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ACT Syllabus: What’s on the Exam and How to Prep

Posted by Christine Sarikas | Dec 17, 2016 8:00:00 AM

ACT General Info

 

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Are you preparing for the ACT but aren’t sure which topics the exam covers? We’re here to help! This guide will give you an in-depth look at the ACT syllabus and explain exactly what you can expect to see on the test. 

For each of the five ACT sections, I’ll explain the format of the section, the types of questions you’ll see, and the skills that section tests. Afterward, I’ll also go over the top three tips you need to know when studying for the ACT to help you achieve your highest score.

 

ACT Syllabus Overview

Let’s first take get a broad overview of what the ACT covers before diving into the specific sections. There are four required sections on the ACT: English, Math Reading, and Science, as well as the optional Writing section. To be an expert on the ACT syllabus, you’ll have to be comfortable with each of these sections. 

Section

Minutes Given

Number of Questions

English

45

75

Math

60

60

Reading

35

40

Science

35

40

Writing (Optional)

40

1 essay

Total

3 hours, 35 minutes

(2 hours, 55 minutes without the essay)

154 (+1 essay prompt)

 

The ACT sections will always go in this order, beginning with English and ending with Writing (if you choose to take it). Below, for each section of the ACT, I’ll explain which subjects it covers and the skills it requires.

 

ACT English Syllabus

Number of Questions

Minutes Given

Time Per Question

75

45

36 seconds

 

Format

The ACT English section contains five passages along with 75 multiple-choice questions, so there will be about 15 questions per passage. All questions will be based on the passages. Some of the questions will ask about specific phrases or sentences in the passage, and others will ask about a paragraph or the entire passage as a whole.

 

Skills Tested

ACT English tests two main content areas: Usage and Mechanics and Rhetorical Skills. Usage and Mechanics tests your knowledge of punctuation, grammar, usage, and sentence structure and requires a solid understanding of punctuation and grammar rules. Rhetorical Skills focuses on your comprehension of the passage as a whole and your ability to understand and improve the passage's organization and style.

 

Questions Types

There are six main types of questions on ACT English: three types of Usage/Mechanics questions and three types of Rhetorical Skills questions. Below, the three Usage/Mechanics question types are listed first, then the three Rhetorical Skills question types.

 

Punctuation

Punctuation questions test your knowledge of internal and end-of-sentence punctuation. To get these questions correct, you’ll need to know comma, apostrophe, period, and semicolon rules.

 

Grammar and Usage

These questions test your knowledge of grammar rules such as subject/verb agreement, agreement between pronoun and antecedent, and agreement between modifiers and the word modified. There are also questions on verb formation, pronoun case, idioms, and adverbs.

 

Sentence Structure

Sentence structure questions focus on your knowledge of relationships between and among clauses, placement of modifiers, and shifts in construction.

 

Strategy

These types of questions test your ability to develop a given topic by choosing words or phrases that fit with an essay's audience and purpose. You’ll need to take the whole passage into account and consider whether the possible revision clarifies or confuses the passage's message.

 

Organization

Organization questions measure how well you organize ideas and choose effective opening, transitional, and closing sentences. These questions tend to focus on the beginning and ends of paragraphs.

 

Style

Style questions test your ability to choose an appropriate word, maintain the level of style and tone in an essay, and avoid unclear pronoun references, wordiness, and redundancy.

 

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ACT Math Syllabus

Number of Questions

Minutes Given

Time Per Question

60

60

1 minute

 

Format

ACT Math has 60 questions, all of which are multiple choice. You’ll be able to use a permitted calculator for this entire section.

 

Skills Tested and Question Types

ACT Math tests six major skill areas. They are listed below, along with the percentage of questions asked about them and the more specific topics each area focuses on.

 

Pre-Algebra (20-25%)

  • Basic operations using whole numbers, decimals, fractions, and integers
  • Place value
  • Square roots and approximations
  • The concept of exponents
  • Scientific notation
  • Factors
  • Ratio, proportion, and percent
  • Linear equations in one variable
  • Absolute value and ordering numbers by value
  • Elementary counting techniques and simple probability
  • Data collection, representation, and interpretation
  • Understanding simple descriptive statistics

 

Elementary Algebra (15-20%)

  • Properties of exponents and square roots
  • Evaluation of algebraic expressions through substitution
  • Using variables to express functional relationships
  • Understanding algebraic operations
  • The solution of quadratic equations by factoring

 

Intermediate Algebra (15-20%)

  • The quadratic formula
  • Rational and radical expressions
  • Absolute value equations and inequalities
  • Sequences and patterns
  • Systems of equations
  • Quadratic inequalities
  • Functions and modeling
  • Matrices
  • Roots of polynomials
  • Complex numbers

 

Coordinate Geometry (15-20%)

  • Graphing and the relations between equations and graphs, including points, lines, polynomials, circles, and other curves
  • Graphing inequalities
  • Slope
  • Parallel and perpendicular lines
  • Distance
  • Midpoints
  • Conics

 

Plane Geometry (20-25%)

  • Properties and relations of plane figures, including angles and relations among perpendicular and parallel lines
  • Properties of circles, triangles, rectangles, parallelograms, and trapezoids
  • Transformations
  • The concept of proof and proof techniques
  • Volume
  • Applications of geometry to three dimensions

 

Trigonometry (5-10%)

  • Trigonometric relations in right triangles
  • Values and properties of trigonometric functions
  • Graphing trigonometric functions
  • Modeling using trigonometric functions
  • Use of trigonometric identities
  • Solving trigonometric equations

 

As you can see, the majority of the questions, over 50%, focus on algebra and pre-algebra. About 40% of the questions are on geometry, and the remaining 5-10% are on trigonometry.

 

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ACT Reading Syllabus

Number of Questions

Minutes Given

Time Per Question

40

35

52 seconds

 

Format

The ACT Reading section contains four passages or passage pairs and 40 multiple-choice questions, meaning that there will be about ten questions per passage. All questions in this section are based on passages, and there will be three single passages and one passage pair. The Reading passages will always include four different subject areas: humanities, natural science, social science, and literary fiction.

 

Skills Tested

For ACT Reading, you’ll be using skills often required in your English classes, such as critical reasoning and referring skills. You’ll need to be able to use these skills to accomplish the following:

  • Understand main ideas
  • Locate details within a passage and interpret them
  • Interpret sequence of events and flow of ideas
  • Make comparisons
  • Understand cause-effect relationships
  • Determine the meaning of words, phrases, and statements in context (these are usually straightforward, but may be used in an unusual or significant way in context)
  • Draw generalizations
  • Analyze the author's or narrator's tone and purpose

 

Question Types

There are five main types of questions on the ACT Reading section.

 

Main Idea

Main idea questions ask about the main point or theme of the passage.

 

Detail

These questions will typically refer you to a specific line in the passage and ask what it means.

 

Vocabulary

These questions will select a specific word or phrase in the passage and ask what it means or how it functions in context. These questions often point to a common word or phrase that might be being used in an unusual way.

 

Function and Development

Function and Development questions test your ability to describe a phrase, sentence, or paragraph in the context of the entire passage.

 

Implied Ideas

These questions ask you to infer the meaning of a line, paragraph, or complete passage.

 

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ACT Science Syllabus

Number of Questions

Minutes Given

Time Per Question

40

35

52 seconds

 

Format

Like the English and Reading sections, all of ACT Science’s questions are based on passages. This section contains 40 multiple-choice questions and seven passages. Each of the passages can include diagrams such as graphs, charts, and tables. 

The passages could focus on topics such as biology, chemistry, physics, and earth/space sciences (including geology, astronomy, and meteorology).  Each passage will be followed by four to seven questions.

 

Skills Tested

Although ACT Science includes questions on a wide range of scientific topics, this section tests your scientific skills more than your knowledge of specific facts or subjects. So, while you won’t be tested on specific facts, your science classes will teach you important analysis and reasoning skills you need to understand the scientific method and language and do well on this section.

The ACT website recommends you take at least three years of science in high school, including at least one biology course and one physical or earth science course by the time you take the exam. By taking science courses, you’ll learn about the scientific method, how to collect and analyze data, and how to evaluate a theory or hypothesis. These skills will help you do well on ACT Science.

 

Question Types

There are three main types of questions you’ll see on ACT Science.

 

Data Representation (30-40% of questions)

Data Representation questions require you to read graphs, interpret scatterplots, and explain information presented in tables.

 

Research Summaries (45-55% of questions)

These questions require you to interpret the design and results of experiments discussed in passages.

 

Conflicting Viewpoints (15-20% of questions)

Conflicting Viewpoints questions test your ability to understand, analyze, and compare alternate viewpoints or hypotheses. These questions will center around a single situation or issue, and you’ll read two different viewpoints and analyze the similarities and differences.

 

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ACT Writing Syllabus

Number of Questions

Minutes Given

Time Per Question

1 essay

40

40 minutes

 

Format

The ACT Writing section is the only optional section of the exam. If you choose to take it, you’ll have 40 minutes to plan and write one complete essay.

 

Skills Tested

The major skills you are graded on for the essay are your ability to analyze different arguments and combine different opinions and viewpoints into a coherent essay. While you’ll want your essay to be clear and easy to understand, a few minor spelling and grammar errors won’t lose you points, so you don’t have to worry about your essay being technically perfect.

 

Question Types

On the Writing section, you’ll see a short passage on a given topic, followed by three different perspectives on that topic. Your task will be to evaluate the three perspectives and relate them back to the original issue. This can involve analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of each argument, comparing and contrasting them, and explaining how they could be improved.

 

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How Does This Information Help You Prepare for the ACT?

Now you're an expert on the ACT syllabus, but how does this information help you on the exam? First, knowing what's on the ACT will make you feel more comfortable on test day. You'll know the format, content, and types of questions you'll be asked. This can help you feel more prepared and help reduce test anxiety.

Second, understanding the ACT syllabus can also help during your ACT prep. When you know what subjects are tested on the ACT, you'll know what to focus on during your studying, and you'll be less likely to overlook material you should go over or study material that won't be on the test.

Additionally, when you take practice ACTs and review your answers to see where you made most of your mistakes, your knowledge of the ACT will help you pinpoint the specific area(s) you should work on. Maybe your ACT Math score was lower than you wanted it to be, but where exactly did you make mistakes? Did you get all the geometry questions correct but struggled with algebra? Then you can focus primarily on studying algebra topics. Knowing what's tested on the ACT will help you pinpoint the areas where you need to improve and increase the effectiveness of your studying.

 

Tips for Getting Your Best ACT Score

Knowing what subjects the ACT covers will help you become more familiar comfortable with the test, which can help boost your score. Follow these three tips to help ensure you’re getting the most out of your ACT prep and achieving your highest score.

 

Create a Study Plan

Before you really dive into your ACT studying, you should first create a study plan. Planning out your studying in advance can help you know when you’re supposed to be studying and can keep you on track.

Setting aside a regular time to study each day or week, such as weekdays from 8:00-9:30 or Saturdays from 12:00-4:00, will make it easier to study because you’ll know ahead of time when you should be studying and can fit the rest of your schedule around it.

You should also include regular goals in your study schedule that you hope to meet, such as, “I want to understand how to answer trigonometry questions by the end of the weekend,” or “I want to raise my ACT Science score ten points by the end of the month.” Setting these goals can help motivate you to study and help you stay on track.

 

Use High-Quality Study Resources

Your studying will only be as effective as the prep materials you use, so be sure to use high-quality ACT study material. A high-quality prep book can be one of the best resources you use. Check out our guide to the best ACT prep books available. A good prep book will effectively explain the content tested on the exam, have high-quality practice questions similar to those on the real ACT, and include full-length practice exams (discussed more below).

 

Take Complete Practice Exams

During your studying, you’ll want to take at least one (and ideally at least three to four) complete practice ACTs. Taking full-length practice ACTs is important because it gives you the most accurate idea of what the real ACT will be like. You’ll learn how taking a test for several hours affects you and if you get tired and distracted towards the later sections. Also, after you score your exam, you’ll have a good idea of how well you’d do on the actual test, and you can use this information to identify which topics you should focus on for future studying.

Be sure to take your ACT under realistic testing conditions. This means take the exam all in one sitting, timed, and with minimal distractions. Try to use official practice tests since they’ll be the closest to the real ACT. We have links to several free and official ACT practice exams you can use.

 

Conclusion: Understanding the ACT Syllabus

Knowing the syllabus of the ACT will help you know what to expect for the test and how to prepare for the exam. Each of the four main sections of the ACT covers multiple subject areas and contains several question types. There is also an optional Writing section with an essay at the end of the test.

To help you prepare for the ACT, be sure to create a study schedule early on, use high-quality study resources, and take full-length practice tests to get a good idea of the progress you’ve made and where you can improve.

 

What's Next?

Looking for more practice tests? We have links to free and official practice ACTs you can use during your studying!

 Trying to get a top score on the ACT? Learn everything you need to get a perfect 36 on the ACT by reading our guide, written by a full-scorer.

What score should you be aiming for on the ACT? Learn what a good ACT score is and how to set a goal score.

 

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Christine Sarikas
About the Author

Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.



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