ACT Test Sections 2020: Comprehensive Format Breakdown

An ACT exam covers a lot of ACT sections that you must be familiar with to obtain a score that is higher than average. This is why it is crucial that you know the ACT test a hundred percent.

Know what question types you should expect and what subject areas you would encounter the most. Being familiar with the ACT test sections is the real deal as it helps you increase your chances of passing the exam. 

Overview of the Structure of the ACT Test

The ACT test format has four ACT sections, which are all presented in the standard ACT test subject order: (1) English, (2) Math, (3) Reading, and (4) Science. There is also an optional (5) Writing section. Each of the four sections is scored out of 36 points, while the writing section is scored out of 12 points.

Keep in mind that if you do not choose to participate in the writing section, you have only 2 hours and 55 minutes to finish the four sections. If you choose to participate, then you have 3 hours and 35 minutes to finish all five sections.

Also, the ACT section with the greatest number of questions is ACT English with 75 questions that should be answered in 45 minutes. The section with the highest time limit is the ACT Math with a 1-hour time limit for its 60 questions. The two other multiple-choice sections, Reading and Science, both have 40 questions that must be answered in 35 minutes.

For a better visual guide, take a look at the tables below. 

ACT English 

Number of questions

75 questions

Question type

Multiple-choice with 4 answer choices

Time limit

45 minutes

Time per question

36 seconds

 ACT Math 

Number of questions

60 questions

Question type

Multiple choice with 5 answer choices

Time limit

1 hour (60 minutes)

Time per question

1 minute

 ACT Reading 

Number of questions

40 questions

Question type

Multiple choice with 4 answer choices

Time limit

35 minutes

Time per question

52 seconds

 ACT Science 

Number of questions

40 questions

Question type

Multiple choice with 4 answer choices

Time limit

35 minutes

Time per question

52 seconds

  ACT Writing 

Number of questions

1 question

Question type

Essay

Time limit

40 minutes

Time per question

40 minutes

In the subsequent parts below, we will show you what subject areas you would encounter the most, what question types you should expect, and what ACT test strategy tips you need to follow to succeed in your ACT test. 

ACT English

With the ACT sections in order, this is the first, which is comprised of several passages and four answer choices for every question/item. The whole idea of this section is for you to act as the editor as you spot grammar and punctuation issues in the passages presented to you. Aside from this, you should also have a keen eye on what passages are rhetorically-sound and well-organized.

Basically, you will be tested based on two broad skill areas: (1) usage & mechanics and (2) rhetorical skills. The former targets the technicality like the sentence structure, punctuation, grammar, and so on. The latter, on the other hand, sees to it if a passage is sensible enough to effectively convey a point.

Question Types

There are six types of questions in the ACT English test, three types under usage and mechanics, and another three types under rhetorical skills. 

Usage and Mechanics

Question types

Portion

What does it test you?

Sentence Structure

15-19 questions (20 to 25%)

Your knowledge of the appropriate relationship between clauses. No run-on and fragment sentences, please!

Punctuation

7-12 questions (10 to 15%)

Your knowledge of the proper usage of periods, commas, apostrophes, colons, semicolons, and dashes.

Grammar Usage

12-15 questions (15 to 20%)

Your knowledge of grammar rules, such as subject-verb agreement, verb forms, modifiers, pronoun use, comparatives, superlatives, and idioms.

Rhetorical Skills

Question Types

Portion

What does it test you?

Organization

7-12 questions (10 to 15%)

Your ability to build appropriate opening and closing sentences as well as transitions between sentences and paragraphs.

Style

12-15 questions (15 to 20%)

Your ability to choose words, phrases, and images that go with the tone of the passage. Your ability to spot redundancy and wordiness will also be tested.

Strategy

12-15 questions (15 to 20%)

Your ability to create the clearest and most sound possible argument. You will also be tasked to choose whether the author of the passage should add or discard a certain part of the passage, which you will have to justify through your multiple-choice answer. Your ability to spot which part strengthens or weakens a point will be tested.

For more tips on how to ace the ACT English, check out this Magoosh guide (1).

Strategy Tips

Acing the ACT English section is not difficult for someone who knows how to approach each question appropriately. Here are a few of our strategy tips to help you excel in this section.

  •  Build a consistent passage strategy – Discover what passage strategy will work for you. You can even try to use the graf-by-graf approach (2) wherein you will have to skim a paragraph and answer all the questions.
  • Learn grammar rules – Most of the passages in the ACT English involve a lot of grammar rules, so be sure to know about them. Learn how to form sentences in the most appropriate way and when to put punctuation marks, especially commas (a common mistake by almost everyone).
  • Make use of the NO CHANGE answer choice – Do not be afraid to choose this answer if you feel that there’s no error in the passage. You can even choose this answer in times when you are completely clueless about what to answer. It can be your best bet than a no answer at all.

ACT Math

There are six contents in the Math section of an ACT that you need to focus on, and they are as follows:

  • Pre-Algebra
  • Elementary Algebra
  • Intermediate Algebra
  • Coordinate Geometry
  • Plane Geometry
  • Trigonometry

The questions in this ACT test section are also composed of five answer choices. Below, you will have a better look at what specific areas you would expect in this section as well as the number of questions per content.

Content

Portion

Specific Areas

Pre-Algebra

12-15 questions (20 to 25%)

  • Basic operations e.g. PEMDAS
  • Place value
  • Factors
  • Ratios, proportions, and percentages
  • Calculating square roots and exponents
  • Scientific notation
  • Linear equations with one variable
  • Absolute value and number order
  • Basic counting techniques and probability
  • Data collection, representation, and interpretation; statistical method.

Basic Algebra

9-12 questions (15 to 20%)

  • Expressing relationships of figures through the use of variables
  • Understanding basic algebraic operations
  • Solving quadratic equations by factoring
  • Properties of square roots and exponents
  • Solving algebraic expressions through substitution

Intermediate Algebra

9-12 questions (15 to 20%)

  • Quadratic equation
  • Rational expressions
  • Radical expressions
  • Mathematical inequalities
  • Absolute value equations
  • Modeling functions
  • Polynomial roots
  • Matrices
  • Complex numbers
  • Sequences and patterns
  • Systems of equations
  • Quadratic inequalities

Coordinate Geometry

9-12 questions (15 to 20%)

  • Graphing equations, including lines, circles, curves, and polynomials
  • Properties of lines, including slope, perpendicular lines, and parallel lines
  • Conics (parabolas, circles, ellipses, and hyperbolas)
  • Graphing inequalities
  • Distance and midpoints

Plane Geometry

12-15 questions (20 to 25%)

  • Properties and relations of plane figures, which include angles and relations between perpendicular and parallel lines
  • Properties of circles, triangles, rectangles, parallelograms, and trapezoids
  • Proofs and proof techniques
  • Simple applications of plane geometry to three dimensions, including volume
  • Transformations

Trigonometry

3-6 questions (5 to 10%)

  • Trigonometric functions: their properties and values
  • Graphing, modeling
  • Trigonometric identities
  • Solving trigonometric equations
  • Right triangles

Question Types

Here are the important notes you have to remember when it comes to the question types in the ACT setup of the Math section. 

  1. The questions are either word problems or straightforward Math problems with graphs, charts, figures, and etc.
  2.  The questions are ordered by difficulty. It can be ordered like this:
  • 1-20 Easy
  • 20-40 Intermediate
  • 40-60 Difficult
  1.  The questions are also arranged by subject matters, which may appear like this:
  • 1-30 Algebra & Pre-Algebra
  • 30-60 Geometry & Trigonometry 

Strategy Tips

Like the ACT English, you must also be wary with how to approach Math problems. Here are some of our tips. 

  • Practice problem-solving with time limit – Remember, you have a maximum of one minute per question in the ACT Math. So practice solving Math problems within one minute. Otherwise, you will not be able to finish this section. Focus on the simpler questions first so you can answer as many questions as possible without sacrificing the accuracy. Once you are done with the easy ones, then you can move on to the more difficult questions.
  • Bring an ACT-approved calculator – Yes, it is allowed. Yes, it makes your life efficient when it comes to the Math test. Most questions can be answered without a calculator. However, you do not want to spend your whole time manually solving Math problems. Thus, bring an approved calculator (3).
  • Memorize and practice the most essential formulas – Spend time to practice the most essential formulas that will come out in the ACT. You should not waste your time trying to recall a formula during the test. Instead, the allotted time per question should be spent solely on trying to solve the problem. 

ACT Reading

The third section of the ACT test contains a lot of passages that aim to test your comprehension skills. It targets how well you interpret passages in various subjects, small details, and major themes. Plus, this is one of the ACT categories that tests your ability to analyze an author’s purpose and tone.

There are four subsections in ACT Reading. Take a look at them below and their corresponding overview.

  • Literary narrative & prose fiction – You will encounter literary memoirs and the usual fiction passages.
  • Social science – You will encounter nonfiction passages from education, sociology, psychology, and many others.
  • Humanities – You will encounter personal nonfiction passages like memoirs and essays and nonfiction pieces on philosophy, arts, and literature commonly found in various popular materials.
  • Natural science – You will encounter nonfiction passages from medicine, biology, chemistry, and physics. 

Question Types

There are five types of questions with 4 answer choices in the ACT Reading.

5 Types

Portion

What to expect?

Big Picture Questions

4 questions (about 10% of the test)

You will be asked to identify the main theme or the author’s perspective, hence the “big picture” of the overall passage.

Vocabulary in Context

4 questions (about 10% of the test)

You will be asked about the meaning of a word from a passage, usually in a form of synonyms that should be within the context of the passage.

Detail Questions

15 questions (about 38% of the test)

You will be asked to identify the small details of the passages, as opposed to the big picture questions wherein you will be usually asked about the main theme. Here, you need to pay attention to small details of the passages that are easy to spot on.

Development and Function

9 questions (about 22%)

You will be asked to analyze certain passages that can test your rhetorical skills. You will be asked about the structure, function, and development of ideas.

Inference

8 questions (about 20% of the test)

You will be asked to gauge the most logical conclusion based on the information provided in each passage.

Strategy Tips

Here’s how to succeed in ACT Reading. 

  • Stick to answers supported by evidence on the passage – The ACT Reading is full of tricky questions and answers that are intentionally designed to confuse you. There are answers that appear correct because most of them are subjective, but we suggest that you stick to an answer that is backed by evidence found in the actual passage.
  • Practice how to skim passages effectively – With a limited timeframe, avoid reading passages entirely. Instead, practice how to skim through them effectively (4). You can either read the questions first before skimming the passage or vice versa. 

ACT Science

This section is like a combination of two ACT components–ACT Math and Reading because of its format. It is not composed of stand-alone questions only but also of several passages that have graphs, charts, and other figures. The length (number of questions and time limit) is the same with ACT Reading, but the data presented is quite similar to ACT Math.

In this section, your scientific interpretation skills will be tested more than your existing factual knowledge of science. You will be asked to evaluate various theories and hypotheses and interpret data. You should also expect various topics like biology, chemistry, physics, and earth/space science. 

Question Types

There are three passage formats in the ACT Science, and each format will present data in different ways.

Passage Format

Portion

What to expect?

Data Representation

15 questions (about 38% of the test)

You will be asked to interpret and evaluate data presented in tables, graphs, or charts.

Research Summaries

18 questions (about 45% of the test)

You will be asked to evaluate and analyze one or more experiments.

Conflicting Viewpoints

7 questions (about 17% of the test)

You will be asked to evaluate and understand conflicting viewpoints, hypotheses, and theories.

Strategy Tips

There is a lot of data presentation in the ACT Science, so you have to develop a certain strategy that will help you ace this section. 

  •  Focus on the information you need – Keep in mind that there can be too many information that will be presented, and you have to be quick in spotting which information is essential or the answer to the question.
  • Answer the paired passages last – There are few paired passages in the ACT Science and we recommend you answer these last. These paired passages can consume a lot of your time because you have to read them both carefully in order to make a good comparison. Also, it makes sense that you save them last because, after all, all questions have the same amount of points. Finish all the easy and short questions first before you circle back to the paired passages. 

ACT Writing (Optional)

This section of the test may be optional but is surely one of the most talked-about ACT components. Some students are confused about whether or not they should take the test. The ACT Writing score is not part of your composite score, which is the reason why it is optional. However, if you are planning to enroll in a college that requires an ACT Writing result, then be sure to take this section. 

In this section of an ACT test, your ability to come up with a clear, cohesive, and well-argued essay will be tested. You should be able to analyze an issue in connection with other existing viewpoints. Usually, the topic in the Writing section is of global significance with philosophical nature. In other words, a topic that’s universal and can be argued in multiple angles.

How should you approach the essay?

You should be able to present your perspective logically while presenting a relationship with other perspectives or viewpoints (at least one perspective). In other words, your essay should appear as a well-written argument paper.

How do they evaluate the essay?

They use four domains in evaluating your essay for the ACT Writing section. 

  • Ideas and Analysis – How well did you present and analyze your perspective and other perspectives in connection to your own? There must be a crystal-clear explanation.
  • Development and Support – How logical did you develop your thesis? The proper presentation of evidence is the key to this section.
  • Organization – Are your paragraphs cohesive? Do your paragraphs support the main thesis and discuss a topic in a clear manner? Are your introductory and closing sentences well-written that appeal significantly to the reader? Anything that covers the organization aspect is under this area.
  • Language Use – How good are you in your command of the standard written English? 

Lastly, keep in mind that your essay will be assessed by two graders, so make sure to give your best in this section.  

Importance of Knowing the ACT Format Beforehand 

Are you still wondering why you need to know how many sections on the ACT are you going to answer and why it matters that you know? 

First of all, the ACT test is predictable. There may be some changes in the overall test itself, but the format, for the most part, has remained consistent. Plus, the ACT is not ultimately strict in terms of sharing the format of their test so students can prepare beforehand. 

Second, when you are familiar with the ACT format, you can easily work on those topics that would most likely appear in the test. This will also help you focus on your weak spots and, eventually, improve your score as you discover strategies that will work for you. 

Finally, when you know what ACT test types to expect, you can manage your prep time well. You will be able to avoid spending time on subject areas that will not appear in the test. Knowing the format beforehand also helps you lessen your anxiety because there will be fewer surprises on the test day.

Preparation for the ACT Based on the Format 

There are key points you need to consider when preparing for the ACT test. Based on the format presented in this post, here are the key points you need to work on. 

  • Master managing your time – Knowing what to expect in the ACT test will give you a clear guide on what subject areas and sub contents you need to study without wasting ample time on those that won’t reflect on the test. You can also do practice drills so you can answer questions based on the time limit for each ACT section.
  • Be strategic with your study plan – Assess your goals first and be honest about them. How much score improvement would you like to see? Your answer will dictate how much time you must allocate to studying. Here’s a quick guide for this: 

0-1 point: 10 hours

1-2 points: 20 hours

2-4 points: 40 hours

4-6 points: 80 hours

6-9 points: 150+ hours

What’s Next?

With all this information in your hand, be sure to make use of it as you prepare for your ACT test. Remember, it is much better to study smartly than to study hard. You can study hard without targeting the actual content, and it’s a waste of time if your goal is to ace the ACT test. Therefore, make sure to study wisely and efficiently with the best ACT prep classes.

References

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