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ACT Sections 101 | How The Test Is Structured

If you’re looking at taking the ACT, then you first need to understand its basic structure. Here are the different ACT sections and what they’ll test you on.

If you’re looking for a shortcut for how to handle the ACT English section, or need some ACT grammar tips instead, we have you covered there too.


ACT Sections Basic Overview

The current ACT is comprised of five sections: English, Math, Reading, Science, and Writing.

Everything is mandatory, with the exception of the Writing section. However, the other four sections run in that order and are individually timed.

Once time runs out, students must move on to the next one. If you haven’t finished it, then you can’t go back. The entire exam takes 3 hours and 35 minutes to complete.

However, students receive two short breaks. The first is between the Math and Reading tests. The second break happens before the optional Writing section.

ACT English

The ACT English section is the longest one question-wise.

You have 75 multiple-choice questions to work through in 45 minutes. No more time is available afterward.

The section is built around five different reading passages, each one attached to 15 questions. The ACT English section is designed to evaluate a student’s understanding of both written English and English language conventions themselves.

Besides the main section score, graded from 1-36 points, test-takers receive subscores in three specific assessment areas:

  • Production of Writing,
  • Knowledge of Language,
  • Conventions of Standard English Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation

These assessment categories are the subjects of 23, 12, and 40 questions overall. Reporting category scores for all multiple-choice sections are reported in both percentages and a raw format.

ACT Math

The ACT Math section is the second-longest questions-wise.

Here, students must answer 60 multiple-choice questions within a 60-minute timeframe. The questions divide into three main assessment categories:

  • Preparing for Higher Math (35 questions),
  • Integrating Essential Skills (25 questions),
  • Modeling (22 questions).

Modeling questions have overlap with the other two categories. The Preparing for Higher Math category is further subdivided into specific question areas:

  • Number and Quantity (5 questions)
  • Algebra (8 questions)
  • Functions (8 questions)
  • Geometry (8 questions)
  • Statistics and Probability (6 questions)

Test-takers receive 8 category scores plus the overall section score (1-36 points). The ACT Math section evaluates student comprehension of Math skills normally taught through the beginning of grade 12.


ACT Reading

The ACT Reading section is a natural extension of the English section.

Students have 35 minutes to answer another 40 multiple-choice questions. In this section, the assessment categories are:

  • Key Ideas and Details (24 questions)
  • Craft and Structure (11 questions)
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas (5 questions)

The overall section has a four-part structure. Each one is based on either one long passage or two short excerpts to interpret. Passages are pulled from the humanities, natural sciences, or social studies.

In addition to the category scores and total section score, test-takers receive a rating in an additional category called “Understanding Complex Texts”. This rating is based on the test-taker’s ability to identify the central idea and purpose across increasingly complex passages. Students are ranked here as:

  • Proficient,
  • Below Proficient
  • Above Proficient

ACT Science

The ACT Science section is another 40-question assessment pushing test-takers’ analysis and reasoning skills to the limit.

The main skills evaluated here are:

  • Interpretation
  • Problem-Solving
  • Reasoning

The assessment categories are:

  • Interpretation of Data (16 questions)
  • Scientific Investigation (10 questions)
  • Evaluation of Models, Inferences, and Experimental Results (14 questions)

Students answer questions based on reading passages and visual representations of data. Examples include charts, graphs, and tables. The disciplines being assessed here are:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Earth Science
  • Physics

The goal is to prepare students for first-year science courses at the university level. Test-takers should have received three years of secondary-level science education before taking the exam.

ACT Writing

The ACT Writing section is the only optional one.

It consists of one essay, which test-takers have 40 minutes to complete. Test-takers receive an essay prompt comprised of three different perspectives on a contemporary issue.

You then write your own essay which presents their own views on that same issue. However, their view must relate to at least one of the stated positions.

Two graders evaluate these essays on a scale of 1 to 6 across 4 subcategories:

  • Ideas and Analysis,
  • Development and Support, Organization, Language Use, and Convention.

Students also receive a total writing score that is the average of all subcategory scores.

In short, that is how all of the ACT sections work together on test day. You now have an idea of how each one breaks down, and what they’re looking for from you skills-wise.


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Dr. Shaan Patel MD MBA

Written by Dr. Shaan Patel MD MBA

Prep Expert Founder & CEO

Shark Tank Winner, Perfect SAT Scorer, Dermatologist, & #1 Bestselling Author
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