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Breaking Down the ACT


With all of the talk of test prep and college readiness, high school students often sign up for standardized entrance exams like the ACT and the SAT, but have no idea what either test truly entails. Let’s examine the ACT in more detail.

The ACT has four required sections (English, math, science and reading) and one optional writing section. Each of the required sections is scored 1-36, the average score on those sections range from 20-22.

  1. English– The English section of the ACT features 75 multiple choice questions to be completed in 45 minutes. The test consists of 5 passages to read with 15 questions to answer per passage. The test is broken down into two areas: usage and mechanics and rhetorical skills. The usage and mechanics section tests punctuation, grammar and usage, and sentence structure. The questions will involve identifying mistakes with parallel structure, clauses and misplaced modifiers. The rhetorical skills section tests writing strategies, organization and writing style.
  2. Math– The math section of the ACT features 60 questions to be completed in 60 minutes, The test is designed to test the math skills learned by students in grades 9-11. Here is the break down of number of questions per category:
    • 13-14 pre-algebra
    • 10-11 elementary algebra
    • 9 intermediate algebra
    • 9 coordinate geometry
    • 13-14 planar geometry
    • 4-5 trigonometry
  3. Science– The science section of the ACT features 40 multiple choice questions to be completed in 35 minutes. This section is about science knowledge as much as it is about reasoning and interpreting data. The test is comprised of seven passages containing data which is used to answer the questions. The data is represented in different forms: charts, graphs, tables and text. There are three passages called data representation, three passages called research and one passage with conflicting viewpoints. The science section covers topics learned in biology, chemistry, physics and earth sciences.
  4. Reading– The reading section of the ACT consists of 40 questions to be completed in 35 minutes. The section is comprised of 4 passages containing approximately 90 lines. This section tests reading comprehension. To do well on this section test takers should be able to identify the main idea of a passage, the author’s purpose and make inferences about the text. Having a strong vocabulary is also helpful in this section.
  5. Writing– This optional writing section of the ACT consists of just one writing prompt. Test takers are asked to write a response to the prompt in just 30 minutes. Even though this section is optional, students should go ahead and take this section. It’s only an additional 30 minutes testing time and students have been writing similar essays for their individual state testing since middle school. This essay is no more difficult than any of the writing prompts they have encountered during state testing. Also, it is important to note that while the test is optional, the test is now required at certain schools. It’s better to be prepared now than sorry later.

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Written by

Kelly Short is a 20-year advocate of public education and has been happily teaching journalism and photography to high school student journalists. She, also, advised numerous award winning student publications during her career.


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