Breaking Down the ACT

Jeremy Caldwell ‘19, Tufts University

The ACT is one of two main standardized tests that most colleges might ask for when applying. It’s not as popular as the SAT, but it could be a better choice for you to take. Let’s review the format of the ACT.


The ACT is split into five sections (four required sections and one optional essay), each of which is graded on a scale from 1-36. The first four sections are then averaged together to get one overall score from 1-36. You can’t lose points on the ACT for getting a wrong answer.


For the English section, you have 45 minutes to answer 75 questions. If that seems like a lot, that’s because the ACT focuses more on time management and quick thinking than the SAT. Each of the questions in this section is multiple choice with 4 answer choices. 

The questions in this section are organized into 5 sets of 15 questions, each following a short reading passage. The questions will focus mostly on grammar and punctuation, with some questions about sentence structure and word choice. For this section, it’s helpful to study how to combine sentence clauses, proper use of punctuation (:;-,), verb conjugations, and transition words between sentences/paragraphs, since these are the most common types of questions. 


Next is the math section, where you have 60 minutes to answer 60 questions. While all questions are worth the same, the math section is organized in order of difficulty, so make sure to leave time for the end of this section since those questions will probably take longer to answer. This section is also multiple choice, but there are 5 answer choices for each question. 

About one third of the questions in this section will involve modelling, or interpreting diagrams and graphs. The questions are split fairly evenly between different areas of math: numbers, algebra, geometry, functions, and statistics.


After the English and Math sections, you’ll be given a short break. Now is a great time to run to the bathroom, stretch your legs, and have a snack. No matter what, don’t just stay at your desk. There are still three sections to go, so take the chance to move around and clear your head. You’ve got this!


The Reading section might seem pretty similar to the English section, but it focuses more on your reading comprehension skills. You’ll have 35 minutes to answer 40 questions, split between 4 reading passages. Like the English section, each question is multiple choice with 4 options.

Most of the questions will focus on key ideas and details from the readings, so circle anything that stands out while reading. Some questions will also focus on the technical aspects of the writing, like the structure of the passage. You may also be asked to compare two shorter passages. 

Unlike the SAT, the ACT doesn’t focus much on difficult vocabulary. There might be vocabulary questions in the Reading section, but they’ll be based on words in the passage that you can define using context clues.


Like the Reading section, you’ll have 35 minutes to answer 40 questions. If science isn’t your favorite subject, don’t worry. Most of these questions focus on interpreting graphs and data, not memorizing concepts or formulas; many will also involve more close reading, which is why it’s paired with the Reading section. 

Each question will be multiple choice with 4 options, and will be split fairly evenly among different sciences like geology, biology, chemistry, and physics. About a quarter of the questions will also involve the scientific method. For example, you might have to read a paragraph and figure out the hypothesis and methods. 


If you aren’t doing the writing section, you’re done – congratulations! If not, you only have 40 minutes to go, but make sure to stretch your hand. 


The Writing section is your last push, and focuses on your ability to make an argument and defend it. You’ll be given three passages that discuss different perspectives on a contemporary issue. Then, you’ll have 40 minutes to write your own perspective and connect it to at least one of the other perspectives. 

While you’ll be graded on the quality of writing and the organization of your argument, students tend to do better in this section when they discuss two or three of the perspectives and how they connect to each other. Even if you disagree with a perspective, mention how it might be connected to yours and what you can learn from it, or why you might disagree with it. This shows that you thought critically about several perspectives before offering your own.

Key takeaways

The ACT might seem like a lot to process, but think of it like a time management test, like multiplication tables. Every question is worth the same, so start by answering the ones that feel easier to you. Then take your time with the remaining questions – some of the sections offer you clues to the right answers, so look closely at questions and passages. Most importantly, pace yourself. This test is long, but you’ll get through it if you stay focused! As with any other test, practice can also be one of the best ways to get ahead. Check out some test prep options here. As long as you stay organized and get familiar with the structure of the ACT, you’ll be able to enter the test room feeling confident!