Let’s Ace the ACT!
Note: This is a modified version of the ACT guide Magoosh gives to its instructors and tutors. There is a lot of information here that ACT students will find useful.
(Original guide written by Matthew Slayton)
Table of Contents
- ACT: Background
- ACT Scoring
- Difference Between SAT and ACT
- Rescheduling & Cancellation
- Preparing for Test Day
- Sending and Receiving Scores
- Study Schedules
- All about ACT English
- All about ACT Math
- All about ACT Reading
- All about ACT Science
- All about ACT Writing
The ACT began in 1959 as a competitor for the SAT. Though historically it was more commonly taken by students in the midwest and south, it overtook the SAT in number of total test takers in 2011. It is accepted in place of the SAT by all undergraduate programs at universities and colleges. (Students should always check if this policy is true, especially at an “off the beaten path” school or program).
We have an excellent blog post on all of the differences between the SAT and ACT (link). For students who want some kind of top-down perspective here is one useful section of this blog post (further details can be found in the next section, ‘Differences Between the SAT and ACT’):
The ACT might be easier for you than the SAT if:
- You are really fast at your work. You generally don’t have trouble running out of time on tests at school and you are a fast reader. The ACT, in many ways, is still a more straightforward test, provided you can finish it in time.
- You like science and are good at interpreting data and trends. Yes, I know I said above that you don’t need to know much science to do well on the ACT Science section. This is still true, but it doesn’t hurt to be interested in what you are reading. Students who may not be a fan of science, but are really good at seeing the trends in graphs and tables and being able to deduce the next step in a process are also likely to be successful at ACT Science.
- You are glued to your calculator in math class. The prospect of the no-calculator section and the grid-ins on the SAT might be a bit more intimidating for you.
The SAT might be easier for you than the ACT if:
- You’re not a fast reader, but you’re a good reader. You can understand readings pretty well when you take your time. While you may not be able to take all the time you’d like on the SAT, you will encounter more complex passages on the SAT vs the ACT. This combined with the slightly shorter passages on the SAT, and the slightly longer time period you have to answer questions, could make the SAT a better choice.
- You’re good at mental math. You’ll be able to breeze through the no-calculator section with confidence while other students sweat.
- You’re good at reading between the lines and finding traps. The SAT, while not as tricky as it was in the past, still has some tricks up its sleeve. And the better you are at standardized test games, the better you’ll be at the SAT.
Ultimately, the best approach is to take a practice test of each to see which they tend to score higher on, and then focus their studies on that test.
The ACT has four sections plus an optional essay. English (75 questions, 45 minutes), then Math (60 questions, 60 minutes), Reading (40 questions, 35 minutes), and Science (40 questions, 35 minutes), and the Writing/optional essay (40 minutes). The total test time is 3 hours 35 minutes.
Each section is scored from 1 to 36, and the composite score is an average of English, Math, Reading, and Science. The essay section which used to be out of 36 is now out of 12, but it is not factored into the English or Composite score. The score report will have a combined English/Writing score as well.
Differences Between SAT and ACT
Differences between the SAT and ACT can be found here: ACT vs. SAT: ultimate Guide to Choosing the Right Test. One major difference is that the ACT is a faster-paced test. Approximately 50s per question compared with 1 minute 10 seconds per question on the SAT. Next it’s best to go section by section:
ACT English - easier passages, only text
SAT Writing - range of passage difficulty, includes charts/figures
ACT Math - includes some Algebra II and Trig (details below in the ACT Math section. Don’t worry, they’re almost always basic!). You can use a calculator on the entire section. Finally, all questions are multiple choice.
SAT Math - includes some Algebra II and Trig as well, but less than the ACT. You can only use a calculator on the calculator section (which is one of two total math sections). There are plenty of multiple choice questions, and grid-ins (where you supply the answer) as well.
ACT Reading - four long passages of advanced high school difficulty.
SAT Reading - five long passages of varying difficulty from early high school to college. There is also a question type only seen on the SAT: Command of Evidence.
*Both will have a set of paired passages that you’ll need to compare.
ACT Science - as you’ll see below, this section requires ‘almost’ no science knowledge (a handful of questions might rely on basic knowledge). It’s generally about interpreting tables, figures, and written scientific hypotheses.
SAT - there’s no science on the SAT, but there will be charts and figures throughout the test, so this type of reasoning isn’t completely avoidable :)
ACT Essay - focused on debating/arguing for a position. You’ll need to evaluate perspectives (positions on the issue) in making your own argument, but the focus is on your thesis.
SAT Essay - rather than making an argument yourself, you’ll need to analyze another argument, discussing what features make it successful.
If you’re not sure which test to take, the number one way to choose one test over the other is to take one full-length practice test under realistic testing conditions each and see which is better for a particular student. (A conversion chart between Old SAT, New SAT, and ACT can be found here).
The ACT is offered seven times a year. For easy reference, the current dates are listed below (and will be updated annually). Note: the ACT never occurs on the same Saturday as the SAT, but they do occur in the same month. There is no SAT in September, February, April, June, or July when there IS an ACT. Students who are taking both frequently take the ACT in those months. Students and parents can register for the ACT online here by making an ACT account. Students requiring accommodations (such as extra time) should go here. You can find international test dates, testing locations, and all other registration info here. The ACT without the writing section costs $46, and the ACT with the writing section costs $62.50. International tests cost $57.70, and score reports for the 5th and 6th colleges are $13 each. For a complete list of 2020-2021 test dates, visit our post: ACT Test Dates
or go directly to the ACT site.
Rescheduling and Cancellation
Students may take the ACT 12 times in total, which includes test dates that were cancelled. This is a lifetime limit. That’s different from the SAT which has no lifetime limit. It’s possible to appeal this using the Retest Exception Request Form. It is also possible to make changes to your profile, test date, etc. The policies regarding changes can be found here. Late registration in the US and Canada costs $29.50, and Standby testing costs $53.00 Changing a test date or test center costs $26. Fee Waivers and State Vouchers are available for qualifying students.
Preparing for Test Day
A detailed list of what is required/allowed on test day can be found here, but here are a few highlights. Students must bring the following:
- Bring a printed copy of your ticket to the test center. If you have lost your ticket, you can print another through your ACT web account. If you do not bring your ticket, your scores will be delayed.
- Bring acceptable photo identification. You will not be admitted to test if your ID does not meet ACT requirements.
- Bring sharpened, soft lead No. 2 pencils with good erasers (no mechanical pencils or ink pens). Do not bring any other writing instruments; you will not be allowed to use them. If you are registered for the ACT with the writing section, your essay must also be completed in pencil.
- Bring a watch to pace yourself, but do not bring a watch with an alarm. If your alarm sounds during testing, you’ll be dismissed and your answers will not be scored. No watch? No problem. The supervisor in standard time rooms will announce when you have five minutes remaining on each test.
- Bring a permitted calculator to be used on the mathematics test only. It is your responsibility to know whether your calculator is permitted. Please refer to the ACT Calculator Policy (PDF). To make it even easier to figure out, you are not required to use a calculator at all.
Acceptable forms of photo ID include: current official photo ID, ACT student identification form with photo, and ACT Student Talent Search Identification Form. Students must arrive by the start time (which is usually 8am). There is a scheduled break between the first two tests. Students who are taking the ACT without writing are usually done by 12:15pm, and students taking the test with writing are usually done by 1:15pm. The calculator policy can be found here: Calculator Policy (PDF).
Sending and Receiving Scores
Most scores are available online two weeks after the test date. Below are the score report dates for the current season (will be updated annually):
Score Report Dates
Score reports cost $13 per test date per report. There is a priority report for $16.50 that is supposed to arrive 3-4 business days later. Where I (author of this document) used to work, it was a belief that the “rush” option was not actually any faster than the standard option, and we advised students never to use it. You can send up to four score reports for free, but they send before you get to see the scores. There’s a great blog post that explains the costs and benefits of the score reports, including the free score reports. :)
Don’t forget to direct students to our Magoosh ACT Study Schedules. Don’t forget to remind them that’s it’s ok to customize them to fit their needs and personal schedules. :)
All About ACT English
The ACT English is quick with 75 multiple-choice questions (with four options) in 45 minutes. It consists of five passages with underlined grammar and style ‘mistakes.’ Students must identify the mistake (or “no change”) from the four options. Our HS blog has tons of great resources, starting here: ACT English and ACT Study Guide. The best way to approach this section is to learn the grammar and style rules that the ACT tests one by one. They call it the “conventions of standard English (punctuation, usage, and sentence structure), production of writing (topic development, organization, unity, and cohesion), and knowledge of language (word choice, style, and tone).” A complete list of the standards and topics from act.org can be found here. For a good place to start, check out: How to Get a Perfect 36 on ACT English: An Intergalactic Guide. Here’s a video explaining the difference between ACT English and the SAT Writing.
Finally, here are the question types from the Magoosh Complete Guide to ACT Question Types:
Content-wise, there are two basic question types on the ACT English test: first, those that test your knowledge of proper English grammar and usage, and second, those that test your understanding of good writing. The former are categorized as Usage/Mechanics questions and the latter are called Rhetorical Skills questions.
- Punctuation: these questions are about identifying and correcting misplaced, missing, or unnecessary commas, apostrophes, colons, semicolons, dashes, periods, question marks, and exclamation points.
- Grammar and usage: these questions are mostly about subject/verb agreement, pronoun agreement, cases and forms, adjectives, adverbs, verb forms, comparative and superlative modifiers, and idioms.
- Sentence structure: these questions are mostly about the relationships between independent and dependent clauses, run-on sentences, comma splices, sentence fragments, misplaced modifiers, shifts in verb tense or voice, and shifts in pronoun person or number
- Strategy: these questions are about the choices and strategies a writer makes in putting together an essay. They are often about the appropriateness of a sentence or the overall essay in terms of the essay’s purpose, focus and audience, or about the effect of adding, deleting, or revising phrases and sentences in the essay.
- Organization: these questions typically have to do with the order and coherence of sentences or paragraphs within an essay, or where a phrase should go within a sentence.
- Style: these questions are about choosing the most effective choice in terms of style, tone, clarity and conciseness. Pro tip: always eliminate wordiness and redundancy on the ACT.
All About ACT Math
The ACT Math is another quick section with 60 multiple-choice questions (with five options) in 60 minutes. Historically the ACT Math is considered to be more straightforward than the SAT Math (fewer tricks), but covers more advanced material. Topics covered can be found here (Magoosh resource). Here is a complete list of topics covered from act.org:
Content Covered by the ACT Mathematics Test
Eight reporting categories are addressed in the mathematics test. A brief description and the approximate percentage of the test devoted to each reporting category are given below.
Preparing for Higher Math (57–60%)
This category captures the more recent mathematics that students are learning, starting when students begin using algebra as a general way of expressing and solving equations. This category is divided into the following five subcategories.
- Number & Quantity (7–10%)
Demonstrate knowledge of real and complex number systems. Students will understand and reason with numerical quantities in many forms, including integer and rational exponents, and vectors and matrices.
- Algebra (12–15%)
Solve, graph, and model multiple types of expressions. Students will employ many different kinds of equations, including but not limited to linear, polynomial, radical, and exponential relationships. The student will find solutions to systems of equations, even when represented by simple matrices, and apply their knowledge to applications.
- Functions (12–15%)
The questions in this category test knowledge of function definition, notation, representation, and application. Questions may include but are not limited to linear, radical, piecewise, polynomial, and logarithmic functions. Students will manipulate and translate functions, as well as find and apply important features of graphs.
- Geometry (12–15%)
Define and apply knowledge of shapes and solids, such as congruence and similarity relationships or surface area and volume measurements. Understand composition of objects, and solve for missing values in triangles, circles, and other figures, including using trigonometric ratios and equations of conic sections.
- Statistics & Probability (8–12%)
Describe center and spread of distributions, apply and analyze data collection methods, understand and model relationships in bivariate data, and calculate probabilities, including the related sample spaces.
Integrating Essential Skills (40–43%)
These questions address concepts typically learned before 8th grade, such as rates and percentages; proportional relationships; area, surface area, and volume; average and median; and expressing numbers in different ways. Students will solve problems of increasing complexity, combine skills in longer chains of steps, apply skills in more varied contexts, understand more connections, and become more fluent.
This category represents all questions that involve producing, interpreting, understanding, evaluating, and improving models. Each question is also counted in other appropriate reporting categories above. This category is an overall measure of how well students use modeling skills across mathematical topics.
See sample questions and test tips.
Students are frequently worried about the Algebra II and Trigonometry questions, but they are usually straightforward. Students should know how to find sin, cos, and tan of an angle in a triangle, the basic trig identities, graphs of the three core trig functions, and the unit circle. Students can also check out these posts: ACT Math Trigonometry and ACT Math Algebra: Everything You Need to Know. Questions increase in difficulty over the course of the section, so here is an example of a hard problem:
Students can gauge the hardest difficulty by going to this post: Hard ACT Math Problems.
Finally, here is a list of question types from the Magoosh Complete Guide to ACT Question Types:
Structurally speaking, all of the ACT Math questions are basically the same. They are all multiple choice, but what most students want to know is what topics are tested on the Math test, so here we go.
- Pre Algebra: questions are mostly about basic operations, decimals, fractions, square roots, factors, ratios, percents, one variable equations, simple counting techniques and probability, and understanding basic descriptive statistics.
- Elementary Algebra: questions are mostly about exponents and square roots, evaluating algebraic expressions through substitution, using variables to express relationships and factoring quadratic equations.
- Intermediate Algebra: questions are mainly about understanding the quadratic formula, rational and radical expressions, absolute value equations and inequalities, sequences, systems of equations, quadratic inequalities, roots of polynomials, complex numbers, and matrices.
- Coordinate Geometry: questions are mostly about graphs of points, lines, polynomials, circles and quadratics, graphing inequalities, slope, parallel and perpendicular lines, distance between points, midpoints and some conics.
- Plane Geometry: questions are mainly about angles, and the relationships among parallel and perpendicular lines, properties of circles, triangles, rectangles, parallelograms and trapezoids, transformations, volume and three-dimensional geometry.
- Trigonometry: a handful of questions are on basic trig functions, right triangles, graphing trig functions, solving basic trigonometric equations and using basic trig identities.
For oodles of posts with tips and strategies for ACT Math, check out our ACT Math page.
All About ACT Reading
The ACT Reading has 40 multiple-choice questions (with four options) in 35 minutes. There are four passages, each with a subject area or theme: Literary Narrative, Humanities, Social Science, and Natural Science. It’s a critical reading test, and in that way is most similar to other tests that have critical reading. Students can start here: How to Get a Perfect 36 on the ACT Reading Test: The Tropical Guide. Also, here is the breakdown of the areas covered and a link sample questions from act.org:
Content Covered by the ACT Reading Test
The reading test assesses skills in three reporting categories: Key Ideas and Details, Craft and Structure, and Integration of Knowledge and Ideas. A brief description and the approximate percentage of the test devoted to each reporting category are given below.
Key Ideas and Details (55–60%)
Read texts closely to determine central ideas and themes. Summarize information and ideas accurately. Read closely to understand relationships and draw logical inferences and conclusions including understanding sequential, comparative, and cause-effect relationships.
Craft and Structure (25–30%)
Determine word and phrase meanings, analyze an author’s word choice rhetorically, analyze text structure, understand authorial purpose and perspective, and analyze characters’ points of view. Students will interpret authorial decisions rhetorically and differentiate between various perspectives and sources of information.
Integration of Knowledge and Ideas (13–18%)
Understand authors’ claims, differentiate between facts and opinions, and use evidence to make connections between different texts that are related by topic. Some questions will require students to analyze how authors construct arguments, evaluating reasoning and evidence from various sources.
See sample questions and test tips.
Finally, here is a list of question types from the Magoosh Complete Guide to ACT Question Types:
- Detail: questions that essentially ask you to find a detail in the text.
- Main Idea: questions that ask you to determine the primary message of a paragraph, section or entire passage.
- Comparative Relationships: questions that ask you to compare two or more people, viewpoints, events or theories.
- Cause-Effect Relationships and Sequence of Events: questions that ask you to determine what caused something else or what is the effect of something in the passage.
- Inferences/Generalizations: questions that require you to synthesize information and boil it down to a more concise form.
- Meanings of Words: questions that ask you to determine the meaning of a word in context.
- Author’s Voice, Method, or Purpose: questions that ask you to draw conclusions about the author’s point of view and method, basically how a passage is developed or its purpose.
For more help with ACT Reading, check out our ACT Reading page.
All About ACT Science
The ACT Science has 40 multiple-choice questions (with four options) in 35 minutes. This is probably the most misunderstood section in that it generally does not require any science knowledge. There are, however usually a handful of questions that rely on general science knowledge. These can be difficult to prepare for, but students can start here: ACT Science and Most Frequently Tested ACT Science Topics. It is most similar to the Reading because it involves critical evaluation of passages, as well as figures and tables. It’s most important for students not to be intimidated by the use of science terms and find trends like “compound A is increasing,” or “and therefore heat decreases.” For most questions, no prior knowledge is required, just interpreting a figure. Other questions will involve scientists’ opinions of an experiment, which requires interpreting short passages. It is worth noting (and reminding students) that math plays an important role on the ACT science. Students may need to perform basic math operations, such as adding values from a table or figure. A calculator is not permitted on any section other than the math, so students will need to practice their paper and pencil skills and mental math :)
Here is the breakdown of the areas covered and a link to sample questions from act.org:
Content Covered by the ACT Science Test
The content of the science test includes biology, chemistry, physics, and the Earth/space sciences (for example, geology, astronomy, and meteorology). Advanced knowledge in these subjects is not required, but knowledge acquired in general, introductory science courses is needed to answer some of the questions. The science test stresses science skills and practices over recall of scientific content, complex mathematics skills, and reading ability. A brief description and the approximate percentage of the test devoted to each reporting category is given below.
Interpretation of Data (45–55%)
Manipulate and analyze scientific data presented in tables, graphs, and diagrams (e.g., recognize trends in data, translate tabular data into graphs, interpolate and extrapolate, and reason mathematically).
Scientific Investigation (20–30%)
Understand experimental tools, procedures, and design (e.g., identify variables and controls) and compare, extend, and modify experiments (e.g., predict the results of additional trials).
Evaluation of Models, Inferences, and Experimental Results (25–35%)
Judge the validity of scientific information and formulate conclusions and predictions based on that information (e.g., determine which explanation for a scientific phenomenon is supported by new findings).
Passage Formats on the Science Test
The scientific information is conveyed in one of three different formats.
- Data Representation (30–40%): This format presents graphic and tabular material similar to that found in science journals and texts. The questions associated with this format measure skills such as graph reading, interpretation of scatterplots, and interpretation of information presented in tables.
- Research Summaries (45–55%): This format provides descriptions of one or more related experiments. The questions focus upon the design of experiments and the interpretation of experimental results.
- Conflicting Viewpoints (15–20%): This format presents expressions of several hypotheses or views that, being based on differing premises or on incomplete data, are inconsistent with one another. The questions focus upon the understanding, analysis, and comparison of alternative viewpoints or hypotheses.
See sample questions and test tips.
Finally, here is a list of question types from the Magoosh Complete Guide to ACT Question Types:
- Detail: questions that ask you to find a specific data point on a graph, table, diagram, etc. and report the answer.
- Pattern: questions that ask you to predict a trend or relationship among the given data, generally by finding a point between existing data points or continuing to follow a trend beyond existing data.
- Inference: questions that ask you to draw conclusions from the data, sometimes combining information from multiple figures or experiments, and sometimes evaluating how new information would affect the experiment.
- Scientific method: questions that ask about how experiments are designed, or how experimenters test and interpret data.
- Compare and contrast: questions that only appear on the “Conflicting Viewpoints” passage and ask you to compare various aspects of opposing hypotheses on a scientific phenomenon, or explain how additional information might affect the various arguments presented.
All About ACT Writing
The ACT Writing is 40 minutes, and the prompt gives a topic as well as three perspectives (which are usually pro, middle, and con). The student’s task is to defend a position and incorporate the perspectives. The two most common mistakes are (1) ignoring the perspectives entirely and (2) summarizing the perspectives without making an original argument. The best argument defends a clear thesis and uses the perspectives as material to make that argument, or as jumping-off points or points of contention. Students are evaluated on how well they defend their thesis in an organized and developed essay. Below is an explanation of scoring and scoring criteria from act.org.
Taking the ACT with writing will provide you and the schools to which you have ACT report scores with additional scores. You will receive a total of five scores for this test: a single subject-level writing score reported on a range of 2-12, and four domain scores, also 2-12, that are based on an analytic scoring rubric. The subject-level score will be the rounded average of the four domain scores. The four domain scores are: Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions. An image of your essay will be available to your high school and the colleges to which you have ACT report your scores from that test date.
Taking the writing test does not affect your subject area scores or your Composite score. However, without a writing test score, no English Language Arts (ELA) score will be reported.
Your essay will be evaluated based on the evidence that it provides of your ability to:
- clearly state your own perspective on the issue and analyze the relationship between your perspective and at least one other perspective
- develop and support your ideas with reasoning and examples
- organize your ideas clearly and logically
- communicate your ideas effectively in standard written English
Two trained readers will score your essay on a scale of 1-6 in each of the four writing domains. Each domain score represents the sum of the two readers' scores. If the readers' ratings disagree by more than one point, a third reader will evaluate the essay and resolve the discrepancy.
To prepare, students can start here: Your Magical Guide to Scoring a Perfect 12 on the ACT Essay. Next students can see sample essays, scoring rubrics, and score explanations here. Here is are direct links to the rubric and a sample essay.
Finally, here’s a video comparing the ACT Essay with the SAT Essay.