What is the ACT?

Published Saturday, December 4, 2021 by Katie

The ACT is a standardized test (just like the SAT) consisting of four main sections – English, math reading, science reasoning, and an optional essay. No points are deducted for wrong answers. The test is scored out of 36, with the range of possible scores being 1-36. Each of the four main sections are also scored from 1-36, and these 4 scores are then averaged which gives a student’s composite score. For example, if a student gets a 33 on English, 35 on Math, 34 on Reading, and 36 on Science, the average of these 4 numbers is 34.5, which rounds up to a 35. So, on the official score report, the student will see a 35 as the composite score. The writing section, if taken, is scored on a scale of 2 to 12, much like the SAT; however, the ACT writing score report is accompanied by one to four comments from essay scorers. A combined English and writing score is also given on a scale of 1 to 36.

The English section is 45 minutes long and contains 75 questions. This means the test taker has less time per question on this English section than on the SAT Critical Reading sections. Some of the questions are similar to those found in the SAT CR and Writing sections. For example, questions may test revision of incorrectly structured sentences or sentence fragments, while others test sentence organization in a paragraph. 

Students get 60 minutes to answer 60 questions in the math section, meaning your pace has to be faster than SAT math. Topics covered include pre-algebra, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. Though the topics covered in the ACT are quite similar to those covered in the SAT, the questions possess several nuances. The ACT math section simply tests students’ knowledge on each subject while the SAT math section is generally thought of as more “tricky”—that is, the SAT writers seek to make students apply their knowledge, rather than regurgitate it.

The reading section is 35 minutes long and contains 40 questions. It tests reading comprehension and evaluates students through questions asked about four different types of passages: prose fiction, social science, humanities, and natural science. These problems are quite similar to the long passage readings in the SAT Critical Reading sections.

The science reasoning section is also 35 minutes long and contains 40 questions. Much like the reading section, it tests reading comprehension. However, the topic of all seven passages in this section is natural science. Though the section is intended to test applied science principles, minimal actual scientific knowledge is needed to complete the section. Instead, the sections test data representation of scientific discoveries, summary of conducted research, and “conflicting viewpoints,” much like the double long passage section of the Critical Reading SAT.

Finally, the optional writing section of the ACT is 30 minutes long and contains one essay response to a given prompt. The essay students will write is of the argumentative kind, which many students find easier than the SAT’s analysis type essay. As such, the ACT essay is often favored by students who do better when writing argumentative style paragraphs.


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