ACT® Sections and Test Format

The ACT® is a standardized test used by many U.S. colleges and universities as part of the admissions process for undergraduate college programs. In order to get started with your test prep, it is important to first familiarize yourself with how the ACT is structured. Read this comprehensive guide to know everything about the ACT format, sections, duration, question types, and more

How Is the ACT Structured?

The ACT test consists of four compulsory sections plus one optional section: English, Math, Reading, Science, and Writing (optional), lasting for 2 hours 55 minutes (3 hours 35 minutes if you take the Writing section). There are a total of 215 questions on the ACT test. All the questions on the ACT are multiple-choice, and the optional writing section comprises one long essay question.

Below we've broken down each ACT section by the total number of questions and duration.

How is each section scored on the ACT?

Each section of the ACT—English, Math, Reading, and Science is graded separately. One point is awarded for each correct answer, and you don’t lose points for wrong answers or unanswered questions. Once the entire test is scored, the four section scores are averaged to create your ACT final score, ranging from 1-36. Note that the optional essay section score highlights your writing and critical thinking abilities but does not contribute to your final ACT score in any way.

To learn in detail about how the ACT sections are scored, read our ACT scoring guide.

How many versions of the ACT test are there?

The ACT test is available in two versions: paper and online/digital. While the majority of US students take the paper ACT, the online test known as the ACT Computer-Based Test (CBT) is the only version of the ACT available for international students. The paper ACT and CBT are the exact same tests - same sections, duration, types, number of questions, and scoring system. The only difference between the two versions is how these tests are administered. Note that you cannot take the CBT from home on your computer. It needs to be taken at school or a testing center.

It is important to keep in mind that you cannot select which ACT test version you want to take. Here are the current guidelines about who can take the paper test or the CBT.

Test Takers ACT Test Version
US students on national test dates Paper only
US students on a school day May vary depending on state/district
International students (outside US) CBT only

Now that we have covered the overall ACT structure, let's learn more about the format of each ACT section and the kinds of questions you can expect on them.

ACT English Format

The ACT English test is worth 25% of the total test score. It contains a total of 75 questions from five passages to be answered in 45 minutes. The questions in this section evaluate your usage and/or mechanics and rhetorical skills and check your knowledge of grammar rules, punctuation, and sentence construction.

Below is the list of question types you can expect on the English Test:

  1. Production of Writing
    • Topic Development
    • Organization, Unity, and Cohesion
  2. Knowledge of Language
  3. Convention of Standard English
    • Sentence Structure and Formation
    • Punctuation
    • Usage
Viewing how two independent clauses are joined by a comma on the ACT
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ACT Math Format

The ACT Math section accounts for 25% of the total score. It consists of 60 questions to be answered in 60 minutes. Unlike the other multiple-choice sections on the ACT, where you get four answer choices, the math section provides you with five answer choices. This section checks the math knowledge required for a first-year college program. To solve the math questions, you do not need to know all the advanced math concepts, but you should be good at basic formulas and computational skills. Note that you are allowed to use a calculator on the math test.

The following are the math categories that you will find in this section:

  1. Preparing for Higher Math
    • Number & Quantity
    • Algebra
    • Functions
    • Geometry
    • Statistics & Probability
  2. Integrating Essential Skills
  3. Modeling

ACT Reading Format

The ACT Reading test makes up 25% of the total ACT score. It includes 40 questions from four passages to be answered in 35 minutes. These four passages include three standalone passages and one paired set that needs to be read together. This ACT section evaluates your reading and reasoning skills and provides the kind of text you will find in entry-level college courses.

You will find the following five types of questions in the reading section:

  1. Central idea questions
  2. Detailed questions
  3. Vocabulary questions
  4. Function and development questions
  5. Implied ideas questions

ACT Science Format

The ACT Science test contributes to 25% of the total ACT score. It has 40 questions that come from seven passages, and you have 35 minutes to answer them. In this section, you will find problems related to natural sciences like physics, biology, chemistry, geology, astronomy, and meteorology. The questions test your analytical, reasoning, and comprehension skills and require you to interpret data from the graphs, charts, and figures given in the passages.

The three types of questions that you will see in the science section are:

  1. Interpretation of Data
  2. Scientific Investigation
  3. Evaluation of Models, inferences, and experimental results

ACT Writing Format

The ACT Writing section does not affect your total ACT score. It is scored separately by two graders on a scale of 2–12. In this section, you will be given a passage to read and asked to write an essay to express your opinions on the central theme in 40 minutes. You will be assessed on your understanding of the author’s viewpoints and opinions and your ability to build your essay around them.

Your essay will be scored on the following domains:

  1. Idea and analysis
  2. Development and support
  3. Organization
  4. Language use and convention

Now that you know everything about the ACT sections and their format, it is time to start your test prep. By using UWorld’s ACT practice test, you will be able to find thousands of exam-like questions and detailed answer explanations. Our practice test also provides performance tracking tools, which will help you improve your weak areas and achieve your target score. Sign up for your free trial today!

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ACT figure of fly wings during flight
Student studying for the ACT with UWorld
Finding the measure of the angle with a circle and equation graphed in a standard plane

Frequently Answered Questions (FAQs)

The ACT is available in both paper and computer-based versions. While the majority of US students take the ACT on paper, international students are required to take the computer-based version.
You cannot choose which version of the ACT you want to take. There are a few guidelines regarding who can take the paper version or computer-based testing (CBT). In the US, the ACT is primarily a paper test, whereas the online version has been administered internationally since 2018.
The English, Math, Reading, and Science sections on the ACT test consist of multiple-choice questions, whereas the optional Writing section requires you to write a long essay on the given prompt.
It depends on the college that you are applying to. Make sure to read the admission requirements of your prospective colleges before sending in your application.
Even though admission requirements may differ from college to college, most colleges ask you to take a standardized test like the ACT or SA. It is recommended to visit the official website of the colleges of your choice to know their respective admission policies.
If you take the ACT test without the writing section, you will have 2 hours and 55 minutes to complete it.
Not finishing a section may affect your score for that section; however, skipping a section can prevent your test from being graded.

Read More About the ACT Test

Are you planning to take the ACT test? This all-in-one guide will tell you everything about what the ACT is, its importance, and how to score well on it.
Confused about what to study for your ACT test? Read on! This guide explores the syllabus of all the ACT sections, question types, and their weights.
Curious to know about the ACT scoring system? Here is everything you need to know about the composite score, section score, raw score, and scaled score.
Wondering where to begin your ACT prep? Read this one-stop guide to learn all the tips and strategies to study effectively and get your dream score.
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