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Expert Guide to the ACT Format: What You Need to Know

Posted by Francesca Fulciniti | Jun 17, 2016 5:00:00 PM

ACT General Info

 

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If you want to do well on the ACT, it’s not enough to just study test content. You have to know the test inside and out, including what questions to expect, what reading passages to anticipate, and what topic areas you’ll encounter the most.

Being this familiar with the test will help you improve your score in a significant way - it’s much more effective than just focusing on test content. In this post, I’ll go over everything you need to know about how the ACT is written, including format, content, and question types. At the end, I’ll tell you exactly what you can do to successfully incorporate this knowledge into your ACT study plan.

 

Why Is Familiarity With the ACT Format Helpful?

The ACT is an incredibly predictable test. Although there have been a few recent changes, the test format has (in general) stayed pretty consistent over the past few decades. This works to your advantage for a few very important reasons:

Familiarity with the test helps you focus on, and improve on, your weaknesses. The ACT is super predictable when it comes to test content and format, down to the number of questions that test a certain concept. If you’re familiar with the test format and structure as you study, you can narrow your focus to very specific question types and content areas that may be bringing down your score.

It helps you improve your ACT strategy, which is just as important as preparing for test content. The ACT writes the test sections, questions, and answer choices in a very particular and consistent style. Familiarizing yourself with the basic structure and format of the ACT is like getting to know the test inside-out - if you can get inside the mind of a test writer, you’ll have a huge advantage on the test. The more experience you have with this style, the better you’ll be able to anticipate which answers are correct and incorrect on test day

It helps you work on time management, an important part of succeeding on any standardized test. Knowing the general layout of the test, in addition to knowing what your own strengths and weaknesses are, is an integral part of ACT time management. If you can’t finish the questions on time, you won’t do well, no matter how well you know the material.

Finally, the fewer surprises you encounter on test day, the better. When you know exactly what to expect when you take the ACT, you can focus on the most important part of the test: demonstrating what you know in order to get a great score. Knowing the test format and structure inside and out may help alleviate test-taking anxiety, a very common problem that impacts many students’ scores.  

 

The Basics: The Structure of the ACT

The ACT has four mandatory multiple-choice sections which are always presented in the same order: (1) English, (2) Math, (3) Reading, and (4) Science. There’s also an optional (5) Writing section for a total of five test sections.

The total test time without the Writing section is 2 hours and 55 minutes.

The total test time with the Writing section is 3 hours and 35 minutes.

Here’s what you can expect in terms of number of questions, time limit, time per question, and question type for each of the ACT sections:

 

English

Number of questions

75

Time limit

45 minutes

Approximate time per question

36 seconds

Question type

Multiple choice with four answer choices



Math

Number of questions

60

Time limit

60 minutes

Approximate time per question

1 minute

Question type

Multiple choice with five answer choices



Reading

Number of questions

40

Time limit

35 minutes

Approximate time per question

52 seconds

Question type

Multiple choice with four answer choices

 

Science

Number of questions

40

Time limit

35 minutes

Approximate time per question

52 seconds

Question type

Multiple choice with four answer choices



Writing

Number of questions

1

Time limit

40 minutes

Approximate time per question

40 minutes

Question type

Essay prompt

 

 

Content and Skills: What Does the ACT Test?

The next step in familiarizing yourself with the ACT is knowing exactly what concepts, skills, and content will be tested on the exam. If you know what content will appear, and you know exactly how it will be tested, all of your bases will be covered (remember, the fewer the surprises on test day, the more you can focus on what’s important).

The ACT is pretty transparent about test content. Here, I’ll go over what you’ll need to prepare for each section and what these sections will actually look like.

 

English

On this section you’ll be presented with passages. You’ll either have to choose the correct version of a sentence within the passage or will have to answer more broad questions about the construction of the passage itself (you’ll see a couple examples shortly).  

The ACT English section tends to heavily favor a few main grammar and style rules, and just lightly touches on the other minor ones. This means (unless you’re aiming for a very high score), you can focus primarily on these main rules as you prepare for the test.

There are two main types of English questions: ones that test usage and/or mechanics, and ones that test rhetorical skills. Below you’ll find approximate breakdowns for the number of each question type you’ll see on the test.

When it comes to Usage and Mechanics (about 40 out of a total of 75 questions), the main grammar rules tested on the ACT are:

  1. Correctly forming and joining sentences (20.5% of grammar questions)
  2. Correct use of commas, dashes, and colons (17.7% of grammar questions)
  3. Correctly using nonessential clauses and relative pronouns (9.6% of grammar questions)
  4. Correct verb tense and form (9.6% of grammar questions)

When it comes to Rhetorical Skills (about 30 out of a total of 75 questions), the main rhetorical rules tested on the ACT are:

  1. Logical transitions (18% of rhetorical questions)
  2. Adding information (16.7% of rhetorical questions)
  3. Conciseness (15.5% of rhetorical questions)
  4. Replacing and re-wording information (15.5% of rhetorical questions)


Most of the questions on ACT English test this content by asking you to choose the most correct version of a sentence within a passage - you’ll have to choose among four answer choices in this section. For example:

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A question where you choose the correct version of a sentence.

 

Some questions are formatted a bit differently, and instead ask you about a passage as a whole. For example:

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For more information on this section, check out our ultimate ACT English prep guide.

 

Math

The math section is a little different from other ACT sections. Some math questions are stand-alone - they won’t be linked to any other questions in the section - whereas others are linked “sets.” You’ll have to choose from five multiple-choice responses instead of four (which obviously makes things more difficult).

Math questions are also roughly arranged in order of difficulty. You can generally split the section into three zones:

  • Questions 1-20: Easy
  • Questions 21-40: Medium
  • Questions 41-60: Hard

Difficulty is determined by the amount of time you’ll need to solve a problem, the number of steps required, the number of math concepts you must employ, and the likelihood that you’ll be familiar with the material. Learn about how to take advantage of this organization of question by difficulty.

Because they’re arranged by difficulty, these questions are also roughly arranged by content, with “easier” math concepts (i.e. ones you’ve spent more years studying) at the beginning of the section and “hard” concepts (i.e. ones you’re less familiar with) at the end.

Generally, you’ll see more algebra questions toward the beginning and more geometry and trig toward the end of any ACT math section. Here’s a breakdown of the topics you’ll see on ACT math for a general overview:

  • Pre-algebra: about 20-25% of questions
  • Elementary algebra: about 15-20% of questions
  • Intermediate algebra: about 15-20% of questions
  • Coordinate geometry: about 15-20% of questions
  • Plane geometry: about 20-25% of questions
  • Trigonometry: about 5-10% of questions

Read our more detailed guide to ACT math content for more information.

Now, on to some examples. Most questions on this section are stand-alone questions, meaning they’re in no way related to any other question on the section. A stand-alone question may look like this:

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You might see some sets of math questions on the ACT where two or more questions are related to each other, or refer to the same figure. Here’s an example of what a prompt like that would look like:

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For more information on this section, check out our ultimate ACT math prep guide.

 

Reading

The ACT Reading test is made up of four different subsections. Each of these subsections has either one long passage or two shorter, paired passages. In this section, every question will ask you to respond to or interpret the passages.

The Reading section will present you with one reading passage for each subsection, and the types of passages you’ll see will always be in the same order:

  1. Prose Fiction/Literary Narrative
  2. Social Science
  3. Humanities
  4. Natural Science

The ACT tests this content with a variety of question types. Fortunately, we have a general idea of how often each question type shows up on the average Reading section - with this information, you can think more critically about question types that you may need to spend more time preparing.

Here’s a typical section breakdown by question type:

Question Type

Average Number of Questions  

Percentage of Questions

Big Picture

4

10%

Little Detail

18

45%

Vocabulary in Context

3

8%

Development and Function

9

22%

Inference

6

15%

All Questions

40

100%

 

The info above isn’t helpful if you can’t identify the sorts of questions you’ll see on the Reading section, right? Here are the main question types you’ll see on the English section, followed by examples:

 

Big Picture - Deal with the main point of the passage or the narrator’s overall point of view. These types of questions require you to look at the passage holistically rather than focusing on one specific section.

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Little Picture/Detail - Ask about a small piece of factual information in a passage. They are the most straightforward questions because they’re so literal - you just have to find the correct information. 

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Vocabulary in Context - Ask about the meaning of a word in the context of the passage. They may also reference something in the passage and ask you to choose a vocabulary word that best describes it.

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Development and Function - Ask about how a certain paragraph, sentence, or phrase functions in the context of the passage, how the argument in the passage was developed, or how the author structured the passage.

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Inference - Ask you to make inferences based on a logical extension of information found in a passage.

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Check out our guide to ACT Reading questions for more detailed information and examples.

 

Science

The ACT Science section consists of several “passages” where you’ll have to respond to short paragraphs, charts, graphs, tables, or some combination thereof - they’re not like the passages in the Reading section where you just respond to a wall of text. All of these passages are just different ways of presenting data for you to interpret.

Because of the way the section is formatted, you’ll see sets of questions, like you sometimes see on Math, rather than stand-alone questions.

The passages themselves may be on a variety of topics, including:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Earth/space sciences
  • Physics

Just like with the Reading section, it’s not necessary for you to have specific background knowledge in these topic areas - you just need the skills to interpret the passages correctly.

There are three main passage formats. Each format will present data in a different way - a set of multiple-choice questions after each passage will ask you to interpret and/or analyze this information. Here’s what to expect for each format:

 

Format #1: Data Representation

This format presents one or more sets of data in some sort of graphical representation.

  • What you’re asked to do: understand, evaluate, and interpret information presented in graphs, tables, or charts
  • Number of questions: About 15 (38% of total ACT Science questions)


Here’s what a “passage” may look like in a Data Representation format:

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 And here’s what a multiple-choice question may look like in response to the Data Representation format:

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Passage Format #2: Research Summaries

This format presents the results of two or more experiments, usually with text in addition to graphs or charts.

  • What you’re asked to do: understand, evaluate, and analyze one or more experiments
  • Number of questions: About 18 (45% of total ACT Science questions)


Here’s what a “passage” may look like in a Research Summaries format:

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Here’s what a multiple-choice question may look like in response to the Research Summaries format:

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Passage Format #3: Conflicting Viewpoints

This format presents several different conflicting scientific hypotheses, usually in a text passage.

  • What you’re asked to do: understand and evaluate conflicting viewpoints, theories, or hypotheses on a specific topic
  • Number of questions: About 7 (17% of total ACT Science questions)


Here’s what a “passage” may look like in a Conflicting Viewpoints format:

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Here’s what a multiple-choice question may look like in response to the Conflicting Viewpoints format:

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For more information and example questions on the ACT Science section, check out our ultimate prep guide.

 

Writing

The ACT Writing section is completely optional - that being said, I’d encourage you to do some research before deciding not to take it (as tempting as that may be)!

Students have 40 minutes to plan, write, and edit an essay in response to one writing prompt. Prompts tend to address contemporary issues (e.g. the pros and cons of living in an increasingly automated society).

So what exactly do these prompts look like?

Well, students are provided with three diverse perspectives on a particular issue. After reading these perspectives, students are asked to develop their own take on the topic and explain the relationships between the original perspectives.

Put simply, your jobs are to:

  • Take a position on a topic (and defend it)
  • Address all the diverse perspectives presented to you
  • Explain the relationships between those three perspectives

Here’s an example of what an ACT writing prompt looks like:

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 Check out our complete guide to ACT writing and scoring for more information.  

 

Using ACT Formatting: How to Prep for the ACT

Earlier in this post, I mentioned that familiarizing yourself with the ACT format can help you in a few important areas:

  • Identifying your weaknesses
  • Coming up with a strategic game plan
  • Improving time management
  • Alleviating stress that comes with surprises on test day

Here, I’ll address exactly what you can do (in all four of these areas) to use knowledge of ACT format and structure to your advantage.

 

Identify Your Weaknesses

When you know exactly what will be tested on the ACT, and exactly how it will be tested, you can use your practice materials to hone in on sections, content areas, question types, and passage types that give you more trouble than others.

This strategy only works if you invest a significant amount of time in working through and then analyzing ACT practice materials. Official ACT practice tests are the best for this - ideally, you’ll down under realistic testing conditions with an official practice test to get a baseline score.

As you work through your practice material, keep careful track of where you’re losing points - doing a post-mortem on your work is the most important thing you can do to improve your score. I’d encourage you to set up a spreadsheet for easy mistake tracking.

For each ACT practice section, for example, you’ll want to ask yourself:

  • Which questions am I getting wrong?
  • Which types of questions am I getting wrong?
  • Do I lose more points on a particular type of passage? (E.g. perhaps Research Summary passages in ACT Science give you a hard time)
  • Do I lose points at the end of a section because I run out of time?
  • Do I lose points in a particular content/knowledge set area? (E.g. maybe you have trouble with absolute value in ACT math)

 

Come Up With a Strategic Game Plan

Once you have a better idea of where you need to improve, you can come up with an ACT study plan that’s catered to your weaknesses.

If you have a baseline score, you’ll have a sense of how many points you’d like to bring your score up. Here’s a general guideline for how long you need to study based on your improvement goals:

  • 0-1 ACT Composite Point Improvement: 10 hours
  • 1-2 ACT Point Improvement: 20 hours
  • 2-4 ACT Point Improvement: 40 hours
  • 4-6 ACT Point Improvement: 80 hours
  • 6-9 ACT Point Improvement: 150 hours+

Read more about putting together a study plan that works for you.

 

Improve Time Management

If you know what to expect on the ACT, you’ll be better able to work through the test on the fly. If you know what slows you down (e.g. a particular question type or content area) you can plan on doing speed drills during practice or skipping (and then returning) to those questions on the test.

For example, reading passages - like the ones you’ll find in ACT Science and ACT Reading - tend to slow down a lot of students. If you know that this is a personal sore spot, you should read our guides to time management on ACT Science and ACT Reading.

 

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If you have an idea of what to expect, you’ll be that much better at navigating the stressful time limits of the test.

 

Alleviate Stress

Coming up against unexpected obstacles - especially when you’re in a time crunch - is pretty stressful for most people. By engaging in regular practice with official ACT prep materials, you’re doing yourself a huge favor by taking the stress of unexpected content and formatting out of the equation.

For more info on alleviating stress, read our guide on what to expect and how to prepare for the ACT test day.



What’s Next?

Now that you have all this great information about the ACT and how it’s structured, you might be interested in learning more about some other logistical issues - like how it’s scored.

Read first about the scoring system with our complete guide to ACT scores.

Then, figure out what target score you should be aiming for.

For expert tips, read our famous guide on how to get a perfect score on the ACT.

 

Want to improve your ACT score by 4+ points? Download our free guide to the top 5 strategies you need in your prep to improve your ACT score dramatically.

Free eBook: 5 Tips to 4+ Points on the ACT

 

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Francesca Fulciniti
About the Author

Francesca graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and scored in the 99th percentile on the SATs. She's worked with many students on SAT prep and college counseling, and loves helping students capitalize on their strengths.



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