SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

The Complete ACT Instructions: Expert Guide and Tips

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Posted by Halle Edwards | Jul 27, 2015 8:00:00 AM

ACT General Info


What exactly are the instructions on the ACT? Do they really matter?

We will go over the complete ACT directions, including the main directions and the specific directions for each section. We’ll show how they reveal tips for how to do well on the test. You may be surprised by how many hints there are in the ACT directions!

Furthermore, knowing these directions before test day can save you time and stress – so you can just focus on the questions! So read on to be as prepared as possible for the ACT.


Overall ACT Directions

These are directions that appear on the front of your test booklet and apply to the entire test. Read the complete directions below, and then we’ll discuss the most important points.


Directions and sample questions via ACT's Preparing for the ACT Guide.


We'll break down our observations into categories for the main directions since they're pretty long!



You can only use a calculator on the math section. While you likely won’t be tempted to pull out your calculator for English or Reading, some students get confused since the Science section also contains numbers, graphs and charts. However, you cannot use your calculator on the Science section.

If you pull out your calculator for a non-calculator section, you can be disqualified and your scores invalidated. Make sure to only have the calculator out for math!

Notice that the ACT lists this rule before the even more basic ones about how to fill in answers, meaning they’re very serious about it.


Marking Answers

The mechanism for marking your answers is pretty basic if you’re taken standardized tests before: “Decide which answer is best, locate on the answer document the number that matches the question you’re on, fill in the oval completely.”

This seems basic, but you need to be careful to check your answers every few questions to make sure you didn’t start filling out the bubbles off by one. How awful would it be if you found most of the right answers but bubbled in your test incorrectly?

Also, make sure to “Use soft lead and make your marks heavy and black.” That means no ink or mechanical pencil. Make sure you bring enough sharpened pencils with you so you don’t have to get up and sharpen your pencil during the test. We suggest bringing at least four, one for each section, plus one for the essay if you’re taking the ACT Plus Writing.

One other caution the directions bring up: “Mark only one answer for each question…erase completely if you change your mind.” Basically, you want to make sure your answer key is as clear as possible. You might leave time in the last few minutes of the test to double check your answer key to make sure all answers are filled in and neatly marked.

Finally, only responses marked on your answer document are scored. Your booklet is not scored in any way. If you’re marking your answers in the booklet and then transferring a few answers at a time to the answer sheet, be very careful to make sure you don’t run out of time. Remember, you can only get credit for an answer bubbled onto the answer sheet.



You might think that the ACT doesn’t care one way or the other how well you do on the test. Think again. Notice that they say in all caps, bold, and italic that “IT IS TO YOUR ADVANTAGE TO ANSWER EVERY QUESTION EVEN IF YOU HAVE TO GUESS” !

They’re right, of course – since there is no point deduction for wrong answers, you can pick up a few extra points by filling in all the bubbles on each section, even if you’ve run out of time and you have to guess. You can read more about smart guessing strategies over here.

But as we learn in the next section, you can only guess or fill in random bubbles while a particular section is being tested – you can’t, for example, fill in random bubbles for Math questions when you’ve moved on to Reading.


Only Work on the Section at Hand

You can work on a section only after the proctor has told you do so. You cannot go ahead to a different section, and you cannot work on a previous section. You can get disqualified for doing this!

When I took the ACT last June, that particular rule was repeated several times during testing, so you can bet it’s important. The reason for the rule is that they want to make sure students only use the allotted time to work on each section.

This also means you have to lay down your pencil exactly when time is called. You can’t continue to fill in or erase bubbles. Be extra careful when you are in the last five minutes of the test!

It’s not worth the risk of having your whole test thrown out just to bubble in one more question. Not all proctors are going to be super strict on this (they might give you a grace period of a few seconds after they call time), but some are – and you don’t want to risk your entire test being cancelled because you’re trying to sneak in a last answer.

Also, do not, do not, do not bubble in more answers for a section after you’ve moved on to a new section! Proctors walk around and mark down the last answer you’ve filled in right after a section, so they’ll notice if more bubbles get filled in later in the test. Again, it's not worth getting your test thrown out.


ACT English Instructions

Here are the complete directions for the English section, followed by the some important points:



The directions say “The test is broken into five passages, each with 15 questions.” This comes out to 75 questions, meaning you have just 36 seconds per question! You’ll have to keep your pacing up during this section to answer all the questions. (This is why we highly recommend you make carefully-timed practice tests an integral part of your ACT practice, by the way!)

As to the format, the directions say “Certain words and phrases are underlined and numbered, the questions each present alternatives for the underlined portions.” The English test is designed to help you move quickly between the question and the part of the passage it’s asking about. Still, you should do practice sections to get used to this format. Check out some example questions below.


 The test is designed so it's easy to see the part of the passage each question is asking about.


The directions also tell you what kind of answers you should be looking for. “You are to choose the one that best expresses the idea, makes the statement appropriate for standard written English, or is worded most consistently with the style and tone of the passage as a whole.”

So if you get stuck on an English question, choose the answer that seems the clearest to you. (Of course, you should read more about the grammar rules you need to know for English so you're not caught unprepared!)

Also, for many questions, the wording in the passage is already correct. “If you think the original version is best, choose 'No Change.'" This can be more often than you think! Don’t be afraid to choose this answer.

Some questions are about a paragraph or the passage as a whole, which is why it’s important to at least skim the whole passage. However, we disagree with this part of the directions: “Read each passage through once before you answer the questions that accompany it.”

You don’t actually have to do this. It’s possible to attack the questions immediately and skim the passage for bigger-picture questions. Try a few practice sections using both methods and use the method that works best for you.

Finally, keep in mind that “For many of the questions, you have to read several sentences beyond to answer it.”  This is important to remember. Even if you attack the questions immediately, don’t just read the single sentence. Make sure you have enough context to answer with confidence. Remember, you’re looking for the answer choice that makes the passage as a whole as clear as possible!


ACT Math Instructions

Read the directions below, and we’ll go over the important points:


These are the basics of the math section: “Solve each problem, choose the correct answer, and then fill in the corresponding oval on your answer document.” Again, this seems obvious, but it’s helpful to think of the math section in terms of solving problems. You’re not just finding the right answer, like on the English questions. Math is a bit more involved.

The directions offer some very important advice on this, especially given that you’re solving 60 problems in 60 minutes: “Do not linger over problems that take too much time. Solve as many as you can; then return to the others in the time you have left for this test.”

This is a very important strategy. You have approximately one minute per question on math. If you waste five minutes on one question, you lose the opportunity to work on four other questions. We recommend wearing a watch during the test so you can keep an eye on how long you’re taking on each question.

Remember from the overall directions that Math is the only section you can use a calculator on. The directions have some good advice about how to use the calculator, as well: “You may use your calculator for any problems you choose, but some of the problems may best be done without using a calculator.”

This is good advice. If you become over-reliant on your calculator you can waste a lot of time on the test or even make silly mistakes if you enter in a number incorrectly. Again, this is why practice is so important. Practice taking math sections with a calculator, and figure out where using a calculator saves you time – and where you tend to waste time. (Learn about the best calculator for the ACT.)

Finally, the ACT lays out some ground rules about how the math problems are presented: “Unless otherwise stated, all of the following should be assumed.

  1. Illustrative figures are not necessarily drawn to scale.
  2. Geometric figures lie in a plane.
  3. The word line indicates a straight line.
  4. The word average indicates arithmetic mean.”


So what does all this mean? The first rule, “figures are not drawn to scale” means you can’t solve problems just by looking at the picture and estimating. Many pictures are actually deliberately not drawn to scale to prevent you from taking a shortcut. Remember: you can’t solve any problems by using your fingers to estimate length or an angle. You have to do the math to solve the problems!

"Geometric figures lie in a plane" means you can assume that geometric figures are on a flat surface. “The word line indicates a straight line” is straightforward, and basically allows the test makers to save space when writing directions.

“Arithmetic mean” is the more precise word for average. It just means the sum of all numbers in a set divided by how many numbers there are. The ACT probably specifies "average means arithmetic mean" just to save space when writing questions.


ACT Reading Instructions

Check out the complete directions below for ACT Reading:


Notice the directions say, “There are several passages in this test.” Actually, there are exactly four! One each of Literature, Humanities, Social Sciences, and Natural Science. Read more about ACT Reading passage types over here.

Also, while the directions say “Each passage is accompanied by several questions,” there are precisely 10 per passage. In other words, every passage is exactly one-fourth of the Reading test. You can use this info to help budget your 35 minutes!

ACT says to approach the reading section like this: “After reading a passage, choose the best answer to each question and fill in the corresponding oval on the answer document. You may refer to the passages as often as necessary.”

Our advice: You can actually decide if you want to read the questions or the passage first. For some people questions first is easier, others prefer to read the passage first. The best way to tell is to do a few practice sections, trying each method. Stick with the one that feels best to you. Also check out our article about different ways to read the passage for more advice on this.


ACT Science Instructions

The Science section’s directions are quite similar to reading. Check them out and read our advice below.

Again, while the directions vaguely note that “There are several passages in this test,” actually there are seven! Again, use this to budget your time – you have approximately five minutes for each passage.

Just like on the Reading section, the ACT advises you to read the passage first: “After reading a passage, choose the best answer to each question and fill in the corresponding oval on your answer document. You may refer to the passages as often as necessary.”

Again, you don’t have to read the passage first, you can jump straight to the questions – try it both ways and stick with the strategy that works best for you. (When I took the ACT last June, I found it was much more effective for me to read the questions first on Science and then turn to the section, even though my strategy on Reading was the opposite. Practice, practice, practice so you can develop the best possible strategies for you!)

Finally, remember that “You are NOT permitted to use a calculator on this test.” As we covered above, keep your calculator put away for every section except math!


ACT Writing Instructions

If you sign up for the ACT Plus Writing, after you complete all of the multiple choice sections you have to write an essay – in just 40 minutes. While you should prepare for the ACT by taking full practice tests so you can build up the stamina you need, you should also familiarize yourself with the essay directions so you waste no time on test day and get straight to your essay. That 40 minutes goes by fast.

Check out the complete directions below.

The basics are as follows: “You will have forty (40) minutes to read the prompt, plan your response, and write an essay in English.” Only essays in English will be graded, even if it’s not your first language.

Also make sure you use that time wisely. It goes by fast. Practicing the essay is important so you can get quick at planning, drafting, and editing an essay within such a short period. (Read more about the essay over here.

The directions say that “Before you begin working, read all material in this test booklet carefully to understand exactly what you’re being asked to do.”  This is important! A big part of doing well on the ACT essay is responding specifically to the prompt and not getting off-topic. Taking an extra minute to fully digest the prompt is a better use of your time than an extra minute to scrawl down any idea that pops into your head.

The directions also provide a good summary of how your essay will be graded: "Analyze and evaluate multiple perspectives on a complex issue, state and develop your own perspective on the issue, explain and support your ideas with logical reasoning and detailed examples, clearly and logically organize your ideas in an essay, effectively communicate your ideas in standard written English."

Translation? Take a stance on the position while acknowledging the other side, stay focused throughout your essay on your stance, use logical arguments and good examples to support your stance, use logical organization, and use clear language.

In terms of the logistics, remember this: “You may use the unlined pages in this test booklet to plan your essay. These pages will not be scored.” Be careful not to spend too much time writing your essay outline – you will only be graded based on what makes it to the lined paper.

Also, you might not need all the pages, but don’t skip lines when writing the essay! Even if you think writing every other line makes your essay look neater, this could cause you to run out of room. You can write corrections or additions neatly between the lines of the essay, but do not write in the margins. (These directions actually aren't stated, but they were on the previous year's ACT instructions and we think it makes sense to follow them!)

Finally, keep in mind that illegible essays can’t be scored – remember the essay is graded by actual humans! So slow down if you notice your handwriting getting messy.

That said, if your handwriting is messy but still readable, your score won’t be affected. This isn’t a penmanship test. So write as fast as you can while keeping your writing decently legible. Longer essays tend to be scored higher than short ones, so don’t sacrifice length for neat handwriting.

If you finish early, you can review your essay. Put your pencil down as soon as time is called!


Bottom Line

The ACT reveals some test-taking strategy in the instructions – some helpful, some not so much. But remember the best way to develop a smart ACT strategy is to take complete practice tests. The more you practice before test day, the better prepared you'll be!

Also, make sure you know these rules by heart on test day. You’ll save time if you don’t have to worry about the rules and can just dive into the questions.


What’s Next?

Looking for ACT practice tests? We’ve got ‘em!

What else should you know about the ACT? Get a guide to ACT timing and ACT scoring.

How can you prepare for the ACT? Start with our guide to ACT Science, a complete guide to grammar rules for English, and learn how to stop running out of time on Reading and Math.

What’s a good ACT score? An amazing one? Find out here.


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.

Raise Your ACT Score by 4 Points (Free Download)

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Halle Edwards
About the Author

Halle Edwards graduated from Stanford University with honors. In high school, she earned 99th percentile ACT scores as well as 99th percentile scores on SAT subject tests. She also took nine AP classes, earning a perfect score of 5 on seven AP tests. As a graduate of a large public high school who tackled the college admission process largely on her own, she is passionate about helping high school students from different backgrounds get the knowledge they need to be successful in the college admissions process.

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