The Definitive Practice Test Guide for the ACT
- About the ACT
- Sections of the ACT
- What to Expect on Test Day
- Best Ways to Study for the ACT
- Tips and Tricks
- ACT Test FAQ
About the ACT
The ACT is a standardized test that assesses problem-solving skills in four areas: English, Math, Reading, and Science. Typically taken by high school juniors and seniors, the ACT, similar to the SAT exam, is widely used for college admission and scholarship opportunities. An optional writing test is also available for an additional fee. Although technically not a required section, this essay is expected by some high schools and colleges, so double check this isn’t the case for you if you do decide to opt out.
ACT Test Cost
As of the the 2022-23 school year, the costs for the ACT are as follows:
ACT test (no writing) $63
ACT test (with writing) $88
The fee for the ACT also includes a report for you, your school, and up to four colleges of your choosing; be sure to include the college codes when you register to take the test. In September 2020, students were given the option to retake single sections of the ACT instead of repeating the entire test. This option was removed for the 2021-2022 school year.
Sections of the ACT
You have 45 minutes to answer 75 questions during the English section of the ACT test. You will be given five essays or passages to read, and asked a series of multiple choice questions about each. Your task will basically be to find errors and the best choice of correction for these errors. Many questions include the choice “no change needed,” so you need to be secure in your knowledge of standard written English, as well as tools authors use to write effectively.
The passages contain numbers pairing certain content with particular questions on the test. Some questions refer to the entire passage (this is noted, too), some to a paragraph, and others to an underlined phrase or sentence. When answering a question, be sure you are referring to the part of the passage having that question number.
Questions may cover development of topics, essay audience and purpose, developing and evaluating supporting material and relevance of statements. You may also be asked about organization of writing ideas, opening and closing sentences, or transitions in a text. Style questions may address tone, precision of word, image usage, or identifying redundancy or ambiguity.
ACT English Test Scoring
You will be given a total score based on the 75 English questions, as well as three category scores based on more specific knowledge and skills. These three categories include:
- Conventions of Standard English (51-56%)
In short, this category assesses your skills as an editor. You will be asked to evaluate a passage in terms of punctuation, grammar, and mechanics and to make changes to improve or correct the writing in a passage.
- Knowledge of Language (13-19%)
This category assesses your ability to identify the most effective language choice in writing. This may mean choosing the best word in a given sentence or the best sentence inside a passage to fit with the style and tone of the overall piece.
- Production of Writing (29-32%)
This category assesses your ability to critique the author’s intended purpose and skill. You will need to be able to evaluate if the writing flows well, has clear organization (beginning, middle, and end), and meets the intended objective of the writing.
The Mathematics section of the ACT test contains 60 questions and is timed for 60 minutes. You will have access to a calculator for all of the questions in this section, only. The content covers math skills that are typically learned through the end of the eleventh grade. You will need to use these skills and your reasoning ability to find correct answers.
ACT Mathematics Test Scoring
You will receive an overall math score based on the 60 mathematics test questions as well as eight category scores based on more specific metrics. These categories are broken down as follows:
Preparing for Higher Mathematics (57-60%)
Algebra (12-15%)- You should be able to solve basic and more complex algebraic equations, as well as read, interpret, and solve for problems involving graphs.
Functions (12-15%)- You should be able to understand linear, radical, polynomial, and logarithmic functions, and also be able to read and interpret graphs.
Geometry (12-15%)- Make sure you understand the basics of geometry, which includes things like finding the missing value in a shape; calculating surface area, volume, and circumference; and solving trigonomic ratios.
Number and Quantity (7-10%)- Make sure you can demonstrate an understanding of both real and complex numbers, and be able to demonstrate an understanding of concepts involving fractions, exponents, finding the square root, etc.
Statistics and Probability (8-12%)- In this section you will be expected to analyze data, make predictions, understand relationships, and calculate probabilities.
Integrating Essential Skills (40-43%)
This section will test your knowledge on concepts such as percentages, averages, volume, surface area, and mean, media and mode.
The Reading section of the ACT test measures your comprehension skills by providing a passage from which you should be able to read, then find explicitly stated details, infer from text, draw conclusions, and make comparisons and generalizations. Roughly 25% of the passages come from each of these subject areas: Social Studies, Natural Sciences, Literature, and Humanities.
Most of the reading questions refer to a single passage, but the ACT test has introduced “paired passages,” for which you will need to refer to two separate short paragraphs on the same topic to answer questions. During the Reading section of the ACT test, you have 35 minutes to answer 40 questions. You need to read passages thoroughly, but quickly, attempting to gain the most meaning while wasting no time. This would be a good thing to practice during your preparation.
ACT Reading Test Scoring
You will receive five scores for the ACT Reading Test section: An overall score based on the 40 questions, three category scores, and an Understanding Complex Texts Indicator. The breakdown of the three category scores is as follows:
Craft and Structure (25-30%)- This section asks you to evaluate and analyze concepts such as the tone of piece, perspectives of both author and characters, word choice, and sentence and passage structure.
Integration of Knowledge and Ideas (13-18%)- This section will test your ability to recognize the purpose of a piece and to differentiate between opinion vs. fact. You may also be asked to and compare and contrast two passages about the same topic.
Key Ideas and Details (55-60%)- The majority of the ACT Reading section will assess your ability to read a passage and identify the purpose and the main idea or theme. You should be able to draw conclusions, understand relationships, and create summaries.
The ACT Science test will require you to answer 40 questions in 35 minutes. There will be emphasis on reasoning, not how well you have memorized content. Generally, the questions are taken from core courses in biology, chemistry, physics, and the Earth and space sciences geology, astronomy, and meteorology. No higher-level knowledge in any of these areas is needed, but basic understanding will be required. You will not have access to a calculator for this section.
ACT Science Test Scoring
You will receive four scores for the ACT Science test: one overall score based on the 40 science test questions, and three category scores. They are based on the following:
Evaluation of Models, Inferences, and Experimental Results (25–35%) - This section expects that you will be able to review scientific data and make predictions and conclusions based on what is presented.
Interpretation of Data (45–55%)- You should be able to understand scientific data presented in graphs, charts, tables, and diagrams.
Scientific Investigation (20–30%)- In this section you will be asked to evaluate scientific data as it is presented. You may be asked to identify the independent, dependent, or control variable; to compare experiments; or if you believe the conclusions the researcher has drawn in the presented experiment appear valid.
What to Expect on Test Day
What to Bring
First of all, make sure you are on time. Most tests begin at 8 a.m. and you will not be allowed to take the test if you are late. Be sure to have a photo ID and your paper test ticket (if you can’t find yours, you can print another by logging into your ACT account). If you are taking the paper version of the test, bring two no. 2 pencils (with good erasers) to write with—no other types of writing utensils are allowed. You may bring a watch to keep track of time, but smart watches are not allowed. A calculator is allowed for the math portion of the test, but make sure to check if yours is an acceptable model first. Snacks and drinks are allowed during break time, but are not allowed in the testing area.
What Not to Bring
Cell phones, smart watches, and any device with an alarm feature must be turned off. You may not bring highlighters, colored pencils, dictionaries, or scratch paper from home.
Best Ways to Study for the ACT
One of the great things about the ACT is that the format rarely changes, so with a little preparation you can feel confident about what you’ll be expected to know. Here are some ways you can study smarter so you do well on test day:
Check out the ACT Before Your Test
Curious about what the actual ACT test will look like? What if we told you could see an actual ACT test in its entirety, with answers? It’s not cheating—the ACT publishes previous versions of the test so you can see exactly how each section will appear when you take it. While the questions have all been retired and won’t appear on your exam (bummer!), they’re all similar in content, style, and difficulty level to what you’ll encounter on test day. It’s definitely worth checking out.
Take ACT Practice Tests
They say practice makes perfect, and when it comes to standardized testing, that’s true. One of the best ways to get the score you want on the ACT is by taking practice tests before your actual exam. ACT practice tests can help you get a feel for the types of questions you’ll encounter on test day so you feel more prepared knowing what to expect. They can also help you identify areas in which you might struggle so you can better focus on problem areas while you study.
Simulate the Testing Experience
The closer you’re able to replicate the actual test, the more comfortable you’ll feel taking it. Here are two tips to help you simulate the ACT testing experience:
Check the Clock
As you work through your ACT practice test, try answering questions in the same amount of time you’ll actually have on test day. On the ACT test, this works out to the following:
ACT Reading Test—40 questions in 35 minutes = 52 seconds per question
ACT English Test—75 questions in 45 minutes = 36 seconds per question
ACT Mathematics Test—60 questions in 60 minutes = one minute per question
ACT Science Test—40 questions in 35 minutes = 52 seconds per question
Are you able to complete the questions in the amount of time allotted, or do you find yourself always going over? It doesn’t do you any good to get a perfect score if it took you two hours to finish at home but on the real thing you only have 35 minutes, so only spend as much time as you’re given. If you get stuck on a problem, move on to the next. You can always circle back if you have extra time at the end.
Go for the Long Haul
The ACT isn’t a quick pop quiz—it’s up to a 3.5-hour stretch of intense testing with minimal breaks. While you might not have a full three hours to dedicate to taking a practice ACT exam, try setting some time aside to practice for an extended period. By building your testing stamina, you’ll be better prepared for the rigors of actual test day when it arrives.
Alternative ACT Study Methods
Short on time? Can’t stand the sight of another practice test? We hear you. Sometimes that never-ending multiple-choice format gets a little stale. While we still insist that practice tests are the best way to get a real-life ACT experience, study guides and flashcards can be helpful study tools as well. Feeling overwhelmed and not sure which study method is best? The makers of the ACT offer a free webinar to help you sort out the best study methods for you based on subject matter needs, cost, time, and preferred learning style format.
Tips and Tricks
Answer All Questions
The ACT does not mark you down for incorrect answers, so it’s in your best interest to select something, even if it’s just a shot in the dark. Start by answering questions you feel confident about, and come back to those you skipped once you’ve worked your way through the section.
Read the Directions Beforehand
Remember the official ACT practice test we shared? While the test questions won’t be the same as what you see, the directions should be verbatim. Take some time to look through the directions for each of the four sections before your test, so when the big day comes you can hit the ground running.
Bubble in the Right Way
Dream scenario: You ace your ACT test. Nightmare scenario: You put the correct answers on your booklet, but then incorrectly transfer them to the Scantron answer sheet. The best way to avoid filling in the incorrect bubbles on the answer sheet is to transfer them as soon as you finish a page in your booklet. If you transfer them after each question it’s easy to lose concentration, but if you wait until you finish the entire test you risk making a mistake that could affect your entire test.
ACT Test FAQ
What’s a good ACT score?
Most students consider a good score to be above the average score, which is 21. If you are planning on going to an elite college, aim for a score of at least 30. The average ACT score for most Ivy League schools is typically between 30-35.
Should I guess on the ACT?
In short: YES! You are not penalized for guessing on the ACT test, so it is in your best interest to always select an answer. Even if you just guess blindly, you have a 25% chance of choosing the correct answer and boosting your overall score.
How long does the ACT take?
Without the optional essay, the ACT test clocks in at just under three hours (two hours and 55 minutes, to be exact). With the essay, it is three hours and 40 minutes. If you factor in the two short breaks, the entire testing experience should take about four hours.
What is the order of the ACT sections?
The ACT is always given in the same order: the English test is first, followed by Mathematics, Reading, and Science. If the optional writing test has been selected, it will always be last.
Will I get a break during the ACT?
Yes, you will get one 10-minute break after the second test (math). If you’re taking the optional essay, you will also get a short break before you begin writing.
Can I retake the ACT?
Yes, you can retake the ACT up to 12 times. If you weren’t happy with your score the first time you took the test, it’s definitely worth giving it another try, especially since the ACT has introduced superscoring for any tests taken after September 2016. Superscoring allows you to keep your best subject score from each ACT test attempt, so you don’t have to worry about getting a lower score on a section if you did well the first time.