Inside the ACT

  • Posted By: Celena Alduenda
  • January 9, 2020

One critical aspect of test preparation is familiarizing yourself with the test so there are no surprises on test day. Knowing what to expect for each section of the test builds confidence and prevents lost time.

First, let’s look at a basic breakdown of the test.

Section Time Questions Average Time Spent*
English 45 minutes 5 passages + 75 questions 36 seconds/question
Mathematics 60 minutes 60 questions 60 seconds/question
Reading 35 minutes 4 sections + 40 questions ~180 seconds/question
~35 seconds/question
Science 35 minutes 6-7 passages + 40 questions ~90 seconds/passage
~37-40 seconds/question
Writing (OPTIONAL) 40 minutes 1 prompt N/A

*Average time spent is based on dedicating the same amount of time to each passage and question, which will not always be the case. Some passages and questions require more time, while others require less. The average time spent should be used as a guideline, rather than a hard-and-fast rule.

Now, we’ll closely examine each section.


The English section consists of 5 passages and 75 multiple-choice questions and tests conventions of standard English, production of writing, and knowledge of language. The questions may refer to an underlined portion of the passage, a section of the passage, or the passage as a whole.

Here are the subjects you can expect on the English section:

  • Conventions of Standard English 51-56%
    • Punctuation
    • Sentence Structure and Formation
    • Usage
  • Production of Writing 29-32%
    • Organization, Unity, and Cohesion
    • Topic Development
  • Knowledge of Language 13-19%


The Mathematics section consists of 60 multiple-choice questions.

Here are the subjects you can expect on the Mathematics section:

  • Preparing for Higher Math 57-60%
    • Algebra 12-15%
    • Functions 12-15%
    • Geometry 12-15%
    • Statistics and Probability 8-12%
    • Number and Quantity 7-10%
  • Integrating Essential Skills 40-43%
  • Modeling >25%

You are allowed to use a calculator on the Mathematics section. It is important to know your calculator. When you are practicing for the test, use the calculator you will use on test day. You don’t want to waste time figuring out how to use your calculator during the test. Also, make sure your calculator has new batteries. And of course, check if your calculator is permitted. You can review the ACT calculator policy


The Reading section consists of 4 passages and 40 multiple-choice questions. Start with the passage that’s easiest for you. The passage types are always the same, so you can predetermine the order in which you complete them and their accompanying questions. It is not uncommon for the Reading section to go unfinished, so you want to make sure you allot time to the questions you are more likely to answer correctly.

Here are the four passage types for the Reading section:

  • Literary Narrative or Prose Fiction
  • Social Studies
  • Humanities
  • Natural Science

Here’s an example of a plan for the Reading section:

Let’s say science is one of your strong suits and social studies is not. Start with the science passage, work through the other passages, and then end with the social studies passage. You might even be able to order all of the passages according to strengths and weaknesses, but at the very least, choose a starting passage and a passage to leave for the end.


The Science section consists of 6-7 passages and 40 multiple-choice questions. The section covers these branches of science: biology, chemistry, Earth/space science, and physics.

Here are three types of passage you can expect to see on the Science section:

  • Research summaries 45-55%
  • Data representation 30-40%
  • Conflicting viewpoints 15-20%

Here are the skills that are tested on the Science section:

  • Interpretation of Data 45-55%
  • Evaluation of Models, Inferences, and Experimental Data 25-35%
  • Scientific Investigation 20-30%


The Writing section of the ACT is optional because some colleges and universities require an ACT writing sample and others do not. Find out more about the ACT Writing section.

Now that you know a bit more about the ACT, it’s time to start practicing!

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