The ACT Format: Everything You Need to Know

All four-year U.S. colleges and universities accept either SAT scores or ACT scores from applicants.

Choosing whether to commit to the SAT or the ACT can be a tough decision. We walk you through how to figure out which test is right for you in another post.

If you’ve decided that the ACT is your test of choice, congrats! The next step is to learn more about what’s actually on the ACT.

Contrary to popular belief, the SAT and the ACT are very different exams. They’re both scored differently, for example, and although they test similar content, they do so in fundamentally distinct ways.

Understanding the ACT format is central to developing foundational strategies for your ACT test prep journey. In this post, we’ll walk you through the test’s format, scoring, and more.

Here’s what we cover:


What is the ACT?

In the world of college entrance exams, the SAT has been around longer than the ACT (by twenty years, actually).

However, as we just mentioned in our introduction to this post, colleges accept either test equally! For this reason, we encourage all of our students to ensure that they are signing themselves up for the right test.

What does the “right test” mean?

The “right test” is the one that is more likely to cater to your strengths and, ultimately, generate a high score. You can ask yourself these five questions to see whether the ACT or the SAT will do just that.

In the meantime, here’s what you need to know about the ACT in general:

  • It is a standardized test, just like the SAT!
  • The ACT is a “national college admissions” test produced by ACT, Inc.
  • The test consists entirely of multiple-choice questions (excluding the Essay)
  • It contains four required sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science
  • Every U.S. college accepts ACT scores from applicants

According to ACT, Inc., the ACT is a “curriculum-based achievement test.” This means that it is designed to test content and skills that students are directly learning in their high school classrooms.

Two of the ACT’s required sections, Math and English, do indeed focus nearly entirely on content most students will have encountered in high school. These content areas include basic English grammar, Algebra 1 and 2, geometry, trigonometry, and others.

The other two required sections, Reading and Science, are more skills-based, assessing a student’s ability to read texts and data critically.

We’ll take a deeper dive into ACT format, timing, and scores now.


The ACT Format

The ACT consists of five timed sections, in this order:

  • English
  • Math
  • Reading
  • Science
  • Essay (optional)

Here’s a breakdown of the ACT format, including the number of questions and timing per section:  

ACT Section # of Questions Duration
English 75 45 minutes
Math 60 60 minutes
Break   10 minutes
Reading 40 35 minutes
Science 40 35 minutes
Break   5 minutes
Essay (optional) 40 minutes
Total 216  3 hours, 50 minutes (with breaks)

One of the biggest challenges students face on the ACT is timing. Completing 75 English questions in 45 minutes, for example, is no easy feat. The same goes for answering 40 questions on ACT Reading on top of reading passages in just 35 minutes.

Additionally, it’s important to note from a general strategy perspective that the two very content-heavy sections, English and Math, come first, while the two skills-based sections, Reading and Science, are at the end.

English

The ACT English section contains 5 passages, with 15 questions per passage. Questions do not appear at the end of each passage, as they do on the Reading section, but rather throughout each text, as in this example:

ACT English_Sample questions
Source: ACT Official Practice Test 1

On ACT English, students will encounter questions about basic English conventions and writing strategy.

Here are the general areas tested:

  • Punctuation
  • Verbs
  • Idioms
  • Transition words
  • Concise and clear writing
  • Pronouns
  • Conjunctions, prepositions, and modifiers
  • Vocabulary in context
  • Author’s purpose
  • Expression and organization of ideas

Math

The questions on the ACT Math section are arranged in order of increasing difficulty. This means that, in general, the first third of ACT Math questions are low-difficulty, the middle third are medium-difficulty, and the final third are high-difficulty.

Students who have completed Algebra 2 are likely to be familiar with all content on the ACT Math section. Here are the general principles and content areas tested:

Triangles, circles, rectangles, polygons

Perimeter, area, and volume

Ratios and proportions

Slope

Combinations and permutations

Fractions

Mean, median, mode, range

Charts and two-way tables

Solving expressions and variables

Word problems

Probability

Cartesian graphs

Functions

Math vocabulary

Matrices

Percentages

Trigonometry

Linear equations

Exponents

Number properties

However, the ACT may not test this content in a straightforward way! Here’s an example of an ACT math question that tests familiar math content in an unfamiliar fashion:

ACT Math_SampleQuestion
Source: ACT Official Practice Test 1

This ACT Math question is basically testing your knowledge of exponent rules. But is this immediately clear? Nope! 

Reading

The ACT Reading section consists of 4 passages of the following genres:

  • Literary narrative
  • Humanities
  • Social science
  • Natural science

One of these passages will be a dual passage, which will require students to compare 2 smaller passages (Passage A and Passage B).

ACT Reading_Dual Passage
Source: ACT Official Practice Test 1

Every ACT Reading passage has 10 questions

Guess what? This is the only section of the ACT that does not require any outside content knowledge! For this reason, students should anticipate approaching ACT Reading from a purely strategic perspective.

What kinds of questions can you expect to see on this section? Here’s a list:

  • Detail
  • Author’s purpose
  • Inference
  • Character analysis
  • Words in context
  • Literary devices

Science

The ACT Science section may sound daunting, but it basically tests the following skills:

  • Data analysis
  • Figure and graph interpretation
  • Analysis of experiments
  • Scientific knowledge*

*There are about 2-3 questions per ACT Science section that require outside knowledge. However, this knowledge is most likely foundational knowledge students will have learned in high school science classes.

This section consists of 6 “passages.” Each “passage” will contain some text and/or graphics in the form of charts, figures, tables, and/or graphs.

There are three passage types:

  • Experiments (3)
  • Charts and graphs (2)
  • Two scientists/theorists (1)

Experiments passages require students to analyze and/or compare scientific experiments or studies, while Charts and Graphs passages typically involve one scientific concept and a few figures. Lastly, students will have to compare and analyze the perspectives or theories of two scientists or theorists.

With ACT Science, it’s very easy to get lost in the technical, scientific jargon of each passage. That’s why it’s so important to zero in on what each question is really asking and to analyze the figures prior to answering each question.

Here’s what an Experiments passage question looks like on the ACT:

Sample Question_ACT Science
Source: ACT Official Practice Test 1

Essay

For the ACT essay task, students must analyze an issue and three different perspectives on this issue. They will then have to craft an essay response that discusses their perspective of the issue, including specific evidence and examples.

Here is a sample essay issue:

ACT Essay Issue
Source: ACT Official Practice Test 1

The ACT essay is optional. We give our input on whether or not students should sign up for the optional ACT essay in this post here.


How is the ACT Scored?

ACT scoring is relatively simple. Each individual ACT section (English, Math, Reading, and Science) is scored between 1 and 36. 1 is the lowest score you can achieve on an individual section, while 36 is the highest score you can achieve on each section.

Here’s what that looks like:

ACT Section Score Range
English 1-36
Math 1-36
Reading 1-36
Science 1-36

Your total ACT score, what’s called your composite score, is the average of your scores on these individual sections. Just like individual section scores, composite scores range from 1 to 36.

ACT essay responses are scored separately, and essay scores do not influence your section or composite scores! You will essentially receive five ACT essay scores: one “composite” essay score on a scale of 2-12, and four “domain” essay scores on a scale of 2-12. These “domain” scores refer to specific categories in the ACT essay scoring rubric.

Here is a sample ACT student score report from ACT.org. You can see that the student’s composite score, 21, is the average of her section scores, and that her Essay score is separate from these:

Sample ACT Score Report
Source: ACT.org

Notice how this score report also includes ELA and STEM scores, U.S. and State Ranks, information on “college readiness benchmarks,” and “Detailed Results.”

You don’t need to worry too much about this added info, but, just in case, we discuss rankings and college readiness benchmarks in our What’s a Good ACT Score? post.


ACT Test Dates 2020

Just like the SAT, the ACT is officially administered seven times each year. Here are the national ACT test dates for 2020:

ACT Test Date (National) Registration Deadline
April 4, 2020 February 28, 2020
June 13, 2020 May 8, 2020
July 18, 2020 June 19, 2020
September 12, 2020 TBD
October 24, 2020 TBD
December 12, 2020 TBD

If you receive testing accommodations, you will test anytime within a “Special Testing Window.” We discuss this further in our post on ACT testing accommodations.

Missed a registration deadline? Don’t worry! You can likely still sign up for a test if spots are still available at your testing location; you will have to pay an additional fee, however.


Next Steps

As you can see, the ACT is structured very differently than the SAT!

This curriculum-based college admissions test includes four multiple-choice sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science. The entire test with the optional Essay takes just under four hours.

Timing can be challenging on the ACT, especially for students who feel more comfortable reading difficult texts and analyzing data at a slower pace. However, one of the best ways to address timing issues is to practice, practice, practice.

You can do this on your own or with an expert. Either way, we’re here to help guide your ACT test prep journey in the right direction.

Contact us for a free consultation today!


Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate M.

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University (B.A. in English Literature and Interdisciplinary Humanities) and Boston University (M.F.A in Creative Writing). Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.