The Basics on the ACT: Intro Study Guide & Overview of What You Will Need to Know for the Test

The Basics on the ACT: Intro Study Guide & Overview of What You Will Need to Know for the Test
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Why the ACT is Important

While standardized testing may not seem like a completely fair assessment of all your knowledge and abilities, it’s something you’ll have to face if you plan to attend college. Many schools ask for either an ACT or SAT score, and some may even ask for both.

Most students take this test sometime during their junior year. If you aren’t satisfied with your score, you can register to take the test again. The best way to avoid taking the test more than once is to be prepared by understanding what will be covered in the exam, and by completing practice questions that familiarize you with the test’s structure.

Test Overview

The test is comprised of 215 multiple-choice questions on four subject areas. Questions are split up by category like this:

  1. Mathematics (60)
  2. Science (40)
  3. Reading (40)
  4. English (75)

The exam can also include an optional writing component, where you craft a short essay based on a suggested topic.

Math Study Questions

The questions in the math section of the ACT are typically easier at the beginning and become more difficult as you progress through the test. You should be familiar with basic algebra and geometry before taking this test in order to do well on the math section. Calculator use is permitted when taking the test.

Sample Math Questions

1. Solve the following equation: 3x-2=28

  • A: 32
  • B: 14
  • C: 8
  • D: 10

2. If a train is traveling at 60 miles per hour at 1:16 pm, at what time will the train reach the next station, which is 12 miles away?

  • A: 1:41 pm
  • B: 2:06 pm
  • C: 1:30 pm
  • D: 1:28 pm

3. A rectangle is three times longer than it is wide. If the width is 5 cm, what is the rectangle’s total perimeter in inches?

  • A: 40
  • B: 20
  • C: 35
  • D: 60

See answers at the end of this article.

Science Study Questions

Science questions are preceded by a passage that explains an experiment or situation. A chart, graph or data table may be provided to go along with the passage. Read the passage carefully and take your time looking for the answers in what you’ve read.

Sample Science Passage and Questions

The following data shows the growth pattern of different seeds when placed in a variety of conditions.

  • Seed #1: Condition = Water…………..Week 1 = 0.3 cm, Week 2 = 0.6 cm, Week 3 = 0.8 cm, Week 4 = 1.1 cm
  • Seed #2: Condition = Soil……………..Week 1 = 0.1 cm, Week 2 = 0.3 cm, Week 3 = 0.9 cm, Week 4 = 1.7 cm
  • Seed #3: Condition = Fertilizer……….Week 1 = 0.5 cm, Week 2 = 0.6 cm, Week 3 = 0.6 cm, Week 4 = 0.6 cm

1. Which condition provides the best conditions for obtaining the most overall growth?

  • A: Seed #1
  • B: Seed #2
  • C: Seed #3

2. Which seed grew at the steadiest rate?

  • A: Seed #1
  • B: Seed #2
  • C: Seed #3

3. Which seed ceased growth during the experiment?

  • A: Seed #1
  • B: Seed #2
  • C: Seed #3

See answers at the end of this article.

Reading Study Questions

Passages for the reading section of the ACT are typically longer than in the science section. Read each passage carefully, then move on to the corresponding questions. The lines are numbered in the passage so that you can easily refer to a section or sentence based on the questions.

It’s harder to give specific examples in this section because it is based on comprehension skills. Rather, see the sample questions below to get an idea of the format and type of questions asked in this section.

Sample Reading Questions

In line 35, Gregory uses the word “hard” to explain how he feels about:

  • A: His relationship with his brother
  • B: The stone on which he sites
  • C:The challenge of climbing the mountain
  • D:The strength he feels reaching the summit

In the final paragraph, the narrator states that she had realized her New Year’s resolution had changed. What is her new goal?

  • A: To save up her money in order to travel
  • B: To find out about her family history
  • C: To finally tell her mother how she feels
  • D: To write a book about her experiences

English Study Questions

The English section tests a student’s knowledge about grammar, punctuation, sentence structure and writing style. In many cases the questions accompany a passage like the one below. Unlike the reading and science sections, this section of the ACT does not provide you with the information and ask you to reiterate it or demonstrate your comprehension of the material. This section also does not include ‘direct’ vocabulary questions, like the SAT, but will test your vocabulary indirectly, as seen in the example below.

Sample English Passage and Questions

When our brother finally graduated from college, our entire family was proud. Exhausted, we piled into our seats where the ceremony was held at the auditorium_. It took us seven and a half hours to make the drive to his campus._

1. What sentence order makes the most sense for this passage?

  • A: 3-1-2
  • B: 1-2-3
  • C: 2-3-1
  • D: 1-3-2

2. One sentence has an underlined phrase. Where is the best placement for this phrase in the sentence?

  • A: After the word
  • B: After the word seats
  • C: After the word piled
  • D: No change

3. In this passage, the word “proud” could be replaced with the following synonym:

  • A: dignified
  • B: boastful
  • C: pleased
  • D: arrogant

The Writing Section of the ACT

The writing section is optional and costs slightly more than taking the test without the writing portion. Some colleges and universities require it as part of their application process, so be sure to check the requirements of the schools you want to apply to. This section will introduce an issue relevant to high school students then allow time to complete the essay. Write clearly and persuasively, giving support for each of your claims or opinions on the issue.

Analyzing Your Score

Scores arrive about four to seven weeks after you take the exam. The highest score possible is 36. A score will be assigned in each area, then an average will give you your final score. Keep in mind that the national average typically falls between 20 and 22. However, you should also look for admissions information on the average ACT scores for accepted students at the colleges you hope to attend. This will give you a better idea of what to aim for if you want to get in. You can also take a variety of ACT prep classes that will help boost your score.

In general, the ACT is just one element of your college application. If your score is slightly below the average for that college, it doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t get in. There are many components involved in the college admissions process. Often students that get excellent grades and are involved in a variety of activities at their school can successfully demonstrate to college admissions officers that they take their academic career seriously. Never be afraid to ‘reach’, in addition to applying to your match and safety schools.

Answer Key


  • Question 1: D
  • Question 2: D
  • Question 3: A


  • Question 1: B
  • Question 2: A
  • Question 3: C


  • Question 1: D
  • Question 2: B
  • Question 3: C

References: and