry: Geometry questions in this area include properties of lines, circles, triangles and other figures. Questions in this area make up about 20 to 25 percent.
  • Trigonometry: These questions assess your basic understanding of trigonometry including graphing functions and solving trigonometric equations. Questions make up 5 to 10 percent of the test.

The mix above is a relative mix, and may shift depending on the specific test you’re taking. That’s why the percents don’t necessarily add up to 100. Some test administrations may have slightly more Pre-Algebra questions, but the balance and makeup overall matches those given on the ACT website and the list above.

Writing Test

Like the SAT, the ACT offers an optional Writing test. Whether or not you should take the Writing test depends on if the schools you are applying to require it. Check with the admissions offices of the colleges to which you’d like to apply to see if they require the Writing test.

You’ll have 40 minutes to complete the Writing test. You’ll be presented with an issue, and three ideas related to the issue. Your job is to evaluate and analyze the issue and present your ideas as they relate to the test question and the issues presented.

You aren’t scored on your opinion of the issues. Colleges look for your ability to present a cogent and logical argument around the information presented to you. This is a typical example of the type of writing you’ll be asked to do in your college courses, so some schools find it useful to include as part of the college entrance tests.

Reading Test

The ACT Reading Test takes 35 minutes and is a multiple choice test. You’ll answer 40 questions based on passages relating to multiple college-level subjects: Social Studies, Natural Sciences, English Literature and Humanities. The questions will test how well you understand the main ideas in the passages you read, how well you understand cause and effect, and many other aspects of college-level reading.

You won’t be asked to remember things you have studied in school in this section. All of the questions can be answered based on the passages printed in your test. Some questions include two passages side by side. The questions asked may be on both passages, so read the instructions for each question carefully.

Science Test

The ACT Science Test assumes that you have already taken Earth Science and Biology, but that you may be in the process of taking Chemistry and Physics. The questions are based on the foundational science concepts you’ll need in college.

You will have 35 minutes to answer 40 multiple choice questions in the Science section. There are some simple calculations, but you are not allowed to use a calculator in the Science section.

The Science test measures your ability to analyze and interpret scientific information, recognize and understand basic features and concepts, and draw conclusions or make predictions.

ACT Test Overview: Dates and Fees

The ACT Test dates are set well in advance. You can get the latest test dates on the ACT site: ACT Test Dates.

The ACT costs $39.50 without the Writing section, or  $56.50 with the Writing section. The fees include score reports sent to up to four colleges. Each additional college is $12.00 to send your scores.

ACT Scoring

ACT Scores are generally ready from two to three weeks after the testing date. You can access and view your scores online only. ACT does not release scores by phone or email. You can request a copy of your exam and your answers, too, so you can learn from your mistakes.

The ACT’s final score is a range from 1 to 36, with 36 the highest possible score. ACT uses a scaled scoring system.

The ACT is scored based on correct answers. In other words, you get 1 point for each each correct answer. You do not lose points for wrong answers or if you skip a question.

The raw score is based on the number of questions answered correctly in each section. That number is then scaled. Scaling translates raw scores into a range of 1 to 36.  One is the lowest score, and 36 the highest possible score.

The final score is a composite of all scores taken from each section. The scaled scores are averaged together for the final score. For example, if Jane takes all four ACT sections and gets a 30, 25, 20 and 25 on each of the four sections, her final score is 30 + 25 + 20 + 25 divided by four, or 25.

The Writing test is scored differently. Computers can score the multiple choice sections, but two human readers must read each Writing test section. Each reader gives the Writing test a grade and the final score is an average of the two. The scores are then scaled and the final score is a range of 1 to 36, with 36 being the highest grade.

If you take the Writing section, an overall ELA (English Language Arts) score is calculated and reported. If you do not take the Writing section, each section’s score is reported individually but there is no ELA score on your score report.

Preparing for the ACT

The ACT crams a lot of questions into a short amount of time. To save time on test day, know what each section is like beforehand. Read the directions for practice tests, and go into your test with a strategy in mind for how you plan to tackle each section. Familiarizing yourself with the question formats and instructions for each section is one of the best things you can do to prepare for the ACT.

The ACT requires a little more preparation than the SAT, especially on the Math section. Because the ACT’s Math section tests specific mathematical concepts, you do need to study and practice your algebra, geometry and trigonometry problems. If you’re better at math and have a choice between the ACT and SAT tests, the ACT is a better option. The Math section on the ACT is considered more difficult than the Math section on the SAT.

There are ACT preparation books, classes, online study groups and more. Familiarize yourself with the test structure. Take practice tests. Study mathematical concepts needed for the ACT, especially formulas and computations that you will need to know.

When taking the ACT, experts recommend guessing instead of leaving answers blank. Because there is no penalty for wrong answers, you can safely guess if you run out of time.

Which Test Should You Take?

Because colleges and universities throughout the United States generally accept either the ACT or the SAT, the choice is up to you which you will take. In some parts of the country, the ACT is more widely available. For example, in the midwest the ACT is the test of choice by most high school students.

Testing experts recommend that students who are stronger in Math take the ACT. The ACT’s Math section requires stronger mathematical knowledge and skills than the SAT’s. The SAT may be better for those who are stronger in English language arts.

For more on the ACT test, see: