Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you had a crystal ball to look into the future and see exactly what questions will be asked on the ACT?
On the other hand, that would defeat the purpose of taking it.
The fact is, like every test, the ACT is simply a tool. It is a comparative measurement to give information to you, your prospective colleges, and your current high school about where you’re at in your educational journey.
It is not a reflection of how smart you are or your overall worth as a human. It is simply saying “this is how ready this person is for college-level learning.”
So walk right past Madame Zarina’s Mystical Shoppe. You don’t need a fortune teller, a deck of tarot cards, or even a magic eight ball to succeed with the ACT.
What you do need is to brush up on your skills and know what you’re facing to do the best you possibly can.
Let’s take a look at what kinds of things you’ll be asked so you can make a plan of exactly what to work on and create realistic expectations for yourself regarding what ACT success looks like for you.
The Structure of the ACT
The ACT is composed of four main subject sections.
These sections are always delivered in this order and consist exclusively of multiple-choice questions.
There is also an optional Writing test available on every test date. (More on that in a moment.)
Another section of note is the "experimental" section. Every June ACT, this mandatory "experimental" multiple choice section given at the end of the test to students who are not taking the Writing test. This section is trialing new kinds of ACT questions and will not count for or against your composite.
How is the ACT Scored?
First, each subject area of the ACT is scored separately on a scale of 1-36.
To get that number, they take the raw score of how many questions you answered correctly in each section and convert it using the ACT scoring chart.
Then your four scaled section scores are added together and divided by 4. That overall average score from 1-36 is your ACT Composite Score.
Two essential things to remember about ACT scoring:
1. Points are NOT taken away for incorrect answers.
You get one point for any question answered correctly and zero points for every other question. So if you’re truly at a loss for which answer to choose, you should definitely fill in a bubble. (Believe it or not, I have a strategy for how to guess which you can learn - along with 34 other awesome strategies - in my free eBook, The Insider’s Guide to the ACT & SAT.)
2. Composite Scores are rounded to the nearest whole number.
If your averaged score has a decimal point of .5 or higher, your score will be rounded up. So it doesn’t take a painful amount of work to raise your overall score. It takes simple planning and practice. One or two extra correct answers could be the difference between rounding your score up or rounding your score down.
To dive deeper into ACT scoring details, you can check out this article about how the ACT is scored.
The Four Subject Sections of the ACT
As I mentioned above, there are 4 main sections of the ACT: English, Math, Reading, and Science.
This order will hold on every test date, so let's go through each in turn and learn a bit more about what you'll be tested on on your ACT exam date.
The ACT English section is always your first section. It has five passages for you to read and answer questions about in the English Section.
It consists of 75 questions in total: 15 questions for each passage. You have 45 minutes to complete it.
Predominantly this section seeks to test your writing, editing, and English language skills.
The questions will cover the nuances of basic grammar with questions on sentence structure, punctuation (especially commas), verb tense usage, pronouns, etc.
You will also be asked to comprehend and possibly improve an author’s transitions, redundancy, intent, and logic.
Read carefully through every bit of each passage, each question, and each answer choice.
And bear in mind that one of the answers available to you will often be “No Change,” as in “no change is needed-- this sentence is written correctly.” Don’t be afraid to select this option if you can’t identify any issues. It’s correct more often than most students realize.
There are 60 total questions in the Math Section of the ACT which you have 60 minutes to complete.
If you (unironically) do the math, you’ll notice this means one minute allowed for each question in this portion of the test. At first glance, that can sound intimidating. But please don’t worry. It’s actually a good thing.
The test-makers are not rooting for you to fail, so they believe this is plenty of time. That means the questions are not going to be brutally difficult. In fact, all of the problems are designed to be able to be solved without a calculator. (Though, note that certain types of calculators are permitted if you want one, even if simply as a lucky charm.)
Generally speaking, this section is organized in ascending order of difficulty. So, handle it like you would a hike: gain ground when it’s easy and pace yourself when it isn’t.
The ACT Math Section tests your abilities in Arithmetic, Algebra, Geometry, Statistics, and a little bit of trigonometry. The questions will not be focused on calculating alone, but also reasoning about and interpreting numbers/graphs/etc.
If math is not your strong suit, spend time preparing by memorizing basic math formulas. They will very likely not be referenced or given to you. You’ll be expected to be able to remember foundational, high-school-level math concepts so be sure to dust off your facilities with calculating percentages and the formula for the area of a circle beforehand.
The Reading Section of the ACT contains four passages for you to read and respond to. Three of the passages will be single written pieces and one of the passages will be a pair of excerpts.
It is composed of 40 different questions. You have 35 minutes for this portion of the test.
The subjects of the passages will range from humanities to social sciences, natural sciences to literary narrative.
You won’t be expected to have expertise in any of these subjects or bring any outside knowledge to the table. The goal of this section is to assess your comprehension of the ideas that are presented.
It will be looking for you to read closely, analyze the perspective of the author(s), and integrate information from multiple sources.
On the ACT, the Science Section is devised of six or seven passages for you to read and display an understanding of.
It has 40 questions. You have 35 minutes to answer them all.
Similar to the Reading section, the topics covered in the Science section vary. You could encounter astronomy or biology or chemistry or physics or geology in the passages.
But, again, this is not about memorized facts or expertise in these areas.
Instead, the topics are simply a jumping-off point for you to display your problem-solving skills, your ability to analyze and interpret data, as well as your facility with applying reasoning and understanding to scientific processes.
There’s one aspect of the test that we haven’t discussed yet: the ACT Writing Test.
This is an optional section of the ACT.
Should you choose to take it, it will be the only non-multiple-choice section. It lasts 40 minutes and will ask you to respond to one writing prompt.
See what the test makers have to say about the ACT Writing Test here.
How To Prepare for the ACT
If you were able to look into the future, I think you’d see it’s looking hopeful. Look at all the great resources and help you have at your fingertips!
If you need the best tips and tricks in the business, look no further than this free ebook that will quickly guide you through all the immediate ways to raise your ACT and SAT scores.
If you’re looking for more in-depth training, I have online ACT prep courses that can help you - one of which you can complete in as few as 4 hours.
If you have any other questions, feel free to either send me a message or try your luck with this online Magic 8 Ball - because even if it’s not going to help us with the ACT, it’s still fun!