The Ultimate Guide: All 5 ACT Sections Explained

Mar 23, 2021

Many students are unaware of the ACT sections. If you are one of them, don’t worry, we will clear your doubts. In this article, we’ll provide you with a comprehensive guide of all ACT sections. Further, we’ll dive deep into each section. Finally, we’ll talk about which ACT sections—and scores—are most significant for you.

ACT Sections: In Brief

There are four sections on the ACT, and every time they are given in the same order: English, Math, Reading, and Science. If you take the ACT with Writing, the Writing section will be at the end. Each section is scored out of 36 points, except for Writing, which is 12.

In terms of the number of questions, English is the longest section, with 75 questions. The longest section concerning time is Math, at 60 minutes. Reading and Science are both 35 minutes long, with 40 questions.

Check out the chart below for a quick understanding of questions and time for each section of ACT: 

ACT Sections

According to the order they appear on the test, let’s take a closer look at each of the ACT sections. We’ll address what’s tested, what question types you might face, and useful for that section.

ACT Section 1: English

The ACT English section has five passages with the following four-choice multiple-choice questions. In the ACT English section, you are the editor: you need to go through the passage make sure that the grammar and punctuation are correct and that the passage is precise, efficient, and rhetorically sound.

The ACT English section tests your two skill areas. First, it tests your knowledge of operation and mechanics—grammar, punctuation, sentence clause structure, and so on. Simply, you have to know the English language rules, and you should implement them correctly.

The second skill area is rhetorical skills—your Director likes the ability to make sure that a passage of writing flows, connects with the audience,  makes sense, and effectively communicates a point.

You’ll get a subscore for your usage, mechanics, and rhetorical skills when you get your ACT scores back.

Question Types

There are six question types on the ACT English section between the two skill areas of usage/mechanics and rhetorical skills you have to look for:

Usage and Mechanics

Punctuation (10-15% of test, 7-12 questions):

These questions will test your knowledge and ability to properly use periods, commas, dashes, apostrophes, colons, and semicolons.

Grammar and usage (15-20% of the test, 12-15 questions): 

Such questions test your knowledge of grammar rules associated with subject-verb agreement, comparatives, superlatives, pronoun use, modifiers, and some idioms. (Check-out our ACT grammar strategies for more specifics).

Sentence structure (20-25% of the test, 15-19 questions):

Here, you’ll be tested on your understanding of the correct relationship between clauses. Your ability to correctly link clauses to make clear and accurate sentences.

Rhetorical Skills

Strategy (15-20% of the test, 12-15 questions): 

Strategy questions target your potential to develop the most precise possible argument. Here, you’ll be asked if the author should add or remove particular material, and then you have to choose the answer that defends your decision. 

Organization (10-15% of the test, 7-12 questions): 

Organization questions test your potential to create a specific introduction and closing sentences for paragraphs and choose the best transitions. In simple terms, you have to make a passage with clear structural signposts.

Style (15-20% of test, 12-15 questions): 

You need to choose the best words, phrases, and images to go with the passage’s tone on such questions. You also have to correct sentences for excessive wordiness and redundancy.

Important English Section Tips

You have to develop a passage strategy.

The English test questions are merged with the passage, and you must develop a reliable, consistent passage strategy. In this method, you have to skim an entire paragraph, then go back and answer all of the questions related to that paragraph. This gives you sufficient context to answer the questions while still being efficient. Remember, you have to figure out what works best for you!

Learn Essential Grammar Rules

While many grammar rules will be tested on the ACT English section, some rules are always repeated. These include rules about forming correct sentences and using proper punctuation, mainly commas. Learning these essential rules inside out will help you to get through the test successfully.

ACT Section 2: Math

There are six key content areas tested on ACT math: Pre-Algebra, Elementary Algebra, Intermediate Algebra, Coordinate Geometry, Plane Geometry, and Trigonometry.

Let’s look at what topics you can expect to see in each content area:

Pre-Algebra: (20-25% of the test, 12-15 questions)

  • Basic operations (think PEMDAS)
  • Place value
  • Calculating square roots and exponents
  • Scientific notation
  • Factors
  • Ratios, proportions, and percents
  • Linear equations with one variable
  • Absolute value and number order
  • Basic counting techniques and only probability
  • Data collection, representation, and interpretation; simple descriptive statistics

Elementary Algebra: (15-20% of test, 9-12 questions)

  • Properties of square roots and exponents
  • Solving algebraic expressions through substitution
  • Using variables to express relationships
  • Understanding basic algebraic operations
  • Solving quadratic equations by factoring

Intermediate Algebra: (15-20% of the test, 9-12 questions)

  • The quadratic formula
  • Rational and radical expressions
  • Absolute value equations and inequalities
  • Sequences and patterns
  • Systems of equations
  • Quadratic inequalities
  • Modeling functions
  • Matrices
  • Roots of polynomials
  • Complex numbers

Coordinate Geometry: (15-20% of test, 9-12 questions)

  • Graphing equations, including lines, circles, polynomials, and other curves
  • Graphing inequalities
  • Properties of lines, including slope and parallel and perpendicular lines
  • Distance and midpoints
  • Conics (parabolas, circles, ellipses, and hyperbolas)

Plane Geometry: (20-25% of the test, 12-15 questions)

  • Properties and relations of plane figures, including angles and relations among perpendicular and parallel lines
  • Properties of circles, triangles, rectangles, parallelograms, and trapezoids
  • Transformations
  • Proofs and proof techniques
  • Simple applications of plane geometry to three dimensions, including volume

Trigonometry: (5-10% of test, 3-6 questions)

  • Right triangles
  • Trigonometric functions: their values and properties, graphing, modeling
  • Trigonometric identities
  • Solving trigonometric equations

Question Types

The questions on the ACT math section are all multiple choice, each five-choice question. Some of these questions will be presented as word problems and simple, straightforward math problems. These questions might have figures, graphs, or charts.

You must also be aware that the questions are organized by difficulty and content. About First 1-20 questions will be “easy,” questions 21-40 will be “medium” difficulty, and questions 41-60 will be “hard.” 

Whether you experience a specific question as easy or difficult depends on you and the different concepts you are familiar with. But overall, more complex problems that take more time to solve come later in the test.

Questions are organized by subject matter. Questions 1-30 will have more algebra and pre-algebra questions, and the second half of the test will have more geometry and trigonometry.

Important ACT Math Section Tips

Memorize Crucial Formula 

The ACT does not provide you any formulas for the math section, so you’ll need to memorize them and you’ll need to use them.

Don’t Forget your Calculator

Generally, you don’t need a calculator to solve any of the math ACT section questions, but having one will make your problem-solving much more comfortable. Always bring the calculator you are familiar with to use it efficiently on the test day. 

Time Management is the Key

You need to solve 60 questions in 60 minutes, which is quite challenging to do in the ACT math section; this can be done only with time management. There are several strategies you can use to help improve your time management skills. Some more tips you help you; 

  • All questions are worth the same amount of points, so focus on faster and comfortable questions to gain maximum points.
  • Don’t waste too much time on one question.
  • If you are not aiming for a high-score, then try to focus your energy on fewer questions. This way, you will feel less of a time crunch.

ACT Section 3: Reading

ACT Reading has and multiple-choice questions that test your reading comprehension skills.

The types of skills you require in ACT Reading;

  • You have to understand and interpret passages on a variety of subjects correctly.
  • One has to interpret the meaning of both small details and a significant theme in a passage.
  • You need to analyze the author’s purpose and tone.

You have four subsections in the actual test. Three subsections will have long passages, and one subsection will have two paired passages. The subsections will come from four different subject areas; 

Prose fiction/literary narrative:

The kind of fiction passages you encounter all the time in English class. Also, some excerpts from literary memoirs.

Social science:

Areas like psychology, sociology, and education.

Humanities:

This includes personal nonfiction pieces like essays and memoirs and nonfiction pieces on philosophy, arts, and literature.

Natural science: 

Topics like biology, chemistry, physics, and medicine.

Out of four topic areas, and could contain the paired passages. However, it seems like literary fiction and humanities are the most recurring areas where you’ll see the paired passages.

Important Reading Section Tips

Passage Evidence

Many students slip up on this section. Here questions seem subjective at first glance. But remember this important thing: all questions have one right answer, and that answer will always be supported by evidence from the passage. Never slip up by the solutions you feel could be right because the passage doesn’t directly contradict them—just pick an answer if you are confident that the passage’s actual content supports it. 

Understand How to Approach a Passage

Develop an effective strategy to approach the passages, which will help you manage time and find the correct answers to questions. You could either skim the passage first or prefer to glance over the problems first. 

Both of these strategies are effective. Remember, we don’t recommend thoroughly read the passage. Every detail of the passage is not required to answer the questions, so reading too closely is a waste of precious time.

ACT Section 4: Science

The Science ACT section evaluates your scientific interpretation skills more than your pre-existing scientific factual knowledge. It includes more reading—of passages, charts, and tables—than anything else! With the help of the information in the passages, you’ll need to apply the scientific method, evaluate theories and interpret data.

There are seven passages in this ACT Science section. Three passages summarize research and experiments (which may or may not include graphs and figures), three passages primarily made up of charts and models, and one paired passage set to narrate conflicting viewpoints on an issue. You can expect around 5-7 questions about each passage.

Question Types

There are eight question types divided into the three passage types in the ACT science section. All are four-choice multiple-choice questions.

Research Summary Passages

These three are related to designing and interpreting experiments.

Experimental Design and Description: 

In these questions, you have to determine why the researcher designed the experiment the way they did. Also, some of these questions ask you to choose the figure that perfectly describes the experimental results.

Hypothetical Experiment: 

Here, you have to predict what would happen if one of the described experiments was changed somehow.

Interpreting Experiments: 

You have to find out if the results of the described experiments support a particular scientific claim and why. 

Data Representation Passages

These three question types are related to reading, interpreting, and working with data.

Factual Questions:

In such questions, you have to identify factual information presented in the graph, chart, table, etc.

Identifying Trends:

Here, you need to read the graph or chart more holistically to determine if there’s a trend or relationship between two factors. Does the graph show one thing increasing while another decreases? Do they both rise or fall together?

Extrapolations: 

In such questions, you have to make a prediction based on what is shown in the graph or chart.

Conflicting Viewpoints Passages

You are reading comprehension questions based on explanations of different perspectives on scientific and empirical issues.

Understanding Viewpoints: 

To check your perception of one of the author’s points of view. 

Comparing Viewpoints: 

To understand the similarities and differences between the two viewpoints.

Important Science Section Tips 

Give attention only to the information you need

You will find much more information than you’ll need to answer the questions. So instead of absorbing every factoid from the passage, it’s better to hone in on the information you need to answer each question.  

Paired Passage for Last

This question will consume a lot of your time because it is difficult to read the passages more closely to compare them accurately. All questions are worth the same amount of marks, so it is better to leave the section that will take the longest for last.

ACT Section: Writing

ACT Writing tests your potential to write a clear, detailed essay that analyzes an issue with a different perspective within a limited 40-minute time period. You’ll then be assessed along with four domains and given a score from 1-6 by two graders, leading to a score out of 12.

Let’s have a look at the breakdown of the section.

The Topic and Prompt

In the ACT Writing section, you’ll be given the topic, which will consist of two parts. First, you’ll get a part introducing an issue of some global or universal importance. It can be primarily philosophical or something that can be argued from various perspectives.

After the opening introductory paragraph, you’ll be given three positions on the topic. 

Finally comes the actual prompt, which is always the same and describes the task you need to finish with the topic information. 

So what’s the task? You have to write an essay that clearly states your view on the problem, analyzes the relationship between your perspective and at least one other idea, and supports your position with well-developed, logical support. You can choose to completely agree with one view, partially approve, or make your different viewpoint.

How Will Your Essay be Evaluated 

Ideas and analysis:

On how well you discussed your viewpoint on the essay topic. A clear thesis is critical for this domain.

Development and support:

How efficiently did you develop your thesis? How well-argued was your position? This domain evaluates how you presented evidence in support of your perspective.

Organization:

The organizational arrangement of your paper. Do your paragraphs come in a logical structure? Do each of your sections make a rational, well-supported point with a topic and concluding sentence?

Language use: 

How well you write English.

Essential Tips for ACT Writing

Become Familiar with the Rubric

If you want to perform great on the ACT Writing section, you should know what the graders will be looking for. So you should know about the rubric for the Writing section.

Pick One of the Three Perspectives

When you can create your viewpoint to argue in your thesis, it’s better to simply choose one of the perspectives offered with the prompt to argue in support of. (You could also blend two viewpoints). This will save you time in coming up with a new argument and make it easy to analyze the relationship between your perspective and the other views.

When choosing between the three perspectives, select the one you think you can support the best.

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