The Content and Structure of the ACT
The Content and Structure of the ACT
The ACT consists of four multiple-choice “Subject Tests” covering English, Math, Reading, and Science Reasoning. As we’ve already mentioned, there will also be a new “optional” writing section at the very end of the test. These Subject Tests will always appear on the ACT in the order in which we just named them. In this section, we’ll give you brief introductions to the subject tests and the material they cover. First, though, we’ll briefly discuss the unvarying content of the test.
The writers of the ACT pride themselves on the regularity and predictability of their tests. They claim that every test has the same breakdown of question types. For example, every English Subject Test will contain ten punctuation questions, and every Math Subject Test will contain four trigonometry questions. The ACT writers believe that it is very important to maintain these numbers exactly. They will not vary.
The essentially unchanging content of the ACT means you can be thoroughly prepared for the test. The ACT doesn’t want to trick you. They want to tell you exactly what will be on the test and give you every chance in the world to prepare for the test. The ACT wants to test your knowledge, and it makes sense that the best way to do that is to let you know precisely what you need to know and then see how well you can learn it. You won’t be caught off guard by unfamiliar material on test day.
You can also take advantage of the regularity of the ACT to help you pinpoint your weaknesses on the test by using practice tests. We explain how to use practice tests as a powerful study tool in the chapter called “Practice Tests are Your Best Friends,” which is located just before the practice tests at the back of this book.
The English Subject Test (75 Questions, 45 Minutes)
The English Subject Test contains five reading passages containing grammatical and stylistic errors. Each passage is accompanied by fifteen questions. You are given 45 minutes to answer these 75 questions. The questions ask you to make corrections to the text through your multiple-choice options.
The English Test assesses your understanding of the basic grammar of the English language, as well as your grasp of the tools and strategies a writer can use to put sentences together to form paragraphs and arguments. The ACT calls grammar “Usage/Mechanics” and essay writing skills “Rhetorical Skills.” The English Subject Test includes 40 questions on Usage/Mechanics and 35 on Rhetorical Skills. These two types of question can be further broken down into the following categories:
Subject Number of Questions
Usage/Mechanics 40
Punctuation 10
Basic Grammar and Usage 12
Sentence Structure 18
Rhetorical Skills 35
Strategy 12
Organization 11
Style 12
Total 75
Perhaps the only category that isn’t self-explanatory is Strategy, which tests your understanding of a writer’s strategic decisions in putting together a passage; the rest of the categories should be fairly obvious. All the above categories are covered in great detail in our chapter on the English Test.
What the English Test Really Tests
The English Test assesses your sense of correct English writing. You do not have to memorize esoteric grammatical terminology in order to do well on this Subject Test. You do not need to know, for example, an appositive from a prepositional phrase. Though you don’t need to know precise grammatical terms and definitions, a good intuitive grounding in grammar is important for doing well on this Subject Test. For that reason, in “The ACT English Test,” we provide you with a grammar refresher course that is tailored to the grammar you’ll encounter on the ACT.
The Optional Writing Test (1 Essay Question, 30 Minutes)
In a nutshell, you are given 30 minutes to construct an essay based on a given issue. The issue will be relevant to your life as a high school student. You can either choose to support the perspective given on the issue or provide one of your own from your own experience. Two “raters” will score your essay on a scale of 1–6. These raters have been trained and certified to evaluate your writing specifically for this test. The two scores from the raters are then added together to make up your subscore, ranging from 2–12. If the two raters arrive at a substantially different score, a third rater will be brought in.
Your score on the Writing Test will be incorporated into your English subject score. You will also see a writing subscore separate from the English score on your test results. Your essay will be scanned and made available online so schools can look it up and see exactly what you wrote (and how bad your handwriting is). For more information on how to beat the Writing Test, look at the new section at the end of the English Review.
The Math Test (60 Questions, 60 Minutes)
The Math Subject Test covers six areas of high school math: pre-algebra, elementary algebra, intermediate algebra, coordinate geometry, plane geometry, and -trigonometry. The test will cover these topics according to the following breakdown:
Subject Number of Questions
Pre-Algebra 14
Elementary Algebra 10
Intermediate Algebra 9
Coordinate Geometry 9
Plane Geometry 14
Trigonometry 4
Total 60
As you can see, the majority of questions deal with pre-algebra, elementary algebra, and plane geometry, which are topics usually covered at the beginning of high school. The other three topics—intermediate algebra, coordinate geometry, and trigonometry—constitute only 22 of the 60 questions on the test. You should learn these more difficult topics by the end of junior year in high school. If you have not learned trigonometry by that time, don’t sweat it: there are only four trig questions on the test, and four questions won’t ruin your score. Our chapter on the Math Test includes an in-depth review of all of these topics.
The Math Test differs from the other Subject Tests in two significant ways:
  1. Calculator use is allowed.
  2. There are five answer choices for each question, rather than four.
Later in the guide, we’ll discuss how these differences should affect your strategy on the Math Test.
The Reading Test (40 Questions, 35 Minutes)
The Reading Test consists of four passages, each approximately 750 words long. The passages cover Prose Fiction, Social Science, Humanities, and Natural Science. These passages always appear in the above order, and they are given equal weight in scoring. Each passage is accompanied by ten questions of varying levels of difficulty. You are given 35 minutes to read the four passages and answer the 40 questions.
Unlike the English and Math Tests, the Reading Test evaluates a set of skills you’ve acquired rather than subjects you’ve learned. As the name of this Subject Test implies, these skills are your ability to read and to comprehend different types of passages. The Reading Test assesses these skills through a variety of questions that ask you to:
  1. Identify details and facts
  2. Draw inferences from given evidence
  3. Make character generalizations
  4. Identify the main idea of a section or the whole passage
  5. Identify the author’s point of view
  6. Identify cause-effect relationships
  7. Determine the meaning of unfamiliar words through context
  8. Make comparisons and analogies
The Science Reasoning Test (40 Questions, 35 Minutes)
Despite its intimidating name, Science Reasoning doesn’t test your understanding of any scientific field. Instead, the Subject Test assesses your ability to “reason like a scientist” or to test your ability to understand and analyze data. All of the information you need to know for the Science Reasoning Test will be presented in the questions. You just have to dig it out.
The Science Reasoning Test consists of seven passages that contain a mixture of graphs, charts, and explanatory text. Each passage is followed by five to seven questions. You will encounter three different types of passages on the test:
  • Data Representation Passages. The three Data Representation passages are each accompanied by five corresponding questions. These passages ask you to understand and use information presented in graphs or tables.
  • Research Summaries Passages. The three Research Summaries passages each come with six questions. These passages put scientific data in the context of an experiment; the questions are similar to those in Data Representation, but they demand a greater degree of analysis from you. They require you to evaluate an experimental design.
  • Conflicting Viewpoints Passage. The one Conflicting Viewpoints passage is accompanied by seven questions. This type of passage presents you with two or three alternative theories on a natural phenomenon. The questions test your understanding of the differences between the viewpoints and ask you to evaluate the soundness of the arguments.
You are given 35 minutes to read the seven passages and answer the 40 questions.
Science Reasoning “Content”
The ACT says that the Science Reasoning passages cover biology, earth/space sciences, chemistry, and physics. This is true, but the subject matter of the passages is largely irrelevant to what you’re trying to accomplish. In “The Science Reasoning Test,” we will teach you how to see through the confusing scientific terminology and strike at the heart of the matter—the data.
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