What is on the ACT?

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

a large group of students taking an exam

What is on the ACT?

You’ve probably heard about this standardized test more times than you can count. But what exactly is on the ACT? The ACT structure consists of four core sections—English, Math, Reading, and Science—with an optional fifth section for Writing.

Understanding the ACT’s structure is not just about knowing what subjects you’ll be tested on; it’s about grasping the intricacies of each section to maximize your score.

This article aims to provide a clear and straightforward explanation of the ACT. We will break down its components and explain why you should care about this test in the first place. So, buckle up, future college student; you’re in for an enlightening ride.

Why Should You Care About the ACT?

You might wonder, “Why should I even care about the ACT?” Well, let’s get one thing straight: the ACT is not just another test. It’s a gateway to higher education, better career opportunities, and, yes, even financial aid.

Understanding the ACT structure can be your secret weapon in navigating this gateway successfully. Colleges and universities across the U.S. use your ACT scores as a significant factor in admissions decisions.

But that’s not all; your ACT score can also open doors to scholarships, academic placements, and more. So, if you’re serious about your future, you should be equally serious about the ACT.

The Role of the ACT in College Admissions

Regarding college admissions, the ACT is as pivotal as your high school GPA, extracurricular activities, and letters of recommendation. You see, admissions officers are swamped with thousands of applications every year.

Close up of students smiling at the camera.

They need a way to compare students from different educational backgrounds, and that’s where the ACT comes in. The ACT structure is designed to assess your readiness for college-level work.

A high score can make you stand out in the admissions process, acting as a strong indicator of your academic capabilities. A low score can be a red flag, potentially overshadowing other impressive aspects of your application.

How ACT Scores Can Influence Scholarship Opportunities

Your ACT score isn’t just a ticket to college; it can also be a ticket to financial freedom—or at least, less financial burden. Many merit-based and need-based scholarships consider your ACT scores part of their eligibility criteria.

The ACT structure, focusing on academic readiness, is a reliable metric for scholarship organizations to gauge your potential for success in higher education. A stellar ACT score can make you eligible for scholarships that cover everything from books and supplies to full tuition.

So, investing time in understanding the ACT structure and preparing for the test can pay off.

The ACT’s Impact on Academic Placement in College

Once you’ve made it into college, you might think you’re done with the ACT. Think again. Your ACT scores can continue to influence your academic journey, specifically regarding course placement.

Many colleges use ACT scores to place students in appropriate-level courses in subjects like Math and English. Understanding the ACT structure can give you a leg up, ensuring that you’re placed in courses that match your skill level rather than spending a semester in a remedial class or, conversely, feeling overwhelmed in an advanced course.

A high ACT score can even earn you college credits, allowing you to graduate earlier and save money on tuition.

What Are the Core Components of the ACT?

When you sit down to take the ACT, you’re not just facing a series of random questions. The ACT is meticulously designed to evaluate various skills and knowledge essential for college success.

Close up of a hand using a pencil.

The ACT structure is divided into four core components: English, Math, Reading, and Science. Additionally, there’s an optional Writing section, commonly known as the Essay.

Each section has its own set of rules, types of questions, and scoring system. Understanding the ACT structure can give you a significant advantage, allowing you to tailor your study plan to the specific demands of each section.

Overview of the Four Main Sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science

Let’s break down these core components further. The English section tests your understanding of grammar, sentence structure, and rhetorical skills. It’s not just about knowing the rules of the English language; it’s about applying them in a practical context.

Next is the Math section, which covers arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and even a dash of trigonometry.

The Reading section is designed to assess your comprehension skills, requiring you to analyze various types of texts within a limited time.

Finally, the Science section is not merely a test of your scientific knowledge but also your ability to interpret data and draw logical conclusions.

Each section contributes to your composite score, an average of your scores in the four main sections. The ACT structure is crafted to evaluate your academic capabilities holistically.

The Optional Writing (Essay) Section

Now, what about the optional Writing section? Should you take it or skip it? This section provides a prompt to which you must respond in essay form. The essay is scored separately and does not affect your composite score.

However, some colleges require or recommend the Writing section for admission. Understanding the ACT structure, including this optional component, can help you make an informed decision.

If you choose to take it, you’ll need to showcase your ability to construct a coherent argument, use evidence effectively, and demonstrate a command of written English.

Time Allocation for Each Section

Time management is a crucial aspect of conquering the ACT. The ACT structure allocates specific time limits for each section: 45 minutes for English, 60 minutes for Math, 35 minutes for Reading, and 35 minutes for Science.

Group of students taking an exam in a room.

If you opt for the Writing section, you’ll get 40 minutes. These time limits are non-negotiable, making it essential to practice under timed conditions.

Knowing how much time you have for each section allows you to strategize, whether deciding how long to spend on each question or when to move on to ensure you complete the section.

What Skills Does the English Section Assess?

The English section of the ACT is more than just a test of your vocabulary or ability to spot sentence errors. It’s a comprehensive evaluation of your understanding of the English language, encompassing grammar, sentence structure, and rhetorical skills.

The ACT structure is designed to assess these skills through a series of passages accompanied by multiple-choice questions. You’ll be asked to identify and correct errors, reorganize sentences, and evaluate the effectiveness of various rhetorical elements.

In essence, this section tests your technical knowledge of English and your ability to apply this knowledge in a practical, real-world context.

Grammar and Usage

Regarding grammar and usage, the ACT English section is unforgiving. It expects you to have a firm grasp of the rules that govern the English language. This includes everything from subject-verb agreement and verb tense to punctuation and parallelism.

But it’s not just about knowing the rules; it’s about applying them correctly within the context of a passage. Understanding the ACT structure means recognizing that these grammar questions are integrated into broader passages, requiring you to consider individual sentences and the text as a whole.

Sentence Structure

Sentence structure is another critical area assessed in the ACT English section. You’ll encounter questions that ask you to rearrange sentence elements, combine sentences, or even reorganize entire paragraphs.

These questions test your ability to create clear, concise, and logically organized sentences. The ACT structure incorporates these questions to evaluate your understanding of syntax and ability to convey complex ideas effectively.

It’s not just about making sentences grammatically correct; it’s about making them clear and impactful.

Rhetorical Skills

Last but certainly not least are rhetorical skills. This part of the English section assesses your ability to craft compelling arguments and convey information. You’ll be asked to evaluate the relevance of sentences or paragraphs, identify the most effective introductions or conclusions, and choose words or phrases that best fit the tone and style of a passage.

Understanding the ACT structure in this context means recognizing that rhetorical skills are more than just writing; they’re about effective communication.

You’ll need to consider the author’s purpose, the needs of the audience, and the most effective way to convey a message.

What’s the Inside Scoop on the Math Section?

The Math section of the ACT is a 60-minute, 60-question test that covers a wide range of mathematical topics. It’s designed to assess your mathematical skills developed over your years in school.

man is studying for his exam, solving math problems to practice.

The ACT structure for the Math section is unique because it progressively gets more difficult as you move through the questions. This means the first questions you encounter will generally be easier than the last ones.

The section evaluates your ability to solve problems in various mathematical domains, from basic arithmetic to more advanced topics like trigonometry.

Arithmetic, Algebra, Geometry, and Trigonometry

The ACT Math section is a melting pot of mathematical disciplines. You’ll start with basic arithmetic questions that test your understanding of numbers and operations.

Then, you’ll move on to algebraic problems that require you to solve equations and inequalities. Geometry questions will ask you to apply your knowledge of shapes, lines, and angles.

Finally, you’ll encounter trigonometry questions that delve into the relationships between the angles and sides of triangles. Understanding the ACT structure means recognizing that this section is designed to test a broad range of mathematical skills, making comprehensive preparation crucial.

Types of Questions You’ll Encounter

The questions in the ACT Math section come in various formats but are all multiple-choice. You’ll find straightforward questions that test a single mathematical concept and more complex problems requiring multiple steps.

Some questions present real-world scenarios you’ll need to model mathematically, while others could be theoretical. The ACT structure incorporates these different question types to assess your computational skills and ability to apply mathematical reasoning to solve problems.

The Use of Calculators: What’s Allowed and What’s Not

When it comes to calculators, the ACT has specific guidelines that you must follow. While you are allowed to use a calculator in the Math section, not all calculators are permitted. Scientific calculators and most graphing calculators are generally acceptable, but devices with built-in computer algebra systems are not.

Understanding the ACT structure includes knowing these calculator policies, as using an unauthorized device can lead to your scores being canceled.

Check the ACT’s official guidelines for a list of approved calculators and familiarize yourself with the one you plan to use before test day.

How Does the Reading Section Work?

The Reading section of the ACT is a 35-minute test that consists of 40 questions spread across four passages. Each passage is followed by ten multiple-choice questions that assess your comprehension and interpretation skills.

The ACT structure for the Reading section evaluates your ability to read closely, draw logical inferences, and think critically about your reading. Unlike the other sections, the Reading section doesn’t progressively get harder; the difficulty can vary from one passage to another.

This makes it essential to have a solid strategy for tackling this section to ensure you answer every question in the allotted time.

Types of Passages Included

The ACT Reading section features various passages to test your reading skills across different subjects and styles. You’ll encounter literary narratives, social science articles, humanities essays, and natural science reports.

Understanding the ACT structure means recognizing that each passage type requires a slightly different approach. Literary narratives may need you to understand elements like character and plot, while scientific reports focus more on data interpretation and logical reasoning.

Strategies for Quick and Effective Reading

Time is of the essence in the ACT Reading section. With only 35 minutes to read four passages and answer 40 questions, you can’t afford to dawdle. One effective strategy is to skim the passage first, focusing on the main ideas, before diving into the questions.

This gives you a general sense of the passage’s content and structure, making it easier to locate specific details when answering questions. Another strategy is to tackle the most straightforward questions, marking the more challenging ones to return to later if time permits.

Understanding the ACT structure can help you develop a time-management strategy tailored to the Reading section’s unique demands.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

One common pitfall in the Reading section is spending too much time on a single question or passage, which can throw off your timing for the entire section. To avoid this, set a time limit for each passage and stick to it.

Another pitfall is overthinking questions. The ACT structure is designed to assess your reading comprehension, not trick you. If you are stuck between two answer choices, go with the one directly supported by the passage.

Avoid answers that require assumptions or inferences that the text can’t substantiate.

What About the Science Section?

The Science section of the ACT is a 35-minute test consisting of 40 questions that span across seven passages. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to be a science whiz to excel in this section.

The ACT structure for the Science section is designed to assess your skills in interpreting, analyzing, evaluating, reasoning, and problem-solving. You’ll encounter three types of scientific passages: Data Representation, Research Summaries, and Conflicting Viewpoints.

Each type tests different aspects of scientific reasoning, and you’ll need to apply various skills to answer the questions accurately.

Interpretation of Data

One of the core skills assessed in the Science section is your ability to interpret data. You’ll encounter tables, graphs, and charts that present scientific information, and you’ll need to draw accurate conclusions based on this data.

Understanding the ACT structure means recognizing that these questions are designed to test your ability to read and interpret visual and tabular information, not your knowledge of specific scientific facts.

You might be asked to identify trends and compare or extrapolate information to new situations. The key is to read the data carefully and apply logical reasoning to arrive at the correct answer.

Scientific Investigation

Another aspect of the Science section is your ability to understand scientific investigations. You’ll read descriptions of experiments and studies and be asked questions that assess your understanding of the scientific method.

This includes identifying variables, understanding control groups, and recognizing the implications of the results. The ACT structure incorporates these elements to evaluate your ability to think like a scientist, which means being systematic in your approach and critical in your interpretation of the results.

Evaluation of Models, Inferences, and Experimental Results

The final skill set assessed in the Science section involves the evaluation of models, inferences, and experimental results. You’ll be presented with scientific theories or models and asked to evaluate their validity based on the data provided.

You might also need to make or assess inferences beyond the immediate data. Understanding the ACT structure in this context means recognizing that you must apply higher-order thinking skills.

You’ll have to weigh evidence, consider alternative explanations, and judge the validity of conclusions.

Should You Opt for the Writing Section?

The Writing section, commonly known as the Essay, is optional in the ACT. Unlike the other sections, the Writing section does not contribute to your composite score. So, should you opt for it?

A female student thinking while holding her pen and notebook.

The answer largely depends on the requirements of the colleges you’re interested in. Some colleges require the Writing section, while others merely recommend it. Understanding the ACT structure can help you make an informed decision. If you’re applying to colleges that value holistic admissions or are particularly competitive, having a strong essay score can bolster your application.

The Format of the Essay

If you decide to take the Writing section, it’s crucial to understand its format. You’ll be given a prompt presenting an issue and three perspectives. Your task is to write an essay that evaluates the perspectives and offers your point of view.

The ACT structure for the essay is designed to assess your ability to analyze complex issues and articulate your thoughts in writing.

You’ll have 40 minutes to plan and write your essay, so time management is critical.

Scoring Criteria

Two independent graders score The Writing section on a scale of 2 to 12. They evaluate your essay based on four domains: Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions.

Understanding the ACT structure in this context means recognizing that each domain is equally important. You’ll need to present a clear argument, support it with logical reasoning and specific examples, organize your ideas effectively, and use standard written English.

Pros and Cons of Taking This Optional Section

So, what are the pros and cons of taking the Writing section? Conversely, an essay score can enhance your college application, especially if you’re applying to competitive schools or programs that value strong writing skills.

It can also be a requirement for some scholarships. On the downside, it extends the length of the test, adding to fatigue and stress. Not all colleges consider the Writing score, so you might be spending time and effort on a section that won’t significantly impact your college admissions chances.


The ACT is more than just a test; it’s a comprehensive assessment designed to evaluate your readiness for college-level work. Understanding the ACT structure is crucial for adequate preparation and a high score.

From the English section’s focus on grammar, sentence structure, and rhetorical skills to the Math section’s coverage of arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry, each part of the ACT serves a specific purpose.

The Reading and Science sections test your ability to interpret data, analyze texts, and think critically, while the optional Writing section offers a platform to showcase your argumentative writing skills.

Each section is a puzzle piece, contributing to colleges’ composite scores to evaluate your academic potential.

Final Thoughts on Preparing for the ACT

Preparing for the ACT is not just about cramming facts or mastering test-taking tricks. It’s about developing a set of skills that you’ll use in college and beyond. Understanding the ACT structure allows you to tailor your preparation to the specific demands of each section, maximizing your study time and boosting your confidence.

Practice tests are invaluable for familiarizing yourself with the types of questions you’ll encounter and the time constraints you’ll face. But beyond that, consider the ACT a stepping stone in your academic journey.

A high score can open doors to prestigious colleges, scholarships, and advanced courses, but your skills and how you apply them will ultimately determine your success.

Ready to Ace the ACT and Unlock Your Dream College?

Understanding the ACT structure and preparing for each section is a monumental task, but you don’t have to go it alone. At AdmissionSight, we specialize in turning college dreams into reality. Our expert consultants provide personalized ACT prep, college admissions guidance, and scholarship strategies tailored to your unique needs and aspirations.

Why Choose AdmissionSight?

  • Comprehensive ACT Prep: We’ve got you covered from English to Science.
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  • Proven Success: Our students have gained admission to Ivy League schools and secured prestigious scholarships.
  • Personalized Support: Get one-on-one guidance from experts who know the ins and outs of college admissions.

Don’t leave your college future to chance. Take the first step toward academic excellence today with AdmissionSight.



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