ACT Test Outline

1.9 million graduating seniors took the ACT in 2015. That’s a lot of test-takers, and doesn’t even include the sophomores and juniors in the testing room! Whether you’re a junior or senior this year, it’s likely that you’ll be taking the ACT at some point in your high school career. And since you’ll be spending a whole Saturday morning (or two, or three…) locked in a room with this exam, you’d better make friends with the ACT now.

Getting to Know the ACT

You’ll ping back and forth from English to Math, Reading to Science, with the optional Essay at the very end. Many students find this refreshing: whatever your strength, you’ll be able to build up your confidence in the sections you prefer, as different subject areas are spaced throughout the ACT. The ACT is nearly 3 hours long (not including breaks or the optional essay), but the longest single section is math, clocking in at 60 minutes. English, Reading, and Science are all a bit shorter, giving you time to recover and catch your breath between sections. Because these main sections of the ACT are always in the same order, you can walk into the test with total confidence!

Section 1: English

The Breakdown:

  • 75 questions
  • 45 minutes
  • 5 passages

The ACT English section can feel a bit like a marathon, with 5 back-to-back passages. But, when you break it down, you have 9 minutes per passage and question set. Each passage on the English test includes 15 questions, presented as underlined sentences and phrases throughout the passage. This means that context is important! Pay attention to how each sentence fits in with the others around it. Underlined sentences on the English section are divided fairly evenly between mechanical (punctuation, grammar) and rhetorical (organization, style) questions, so be prepared for a variety of question types.

Section 2: Math

The Breakdown:

  • 60 questions
  • 60 minutes

Made up of multiple choice questions, the Math section of the ACT covers algebra, geometry, and some trigonometry. Luckily for you, Magoosh has a jackpot of ACT Math advice as you prepare your ACT study guide! On the ACT math section, you’ll notice that you have approximately one minute per question. Some questions will definitely take longer than 60 seconds to solve, but before you hyperventilate, remember that you can solve plenty of questions in under 60 seconds. Get lots of practice (and time yourself!) and you should be just fine. A final note about Math: Remember that your calculator is a tool to help you solve some problems, but don’t waste your time using your calculator on every single question!

Section 3: Reading

The Breakdown:

  • 40 questions
  • 35 minutes
  • 4 passages

Passages on the ACT Reading section break down to 10 questions each, with just under 9 minutes to complete each passage and question set. To be completely honest, that is not a lot of time to read each passage and question thoroughly. You’ll definitely want to practice your ACT reading strategy. Question types on the ACT Reading include the classic purpose, tone, theme, and vocabulary.
Fortunately for you, the four passages on the ACT Reading section are always the same four topics, in the same order, every time. Though you can expect to find Prose Fiction, Social Science, Humanities, and Natural Science in that order on the test, you don’t actually have to read the passages in that order. Feel free to read these passages in whatever order is most comfortable to you.

Section 4: Science

The Breakdown:

  • 40 questions
  • 35 minutes

The great thing about the ACT Science section is that you aren’t expected to memorize a ton of scientific facts. Instead, you are being tested on your ability to analyze information presented on the test. That means reading is actually key to ACT Science. Many students get freaked out by ACT Science, but familiarizing yourself with ACT Science style, question types, and graphs will prove incredibly helpful. The science section also features quite a lot of math, but remember that this section tests you on science skills: the math here is easier than the math section. At a little over a minute per question, you have a bit more time to figure your answers than on the math section, but you’ll still need to maintain a good pace to get through the science section.

Optional Essay

The Breakdown:

  • 1 prompt
  • 3 perspectives
  • 40 minutes

If you haven’t decided yet whether you plan to take the optional writing portion, definitely check out this video to help you weigh pros and cons. The essay will always have the same basic prompt, though the specific subject you are writing about will change. The ACT Essay asks you to evaluate three perspectives, analyze them, and state and develop your own perspective as it relates to those given. As you are writing, keep in mind the four scoring areas on the rubric: 1) ideas and analysis, 2) development and support, 3) organization, and 4) language use and conventions.

That’s All, Folks!

And that’s the ACT! I know this outline made it seem like a breeze. 😉 And with Magoosh’s study guides, practice quizzes, and blogs, I know studying for the ACT will be a breeze! As always, good luck and happy studying!


  • Emily Faison

    An avid reader and art enthusiast, Emily has degrees in English from Florida State University and Southeastern University. When she's not editing web content for a local magazine, you’ll probably find her catching up on her Netflix queue or reading a novel with a fresh cup of coffee at a local cafe.

By the way, Magoosh can help you study for both the SAT and ACT exams. Click here to learn more!

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