Decoding the ACT Exam Pattern: Strategies for Success


The ACT exam measures students’ readiness to pursue higher-level education in top colleges. This exam is administered by ACT, a non-profit organization. Understanding the ACT exam pattern and structure of the test will help the students to confidently handle this test. In this blog, I will cover the ACT exam pattern, structure, timing, and content of the test.

The ACT Exam Pattern and Structure

There are four mandatory sections on the ACT – Writing, Math, Reading, and Science. These sections appear in the same order always. There is an optional Writing section that appears at the end. The four mandatory sections are scored out of 36 points, while the essay is scored out of 12 points. Each of these sections tests different skills needed for success in college education.

ACT English Test

This section has 75 MCQs to be completed in 45 minutes. It is the longest section of the test based on the number of questions. This section has 5 passages with 15 questions from each passage. The student must become an editor in this section ensuring that there are no punctuation and grammar errors and that the text is well organized and rhetorically accurate. The different question types in this section include – Punctuation, Grammar usage, sentence structure, passage organization, style, and strategies (addition or deletion of content).

Tips to conquer the English Test:

  1. Don’t read the entire passage. Work on questions based on each passage. This will help you to understand the context of questions and answer them efficiently.
  2. Learn the grammar and punctuation rules that are often tested on the ACT such as verb consistency, pronoun consistency, and punctuation usage.
  3. No Change option can be correct 25% of the times it appears on the test. If you are not able to find any error, feel free to choose No Change as the answer.

ACT Math Test

There are 60 MCQs in this section and the allotted time is 60 minutes. This section happens to be the longest on the ACT based on the time allotted. The topics tested include pre-algebra, elementary algebra, intermediate algebra, coordinate geometry, plane geometry, and trigonometry. Around 50% of the questions from the test are based on pre-algebra and elementary algebra. Students can use calculators in this section. There is a rough order of increasing difficulty levels in the math section. The first half of the test will contain pre- and elementary algebra, and the second half will contain geometry and trigonometry-based questions.

Tips to Ace the Math Test

ACT math test

  1. Unlike SAT, ACT doesn’t give the math formulas needed in the section. So, memorize all the important formulas needed for the test.
  2. Judiciously use the calculator. Using the prescribed calculator on the test will increase performance efficiency, but over-dependence on the calculator can affect the speed.
  3. Though the questions are arranged in rough order of difficulty, make sure that you choose to do them topic–wise so that you can spend more time on areas of your strength.

ACT Reading Test

In this section, 40 questions come from four passages. The students get 35 minutes to complete the questions. These passages come from four areas: Prose/ fiction, social science, humanities, and natural science. The order of these passages remains the same. One of the passages will contain two paired passages instead of one long passage. The reading section tests the student’s ability to understand the passage and answer questions based on the main idea, small details from the text, and the author’s attitude.

Tips to Ace the Reading

  1. Choose the passage based on the subject. For instance, you can start with the Science-based passage first and end with the literature, based on your strength.
  2. Learn to work the passage. You can skim and annotate before you start working on the questions or read the passage based on the questions.
  3. Make sure that you choose answers that have evidence in the passage. All correct answers must be supported by the passage.

ACT Science Test

This section has 40 questions to be completed in 35 minutes. This section tests the student’s ability to interpret scientific data rather than remember scientific facts. There are seven passages based on physics, chemistry, biology, and earth sciences. Three of the passages are scientific research summaries with or without charts/graphs, three of them contain major charts or graphs, and one is a paired passage set that has conflicting viewpoints. Each passage has 5 – 7 questions. The questions can ask for details about the experiments, hypothetical experiments, interpreting experiments, factual details from graphs, identifying trends, extrapolating to predict trends, and understanding and predicting conflicting viewpoints.

Tips to Ace the Science Test

  1. The science passages have a lot of information. Don’t try to memorize them, rather focus on the information needed to answer the questions.
  2. Learn to identify the trends in the charts and graphs.
  3. The paired passages take a lot of time on the test. So, keep them for the end after you complete the other passages.

ACT Writing Test

This is an optional test where an introductory paragraph will describe an important issue that might be looked at from various perspectives. This will be followed by three different perspectives on the same issue. Finally, the essay task will ask the student to write an essay explaining his/her viewpoint and the relation of his/her perspective with the other perspectives given in the question. The student should support his/her point of view with reasoning and examples. The student may partially or support any point of view or create his/ her point of view about the issue.

  1. Be familiar with the scoring rubrics. Ensure you know what the graders expect in the essay.
  2. If you find it difficult to come up with your perspective, choose any one of the given perspectives and justify it with reasons and examples. Your examples need not be factual.

Other General Tips:

  1. ACT offers many online tools to facilitate easy test-taking. These tools include a magnifier, highlighter, answer masking, answer marking, and a line reader. Learn to use these effectively on the test day.
  2. Don’t skip questions. There is no negative marking on the test, so ensure that in the last 2 or 3 minutes of every test, you complete the test by answering all the questions.
  3. Don’t panic. Give your best on the test day.
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Can I bring my laptop to the center for test taking?

You cannot bring your device to take the test. The test center will provide one for you.

Do I bring a calculator to the test center?

You can bring one of the prescribed calculators to the center. Also, there is an option of using the online calculator available.

Can I use scratch paper on the ACT online test?

Yes, along with online tools, you can also use scratch paper for problem-solving solving and annotating.

What are the things that I must carry to the center on the day of the test?

You must carry these two on the day of the test-

  1. Confirmation ticket printout This will contain crucial login details needed for taking the test.
  2. Acceptable form of Identification

What colleges in India accept ACT scores?

Indian colleges/universities do not accept ACT scores.

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