What’s on the ACT?

What’s on the ACT?
What's on the ACT?

The SAT is no longer the No. 1 test to take when it comes to college admissions. According to recent trends, high school students are taking both the SAT and the ACT. In fact, from 2009 to 2013, the number of U.S. students taking the ACT increased from 1.4 million to nearly 1.8 million.

So what can a student expect to see on this increasingly popular college admissions test?

ACT Test Breakdown
The ACT consists of four sections, and while the SAT emphasizes cognitive reasoning, the ACT focuses on practical knowledge.

Typically, the test begins shortly after students check in at 8 a.m., and a short break is scheduled after the first two tests. Students receive an additional break if they opt to take the writing test. Students taking the non-writing ACT exam are normally dismissed at 12:15 p.m., while students taking the Writing Test are dismissed at 1 p.m.

English7545 minutesUsage/Mechanics (40)
Rhetorical Skills (35)
Math6060 minutesPre-Algebra/Elementary Algebra (24)
Intermediate Algebra/Coordinate Geometry (18)
Plane Geometry/Trigonometry (18)
Reading4035 minutesSocial Studies/Natural Sciences reading (20)
Arts & Literature reading (20)
Science4035 minutesNone

When it comes to the optional Writing Test section, students are tasked with responding to a writing prompt within 30 minutes, presenting two different points of view on an issue.

ACT Scoring
On each test, the ACT counts the number of correct answers, with no deductions for incorrect responses (meaning you should take a guess if you have no idea).

What's on the ACT? "Take a guess. The ACT doesn't deduct points for incorrect responses."

In order to figure out a score for a subject like English, one must first determine the raw score for that test (which is roughly the number of correct answers) which is then converted to a scaled score between 1 and 36. Subscores are calculated in the same way, except on a scale of 1 to 18.

Sample ACT Scores

Main Test Section
Final Section Score
EnglishUsage/Mechanics: 18
Rhetorical Skills: 15
MathPre-Algebra/Elementary Algebra: 13
Intermediate Algebra/Coordinate Geometry: 12
Plane Geometry/Trigonometry: 12
ReadingSocial Studies/Sciences: 17
Arts/Literature: 14

Note: Your subscores do not add up to your test score. Instead, they are converted to a scaled composite score. In order to figure out the Composite Score, average the scores in the four subject areas (33 + 24 + 30 + 22).

Hardest ACT Section
In a survey of more than 800 Niche users, 47 percent of students reported the Mathematics section being the hardest part of the test.

Poll: What's the hardest part of the ACT test?

To get an idea of what might be on the test, check out the sample ACT questions below.*

Sample ACT Questions
Students read a passage that has certain words and phrases underlined and numbered, and they must choose how and whether to change the underlined portion.

Example: “I grew up with buckets, shovels, and nets waiting by the back door;”

B. waiting, by the back door,
C. waiting by the back door,
D. waiting by the back door

Example: A car averages 27 miles per gallon. If gas costs $4.04 per gallon, which of the following is closest to how much the gas would cost for this car to travel 2,727 typical miles?

A. $44.44
B. $109.08
C. $118.80
D. $408.04
E. $444.40

Students read a passage and answer questions accompanying the passage.

Example: The point of view from which the passage is told can best be described as that of:

A. a man looking back on the best years of his life as director of a community center in a strife-ridden neighborhood.
B. a narrator describing his experiences as they happen, starting with childhood and continuing through his adult years as an advocate for troubled children.
C. an unidentified narrator describing a man who devoted hi life to neighborhood children years after his own difficult childhood.
D. an admiring relative of a man whose generosity with children was widely respected in the neighborhood where he turned around a declining community center.

Students read from science-related passages and answer questions based on it.

Example: Based on Table 1, which of the following statements best explains the results of Trials 1-3?

A. The light was too intense to eject electrons from the metal in the photocell.
B. The light was too intense to eject photons from the metal in the photocell.
C. The energy per electron was too high to eject photons from the metal in the photocell.
D. The energy per photon was too low to eject electrons from the metal in the photocells.

Writing Prompt
Example: Educators debate extending high school to five years because of increasing demands on students from employers and colleges to participate in extracurricular activities and community service in addition to having high grades. Some educators support extending high school to five years because they think students need more time to achieve all that is expected of them. Other educators do not support extending high school to five years because they think students would lose interest in school and attendance would drop in the fifth year. In your opinion, should high school be extended to five years?

In your essay, take a position on this question. You may write about either one of the two points of view given, or you may present a different point of view on this question. Use specific reasons and examples to support your position.

ACT Test Dates and Costs
The ACT offers six test dates a year in September, October, December, February, April, and June. ACT test costs vary according to specific fees, but generally it’s $38 for a test without Writing and $54.50 with Writing. Most ACT scores are posted within two and a half weeks after a test date, with writing scores coming two weeks after that.

What You’ll Need for the ACT Test

  • Acceptable photo ID
  • Your printed ACT admission ticket
  • Two No. 2 pencils
  • A calculator (for the ACT Mathematics Test only), but find out which ones are prohibited via the ACT website

When to Take the ACT Test
Junior year is best, but try to pick a test date at least two months ahead of college application deadlines.

The Bottom Line
While the above is a good primer of what to expect on the ACT, the best way to study is to participate in ACT practice and prep tests. The ACT website is a good resource for this.

*Sample questions obtained from the ACT website.