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
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
||Number of Questions
|Basic Grammar and Usage
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
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:
||Number of Questions
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:
Calculator use is allowed.
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
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:
Identify details and facts
inferences from given evidence
the main idea of a section or the whole passage
the author’s point of view
the meaning of unfamiliar words through context
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
- 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