Prepping for the ACT

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For college-bound high school students as well as adult learners returning to college after a break, taking the ACT is one of the most important – but stressful – things to do. And although the ACT is the most widely-used standardized test for college admissions, lots of prospective test-takers still feel in the dark about what to expect and how to prepare. If you're one of those students – and even if you're not – this guide is your golden ticket. Read on to see sample exam questions, get an overview of what's on the test, and get study tips from a perfect scorer.

Breaking Down the ACT

The ACT is comprised of four academic sections and lasts just under three hours. Test-takers may also elect to complete an optional writing component, lengthening the test to approximately 3.5 hours. Here's a closer look at each section:

English – 75 multiple-choice questions / 45 minutes

Rhetorical skills, usage and mechanics are the main focus in this section, with specific emphasis on building clear arguments, creating structured paragraphs and using appropriate tone. Test-takers also act as editors, correcting grammar and punctuation in five different passages. Scoring for this section is divided into six areas:

  • Punctuation 10 to 15 percent

    Periods, commas, apostrophes, dashes, colons and semicolons

  • Grammar and usage 15 to 20 percent

    Pronoun usage, idioms, superlatives, subject-verb agreement and modifiers

  • Sentence structure 20 to 25 percent

    Relationships between clauses, run-on sentences and fragments

  • Strategy 15 to 20 percent

    Building clear arguments, adding or deleting materials, and removing confusion

  • Organization 10 to 15 percent

    Use of appropriate introductions, ability to properly end paragraphs or essays and use of structural signposts

  • Style 15 to 20 percent

    Use of correct tone, selecting appropriate words and imagery and avoidance of wordiness or redundancy

Sample Questions

Surrounded by the ancient city of Rome, Vatican City is an independent nation on the west bank of the Tiber River. This tiny country – about one-sixth of a square mile in all – is also home to a disproportionately large number of sites with great historical, artistic, and religious significance.


If the writer were to delete the words tiny and disproportionately from this passage, the sentence would primarily lose:

  • A)Elements of the setting of the essay

  • B)A contrast emphasizing the unusual number of sites

  • C)Details that stress how important the sites are

  • D)A comparison between Vatican City and Rome


In 1916, as the Democratic Party's national convention met in St. Louis, Missouri, to nominate candidates for the presidency and vice-presidency and to establish a platform, a set of positions on issues.


Choose the best option for the underlined word:


  • B)While

  • C)When

  • D)OMIT the underlined portion

Study Strategies & Tips
  • Test-takers only get an average of 36 seconds per question, so finding a balance between content mastery and time management is crucial. If English is your weakest skill, focus on improving your accuracy and time management—sometimes it's best to skip a difficult question and move on.

  • Carefully read the entire sentence before making any decisions. ACT passages often are written to call into question proper subject/verb agreement and punctuation usage.

  • Eliminating unnecessary words is another common approach on ACT questions, and it's one of the easiest when you know what to look for. Try reading the sentence without the underlined part. If the sentence is grammatically correct and makes sense, the answer should be clear.

Math – 60 questions / 60 minutes

Math questions are multiple choice and students are allowed to use an approved calculator. Designed to test for skills and knowledge students have gained through 11th grade, the section covers six areas:

  • Pre-algebra 20 to 25 percent

    Basic operations, square roots and exponents, factoring, ratios and percentages, linear equations, number order, scientific notation and data collection

  • Elementary algebra 15 to 20 percent

    Properties of square roots and exponents, the use of variables to express relationships, basic algebraic operations, quadratic equations and solving expressions via substitution

  • Intermediate algebra 15 to 20 percent

    Quadratic formulas, sequences and patterns, rational and radical expressions, modeling functions, matrices, polynomial roots and complex numbers

  • Coordinate geometry 15 to 20 percent

    Conics, distance and midpoints, graphic equations, properties of lines and graphing inequalities

  • Plane geometry (20 to 25 percent)

    Properties and relations of plane figures, proofs and proof techniques, applications of plane geometry to three dimensions, properties of shapes and transformations

  • Trigonometry 5 to 10 percent

    Trigonometric equations, right triangles, trigonometric functions and values and trigonometric identities

Sample Questions

A car averages 27 miles per gallon. If gas costs $4.04 per gallon, which of the following is closest to how much the gas would cost for this car to travel 2,727 typical miles?

Possible Answers
  • A)$44.44

  • B)$109.08

  • C)$118.80

  • D)$408.04

  • D)$444.40


What is the greatest common factor of 42,126 and 210?

  • A)2

  • B)6

  • C)14

  • D)21

  • D)42

Study Strategies & Tips

ACT Tutor Neel Somani offers a range of tips to help students ace what he says is the most straightforward section of the ACT.

  • Somani says the most important thing to do when taking practice tests is checking your work. “I don't mean checking to see whether you filled everything out; I mean you should try to complete every single problem from the section again. This not only builds accuracy, it also makes you faster.”

  • Don't forget your calculator. Test-takers are allowed to use approved calculators for the entirety of the math session, but be sure to read over ACT's calculator policy to make sure you bring an appropriate type – smartphone calculators are not permitted, for example.

  • “Put your brain in translation mode when you get to the math section,” says Somani. Lots of words within math questions can be represented in mathematical terms. For instance, when you see the word “of” it often means multiplication is needed.

Reading – 40 questions / 35 minutes

In the reading section, students read four passages and then answer questions that test for comprehension and interpretation skills. The four areas for reading passages are prose fiction and literary narrative, social science, humanities and natural science. The five main types of questions include:

  • Big Picture 10 percent

    Questions focus on main themes and overall perspectives of the passage

  • Detailed questions 38 percent

    Requires the ability to closely read text and provide answers to questions about small details

  • Vocabulary in context 10 percent

    Knowing the definitions of words, or being able to deduce their meanings from context, is key in this section

  • Development and function 22 percent

    Questions focus on students' rhetorical analysis skills, with emphasis on sentence function, passage development and structure

  • Inference 20 percent

    Test-takers must be able to draw logical conclusions based on provided information

Sample Questions

The time is overdue to admit that there is something of a vacuum in women's poetry, and that we abhor it. For a woman to concede this is not disloyal to her sex; it's the first step in the creation of an environment in which women artists will flourish. But what can be done about the fact that the list of beloved women poets is not as long as the list of beloved poets who were born male?


Which of the following sentences best summarizes this paragraph?

  • A)It is disloyal to encourage women to write, and to ask: Why do male poets flourish more readily than female poets?

  • B)We must ask why there are so few women writers; perhaps asking this question will help create a women-centered culture.

  • C)It can be liberating to ask questions such as: What can be done about the fact that there are fewer beloved male poets than female poets?

  • D)If we admit that there is not enough quality poetry written by women, it can make it easier to discover why this is so, and help us change the situation.


Abshu was put into a home that already had two other boys from foster care. The Masons lived in a small wooden bungalow right on the edge of Linden Hills. And Mother Mason insisted that they tell anybody who asked that they actually lived in Linden Hills, a more prestigious address than Summit Place.


This paragraph establishes all of the following EXCEPT:

  • A)That Abshu had foster brothers

  • B)That the Masons maintained a clean house

  • C)How Mother Mason felt about the location of their house

  • D)What Abshu remembered most about his years with the Masons

Study Strategies & Tips
  • “Get to know the types of questions asked,” recommends Somani. Questions in the reading section typically focus on a few standard reading comprehension exercises, and knowing these can help you prioritize your studying. Focus on correctly interpreting text, understanding major themes, recognizing small details and analyzing the tone of the author.

  • Learn Greek and Latin word roots. Countless words in the English language are rooted in these ancient languages, so learning the meanings of the most common roots will be invaluable in helping you understand and define vocabulary words.

  • “Don't be fooled into thinking there is more than one right answer,” warns Somani. Lots of questions in this section can seem subjective because exam writers purposely designed the test this way. Students need to be able to draw on evidence to find the one correct answer.

Science – 40 questions / 35 minutes

For students who aren't completing the essay portion, the final section on the exam is science. Test-takers are provided seven passages and datasets comprised of graphs, charts and other relevant information. Eight different question types are used in this section:

  • Experimental design and description

    requires students to provide answers about choices the researcher made in designing an experiment

  • Hypothetical experiment

    questions ask students to predict what would happen if parts of the experiment were changed

  • Interpreting experiment

    has students ascertain whether the scientific claims made are actually supported by the results of experiments

  • Factual questions

    are straightforward and require students to identify facts presented within the passage or dataset

  • Identifying trends

    requires students to read graphs and charts as a whole to identify if relationships exist between multiple factors

  • Extrapolations

    call on test-takers to make predictions based on information provided.

  • Understanding viewpoints

    tests a student's ability to fully understand the author's point of view

  • Comparing viewpoints

    looks for a student's ability to spot similarities and differences between two viewpoints

Sample Questions

Spent fuel (SF), a radioactive waste, is often buried underground in canisters for disposal. As it decays, SF generates high heat and raises the temperature of the surrounding rock, which may expand and crack, allowing radioactivity to escape into the environment. Scientists wanted to determine which of 4 rock types – rock salt, granite, basalt, or shale – would be least affected by the heat from SF. The thermal conductivity (how well heat is conducted through a material) and heating trends of the 4 rock types were studied.


The scientists determined the thermal conductivity of the 4 rock types at a number of different temperatures between 0°C and 400°C. The results are shown below.


According to the study, the thermal conductivity of rock salt measured at a temperature of 500°C would be closest to which of the following values?

  • A)1.0 W/m°C

  • B)2.0 W/m°C

  • C)3.5 W/m°C

  • D)4.0 W/m°C

Sample Questions


Peony seeds were placed in in dry containers. Some of the containers were stored at 5°C for either 4, 6, 8, or 10 weeks. The temperature and time periods were defined as the storage temperature and storage period, respectively.

The peony seeds were divided evenly so that there were 20 sets of 25 seeds. Twenty petri dishes were then prepared. Each contained damn paper. Each set of seeds was placed in a separate petri dish. Each petri dish was maintained at 1 of 4 temperatures for 30 days. The temperature and time periods were defined as the germination temperature and the germination period, respectively. Table 1 shows the number of seeds that germinated in each dish.

Storage period (weeks)   Number of peony seeds that germinated when maintained at a germination temperature of:
13°C 18°C 23°C 28°C
0 0 0 0 0
4 0 2 0 0
6 3 8 6 0
8 7 22 18 0
10 15 24 21 1

In general, the results of Study 1 suggest that peony seeds that are placed in a petri dish containing damp paper are more likely to germinate when they are maintained at which of the following temperatures?

  • A)13°C

  • B)18°C

  • C)23°C

  • D)28°C

Study Strategies & Tips
  • “In this section more so than others, students must be able to read and analyze materials quickly,” says Somani. Most students are able to read graphs and understand data, but doing so under a time constraint ups the ante. Somani recommends students time themselves when completing practice tests and work to increase speed without losing accuracy.

  • Get a clear understanding of the different question types in advance, so you have a good sense of what to expect. Knowing the type of information you're looking for can save critical time.

  • Use the most difficult study guide and practice tests you can find. Practicing on questions that are harder than those found on the exam will make the actual science section feel easy in comparison.

Writing – 1 prompt / 40 minutes

ACT writing is an optional section for students who either plan to major in English or another writing-intensive major, or whose prospective schools require a writing score regardless of degree path.

Students are given a passage and three varied positions on the topic. The prompt for this section is always the same – it requires students to present their own perspective, contrast their viewpoints with at least one of the earlier perspectives and use logic and reasoning in their argument.

Study Strategies & Tips
  • Work to achieve a natural, readable style. “I often see sentences that are grammatically correct but difficult to read because they don't follow English idiomatic conventions,” says Somani.

  • “Show your writing to someone who is more skilled than you,” recommends Somani. While students may be able to learn grammar on their own, style is something that often needs to be taught and practiced. “More experienced writers can give keen insight into improving style,” he says.

  • Be clear and succinct. Flowery sentences filled with gratuitous adjectives can distract and confuse readers, and ACT scorers will likely dock points for using this approach. Stick to strong, short sentences that won't be misinterpreted. This also gives you more time to focus on your argument.


Most U.S. colleges use the ACT and SAT to determine whether applicants are prepared for the rigors of college. While each was designed to test students at a high-school-level mastery of common subjects, the exams do have their differences.

The ACT requires testing of English, math, reading and science, with an optional section devoted to writing. The SAT, on the other hand, assesses reading, writing, language and math competencies. The subjects may seem similar, but the focus of each is substantially different. For example, the ACT tests a broader array of mathematical concepts. According to Somani, “Students most frequently hear that the ACT is more for STEM-oriented thinkers, while the SAT is easier for students who are proficient in reading and writing.”

Is the ACT Right for You?

Most colleges accept both tests, so students should figure out which one is likely to net them a higher score – whether a STEM whiz or not, some students may simply find that they do better with one format over the other.

“The only way to know which is right,” says Somani, “is to take practice exams for both and see which one you score better on.” He continues, “I've found that the ACT is easier to study for – studying for the SAT may not improve your score, but studying for the ACT might improve your score substantially.”

How & Where to Take the ACT

Signing up for and taking the ACT is a straightforward process. Registration can be completed online, and thousands of testing centers are available throughout the U.S. Below is an overview of the requirements and steps involved.

  • Students who meet certain requirements are eligible to receive up to two ACT fee waivers. Requirements include:

    • Be enrolled in the 11th or 12th grade of high school

    • Be a citizen of the U.S. or be testing in the U.S., U.S. territories, or Puerto Rico

    • Meet one of the economic indicators:

      • Enrolled in free or reduced-lunch program

      • Enrolled in a program for economically disadvantaged families (e.g. GEAR UP or Upward Bound)

      • Reside in a foster home

      • Receive public assistance or live in federally subsidized public housing

      • Meet total family income levels required by the USDA to receive federal assistance

  • allows users to register for the exam via the student portal. You'll need an Internet connection, credit/debit card, details of high school courses you've taken and a headshot photo. Registering for the exam costs $42.50, or $58.50 if you include the writing test.

  • You can send your scores to up to four colleges as part of the basic fee. Students applying to more than four must pay $12 per additional regular report and $16.50 per priority report.

  • The ACT website features a locator tool students can use to find the test center closest to their home or school.

  • The doors to the testing center are only open between 7:45 and 8:00 a.m., so don't be late. Once test-takers check in, they'll be escorted to an assigned seat. Proctors spend the next 30 to 60 minutes providing instruction before starting the exam. The test starts between 8:30 and 9:00 a.m. and typically finishes around 12:15 p.m. for students who aren't taking the writing portion. Those who do sit for the writing section should finish at 1:00 p.m.

National Test Dates for 2020-2021

Test Date Registration Deadline (Late Fee Required)

April 4, 2020

March 2, 2020

March3-13, 2020

June 13, 2020

May 8, 2020

May 9-22, 2020

July 18, 2020

June 19, 2020

June 20-26, 2020

September 12, 2020



October 24, 2020



December 12, 2020



February 6, 2021



April 17, 2021



June 12, 2021



July 17, 2021



*National Test Dates for September 2020 and beyond will not open for registration unitl July 2020.

For the most up-to-date information on dates, locations and fees, or to learn more about standby testing, visit the ACT website.

Source: ACT, 2020

Understanding Your Score Report

After all the hype of exam day, waiting for final scores can feel excruciatingly slow, but the organization works diligently to make scores available online within two weeks of the exam date. Students who completed the essay section should look for those scores about four weeks after the exam date.

Scores can be viewed though the student portal, the same site where students signed up to take the exam. Scores will also be sent to the student's high school within the same time frame. The timeline for sending scores to colleges depends on specific university guidelines.

Along with individual and composite grades, students also receive a comprehensive profile with the following metrics:

  • Readiness benchmarks to help students understand the likelihood of receiving good grades in college

  • National and state rankings to find out how they compared to other test-takers

  • Detailed results about performance in individual sections of the exam, such as geometry, evaluation of models, and conventions of standard English

  • Data about college and majors that are a good fit based on score results

For security purposes and to reduce the chance of fraud, score reports are sent directly to selected colleges as well as the test-taker's high school counselor. Counselors can use it to help provide individualized guidance on next steps. Students looking to learn more about how to effectively leverage their test scores can review Using Your ACT Results, a publication created by exam administrators.

ACT Prep Resources

When it comes to studying and preparing for the ACT, it can be daunting to figure out where to start, but countless resources are available, targeted to different types of learners. Study guides and apps are available to those who prefer to review materials on their own, while prep courses and tutoring services can help students who do best studying with others or in a more structured setting.

Kaplan ACT Prep 2018

Available as an e-book or printed copy, Kaplan's guide includes three practice tests, access to proven strategies, and a special online section offering practice tests, answer explanations, and video tutorials.

Magoosh ACT eBook

This free, comprehensive resource offers more than 250 pages of information about ACT scoring, tips and strategies, and a breakdown of individual sections. It also offers hundreds of practice questions.

The Official ACT Prep Guide, 2018

Provided by the ACT testing company, this study guide is revised and updated annually to include real questions from previous tests. In addition to the printed content, users can also access bonus online materials and practice tests.

ACT Online Prep

For $39.95, the ACT organization provides an online prep course complete with content review tools, practice tests consisting of real exam questions, and a customizable learning path for students who want to focus on specific content areas. The subscription runs for six months.

Kaplan ACT Prep Courses and Tutoring

Students seeking an interactive online classroom, private coaching, or one-to-one tutoring can find all this and more via Kaplan's online ACT prep services. Prices range between $899 and $2,599.

Magoosh ACT Videos

A cost-effective option, Magoosh's YouTube channel features hundreds of helpful tips and online lessons.


Offered as part of the ACT Online test prep course, this free app is available to Apple and Google Play users. Tools include short-form tests, personalized learning paths, answer explanations, games, and an in-depth description of strengths and weaknesses.

Khan Academy App

In partnership with College Board, Khan Academy makes its apps available for free via iTunes and Google Play. Video lessons, flashcards, and daily test questions are available.

Magoosh ACT Flashcards

Designed by experts with years of experience creating ACT study materials, Magoosh's Apple and Google Play apps include flashcards for each content area. The app also adapts to individual user needs, helping students master basic areas before moving to more advanced materials.

In addition to the national tutoring services listed below, test-takers can often find dozens of local tutors via community centers or schools.

ACT Private Tutoring

The Princeton Review offers tutors who create a personalized prep plan to ensure test-takers are prepared for the big day. Pricing is done by the hour, with flexible options available to meet individual needs.

StudyPoint Tutoring

StudyPoint offers personalized tutoring to students throughout the country who are seeking one-to-one instruction. After completing a diagnostic exam, learners are given personalized homework assignments and a tutor matched to their needs.

TestMasters Private ACT Tutoring

Individuals looking for options can choose from in-person, online, or telephone tutoring services via TestMaster's offerings. Hourly tutoring rates are available, as are 10- and 25-hour packages.

Additional Advice from Neel Somani

    • 1.

      Set a goal. Are you shooting for a perfect score? If so, it affects your strategy. You probably won't be skipping any questions if you're aiming for a perfect 36.

    • 2.

      Take a diagnostic exam. I don't necessarily mean that you should go to an ACT prep center, but you should absolutely sit down on your own, take a practice exam, and record your results. Take note of what you need to improve on, specifically.

    • 3.

      Buy the most difficult test prep books that you can find. Don't use a book because it's "more realistic". You should work on actually improving your reading, writing and math skills.

    • 4.

      Be regimented. You should be taking practice exams regularly once you start preparing.

    • 5.

      For the exam itself, work out the day before, get a good night's rest and eat a healthy breakfast. There's no more preparation you can do at that point.

  • You cannot have your cell phone on. I've (unfortunately) had students who have gotten kicked out on the day of the exam because their cell phone went off.

  • Of course, the student should study more and try again. But a word of advice – wait at least three months before taking the exam again. Your score is not likely to vary by much within a shorter period of time. This means you should plan to take the exam early on so you have time in between retakes to really improve your score.

  • I'd recommend taking each exam for the first time at the beginning of the student's junior year. If they're an advanced student, it often makes sense to take the exam at the end of their sophomore year. I would recommend taking each exam at most twice, if financially possible. In other words, take the ACT twice, and the SAT twice, for a total of four exams.

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