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10 min read

The Ins and Outs of the ACT

The Ins and Outs of the ACT
FAQS: The Ins and Outs of the ACT

This blog post was provided by Test Innovators, our test prep partner. You can learn more about Test Innovators on our partners page.

The ACT is a “readiness test,” primarily used by colleges for admissions. But, ACT test scores can serve multiple purposes aside from college entry. Some colleges may also use ACT scores for course placement and scholarships may use test scores to evaluate candidates. Many high schools, districts, and states use the test to assess and monitor performance. Several states even require the ACT for high school graduation!

Let’s dive into the details of the ACT:


What’s on the ACT and what’s the structure of the test?

The ACT has 4 sections—English, Math, Reading, and Science—plus an optional Writing Test. 

The structure of the test is as follows:

    • English Test: 45 minutes | 75 questions
    • Math Test: 60 minutes | 60 questions
  • Break: 15 minutes
    • Reading Test: 35 minutes | 40 questions
    • Science Test: 35 minutes | 40 questions
  • Break (for students taking the optional Writing Test): 5 minutes
  • Writing Test (optional): 40 minutes | 1 prompt

Without the breaks, the entire test is 2 hours and 55 minutes long (or 3 hours and 35 minutes with the optional Writing Test).

The ACT is offered on paper and online. The online ACT is the same test as the paper ACT—it’s just taken on a computer. The online ACT is currently available for international testing, in-school testing, and at select testing centers in the United States for standard Saturday test dates.

Test Innovators ACT Infographic (6.21.24)


How is the ACT scored?

The ACT is scored on a scale of 1–36. For each section, ACT will first determine your raw score by adding up the number of questions you answered correctly. There is no penalty for incorrect answers. Your raw score for each section will then be converted to a scaled score from 1–36 (to ensure consistency from one test to the next). 

ACT then calculates the average of your four section scores rounded to the nearest whole number to give you your Composite score.

If you take the optional Writing Test, your essay will be evaluated by two trained readers. Each reader will give your essay score from 1–6 based on a standard rubric. The two readers’ scores will be added together to give you a score between 2 and 12. Visit ACT’s website to learn more about how the ACT Writing Test is scored.


What’s a good ACT score?

It depends! A “good score” is one that helps support your application to the schools and programs that interest you. Many colleges publish test score data for their admitted students, and Scoir’s Scattergrams show you past test score and GPA data from applicants from your high school.

Look at the data from the schools you want to apply to and set a target score range for yourself. As you look at this data and set your goal, remember that a perfect score does not guarantee acceptance, nor does a below-average score guarantee rejection. Schools use your scores in the context of the rest of your application. Just like your transcript, letters of recommendation, and personal statement, your ACT scores are a way to learn more about you.

Once you set your target score, it’s time to get to work! Learn how to prepare for the ACT. 


What’s on the ACT English Test?

The ACT English Test is the first section you’ll see on the ACT. You’ll find long passages with underlined (or highlighted) portions and corresponding multiple-choice questions. Some questions will refer to these underlined portions, while others will refer to a section of the passage or the passage as a whole. 

The questions will test you on the following writing and composition skills:

  • Production of Writing | 29–32%
    • Topic development
    • Organization, unity, and cohesion 
  • Knowledge of Language | 15–17%
    • Effective, precise, and concise language
    • Consistency in style and tone
  • Conventions of Standard English | 52–55%
    • Sentence structure
    • punctuation
    • usage

You’ll play the role of editor and determine the choice that best improves the passage, or in some cases, decide when no change is needed at all. 

You’ll have 45 minutes to answer 75 questions, which is just 36 seconds per question! So you’ll want to practice moving through this section at a quick pace.

Visit ACT’s website for more details on the English Test.


What’s on the ACT Math Test?

The ACT Mathematics Test follows the English Test. You’ll have 60 minutes to answer 60 multiple-choice questions. The Math Test is the only section with 5 answer choices per question; the other sections have 4 answer choices per question.

You are permitted to use a calculator for the entire section. Please refer to ACT’s website for more details on the calculator policy.

The ACT Math Test is designed to evaluate your knowledge of the math typically covered by the beginning of senior year. The content breakdown of the ACT Math Test is as follows:

  • Preparing for Higher Math | 57–60%
    • Number & Quantity | 7–10% 
    • Algebra | 12–15%
    • Functions | 12–15%
    • Geometry | 12–15%
    • Statistics & Probability | 8–12%
  • Integrating Essential Skills | 40–43%

While you should know basic formulas (such as the area of a circle and the Pythagorean theorem), the ACT does not require you to memorize complex formulas. 

Visit ACT’s website for more details about the Math Test.


What’s on the ACT Reading Test?

After a 15-minute break, you’ll move on to the Reading Test, which consists of prose passages with corresponding multiple-choice questions. You’ll have 35 minutes to read the passages and answer 40 questions. 

Here is the content breakdown for the ACT Reading Test:

  • Key Ideas and Details | 52–60%
    • Determine central ideas and themes
    • Summarize information and ideas
    • Draw logical inferences and conclusions
  • Craft and Structure | 25–30%
    • Determine word and phrase meanings
    • Analyze word choice
    • Analyze text structure
    • Understand the author’s purpose and perspective
    • Analyze characters’ points of view
    • Interpret authorial decisions rhetorically
    • Differentiate between various perspectives and sources of information 
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas |13–23%
    • Understand authors’ claims
    • Differentiate between facts and opinions
    • Analyze how arguments are constructed
    • Make connections between different texts
    • Evaluate reasoning and evidence from various sources

The passages on the Reading Test cover a wide range of topics and reflect the difficulty level of the texts you’ll encounter in your first year of college. Note that some passages may be accompanied by informational tables and graphs.  Other passages feature 2 texts that you’ll be asked to compare.

Visit ACT’s website for more details about the Reading Test.


What’s on the ACT Science Test?

The Science Test is the final multiple-choice section of the ACT. If you haven’t signed up for the Writing Test, this will be your last section.  

You’ll see passages about topics in biology, chemistry, Earth/space sciences, and physics with corresponding multiple-choice questions. Some of the passages will include tables and graphs.

There are three types of passages:

  • Data Representation passages include data tables and graphs alongside text
  • Research Summaries provide descriptions and results of one or more experiments or studies
  • Conflicting Viewpoints passages present two or more explanations or hypotheses for the same scientific phenomenon

You’ll see questions relating to the following:

  • Interpretation of Data | 40–50%
    • Analyze scientific data presented in tables, graphs, and figures
  • Scientific Investigation | 20–30%
    • Understand experimental design, procedures, and tools
  • Evaluation of Models, Inferences, and Experimental Results | 25–35%
    • Evaluate scientific information and form conclusions

The ACT Science Test is in many ways a reading comprehension test with a data literacy component. You don’t need to study a particular science curriculum to be successful. The passages and accompanying tables and graphs will give you all the information needed to answer the questions, so advanced knowledge of physics or biology is not required. That said, a basic understanding of science and the scientific method will still be helpful when tackling this section. 

Visit ACT’s website for more details about the Science Test.


What’s on the ACT Writing Test?

The ACT Writing Test is optional for students who are taking the ACT on a standard Saturday date. If you’d like to take the Writing Test, be sure to register for the ACT With Writing.

If you are taking the ACT on a school day, please check with your counselor to see if it includes the Writing Test.

The Writing Test is 40 minutes and will be the final section of the test. You’ll see a prompt presenting a complex issue with three different perspectives on that issue. You’ll be asked to present your own stance and analyze the relationship between your own perspective and at least one of the three stances provided in the prompt. 

If you are taking the test on paper, you’ll need to handwrite your response in pencil (unless you have an accommodation).  

Most colleges do not require the ACT Writing Test. However, there are a small number that do.  Be sure to check the requirements of your application schools when registering for the ACT.

Visit ACT’s website for more information about taking the ACT Writing Test.


What’s the difference between the ACT and the SAT?

For all intents and purposes, the ACT and SAT are equivalent tests. For the most part, they evaluate the same knowledge and skills, and colleges accept both. However, there are significant differences in the format and the overall testing experience, so you’ll probably prefer one over the other. 

The best way to figure out which test is right for you is to take a practice test for each. See which test goes better. Did you prefer the experience of one over the other? Here are some factors to consider:

  1. Test modality. The ACT is offered on paper as well as on the computer. The SAT is now only offered on the computer. If you prefer a paper test, the ACT might be the right choice for you
  2. Timing. The digital SAT is shorter overall and allows more time per question. If time is a concern, you might find you prefer the SAT
  3. Passage length. The ACT has long passages on the English, Reading, and Science Tests with multiple questions per passage. The passages on the digital SAT Reading and Writing section are short with one question per passage. You might find you prefer the shorter passages, or you might find you prefer the longer passages with multiple questions. If you are an especially strong reader, the ACT might play to your strengths
  4. Math question format. All of the questions on the ACT Math Test are multiple-choice. 75% of the questions on the SAT Math section are multiple-choice and 25% are student-produced response questions

When it comes time to decide which test you’d like to take, there’s no right or wrong answer. They’re both great tests, so figure out which you prefer and focus on that one.

Test Innovators Digital SAT vs ACT (04.11.24)


Should I take both the ACT and the SAT?

Some students take both the ACT and the SAT. Taking both isn’t necessary. You're usually better off focusing on maximizing your score on one of the tests. However, there are a few circumstances where it might make sense to take both:

  1. If it will reduce test anxiety.  Many students find the prospect of taking an additional test anxiety-provoking. However, you might find that having a second option reduces testing anxiety for you. We’d only recommend this approach if you’re starting early. If you’re testing in the fall of your senior year, you’re better off focusing on one test
  2. If you prefer one test, but your school or state requires the other to graduate. In this case, you’ll have to take the required test for graduation, but you can still elect to take your preferred test for college applications
  3. If you’ve taken one test already, but you find a specific program or scholarship that requires the other. Don’t let that requirement hold you back! If you’ve already taken one of the tests, you’ve already done a lot of work that will prepare you for the other

If you do decide to take both tests, preparing for one will likely help the other. However, as the tests ultimately have distinct formats and some differences in content, it’s best to focus on one test at a time. 

If you’re curious which test may be best for you, check out: ACT or SAT? Everything You Need to Know to Choose the Best Test for You.


When can I take the ACT?

The ACT is administered on seven Saturdays every year. These standard test dates occur during the following months:

  • February
  • April
  • June
  • July
  • September
  • October
  • December

You can view and register for upcoming test dates on ACT’s website.

Some schools and districts also offer the test during the school day. Please check with your counselor to see if your school offers school-day testing.


How should I prepare for the ACT?

You can set yourself up for success by taking challenging classes in school that require a lot of reading, writing, and critical thinking. The ACT rewards strong readers. After all, 3 of the 4 sections are passaged-based. Being a strong reader is a big advantage, and the best way to become a strong reader is to read a lot. Get in the habit of reading outside of school by committing to finishing a chapter of a novel or a few newspaper articles every day. Pick things that interest and challenge you. 

Additionally, for the Math Test, you’ll want to ensure you’re on track to complete Geometry and Algebra II (or their equivalent) before the start of your senior year. For the Science Test, you’ll want to take at least one science class every year. 

With a solid foundation, test prep will be much easier. However, taking the ACT is a skill in and of itself. Fortunately, it’s something that you can learn and improve with the right kind of practice. So how do you practice? Here’s our tried and true method of ACT prep:

  1. Take a full-length practice test. This is the best way to get to know the ACT and figure out what you need to do to reach your goals
  2. Review your results. Your practice test will show you what you already do well and what you need to work on. Write down the areas that need improvement
  3. Do targeted practice. Focus on the areas you identified in step 2. This may involve reviewing topics like punctuation and geometry, practicing deciphering informational tables and graphs, or drilling through reading passages. Whatever you need to work, spend some time focusing on your weak areas to strengthen your skills
  4. Repeat! Take another practice test, review your results, and do more targeted practice. Keep repeating steps 1–3 until test day!


I heard the ACT is changing. Is that right?

ACT recently announced some exciting changes coming next year! 

The new version of the ACT will:

  • be shorter (in terms of both time and number of questions)
  • allow students more time per question,
  • have shorter passages on the Reading and English Tests. 

Additionally, the Science Test will be optional.

These changes will begin to roll out in the spring of 2025, starting with the online ACT on standard national test dates. Students taking the ACT during school-day testing will see the new version in the spring of 2026.

For more information, you can read ACT’s announcement here


We’ll update this post as new details become available. In the meantime, the rest of this Q&A is still relevant for students taking the test this fall and winter.


For more details on how to prepare for the ACT, please see our post: The Most Effective Way to Prepare for the ACT, SAT, and PSAT 


And for personalized ACT prep, check out ACT practice from Test Innovators. Test Innovators has 4 full-length practice tests, over 600 additional questions for targeted practice, and an online platform that guides you throughout the entire process.


This article was originally published on June 27, 2024. It was updated on July 17, 2024 for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

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