What Does the ACT Test?

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The merit of the ACT for assessing students’ achievements or learning during high school is hotly debated. One of the primary things the ACT tests—at least according to the non-profit organization that administers it—is “college readiness.” In this case, college readiness is “a score indicating a student has at least a 50 percent chance of getting a B or higher in a corresponding first-year college course.”

It might interest you to know that in 2019, the fewest number of students since 2002 hit those benchmarks.

People in the tutoring and education industries like to say really hokey things like, “the ACT tests your ability to take the ACT,” and frankly, they’re right. I say this not to get you into the debate about whether or not the ACT is a legitimate test for assessing students’ readiness for college, which is a hotly contested issue in the media. 

Instead, I want you to recognize that the ACT is its own animal, so to speak. If it’s required at the college you’re applying to, you’ll discover that it may not be aligned with what you learned at school, and you can and should study for it—and start as soon as possible. 

Yes, the ACT tests subject areas that you study in school, but the ACT also tests those topics in ways that may be entirely new to you. 

The ACT Tests Subjects You Learn in Middle and High School

Let’s start at the beginning: The ACT covers English, Mathematics, Reading Comprehension, and Science Reasoning in four separate tests. 

There’s also an optional ACT essay section of the test, but very few colleges currently require that essay for admission. You can read more about it specifically on my post How to Write the ACT Essay

The ACT Tests English Grammar and Writing Rules 

60 questions, 75 minutes

This section hasn’t changed on the ACT in ages—and it’s unlikely to change anytime soon, as English grammar is increasingly ignored in public education. The ACT tests your knowledge of English grammar and writing mechanics within the context of short passages. 

The passages include sentences that are partially or completely underlined, and you’re tasked with replacing those underlined portions with alternatives listed in the multiple choice selections. 

You’ll edit sentences that explore grammatical rules like 

  • subject-verb agreement; 
  • appositives; 
  • punctuating subordinate clauses; 
  • misplaced modifiers; 
  • pronouns-antecedent agreement;
  • parallelism; 
  • periods, semi-colons, and colons; and
  • idioms. 

Context Matters

One of the most important things you should remember about the ACT English test is that it tests concepts in context, so you should believe the context matters. If you’re shooting for a top ACT score, you always need to read the entire passage, answering questions as you go along, but also being sure to read the sentences you’re editing in their entirety. 

The test makers know that you want to read as little as possible, so they design sentences that sound fine if you only read up to the underlined portion. But if you read all the way up to the period, you’ll notice the structural problems. 

You’ll also be asked to answer questions about the passages from a broader perspective: You’ll have to reorganize sentences, choose transition sentences appropropriate for upcoming passages, and recognize the development of ideas in logical and chronological order. 

If you don’t read the passage as you go along, it can be difficult to both answer these questions correctly and finish the section within the time limit, because you’ll have to review so much.

The ACT Tests Mathematics Covered in 6th through 12th Grade

60 questions, 60 minutes 

The ACT Math test covers everything from fractions, decimals, and working with integers to concepts covered in precalculus, trigonometry, and AP Statistics. You can find more about this in my post What Math is On the ACT? In truth, the test makers keep including more topics. 

The ACT Math test is still loaded with basic algebra, functions, and geometry rules, but the test now includes probability, permutations and combinations, expected value, natural logs, trigonometric functions, and conics.

Just because you didn’t cover something in high school doesn’t mean that it’s not fair game for the ACT. Don’t let this get to you! 

“Cookie Questions”

I use this silly idea of “cookie questions” with students all the time in my tutoring sessions. The idea of a “cookie question” is that the ACT test makers are just checking to see if you have any basic familiarity with a topic. Many of the questions around these topics are really straightforward—they don’t require any imagination or mathematical insight. 

Instead, if you know the formula, you can do the problem just as easily as you can find the hypotenuse of a triangle if you happen to know the Pythagorean theorem.

Even if you’ve never taken math beyond Algebra II, you should spend time familiarizing yourself with basic probability, expected value, and SOHCAHTOA. 

The ACT Tests Reading Comprehension 

40 questions, 35 minutes

The Four ACT Reading Passages

The ACT always presents you with four different pages in the areas of 

  • literature, 
  • social science, 
  • humanities, and
  • natural science. 

Usually, there will be passages you prefer and others you struggle with. Especially if you’re going for a strong score that isn’t necessarily perfect, figure out early on which passages you usually do well on and prioritize doing those passages first.

Every question is worth the same number of points, so you may as well gather easy ones early on.

Find the Same Answer as the ACT Test Maker

If there is one piece of advice I can give you about reading on any standardized test—including the ACT—it’s to remember that the test is not as interested in your insights about and reflections on the reading passage as it is in your ability to arrive at the same answer as the test maker. I’ve been saying this forever, in my SAT and ACT books.  

It can be a difficult thing to wrap your head around as a younger reader. After all, in our middle and high school English classes, our teachers often encourage us to give thought to what the author’s intentions are, what characters in stories might be thinking, or where a plot might be headed. Those elements are all important for learning to read, but your perception isn’t what the ACT tests: It tests your ability to see why their response to a question is correct. 

In other words, they just want you to arrive at choice “C,” which they have decided is correct so they can award you credit for that answer. 

That can be tough to grapple with and takes practice. When you study, prioritize understanding why the ACT’s answers are correct rather than burning energy on why your answer might be right. The only thing that improves your score is continually arriving at their answers—quickly and confidently. 

The ACT Tests Science Reasoning and Fundamentals

40 questions, 35 minutes

The ACT Science section is quite often the section that galvanizes students’ commitments to study for the ACT, or to choose to prepare for the SAT instead. 

When you do approach the ACT Science section, know that the ACT tests science reasoning far more than it tests actual science knowledge. Obviously, the more familiar you are with a high school science curriculum—biology, earth science, chemistry, and physics—the more easily you’ll adapt to the passages on the science section. 

That being said, the ACT Science section tests your ability to read graphs and understand basic reasoning behind experimental processes far more than it tests your real science knowledge. You do not need to have taken physics in order to do well on questions based on a physics experiment on the ACT Science test. 

Not only that, most students find that reading all the material that accompanies the Science section prevents them from earning top scores. The explanatory material usually reiterates the exact information you can gather more intuitively from the graphs themselves. When you practice the Science section, practice reading as little as possible. Familiarize yourself with the gist of the experiment and get down to the business of answering questions. 

The tricky thing about the ACT Science section is that the test makers have recently begun including some levels of basic science knowledge well beyond anything we saw in previous decades’ iterations of the tests. That means we’ve seen questions ranging from identifying cells in different stages of division to effectively understanding Punnett squares. 

As you study for the ACT Science section, always jot down anything that’s grounded in general knowledge: Those sample questions indicate an expectation that you have a cursory understanding of those topics in general. 

Good luck!