ACT Sections | Get To Know English, Math, Reading, Science, and Writing

Anyone who has ever done any kind of preparation for a standardized test will tell you that it’s not just the contents and topics that you have to learn about. Getting a great resource or getting additional help (check out these online test prep reviews) and knowing the test format will play a huge role in your success. This is why, in this guide, we’ll help you get to know more about the ACT sections.

You might be wondering, why should you pay special attention to this area of the said test’s format? It’s pretty simple, really. As the ACT tests more subjects than the SAT, you might want to take a closer look at the areas that you have to study. This is one area where the ACT is considered to be more complicated than the SAT, so it would be best if you can tackle it head-on.

To help you get better acquainted with this area of the ACT format, we’ve created a quick guide below.

How Learning about the ACT Format can Help You

Before we discuss the ACT test format in detail, you might want to know the very reasons why you should bother with these things. Since there are so many things that you have to brush up on and learn altogether, you might want to know which ones you can skip entirely and which ones you can spend time on.

So why should you take time to learn about the test actual test format? Here are a few reasons that should help you realize the importance of such knowledge:

It will let you know more about what you’re up against.

if you are familiar with the format of the test, you will know how to prepare

If you’re familiar with the format of the test you’re going to take, you’ll know how to prepare for the ACT in an effective manner.

A test’s format is composed of different things including its sections as well as the number and types of questions included. These elements help make a specific standardized test unique and recognizable. They also make it easier to prepare for.

If you know the sections of the ACT, you’ll have a good idea about what subjects to study. This is crucial because it’s a good place to start. It won’t necessarily tell you about the specific topics that you need to include in your scope of study but at least you can narrow down the number of subjects to include in your study plan.

By learning what does ACT stand for, how many questions are on the ACT, how long is the ACT, as well as the actual order of the subjects in the test, you can strategize on how to answer its questions accordingly. Your approach in answering the test questions is pretty much just as important as knowing the right answers as you need to effectively get to all of the questions to answer them. By knowing how a test will go, you’ll have better odds of doing that.

It will help you feel more confident about the exam.

It’s not necessarily enough to just know about the things that the ACT will test you on, you also have to know how exactly you should answer the questions. For this, you need to know what the types of test questions are included in the exam so you can learn how to answer them effectively.

In the ACT, you’ll mostly need to answer multiple-choice questions and an essay prompt. It might sound easy because the possible answers will be laid out in front of you but it’s not necessarily the case. They can be confusing and the time crunch can add more pressure to the test. If you know what the questions will be like, however, you’ll be able to find out how to effectively answer them.

And if you know how to answer the exam, aside from having a good idea of what the answers are, then you’ll have more confidence in facing the said test. As there are so many things riding on the ACT results, you will need to be more self-assured that you can take on the exam. This will give you a positive attitude towards the activity which can then help you perform better.  

It will help you better understand the technical portions of the test.

Learning about the sections of the exam can also help you better understand how is the ACT scored.

better understand the technical portions of the act

While most sections are scored the same way, the ACT essay scoring is still a different matter. The ACT percentiles are pretty much the same for most subjects except for the essay portion.

By getting to know the scoring system, you can decide whether you should answer the optional essay part.

Such information will help you weigh your options and allow you to make the right decisions that will benefit your score.

The ACT Sections: Everything that You Need to Know

Now that we’ve established that learning about the different sections of the ACT is necessary if not important, the next thing you might want to know about is the basics of this area. To help you with this, we’ll discuss crucial points about the topic in detail below.

There are 5 ACT sections that you’ll have to face.

Technically, the ACT subjects tested are only English, Math, and Science. However, there are five sections in this exam as your reading and writing skills will also be tested. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the English subject is further divided into these three sections, however. The skills these areas test will really come in handy when pursuing higher education, so they can really help assess your college readiness.

The order of the ACT breakdown goes like this: English, Math, Reading, Science, and Writing. The sequence nicely splits up closely related topics so expect to find variety in the test.

To help you get to know each of the ACT sections better. Here’s a closer look at them:

The ACT English Test

The English portion of the ACT tests grammar and rhetorical skills. It’s a grammar test, mostly, but not in a conventional manner.According to the makers, this portion will help assess your language and writing skills as well as reflect your experiences and interests.

In this section of the exam, you will be put in the ‘position of a writer’ who is out to edit a text. So, simply speaking, it will test your editing skills to see how good your grammar skills are.

act english test

In this section, you will be asked to fix grammar and punctuation errors as well as improve the style, structure, and organization of the passages provided. These are from different genres and provide different rhetorical situations.

Some of the test ‘questions’ in the passages are underlined and you’ll be asked if you can fix or improve the selected phrase or sentence.

Others will require you to re-arrange the order, cut, or add parts entirely.

To ace this part, it’s best to do a lot of ACT grammar practice. You can’t just memorize the different grammar rules but you also need to know how they’re actually applied. You’ll also need a lot of exposure to proper grammar so you can easily spot the subtle differences in how it’s used. Taking a lot of ACT practice tests for English will help you achieve this.

The ACT Math Test

The ACT math section is considered by many as one of the most daunting areas of the exam but don’t let it be. It includes topics that you should have already covered in class by eleventh grade so it shouldn’t be that complicated.

What are the ACT math topics? The test is primarily composed of questions on Algebra and Geometry. It will also touch very few topics on Trigonometry. All of these are considered to be entry-level courses in college mathematics so it makes perfect sense that they’re the only ones you need to know about when preparing for the math section.

Unlike SAT math, there are no formulas provided in the ACT math section. You will need to remember quite a few formulas when preparing for this part of the exam. To better streamline your prep process, you can look up online which formulas are most often included in the test. This is one of the perks of the ACT being a standardized test, you can certainly learn what to expect and prepare of the things that will come out in it.

Another notable thing about the ACT math section is that you’re allowed to use a calculator all throughout the section. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to need it, however. But compared to the SAT which will only allow you to use the calculator on specific items on the test, the ACT is a bit more lenient when it comes to the use of this gadget. They have a calculator policy in place, though, so there are still some restrictions that you should take note of.

The ACT Reading Test

Comprehension and analyzing skills are, as you can expect, the things tested in the ACT reading test. Some find it to have the most familiar format in all of the sections of this test but it doesn’t mean that you should take it lightly.

the act reading test has four passages of different genres about 800 words long

Why? For one, it comes with a lot of reading. It includes about four passages of different genres and each of them is about 800 words long.

This can be quite tiring to pore through, which is why training your reading endurance in preparation for this part of the test is one of the most popular ACT tips.

The questions related to each question will test different skills as well. The good news is, the genres of the passages are usually the same. They’re always composed of prose fiction, social science, humanities, and natural science topics in the same order. This will help you effectively prepare for what to take note of in the passages that you’ll read.

For example, in the prose fiction passage, you might get asked about the setting, relationship of the characters, and the atmosphere depicted in the passage. You might also need to interpret the meanings and symbolism in the text.

Things can get technical, on the other hand, for the natural science passage. You might need to remember technical descriptions and make inferences.

Like in the English section, it’s best to take ACT practice reading tests to ace this portion.

The ACT Science Test

Not only is the science section of the ACT unique but it is also one of its trickier areas. It’s different from the science tests you’ll get in school because it doesn’t just check your knowledge of scientific concepts and facts. It’s more focused on how you confirm, look for, and synthesize information. So don’t expect to be grilled about the definition of different scientific concepts, ideas, and findings in this test because that’s not what will be asked from you.

The best way to learn how to study for the ACT science section is to get acquainted with its format first. One of the things that make this part of this standardized test different is its format.

While it’s still pretty much a multiple choice test where you can find the answers in the question passages, it also involves some items that will require some analyzing and dissecting. It will also include some charts, tables, graphs, and research summaries that will help you answer the questions.

In these items, you might also need to use outside knowledge to provide trends and data, synthesize the pieces of information presented, and make predictions about the available data.

This makes it quite complicated and will require you to use a good dose of reading, interpretation, and research skills. You can’t just rely on memorized definitions of scientific concepts with such queries.

Next up, you need to know what are the areas covered by the test. It usually includes questions in biology, physics, chemistry, and in some Earth sciences like geology, astronomy, and meteorology. This means that the exam has quite a wide coverage so it’s best to prepare for it wisely and effectively.

The ACT Writing Test

There are two notable things about the Writing section of the ACT. First is, as mentioned above, the essay portion of the test is optional. This means that you can opt not to answer this part if you don’t have to.

Secondly, the score range for this portion is also lower than the others, mostly since it only comes with a single prompt. You can only get 2 to 12 points in this portion which is way lower than the perfect score of 36 in the other sections.

Because of these, some students opt to skip learning how to write ACT essays because they don’t think that they’ll make use of it. If these details are tempting you to skip preparing for this area as well, you have to reconsider. While this part is optional, there are some schools include a Writing section score in their admission requirements. Others don’t, so it’s best to check first whether the school you’re eyeing has any rules on this area.

If you’re going to take on this section, you should know what is the ACT writing made out of. Mostly, it will test your writing, analyzing, and comprehension skills - all of which are essential if you’re going to face college writing.

It would be safe to say that this part of the test is also quite intimidating. While you will only really need to write an argumentative essay, the fact that you also have to read a lengthy passage and analyze its points can make it more challenging.

You’ll then need to discuss which point you support or create your own perspective on the topic.

It will be crucial to express a deep understanding of the topic to effectively state your stand in the passage’s topic. You’ll also need to engage the different perspectives provided to make your case.

Reading ACT sample essays can help you get a better grasp of what would be required from you in this portion of the test so make sure to go through as many as you can. Practice writing your own essays as well so you can get used to crafting argumentative essays that can help give you good ACT scores.

Each section comes with different numbers of questions and time limits.

One of the first things asked about the ACT is the question, ‘how long does the ACT take?’ It’s understandable because it covers a lot of areas and is designed to thoroughly test your skills and knowledge. The answer here is 2 hours and 55 minutes.

Because of this ACT time limit, you can also expect that the different ACT sections all have time designations. Depending on the number of items in each section, you have about 35 to 60 minutes to spend on each part. Here’s a breakdown to help you get more familiar about the test’s format:


75 multiple-choice questions, 45 minutes


60 multiple-choice questions, 60 minutes


40 multiple-choice questions, 35 minutes


40 multiple-choice questions, 35 minutes


1 essay prompt, 40 minutes

Preparing Effectively for the ACT

Now that you are well acquainted with the sections of the ACT, you can already prepare to craft your own strategies and techniques in creating a plan on how to study for ACT. This guide pretty much breaks down all of the stuff that you can expect the test to contain so it should point you in the right direction.

To make your test preparations more organized and effective, don’t forget to get the best ACT prep book as well. These study tools won’t just give you the pointers to brush up on but it can also give you a good look at what the actual test is like. Take advantage of them and you’ll find your self-study efforts fruitful.

Leonard Haggin

I created this site to help students like you learn from the experiences my team had learned during our extensive academic careers. I am now studying Law at Stanford, but I also make time to write articles here in order to help all you fellow students advance in your academic careers and beyond. I hope our efforts on Study Prep Lounge will arm you with the knowledge you need to overcome whatever trial or test you find in front of you.

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