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ACT Practice

Frequently Asked Questions about the ACT

There is a lot to know about the ACT to be prepared to get a great score. How is the ACT different from the SAT? How many times should I take the ACT? How is the optional ACT writing section scored? Your ACT test-prep mentor, Dr. Gary Gruber answers all these questions and more.

What is on the ACT?

The ACT is divided into four parts, with an optional fifth section: English, Math, Reading, Science, and an optional Writing section.

  • The ACT English section includes five passages accompanied by a sequence of multiple-choice questions. This section covers written English (punctuation, grammar and usage, and sentence structure) and rhetorical skills (strategy, organization, and style). Spelling, vocabulary, and memory of rules of grammar are NOT tested.
  • The ACT Math section covers pre-algebra, elementary algebra, intermediate algebra, coordinate geometry, plane geometry, and trigonometry.
  • The ACT Reading section includes four passages with 10 multiple-choice questions each. This section tests your reading comprehension skills.
  • The ACT Science section includes seven sets of scientific data followed by multiple-choice questions. This section tests your interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning, and problem-solving skills.
  • The optional ACT Writing section includes one prompt that defines an issue and describes two points of view based on that issue. You can write on one of the positions described or take a different point of view on the issue.

Want even more details about the ACT? Check out this free download for a complete breakdown of the test.

This answer is provided by Dr. Gary Gruber.

How is the ACT Scored?

Each of the four ACT sections (English, Math, Reading, and Science) is scored on a range of 1–36. The scores from all four sections are added together and divided by four to get the composite ACT score.

This answer is provided by Dr. Gary Gruber.

Should I guess on the ACT or leave answers blank?

There is no penalty for guessing on the ACT, so you should always guess if you can’t answer a question. Do not leave an answer blank on the ACT.

Want more ACT strategies? Check out Gruber’s Top 5 ACT Strategies.

This answer is provided by Dr. Gary Gruber.

How is the optional ACT essay scored?

The optional ACT writing section does not affect your other scores and is not part of your composite score. You will receive an additional combined English/Writing score on a range of 1–36 and a Writing subsection score of 2–12. The essay is scored on a scale of 1–6 by two highly trained high school and college composition teachers who follow a rubric that focuses on content, organization, and language usage and sentence structure. If the readers’ scores differ by more than two points, the test will be evaluated by a third reader (less than 2 percent of scored essays need a third reader). Even with some errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar, you can get a top score on the essay.

This answer is provided by Dr. Gary Gruber.

How long is the ACT?

It takes a total of 2 hours and 55 minutes to complete the four sections of the ACT. If you take the 30-minute optional writing section, the test lasts a total of 3 hours and 25 minutes. See an overview of how the ACT is structured.

This answer is provided by Dr. Gary Gruber.

How is the ACT different from the SAT? Should I take the ACT or the SAT?

Generally, if you take the ACT or SAT and score well, you will probably score about as well on the other test. While both tests cover many of the same subject areas, like reading comprehension and math, the ACT often requires more knowledge of the material you learn in high school than the SAT does. The ACT covers trigonometry, for example, while the SAT does not, and the ACT has a whole section on scientific data interpretation (the SAT has some data interpretation questions  in the math section).This free download provides a complete list of differences between the ACT and SAT.

If you are more prone to using memory, I would take the ACT. If you are more prone to strategizing or if you like puzzles, I would take the SAT. In any event, I would check with the schools to which you’re applying to find out which test they prefer.

Want to see how ACT scores stack up against SAT scores? Check out this ACT to SAT Score Conversion Chart.

This answer is provided by Dr. Gary Gruber.

When should I take the ACT?

When deciding when to take the ACT, you need to think about your academic and extracurricular schedule, as well as how prepared you will be before the test. You should find out the preferred test dates for the ACT from the schools you’re applying to.

However, if you want to take an ACT for practice, you should only take it on the test dates where the exam is disclosed, which means that the test answers and your answers are given back to you. By getting the test and the results for each question back, you can learn from your mistakes by going through the questions you got wrong and then working on the strategies and basic skills you could have used to solve those questions.

This answer is provided by Dr. Gary Gruber.

Should I take the ACT more than once?

The standard advice is to take the ACT twice, during junior and/or senior year. Take it a third time only if you have a specific reason—like wanting to raise your score by a few points to have a better chance of getting into the reach schools on your list—and if you’ve spent time preparing with ACT practice materials. If you don’t do any extra studying or test prep between test dates, then your score isn’t likely to improve much.

One common option for juniors is to take the ACT first in February and then again in April, or first in April and then again in June, while the memory of the test is still relatively fresh. Fall test dates are best for seniors looking for a last chance to raise their score.

This answer is provided by Edward B. Fiske.

Can I use scrap paper to write on during the ACT?

Yes, you should always use your test booklet (not your answer sheet) to draw or write on. Many of my strategies expect you to label diagrams, draw and extend lines, circle important words and sentences, etc., so feel free to write anything in your booklet. The ACT booklets aren’t graded; only the answer sheets are.

Want more ACT tips from Dr. Gary Gruber? Check out Gruber’s Top 5 ACT Strategies.

This answer is provided by Dr. Gary Gruber.

Should I know the directions before taking the ACT?

Yes, make sure that you are completely familiar with the directions to each of the ACT sections (English, Reading, Math, Science, and Writing).

This answer is provided by Dr. Gary Gruber.

What do I need to bring on my ACT test date?

You need to bring the following things with you on your ACT test day:

  • Several sharpened #2 pencils with erasers
  • A photo ID
  • Your scientific or graphing calculator—you can’t use the calculator on your phone during the test

This answer is provided by Dr. Gary Gruber.

How should I pace myself on the ACT?

You can calculate how to pace yourself for each particular ACT section. Start with the time allowed—for example, 35 minutes. Divide by the number of questions. For example, 40. That gives you an average of just under 1 minute per question in this example. However, the first set of questions in a section is generally easier, so spend closer to 40 seconds on the first set of questions and perhaps more than a minute on the last set. When reading passages or scientific data are involved, you should give yourself only about 30 seconds per question and spend the extra time reading the passages. Keep in mind that more difficult reading questions may take more time.

Want more tips about how to pace yourself on the ACT? Check out this “How to Manage Your Time on the SAT and ACT” video from Dr. Gary Gruber.

This answer is provided by Dr. Gary Gruber.

Should I learn vocabulary words as part of my ACT practice?

Yes, but you shouldn’t spend too much time learning vocabulary words for the ACT—perhaps 4 hours at most. To build your word recognition quickly, you should learn prefixes and roots. You should also learn some basic vocabulary strategies.

This answer is provided by Dr. Gary Gruber.

What should I do the night before the ACT?

On Friday night before the ACT, I would just refresh my knowledge of the structure of the test, some strategies, and some basic skills (verbal, grammar, or math). You want to do this to keep the thinking going so that it is continual right up to the exam. Don’t overdo it; just do enough so that it’s somewhat continuous—this will also relieve some anxiety, so that you won’t feel you are forgetting things before the exam.

This answer is provided by Dr. Gary Gruber.

Can I skip between sections of the ACT?

No—you can’t skip between the sections on the ACT. You have to work on the section until the time is called. If you get caught skipping sections or going back to earlier sections, then you risk being asked to leave the exam.

This answer is provided by Dr. Gary Gruber.

For an online ACT practice test and even more ACT strategies from Dr. Gary Gruber, check out MyMaxScore® ACT Practice Test Plus.

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About the Authors

Dr. Gary Gruber is committed to helping college-bound students get their best ACT scores. Dr. Gruber created his own nationally recognized test-prep method to help students improve their test scores, plus develop lifelong critical-thinking skills, beyond the ACT.

Dr. Gruber is the creator of MyMaxScore® ACT Practice Test Plus and the author of Gruber’s Complete ACT Guide.

Edward B. Fiske is determined to help students throughout the going-to-college process, from finding colleges that are the right fit to preparing for the SAT and completing stellar college applications.

Fiske is the author of Fiske Nailing the New SAT, the Fiske Guide to Colleges, and many other books for college-bound students.