About the ACT
The ACT is a standardized test designed to measure high school students’ general educational development and their ability to complete college-level work. Unlike the SAT, the ACT is curriculum based: it is not an aptitude test. The questions on the ACT test the core subjects that students typically study through their third year of high school (English, reading, mathematics, and science). Although the ACT is taken more frequently in the Midwestern and Rocky Mountain states, the test is accepted by all U.S. colleges and universities. Approximately 1.5 million students take the ACT each year.
The ACT consists of four individual multiple-choice tests:
- English (45 minutes, 75 total questions)
- Mathematics (60 minutes, 60 total questions)
- Reading (35 minutes, 40 total questions)
- Science (35 minutes, 40 total questions)
The ACT Plus Writing also features an optional 30-minute Writing Test.
Actual testing time is 2 hours and 55 minutes (3 hours and 25 minutes with the optional Writing Test) but students should be prepared to spend between 4 and 5 hours in the testing facility, including administration instructions and breaks.
There is no experimental section on the ACT.
The English Test
The English Test consists of five prose passages. Each question corresponds to an underlined portion of a passage or to a box located in the passage. Questions on the English Test are followed by four answer choices.
Test-takers will receive two subscores on the English Test: one for Usage and Mechanics, and another for Rhetorical Skills. Each subscore is determined by questions that measure specific skills, which can be broken down as follows.
- Punctuation (13%). These questions test your understanding of the standard uses of punctuation, with an emphasis on using punctuation to more clearly convey intended meaning.
- Grammar and Usage (16%). These questions test your ability to work with different parts of speech (e.g., verb form, pronoun case) and your understanding of how different parts of speech relate to one another (e.g., subject-verb agreement, modifier agreement). Idiomatic usage is also tested.
- Sentence Structure (24%). These questions test your understanding of how the elements of a sentence (e.g., modifiers, phrases, clauses) relate to one another.
- Strategy (16%). These questions test your ability to develop a given topic. Test-takers must select the words or phrases that match an essay’s audience or purpose; judge the effect of adding, revising, or deleting supporting material, and evaluate statements in context.
- Organization (15%). These questions test your ability to organize ideas and choose effective sentences to begin or end an essay, or to transition between ideas in an essay.
- Style (16%). These questions test your ability to manage the rhetorical elements of a sentence, avoid ambiguity and redundancy, and maintain the level of style and tone in an essay.
Spelling and vocabulary are not tested.
The Mathematics Test
The ACT Mathematics Test requires you to use your reasoning skills to solve mathematical problems. A working knowledge of basic formulas and computational skills is required, but detailed knowledge of complex formulas and the ability to perform lengthy calculations are not. Questions on the Mathematics Test require you to select the correct answer choice from among the five presented.
You may use any four-function, scientific, or graphing calculator on the Mathematics Test as long as it does not have any prohibited features (visit the ACT website for a list of prohibited calculator features). Test-takers who use a prohibited calculator will be dismissed from the ACT and will not have their tests scored. All the problems on the Mathematics Test can be solved without a calculator.
Test-takers receive three subscores for the Mathematics Test based on six content areas:
Pre-Algebra and Elementary Algebra
- Pre-Algebra (23%). These questions test your ability to perform basic mathematical operations, work with one-variable linear equations, interpret statistical data, and perform certain types of arithmetic functions.
- Elementary Algebra (17%). These questions test your ability to work with exponents and square roots, evaluate and solve algebraic expressions, and factor quadratic equations.
Intermediate Algebra and Coordinate Geometry
- Intermediate Algebra (15%). These questions test your understanding of more advanced algebraic operations, including your ability to use the quadratic formula, solve inequalities, and find sequences and patterns.
- Coordinate Geometry (15%). These questions test your ability to work with lines, polygons, and graphs in the coordinate plane.
Plane Geometry and Trigonometry
- Plane Geometry (23%). These questions test your understanding of the properties of plane figures, including lines, angles, polygons, circles, and three-dimensional figures. In addition, these questions may test your understanding of proofs and proof techniques.
- Trigonometry (7%). These questions require the ability to determine trigonometric relations in right triangles, graph trigonometric functions, and solve trigonometric equations.
The Reading Test
The Reading Test requires you to read four prose passages. Each passage is accompanied by a set of multiple-choice test questions that test (1) how well you understand what is directly stated in the passage and (2) your ability to draw reasonable inferences based on this information. Specifically, you may be asked to:
- determine the author’s main point
- find and interpret supporting evidence
- draw conclusions from evidence in the passage
- identify sequences of events
- make comparisons
- identify reasoning structures (e.g., cause-and-effect relationships)
- determine the meanings of words or phrases in context
- analyze the author’s attitude or tone
Test-takers receive two subscores for the Reading Test: a Social Studies and Sciences subscore (based on questions from the social studies and natural sciences passages) and an Arts and Literature subscore (based on the questions from the prose fiction and humanities passages). Together, the four passages are representative of the level and type of reading that first-year college courses require.
- Social Studies (25%). These passages include subject matter from disciplines such as anthropology, archaeology, history, economics, political science and other social sciences.
- Natural Sciences (25%). These passages include subject matter from disciplines such as biology, medicine, astronomy, chemistry, geology, physics, and general technology.
- Prose Fiction (25%). These passages consist of complete short stories or excerpts from short stories or novels.
- Humanities (25%). These passages may be drawn from memoirs or personal essays, or may cover subject matter such as music, film, philosophy, dance, or the visual arts.
The Science Test
The Science Test presents seven sets of scientific information drawn from biology, chemistry, physics, and other scientific disciplines. Each set of information is followed by a number of multiple-choice test questions; students must select the correct answer choice from among the four presented. Question on the Science Test require you to:
- understand the basic features of the information provided (and of related concepts)
- critically examine the relationship conclusions or hypotheses and supporting evidence
- draw conclusions or make predictions based on the information provided
Advanced scientific knowledge is not required to answer these questions, but background knowledge acquired in introductory science courses is needed to answer some of them. The primary focus of the Science Test is on scientific reasoning skills rather than on recalling particular scientific content.
Information on the Science Test is presented in one of three ways
- Data Representation (38%). This information consists of graphic or tabular material (like that found in science journals); questions that pertain to this format test your ability to interpret graphs, tables, diagrams other visual representations.
- Research Summaries (45%). This information consists of descriptions of one or more experiments; questions that pertain to this format focus on the design of experiments and the interpretation of experimental results.
- Conflicting Viewpoints (17%). This format presents several inconsistent hypotheses; questions that pertain to this format require test-takers to understand, analyze, and compare alternative views.
Test-takers are not permitted to use a calculator on the Science Test.
The Writing Test
The Writing Test is an optional 30-minute essay that consists of one writing prompt, which defines an issue, and two points of view on that issue. Your task is to respond to a question about your position on the issue. In doing so, you may adopt one of the points of view provided or present your own. Your score will not be affected by the point of view you take on the issue.
The Writing Test measures the skills that are emphasized in entry-level college composition courses.