What to Expect on the ACT Test

While there is no shortage of colleges or universities for prospective students to choose from, there is also no shortage of competition for admission to the best schools on that list. One way to make yourself stand out from the crowd and seem irresistible to college admission boards is to achieve high scores on the ACT test.

Most colleges and universities use the ACT test results to make decisions about which students to admit to their academic programs. Since higher ACT scores will increase your options for admissions and financial assistance, this is one test you should take seriously.

Knowing what to expect on the ACT test can help you better prepare for optimal achievement. Rather than trying to cram information in a short period of time, like you might for a mid-term or final, ACT prep should focus more on familiarizing yourself with the content of the tests, refreshing your knowledge and skills in the content areas tested and studying content areas that you are less familiar with.

ACT What to Expect

The ACT test, which is administered by ACT, Inc., is a multiple-choice assessment that consists of several subject areas including English, mathematics, reading and science, along with an optional writing component. Each section of the ACT test is timed and is designed to measure the knowledge and skills you have acquired up to that point.

Your ACT results give the college or university to which you are applying an idea of your readiness. Your score is compared to that of other applicants and plays a significant role in your eligibility for admissions along with the GPA you earned in high school, the courses you took, extracurricular activities you participated in, recommendation letters from teachers or mentors and personal essays you have submitted. If taken without the writing component, the duration of the ACT test is two hours and 55 minutes. If taken with the writing section, the duration of the ACT test increases to 3 hours and 35 minutes.

What to Expect on ACT English

The English section of the ACT test consists of 75 questions measuring standard written English and rhetorical skills. Questions in this section will cover things like sentence structure and formation, punctuation, usage, organization, unity and cohesion, topic development and knowledge of language. Rather than test your grammar skills, the ACT English test focuses on your editing skills or your ability to correct grammatical and punctuation errors while improving the organization and style of the passages presented.

It consists of five passages ranging in topics from historical essays to personal narratives. Some questions will ask you to decide if an underlined portion is correct as written or if one of the answer choices would improve it. Other questions require you to add, cut or reorder text. You will have 45 minutes to answer all 75 questions on the English section of the test. The English test results are reported in four scores which include an overall test score based on all questions and three reporting categories measuring specific knowledge and skills.

The three reporting categories include production of writing, knowledge of language and conventions of Standard English. The production of writing reporting category carries an approximate percentage of 29-32 percent and focuses on your mastery of topic development and use of strategies that employ organization, unity and cohesion. About 13-19 percent of the score is devoted to the knowledge of language, which requires you to demonstrate effective language through word choice and consistency in style and tone. Conventions of Standard English is the last reporting category and is worth the most with a weight of approximately 51-56 percent. To score well on the conventions of Standard English category, you need to demonstrate mastery of sentence structure and formation, punctuation and usage.

What to Expect on ACT Math

If you are rusty on your math skills, it might be a good idea to take an ACT math practice test. The math section of the ACT consists of 60 questions that test your readiness to perform successfully in the entry-level mathematics courses at the college level. You can use a calculator on the ACT, but some models and features are prohibited so check the policies for details on what kind of calculator can be used.

The math section is designed to assess the skills you have acquired in courses taken up to the beginning of your senior year in high school. You will have 60 minutes to answer the 60 questions that cover things like essential skills, number and quantity, algebra, functions, geometry and statistics and probability. Like the English test, the mathematics section of the ACT yields an overall score based on all questions answered and then devotes a percentage of the test to eight different reporting categories.

Preparing for Higher Mathematics is a reporting category that covers the most recent mathematics. This category carries the biggest weight with approximately 57-60 percent devoted to it, and it is divided into five subcategories that include number and quantity (seven to 10 percent), algebra (12-15 percent), functions (12-15 percent), geometry (12-15 percent) and statistics and probability (eight to 12 percent). Other reporting categories include integrating essential skills (40-43 percent) and modeling.

What to Expect on ACT Reading

The reading portion of the ACT uses 40 questions to measure how well you can read closely, use evidence to reason about texts in a logical manner and integrate information from various sources. You will be asked to identify and interpret main ideas, and the details that support them.

You will also face tasks that ask you to understand sequences of events, make comparisons, determine the meaning of certain words, comprehend cause and effect relationships, draw conclusions and analyze different kinds of information. The time allotted for the 40-question reading test is 35 minutes. The test consists of three sections that each have one long prose passage and a fourth section with two shorter passages. The types of passages presented are designed to mimic those commonly used in first-year college curricula.

Five scores are reported for the reading test including one overall score for all 40 questions and three reporting categories. Approximately 55-60 percent is devoted to the key ideas and details reporting category, 25-30 percent for the craft and structure category and 13-18 percent for integration of knowledge and ideas.

What to Expect on the ACT Science

The science section of the ACT also uses 40 questions and a 35-minute time limit to measure your skills in and understanding of the natural sciences. The test is comprised of various authentic scientific scenarios, each of which is followed by multiple-choice questions that are designed to determine how well you can interpret, evaluate, analyze, reason and problem-solve in the scientific arena.

The content of the science test includes biology, chemistry, Earth/space sciences and physics. You might worry about not having advanced knowledge in these areas but rest assured that only general background knowledge is required. Unlike the math section, you are not allowed to use a calculator on the science portion of the ACT.

The information is presented in one of three formats that include data representation, research summaries and conflicting viewpoints. The data representation format makes up about 30-40 percent of the test and is comprised of graphic and tabular material like what you might find in scientific journals. This format measures skills like recognizing data patterns, extrapolating data and translating tabular data into graphs. The research summaries format of the science test comprises 45-55 percent of the test and uses descriptions of experiments that you will need to analyze the design of and interpret results.

Finally, conflicting viewpoints makes up about 15-20 percent of the test. This format presents two or more explanations for the same scientific phenomena that are inconsistent with each other either because they are based on different premises or because the data is not complete. Your task in this format is to understand, analyze and compare the alternative viewpoints.

A total of four scores is reported for the science test including one overall score based on all 40 questions and three reporting categories. Approximately 45-55 percent is devoted to the interpretation of data category, 20-30 percent to scientific investigation and 25-35 percent to the evaluation of models, inferences and experimental results.

What to Expect on ACT Writing

If you decide to take the writing component of the ACT test, you would sit for it immediately following your completion of the four multiple-choice tests in the required areas. Your writing score is separate from your scores on the multiple-choice tests and will not affect your Composite score either. In the writing test, you have 40 minutes to write an essay that measures your writing skills.

The test consists of one writing prompt that presents a complex issue and provides three distinctive perspectives on the issue. You need to read the prompt, and then write an essay in which you develop your own unique perspective on the issue. Your work should analyze the relationship between your own perspective and one or more of those that were provided for you. You are permitted to adopt one of the given perspectives as your own, but you will need to develop it in your own way. You may also introduce a completely different perspective if desired. The perspective you choose will not affect your score since the test is measuring your writing skills rather than your opinions.

The writing test reports five scores. One of the five scores is a single subject-level writing score reported on a scale of two to 12. The other scores consist of four domain scores based on an analytic scoring rubric. The rounded average of the four domain scores is used to calculate the subject score. The first writing domain is ideas and analysis, which measures your ability to generate productive ideas and critically engage with multiple perspectives on an issue. To score well in this domain, you need to demonstrate that you are a competent writer who understands the issue, the purpose for writing and the audience. The second domain includes development and support, which measures your ability to discuss ideas, provide a rationale for your ideas and support an argument. A high score in this domain means you successfully helped the reader understand your thinking about the given issue.

Organization is the third writing domain, which measures your ability to clearly and purposefully organize ideas. Arranging your ideas in a logical way that clearly shows the relationship between them and guide the reader through will help ensure a high score in this domain. Language use and conventions make up the final writing domain. Scores in the language use and conventions domain reflect how well you can use written language to clearly convey your arguments. A strong score in this domain requires that you make good use of the conventions of grammar, syntax, word usage and mechanics while maintaining awareness of your audience and adjusting your style and tone as needed to communicate effectively.