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What Does the ACT Test Consist Of?

by Karen Farnen, studioD

Some colleges require applicants to take the ACT entrance exams, which are produced by American College Testing. Unlike the College Board's SAT, which tests your reasoning and language abilities, the ACT is an achievement test, meaning it measures what you have already learned. The SAT's three sections cover math, reasoning and writing, but the ACT has four required sections. On the ACT, the English, math, reading and science sections are mandatory, while the writing section is optional.


The English portion of the ACT consists of 75 multiple-choice questions covering punctuation, grammar, sentence structure and rhetorical skills. The rhetorical skills included on the test include organization, style and writing strategies. You'll read five passages of different types, with questions after each one. Some questions refer to the entire passage, while others refer to a short underlined segment or a larger segment. Spelling and vocabulary questions aren't included. You have 45 minutes to complete this section.


The math portion of the ACT covers skills normally learned through the end of the 11th grade in high schools in the U.S. You'll have 60 minutes to answer 60 multiple-choice questions covering basic math formulas and computational skills. Calculators are permitted, but they must conform to ACT guidelines. The math section includes pre-algebra, basic and intermediate algebra, coordinate and plane geometry and trigonometry.


The reading section gives you 35 minutes to answer 40 reading comprehension questions. The section has four parts, each consisting of one or two prose readings typical of first-year college work, plus corresponding questions. The readings come from a variety of sources, including fiction, the humanities, natural sciences and social sciences. In the sections with two readings, some questions are based on both. You'll practice various reading skills, including finding the main idea and details, understanding implications, making generalizations and understanding cause and effect.


The ACT science component tests your ability to reason, analyze, interpret, evaluate and solve problems in 40 questions over 35 minutes. Test-takers should have already completed three years of science, including at a minimum biology and earth science or physical science. The test presents scientific information in various formats, such as tables, graphs, experiment summaries or conflicting viewpoints. Students must understand the information and use critical thinking skills to answer multiple-choice questions. For example, they may have to make predictions or draw conclusions based on a summary or graph.


Not all colleges that use the ACT for admissions require the writing section, but you can find out which ones require it using a search tool on the ACT website. The writing section provides one prompt describing a controversial issue and two different opinions about it. You'll have 30 minutes to write an essay presenting your position -- either one of the two presented or a completely different position. Your choice of position does not affect your score, but you must back up your view with specifics and refute opposing arguments.

About the Author

Karen Farnen has been writing online since 2009. She has taught piano and English as a second language. Farnen has a Bachelor of Arts in French with a music minor from the University of Pittsburgh and a Master of Science in education and a Master of Arts in French from California State University-Fullerton.

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