The ACT is daunting. It just is. One of the most intimidating things about it is the average student's initial uncertainty as to what types of questions are going to be asked: Will it test vocabulary? What's tested on the science section? How many formulas do I need to memorize? The best way to clear up the confusion is to look at some ACT sample questions, so you can get a sense of what to expect on test day.
As you are most likely aware, there are five sections on the ACT—English, Math, Reading, Science, and Writing—each of which has its own types of questions. In this article, I'll guide you through every type of question you're going to encounter in each of these areas and offer some tips on preparing for them.
Why Do I Need to Know All the ACT Question Types?
Good question! Well, a big part of being prepared for the ACT is knowing what to expect when you open that test booklet. Increased familiarity with the material will ease your mind as the big day approaches and inform your study habits. Why waste time preparing for a task that doesn't appear on the exam? Instead, you should focus your energy on drilling the types of questions that actually matter.
Imagine a vocab quiz. How would you study if you knew you'd be asked to...
- List the words from memory?
- Define each word, using a word bank?
- Use each word in an original sentence?
Obviously, your approach would be very different given each scenario. And so it should be! Now, onward, to explore official ACT sample questions.
Vocab quizzes: the result of an unholy union between Scrabble and alphabet soup.
Sample ACT English Questions
All seventy-five English questions are multiple choice. They are all situated within the context of five, fifteen-question passages: no sentence stands in isolation.
Most questions require you to determine which version of an underlined word or phrase is the best, but some ask about the author's intentions.
There are two major categories of questions in the English section.
- Usage and mechanics — punctuation, sentence structure, and grammar and usage
- Rhetorical skills — style, organization, and strategy
Usage and Mechanics
Punctuation questions test your understanding of commas, apostrophes, colons, semicolons, em-dashes, periods, question marks, and exclamation points.
Grammar and usage questions test your sense of grammatical agreement, verb use, pronoun use, comparative and superlative modifiers, and idioms.
Sentence structure questions test your skill with dependent clause placement; run-ons, fused sentences, and comma splices; fragments; misplaced modifiers; and shifts in tense, voice, person, and number.
Writing strategy questions test your recognition of the author's choices and strategies — when and why might an editor add, delete, or modify a given statement?
Organization questions test your knowledge of the best order and coherence of ideas as well as your ability to craft skillful introductions, transitions, and conclusions.
Style questions test your discernment of tone, clarity, and economy (not using words that you don't need).
For a more in-depth discussion of all of these skills, I heartily recommend our complete guide to ACT grammar and our analysis of which rules are most crucial to master. If you want a more detailed explanation of some of the terms and categories I threw around in this section, check out our article on what ACT English really tests—practically speaking. Don't forget our ultimate guide if there's anything else you want to examine in more depth!
All sixty math questions are multiple choice and have five possible answers.
Questions get progressively more challenging throughout the section. This is a general trend, not an exact science. In other words, question 1 may not be the single easiest problem, and question 60 may not be the single hardest problem, but question 60 will be orders of magnitude harder than question 1.
As far as content is concerned, the ACT aims to test the following topics:
- Pre-algebra (14 questions, or 23% of the section)
- Elementary algebra (10 questions, or 17% of the section)
- Intermediate algebra (9 questions, or 15% of the section)
- Coordinate geometry (9 questions, or 15% of the section)
- Plane geometry (14 questions, or 23% of the section)
- Trigonometry (4 questions, or 7% of the section)
If you want to review any particular topics within these arenas, definitely consult our many guides on subjects from basic integer theory to dealing with functions.
The six content areas above can be tested in three different ways:
- General math questions
- Math questions in settings
- Question sets
I'm always making my calculator angry. I know exactly which buttons to push.
General Math Questions
These questions can be basic in style or more complex. Basic math problems are straightforward: they may test difficult topics, but they're concise and don't give you any unnecessary information. What you see is what you get. Answers are numeric in nature.
The more complex questions shake things up a little bit. Some include too much or too little information. Answers may be numeric, or they may appear as expressions, equations, or statements. There may be figures or diagrams to analyze.
As you can see, this is kind of a catch-all category including a range of questions with no other well-defined characteristics.
Math Questions in Settings
These are what we often refer to as word problems or story problems. They typically describe an everyday situation, and the equation isn't set up for you: you need to convert the circumstances described into a math problem.
These are simply groups of questions that relate back to the same set of information: a paragraph, a diagram, or another scenario. These problems are easy to recognize, since they're always preceded by a box that explains how many problems are part of the set. This is yet another reason to read instructions carefully; skimming through the math section is a sure-fire way to miss these cues!
For more info on ACT math questions, check out our ultimate guide to ACT math.
There are ten questions dedicated to each of the four segments of this test. Each segment consists of one long passage or one pair of shorter passages. All forty questions are multiple choice.
There are four genres of literature that will appear on the ACT, always in the following order:
- Prose fiction: Typically a short story or an excerpt from a novel, prose fiction includes a narrated series of events or a progressive revelation of character.
- Social studies: Texts within this category discuss anything from anthropology and biography to psychology and sociology—any "soft" science or study of human phenomena. These passages present information gathered via rigorous research.
- Humanities: These texts can draw on arts of any flavor, ethics and philosophy, or personal reflections. The focus is on describing and analyzing arts and ideas.
- Natural science: This kind of text is rooted in any of the "hard" sciences—biology, chemistry, physics, etc. The aim is simply to explore a significant scientific topic.
You'll be asked to complete the following types of questions:
- Main idea
- Compare and contrast
- Cause and effect
- Author intent and tone
This cactus has clearly had too much caffeine. I'm never this excited to be reading the dictionary!
The questions ask you to find information in the passage. For example, in the following question, you need to find a specific detail that was explained in the passage. The question states that it wants one data point that was "described in the passage".
Main Idea Questions
This type requires you to examine passages globally to determine main ideas. The following question refers to the passage "as a whole" and ask that you characterize its entire arc. We might suppose that the answer is never explicitly stated but derives from the sum of the article's many parts.
Compare and Contrast Questions
These are exactly what they sound like: you'll need to compare and contrast information given in a single long passage or in the two shorter paired passages. For instance, the following question asks you to find what's similar across two short passages. (Note, though, that it could just as easily have asked for the primary difference between them.)
These are the trickiest type of reading question: they ask you to identify the logic underlying a claim or extend the implication of a statement. For instance, in the following question, you're asked to describe what the author "implies" about what people "commonly assume."
Cause and Effect Questions
These are specific type of inference question that require you to analyze cause and effect and sequences of events. You should understand what happened when and which event caused what. The following question asks about why the trap-jaw ant has developed the characteristics it possesses today: i.e. what happened originally to cause this new development in turn.
These questions point you towards a specific instance of a word or phrase within the text, then ask you to offer a rough definition based on its use in context.
Author Intent and Tone Questions
For these, you'll be asked to draw conclusions about the author's voice and method. You should be able to explain the author's view of and attitude towards the topic, and you should also be able to identify why the author made certain salient choices. For instance, the following questions asks about the "author's attitude" and offers various descriptions of possible view points in the answer choices.
For good, solid advice on how to attack ACT reading, check out our ultimate guide to the subject.
The science section consists of seven passages, with forty multiple-choice questions. (Technically, there could be more or fewer passages, but there are almost always seven.) There are four categories of passages, content-wise:
- Biology: cellular biology, botany, zoology, microbiology, ecology, or genetics
- Chemistry: properties of matter, pH, kinetics and equilibria, thermochemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, or nuclear chemistry
- Physics: mechanics, thermodynamics, electromagnetism, fluids, solids, and optics
- Earth/space: geology, meteorology, oceanography, astronomy, and thermodynamics
There are also three different passage formats, which I'll explore further below:
- Data representation
- Research summaries
- Conflicting viewpoints
Fortunately, you will not be asked to spell deoxyribonucleic acid.
These passages contain a short introductory paragraph and a few charts, graphs, and diagrams. They look like something you might find in a science journal or textbook explaining a natural phenomenon. You'll be asked to interpret charts and tables, read graphs, evaluate scatterplots, and analyze information in diagrams.
These passages describe scientific studies. Generally speaking, you'll see two or three experiments per passage. The design, procedures, and results will all be set down for you. Graphs and tables are likely to be featured, but not guaranteed. You'll be asked to understand, evaluate, and interpret the design and procedures, and analyze the results of the studies.
This type of passage summarizes at least two alternative theories, hypotheses, or scientific viewpoints. Each will be based on different premises or a set of incomplete data, and they will be inconsistent with each other. You'll be asked to understand, analyze, evaluate, compare, and contrast several theories, hypotheses, and viewpoints.
Don't stop exploring science there! Take a moment to explore our ultimate guide to this portion of the ACT.
You won't actually need all four pencils on test day.
The ACT essay is a whole different ballgame from what it used to be. The new, enhanced essay presents you with a summary of some controversial issue and three different perspectives on that issue. You're expected to evaluate and analyze the perspectives; state and develop your own perspective, which may align with any one of the other three or none at all; and explain the relationship between your perspective and the three given. You have forty minutes to plan and write a relevant essay.
I urge you to read about the specific types of prompts you're likely to encounter and how to nail this task with a perfect score.
Now that you know what you've seen every type of sample ACT question and know what you'll encounter on the test, it's time to think about learning some new strategies. Consider this list of 21 tips everyone could use, or these 15 tips designed to boost that score. Also consider picking up one of these ten highly recommended books to help you prepare for the test. If you've already settled on using the official guide, read how to use that tool to its greatest advanatage. Of course, you'll want to augment any book(s) with some of these wonderful websites!
Rather than diving right into diverse resources with no sense of where you're headed, though, do make sure you take time to assemble a study plan, whether you're a sophomore or junior, a rising senior, or just really pressed for time. Also be thinking about what you really want out of the ACT. Read about what score you need to get where you want to go, and read about what a good ACT score really means.
Finally, consider adding a program with PrepScholar to your study plans. PrepScholar will help you focus in on the exact types of questions that challenge you the most so that your studying is as effective as possible.
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.
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Vero is a firsthand expert at standardized testing and the college application process. Though neither parent had graduated high school, and test prep was out of the question, she scored in the 99th percentile on both the SAT and ACT, taking each test only once. She attended Dartmouth, graduating as salutatorian of 2013. She later worked as a professional tutor. She has a great passion for the arts, especially theater.