SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

What Sections Are on the ACT? All 4 Test Sections, Explained

Posted by Ellen McCammon | Apr 6, 2017 12:00:00 PM

ACT General Info

 

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If you’re not sure what sections are on the ACT, we can help! In this guide to ACT sections, we’ll give you a quick summary of all the sections of the test. Then, we’ll take a closer look at each section. Finally, we’ll discuss which ACT test sections—and scores—are most important for you.

 

ACT Sections: Quick Overview

There are four sections on the ACT, and they are always offered in the same order: English, Math, Reading, and Science. If you take the ACT with Writing, the Writing section will be last. Every section is scored out of 36 points, except for Writing, which is scored out of 12 points.

The longest section in terms of number of questions is English, with 75 questions. The longest section time-wise is Math, at 60 minutes. Reading and Science both give you 40 questions to answer in 35 minutes. Here’s a chart with a quick breakdown of the questions and time for each of the sections of the ACT: 

Section

# of Questions

Time

Time/Question

English

75

45 mins

36 seconds

Math

60

60 mins

1 min

Reading

40

35 mins

52.5 seconds

Science

40

35 mins

52.5 seconds

Writing (optional)

1 essay

40 mins

40 mins

Total (without Writing)

215

2 hr 55 min (not counting breaks)

Total (with Writing)

216

3 hr 35 min (not counting breaks)

 

 

In the following sections, we’ll take a closer look at each of the sections of the ACT, in the order they appear on the test. We’ll discuss what’s tested, what question types you’ll encounter, and the most important tips for that section.

 

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Are you ready for your close up (look at ACT sections)?

 

ACT Section 1: English

The ACT English section has five passages with accompanying four-choice multiple-choice questions. In the ACT English section, you’re the editor: you’ll be looking at a passage and making sure that the grammar and punctuation are correct and that the passage is well-organized and rhetorically sound.

The ACT English section tests two broad skill areas. First, it tests your knowledge of usage and mechanics—grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, and so on. Basically, do you know the rules of the English language and can you implement them correctly?

The second broad skill area is rhetorical skills—your big-picture ability to make sure that a passage of writing flows, makes sense, and effectively communicates a point.

You’ll receive a subscore for both usage and mechanics and rhetorical skills when you get your ACT scores back.

 

Question Types

Between the two broad skill areas of usage/mechanics and rhetorical skills, there are six question types on the ACT English section:


Usage and Mechanics

Punctuation (10-15% of test, 7-12 questions): These questions test your knowledge of the rules of proper use of periods, commas, apostrophes, dashes, colons, and semicolons.

Grammar and usage (15-20% of test, 12-15 questions): These questions test your knowledge of grammar rules associated with subject-verb agreement, pronoun use, modifiers, verb forms, comparatives, superlatives, and some idioms. (Refer to our complete ACT grammar guide for more specifics).

Sentence structure (20-25% of test, 15-19 questions): On these questions, you’ll be tested on your understanding of the correct relationship between clauses. You’ll have to correctly link clauses to make clear, correct sentences (not fragments or run-ons)!

 

Rhetorical Skills

Strategy (15-20% of test, 12-15 questions): Strategy questions target your ability to build the clearest possible argument. You’ll be asked if the author should add or delete particular material and then need to choose the answer that justifies your decision. Consider if the material in question strengthens the passage or if it’s confusing or irrelevant.

Organization (10-15% of test, 7-12 questions): Organization questions test your ability to build appropriate introduction and closing sentences for paragraphs and to choose the best transitions. Basically, are you able to create a passage with clear structural signposts throughout?

Style (15-20% of test, 12-15 questions): On these questions, you’ll be tasked with choosing the best words, phrases, and images to go with the passage’s tone. You’ll also need to correct sentences for excessive wordiness and redundancy.

womens-shoes-178162_640.jpgStyle: it's not just for your closet.

 

Most Important English Section Tips

To get a solid score on the English section of the ACT, follow these tips!

 

Develop a Passage Strategy

Because the questions on the English test are integrated with the passage, it’s critical that you develop a solid, consistent passage strategy. We recommend the graf-by-graf approach. In this approach, you’ll skim an entire paragraph, then go back and answer all of the questions associated with that paragraph. This gives you enough context to answer the questions while still being efficient. But figure out what works best for you!

 

Learn Essential Grammar Rules

While there is an array of grammar rules that will be tested on the ACT English section, there are a few rules that the test likes to ask you about over and over again. These include rules about forming correct sentences and using proper punctuation, especially commas. Learning the most important rules inside out will take you successfully through a sizable chunk of the test!

 

Don’t Be Afraid to Pick “No Change”

Students are often afraid to pick “no change” because it seems like it’s a trick or too easy. But don’t avoid “No Change”! Sometimes the sentence really is fine how it is. In fact, if you aren’t sure of the answer, “No Change” may be your best bet for guessing!

 

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Change? I haven't got any.

 

 

ACT Section2 : Math

There are six main content areas tested on ACT math: Pre-Algebra, Elementary Algebra, Intermediate Algebra, Coordinate Geometry, Plane Geometry, and Trigonometry.

Here’s a breakdown of the topics you can expect to see in each content area:

Pre-Algebra: (20-25% of test, 12-15 questions)

  • Basic operations (think PEMDAS)
  • Place value
  • Calculating square roots and exponents
  • Scientific notation
  • Factors
  • Ratios, proportions, and percents
  • Linear equations with one variable
  • Absolute value and number order
  • Basic counting techniques and simply probability
  • Data collection, representation, and interpretation; simple descriptive statistics

 

Elementary Algebra: (15-20% of test, 9-12 questions)

  • Properties of square roots and exponents
  • Solving algebraic expressions through substitution
  • Using variables to express relationships
  • Understanding basic algebraic operations
  • Solving quadratic equations by factoring

 

Intermediate Algebra: (15-20% of test, 9-12 questions)

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

 

Coordinate Geometry: (15-20% of test, 9-12 questions)

  • Graphing equations, including lines, polynomials, circles, and other curves
  • Graphing inequalities
  • Properties of lines, including slope and parallel and perpendicular lines
  • Distance and midpoints
  • Conics (parabolas, circles, ellipses, and hyperbolas)

 

Plane Geometry: (20-25% of test, 12-15 questions)

  • Properties and relations of plane figures, including angles and relations among perpendicular and parallel lines
  • Properties of circles, triangles, rectangles, parallelograms, and trapezoids
  • Transformations
  • Proofs and proof techniques
  • Simple applications of plane geometry to three dimensions, including volume

 

Trigonometry: (5-10% of test, 3-6 questions)

  • Right triangles
  • Trigonometric functions: their values and properties, graphing, modeling
  • Trigonometric identities
  • Solving trigonometric equations

 

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Is this the right triangle or the wrong one?

 

Question Types

The questions on the ACT math section are all five-choice multiple choice questions. We covered the topics you can expect to see in the questions above. Some of these questions will be presented as word problems, and others as pretty straightforward math problems. Some will have figures, graphs, or charts. You can check out practice ACT math questions here to get a feel for the question styles.

You should also be aware that the questions are loosely ordered by difficulty and content. Roughly the first 1-20 questions will be “easy,” questions 21-40 will be “medium” difficulty, and questions 41-60 will be “hard.” Of course, whether you experience a particular question as easy or difficult depends partly on your own comfort level with different concepts. But in general, more complex questions that take more time to solve come later in the test.

Questions are also loosely arranged by subject matter. The first half of the test (questions 1-30) will have more algebra and pre-algebra questions, and the second half of the test will have more geometry and trigonometry.

 

Most Important ACT Math Section Tips

Here are 3 ACT Math section tips!

 

Learn Critical Formulas

The ACT doesn’t give you any formulas for the math section, so you’ll need to memorize any you’ll need to use. We have a guide to the most important ACT formulas here, as well as advice on the best way to practice and use formulas for ACT success.

 

Bring an Allowed Calculator

While you technically don’t have to have a calculator to solve any of the questions on the math ACT section, having one will make your problem solving much more efficient! But only some calculators are allowed on test day, so be sure to use one that’s permitted! It’s best if you’re familiar with that calculator, too, so try to practice with the calculator you are going to use on test day.

 

Work on Time Management

With 60 questions to solve in 60 minutes, one of the most challenging things on the ACT math section is time management. There are a number of strategies you can use to help improve your time management skills on this section, but here are some general principles:

  • All questions are worth the same amount of points, so focus on faster and simpler questions first to maximize points.
  • Don’t sink too much time into any one question.
  • If you aren’t going for a super-high score, it may be better to focus more energy on fewer questions. You’ll feel less of a time crunch that way.

 

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Crunch is a good thing for your chips and a bad thing for your time.

 

ACT Section 3: Reading

ACT Reading presents you with passages and then asks you multiple choice questions that test your reading comprehension skills. Can you correctly understand and interpret passages on a variety of subjects? Can you interpret the meaning both of small details and major theme in a passage? Can you analyze author’s purpose and tone? These are kinds of skills that ACT Reading assesses.

The actual test will present you with four subsections. Three subsections will have longer passages, while one subsection will have two paired passages. The subsections will come from four different subject areas and they always appear in the same order:

  • Prose fiction/literary narrative: The kind of fiction passages you’re probably encountering all the time in English class. Also includes passages from literary memoirs.
  • Social science: Nonfiction passages on soft sciences areas, like psychology, sociology, and education.
  • Humanities: This is a broad topic area that includes both personal nonfiction pieces like essays and memoirs and also nonfiction pieces on the arts, literature, and philosophy.
  • Natural science: Nonfiction passages about hard sciences topics like biology, chemistry, physics, and medicine.

Any of the four topic areas could contain the paired passages, although it seems like literary fiction and humanities are the most frequent areas where you’ll see the paired passages.

 

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Quite a pair.

 

Question Types

There are five main types of multiple-choice questions that you’ll see on ACT reading.

 

Big Picture Questions (about 10% of test; approximately 4 questions)

Big picture questions ask you a question about the passage overall: the passage’s main theme or the author or narrator’s overall perspective. In general, you’ll be asked one big-picture question about each passage/passage set.

 

Detail Questions (about 38% of test; approximately 15 questions)

Detail questions (also sometimes called “little picture” questions) ask you for straightforward information about a small detail in the passage. These questions are typically the easiest on this ACT test section, because they are literal questions and you can find the answer directly in the passage! Detail questions typically make up the largest proportion of the ACT Reading section.

 

Vocab in Context (about 10% of test, approximately 4 questions)

These questions ask about the meaning of a word in the context of a passage. Typically, you’ll need to pick a synonym for a given word that still makes sense within the context of the sentence.

 

Development and Function (about 22% of test, approximately 9 questions)

Development and function questions test your rhetorical analysis skills. They’ll ask about the function of a particular phrase or paragraph within the passage, how the argument in the passage is developed and advanced, or how the passage is structured.

 

Inference (about 20% of test, approximately 8 questions)

Inference questions ask you to make a logical conclusion about something based on the information available in the passage. Don’t be fooled into thinking these questions are subjective—the correct answer will always be supported by evidence directly in the passage!

 

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Investigate the passage. Find the evidence. Solve the potato murder!

 

Most Important Reading Section Tips

These tips will help you sail to success on the Reading section of the ACT.

 

Passage Evidence

Students often get tripped up on this section by questions that seem subjective at first glance. But remember this: all questions have one right answer, and that answer will always be supported by evidence from the passage. Don’t be tripped up by answers that seem like they could be right because they aren’t directly contradicted by the passage—only pick an answer if you are confident that the actual content of the passage supports it.

 

Develop Passage Strategy

Developing an effective approach to the passages on ACT reading helps you manage time and more easily find the correct answers to questions. Some people like to skim the passage first and others prefer to glance over the questions first. Both of these strategies can work fine. However, we don’t recommend closely and thoroughly reading the passage on your first pass. You won’t need every detail of the passage to answer the questions, so reading too closely is a waste of precious time.

 

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Hone your strategy. Rule ACT Reading.

 

ACT Section 4: Science

What’s tested: In spite of what you may think, the Science ACT test section tests your scientific interpretation skills more than your pre-existing scientific factual knowledge. It involves more reading—of passages, charts, and graphs—than anything else! Using the information in the passages, you’ll need to apply the scientific method, evaluate theories or hypotheses, and interpret data.

There are seven “passages” on this ACT section. I put “passages” in quotes because not all of them will just be straightforward written material. You can expect to see three passages summarizing research and experiments (which may or may not include graphs and figures), three passages primarily made up of graphs and figures, and one paired passage set describing conflicting viewpoints on an issue. You can expect about 5-7 questions about each passage.

 

Question Types

There are eight question types split among the three passage types on the ACT science section. They are all four-choice multiple choice questions.

 

Research Summary Passages

There are three question types you can expect to see on research summary passages, related to designing and interpreting experiments.

Experimental Design and Description: These questions ask you about how and why the researcher designed the experiment the way that they did. (For example: “In experiment 2, which solution was the titrant and which solution was the sample solution?). Many of these questions are simple reading comprehension questions that just require you to find the relevant information in the passage. Some of these questions ask you to choose the figure that best describes the experimental results.

Hypothetical Experiment: These questions ask you to predict what would happen if one of the described experiments was changed somehow.

Interpreting Experiments: These questions ask you if a certain scientific claim is supported by the results of the described experiments, and why. There will be two “no” answers and two “yes” answers, with different justifications. So you need to choose both if the conclusion is supported or not supported and why correctly.

 

Data Representation Passages

There are another three question types you’ll encounter on data representation passages, related to reading, interpreting, and working with data.

Factual Questions: These data representation questions just ask you to identify factual information presented in the graph/chart/table/etc. They essentially test your ability to read different types of data representations.

Identifying Trends: On these questions, you’ll need to read the graph or chart more holistically to identify if there’s a trend or relationship between two factors. Does the graph or chart show one thing increasing while another decreases? Do they both increase or decrease together?

Extrapolations: These questions ask you to make a prediction based on what is shown in the graph or chart.

 

Conflicting Viewpoints Passages

Finally, there are two question types you’ll see on conflicting viewpoints passages. These are essentially reading comprehension questions based on descriptions of different perspectives on scientific issues.

Understanding Viewpoints: These questions check your comprehension of one of the author’s points of view. No synthesis of the two viewpoints is required.

Comparing Viewpoints: These Science section questions will ask you to identify similarities and differences between the two viewpoints.

 

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I wish all this science could be this delicious.

 

Most Important Tips

Here are two tips to help you make the most out of the Science section!

 

Hone in on the Information You Need

Science passages often give you way more information than you’ll actually need to answer the questions. So instead of trying to absorb every factoid from the passage, it’s better to hone in on the information you actually need to answer each question. You can develop your own strategy for doing this, but you might try quickly skimming the passage for the main ideas first and then looking back more closely for the information you need to answer each question.

 

Save the Paired Passage for Last

Answering the questions for the paired passages will almost always take the longest, because you’ll likely need to read the passages more closely to be able to accurately compare them. Because all questions are worth the same amount of points, it make sense to leave the section that will take the longest for last. So skip the paired section when you come to it and circle back around at the end of the section so you don’t waste time you could spend on faster questions.

 

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If only the paired passages were as beautiful and soothing as this pair of swans.

 

Optional ACT Section: Writing

ACT Writing tests your ability to write a clear, well-argued essay that analyzes an issue in relation to different viewpoints—all in a limited 40-minute time period! You’ll then be evaluated along four domains and given a score from 1-6 by two graders, leading to a score out of 12.

If all that sounds like a tall order, well, it is a lot to take in. We’ll break down what you need to do in this overview.

 

The Topic and Prompt

On the ACT Writing section, you’ll first be presented with the topic. This will consist of two parts. First, you’ll get a paragraph introducing an issue of some global or universal importance. It will most likely be something that’s primarily philosophical in nature and it will be something that can be argued from multiple angles. For example, the sample topic below is about the implications of “intelligent machines” for human society.

After the initial introductory paragraph, you’ll be presented with three positions on the topic. The positions will be a little bit more nuanced that just “this thing is good” or “this thing is bad,” but they are only a couple of sentences each.

Then comes the actual prompt, which is always the same and describes the task you need to complete with the topic information. So what’s the actual task? You will need to write an essay that clearly states your perspective on the issue, analyzes the relationship between your perspective and at least one other perspective, and supports your own position with well-developed, logical support. You can choose to completely agree with one perspective, partially agree, or make your own different perspective.

Here is a sample topic (Intelligent Machines) and prompt from the ACT’s website.

 

Intelligent Machines

Many of the goods and services we depend on daily are now supplied by intelligent, automated machines rather than human beings. Robots build cars and other goods on assembly lines, where once there were human workers. Many of our phone conversations are now conducted not with people but with sophisticated technologies. We can now buy goods at a variety of stores without the help of a human cashier. Automation is generally seen as a sign of progress, but what is lost when we replace humans with machines? Given the accelerating variety and prevalence of intelligent machines, it is worth examining the implications and meaning of their presence in our lives.

Perspective One

Perspective Two

Perspective Three

What we lose with the replacement of people by machines is some part of our own humanity. Even our mundane daily encounters no longer require from us basic courtesy, respect, and tolerance for other people.

Machines are good at low-skill, repetitive jobs, and at high-speed, extremely precise jobs. In both cases they work better than humans. This efficiency leads to a more prosperous and progressive world for everyone.

Intelligent machines challenge our long-standing ideas about what humans are or can be. This is good because it pushes both humans and machines toward new, unimagined possibilities.

 

Write a unified, coherent essay about the increasing presence of intelligent machines. In your essay, be sure to

  • clearly state your own perspective on the issue and analyze the relationship between your perspective and at least one other perspective
  • develop and support your ideas with reasoning and examples
  • organize your ideas clearly and logically
  • communicate your ideas effectively in standard written English

Your perspective may be in full agreement with any of the others, in partial agreement, or wholly different.

 

How Will Your Essay Be Assessed?

There are four domains in which ACT graders will be assessing your essay:

Ideas and analysis: This domain refers to how well you discussed perspectives on the essay topic, including your own. A clear thesis is critical for this domain.

Development and support: How well did you develop your thesis? How well-argued was your position? This domain assesses how you presented evidence in support of your perspective.

Organization: This domain scores the organizational structure of your paper. Do your paragraphs come in a logical order? Do each of your paragraphs make a clear, well supported point with a topic and concluding sentence?

Language use: Scores for this domain reflect your deployment of standard written English.

Two different graders will give you a score from 1-6 in each domain, for a score out of 12 in each domain. These 4 domain scores will then be averaged for your total essay score out of 12. For a complete breakdown of scoring on this ACT test section, check out our guide to the ACT essay rubric.

 

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Not how your scores are assessed.

 

Most Important Tips for ACT Writing

Here are two tips for ACT Writing success. 

 

Become Familiar with the Rubric

If you want to do well on the ACT Writing section, it stands to reason that you should have a good idea of what the graders will be looking for. So you should become familiar with the rubric for the Writing section. Seeing what makes for a solid score of 5-6 in each domain will help you deliver it!

 

Choose One of the Three Perspectives

While you can create your own perspective to argue in your thesis, it’s more efficient to simply choose one of the perspectives offered with the prompt to argue in support of. (You could also blend two perspectives). This will save you time in coming up with a new, unique argument, and make it simpler to analyze the relationship between your perspective and the other perspectives.

When choosing between the three perspectives, pick the one you think you can support the best.

 

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Tip #3: Sharpen those pencils!

 

Which ACT Sections Are Most Important?

You may be wondering if your scores on some ACT test sections are more important than others. While this depends somewhat on you, in general, what’s generally going to be most important is your composite score. This is what colleges are typically most interested in.  

However, some research suggests that the English and Math ACT sections have the most predictive power for your performance in college. So some colleges may place comparatively more weight on English and Math than on Reading and Science.

You’ll note that your Writing section score is not included in your composite score. You will probably not be surprised to learn, then, that the writing section score is the least important part of your ACT score. This doesn’t mean you should totally bomb it; if schools are requesting it you should still put in your best effort. But you probably don’t need to retake the entire test to raise up your 8/12 if you’re happy with your composite score.

With that said, even though composite score is the most critical thing, having a higher score in your area of interest is definitely not a bad thing. So if your composite score is a 31 but you got a 34 on math and you’re applying to engineering, that 34 will matter to admissions officers. Similarly, it may set off red flags if your score in your area of interest is considerably lower than your other scores. (It’s one thing if it’s a 27 and all your other scores are 28s, it’s another if it’s a 27 and all your other scores are 33s).

 

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Sadly, ACT, Inc. won't send you a certificate of "Epic Win" if you get a good score.

 

Key Takeaways: ACT Sections

There are four required ACT test sections and one optional one. The sections of the ACT appear in the same order, as laid out below:

ACT English tests your command of written English grammar and rhetoric. You’ll have 45 minutes to answer 75 4-choice multiple choice questions.

ACT Math tests your math skills in pre-algebra, elementary algebra, intermediate algebra, coordinate geometry, plane geometry, and trigonometry. You’ll have 60 minutes to answer 60 5-choice multiple choice questions.

ACT Reading tests your reading comprehension skills. You’ll have 35 minutes to answer 40 4-choice multiple choice questions.

ACT Science tests your ability to read and interpret scientific information and your knowledge of the scientific method. You’ll have 35 minutes to answer 40 4-choice multiple choice questions.

ACT Writing tests your ability to analyze an issue and argue in support of a position. You’ll have 40 minutes to complete an essay. This section is optional.

 

What's Next?

Looking for more information on the ACT? We can help you prepare for the test, figure out what ACT score you need, and what to expect on test day!

If you want test practice, see our massive compilation of online practice tests and a compendium of all of our ACT guides and explainers

Trying to decide if you need to take the SAT and the ACT? We can help. We can also help you decide if you need to take the ACT with Writing

 

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Ellen McCammon
About the Author

Ellen has extensive education mentorship experience and is deeply committed to helping students succeed in all areas of life. She received a BA from Harvard in Folklore and Mythology and is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.



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