Understanding the ACT-Your Complete Guide to the Exam’s Overview and Format


What is the ACT exam?

The ACT is an entrance exam colleges and universities use for undergrad admission decisions.  The ACT exam helps measure the college readiness of the applicants and acts as a common measurement for comparing students. The ACT exam score is an integral part of the application process for undergrad admission. The admissions office uses the ACT score, GPA, personal essays, letters of recommendation, and extra and co-curricular activities to decide on admissions.

When and how is the test administered?

Outside the US, the ACT exam is administered online. It is administered online and as a paper-pencil test in the US. The ACT exam is administered during February, April, June, July, September, October, and December.

What is the ACT exam eligibility?

The ACT exam gives equal opportunity to all students. There are no preconditions or ACT exam eligibility requirements for taking the test. However, the student must have completed the schooling during college admission. Grades and age are not criteria for writing the ACT exam.

The ACT exam syllabus

To ace the ACT exam, students must have a clear understanding of the ACT exam syllabus. The test has four compulsory sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science. There is an optional Writing section too. Here is the full structure and syllabus of the test.

Section Duration

(in minutes)

# of questions Scores # of Answer options
English 45 75 1-36 Multiple Choice, 4 answers
Math 60 60 1-36 Multiple Choice, 5 answers
Reading 35 40 1-36 Multiple Choice, 4 answers
Science 35 40 1-36 Multiple Choice, 4 answers
Writing 40 1 2-12 Essay Prompt

Different sections of the ACT exam test different skills. Let us now look into the ACT exam syllabus in detail.

  1. English – This passage-based section tests Usage and Mechanics (including punctuation, grammar, usage, and sentence structure) and Rhetorical Skills (including strategy, organization, and style). There are 5 passages with 15 questions. 
  2. Math – This section tests high school math including Algebra, Arithmetic, Geometry, and Data Analysis. The students can use the permitted calculator in this section. 
  3. Reading – This passage-based section has 4 passages and 40 questions. The topics include Social, Humanities, Literature, and Science. The questions can ask for central idea, details, vocabulary, function, and implied details. 
  4. Science – There are 7 passages and 40 questions in this section. This section tests deciphering graphs and tables, summarizing experiments and results, and analyzing conflicting viewpoints. 
  5. Writing – This is an optional section. The students have to analyze multiple viewpoints, contrast one viewpoint with another, and discuss the scope of improvement. 

How does the scoring on the ACT exam work?

How to ace ACT

Each section in the ACT exam is given a scaled score between 1 and 36. The raw score on every section is the number of questions a student has gotten correct. This raw score is then converted into a scaled score that ranges from 1 to 36. The composite score on the test is the average of the four section scores. The scaling ensures that no edition of the test is easier or harder than the other. The writing section is evaluated by two graders who score the essay on four domains. The final score is in the range of 2-12, which is the average of the scores from different domains.

Format of the online test

In the online ACT exam, the passage or the problem appears on the left side of the screen, and the question on the right side. To make the test-taking experience easier, ACT has included a few online tools. 

  1. Magnifier – Helps to magnify an area of the screen for better viewing
  2. Line Reader- Helps to focus attention on a particular line.
  3. Answer Eliminator- helps to eliminate wrong answers
  4. Answer Masking – helps to narrow down choices
  5. Zoom – to increase or decrease the screen size
  6. Flagging – the student can revisit the flagged question later to make changes in the answer. 

How to register for the ACT exam?

How to register for the ACT exam

To register for the ACT exam, one must create a free ACT account on the ACT.org website. The fee is $181.50 (without writing) and $206.50 (with writing). With this fee, the score reports can be sent to four colleges. These colleges must be mentioned at the time of registration. Any date change, location, choice of colleges, and additional score reports can be done through the MyACT web account. 

Tips to improve your ACT score

  1. The first step is to know the ACT exam syllabus and the structure of the test. Become familiar with the timing and question types that you will come across on the ACT.
  2. Fix your target score. Take an ACT practice test to know where you stand. This will help you to set goals and plan accordingly. 
  3. Choose the right materials and course for your preparation. The books and tests should be reliable, accurate, and mirror the real ACT exam
  4. One can also enroll in a prep course. Tutors and peers can help in reviewing the concepts and also with learning new concepts. 
  5. Learn the concepts and rules tested in the ACT exam. Hard work is the key. Focus on areas where you are weak. 
  6. Have a study plan and stick to it. Make it a point to prepare for a few hours every day rather than trying to cram at the last minute. Prepare in an exam life environment without distractions from mobile phones or social media. 
  7. Your preparation should include regular practice and test-taking. After you cover a particular topic, take short drills based on it. ACT Practice tests should be taken regularly to measure the progress you have made. The tests should be reviewed to identify if the mistakes happened in concepts, applications, or due to lack of concentration. Don’t waste time on the strengths, rather focus on the area of weaknesses. 
  8. General strategies to be used in the ACT exam include eliminating the wrong answers, flagging difficult questions, and not skipping questions as there is no negative marking on the test. 
  9. Learn the common rules tested in the English section. Remember to go for the shortest answers. The “No Change” answer option is correct 25% of the time it appears on the test. 
  10. Learn the formulae tested in the math section of the ACT exam. Identify the questions that require you to use the calculator. Use strategies like plugging in numbers and answers if need be to save time. 
  11. In the Reading section work on the easy passages and questions first before you proceed with the harder ones. Skim the passages if need be to understand the context. Eliminate the wrong answers and look out for the right one. 
  12. In the science section focus on graphs and charts. Keep the conflicting viewpoints questions for the end. 
  13. If you choose to do the Writing section in the ACT exam, pre-plan your essay. Explain your thesis clearly in the introduction. Use concrete examples to support your thesis. 
  14. Don’t learn new things on the day before exams. Watch a movie or hang out with your friends so that you can relax. Get a good night’s sleep. Keep a copy of your admission ticket and the appropriate ID proof ready. 
  15. Reach the ACT exam center before time to avoid unnecessary tension. Know where the test happens and visit the center a day or two before the exam to get a clear understanding of how long it will take to reach the center. 
  16. Have a decent breakfast. Carry some snacks and drinks to consume during the break. 
  17. Don’t engage in any inappropriate behavior during the ACT exam
  18. Don’t panic during test taking. Complete the test even if you are not able to answer all the questions.
Sharing is caring:
Book your Free Counselling Session now!


Is the ACT exam accepted in India?

Unlike SAT, ACT scores are not accepted by Indian colleges.

What are STEM and ELA scores?

The STEM score is a measure of the overall performance in math and science, while ELA is a measure of preparedness in English, reading, and writing.

How long is the ACT exam?

The four sections on the ACT have 215 questions and take up to 2 hours and 55 minutes. If the student chooses to take the writing section also then the test extends to 3 hours and 45 minutes.

What are the colleges that require the ACT writing score?

Martin Luther College (MN), Soka University of America (CA), and United States Military Academy (West Point) (NY) are the only colleges that require ACT writing scores.

What is a good score on the ACT?

A good score on the ACT for admissions into top colleges ranges between 32 – 36.

Planning to study abroad?
Get free 1-on-1 counselling with our experts

Subscribe to this blog