Complete Guide to the ACT Test

act breakdown

If you’re looking for information about the structure of the ACT test, how long the ACT is, how it’s scored, and how you should study, this complete guide to the ACT should answer your questions.

The ACT test is a college entrance exam designed for 10th, 11th, and/or 12th grade students. ACT test scores are accepted by all four-year US colleges and universities. In the 2021 graduating class, nearly 1.3 million students from the US and around the world took the test. 

The ACT is designed to measure the skills that are most important for success in a college environment. To accomplish this, the ACT tests students in four subject areas: English, Math, Reading, Science, and an optional Essay section. These 4 multiple-choice sections (sometimes referred to as “tests”) are scored on a scale of 1-36 and then averaged into one composite score, also ranging from 1-36.

How Long is the ACT? What is the Structure of the Test?

The Timing of the ACT Test

The ACT contains 4 sections: English, Math, Reading, Science (and an optional Essay section).

The test is 2 hours, 55 minutes long, and includes a 10-minute break between the Reading and Math sections. If you decide to take the optional Essay, you’ll get a 5-minute break after the Science section and then 40 minutes to complete the Essay section. 

The Structure of the ACT

The ACT test sections always appear in the same order: English, followed by Math, Reading, and Science at the end. 

ACT Test Breakdown

ACT SectionTime (minutes)Number of
Minutes per
English45/175 (26%)75/215 (35%)0.6 
Math60/175 (34%)60/215 (28%)1
Break10/175 (1.75%)
Reading35/175 (20%)40/215 (19%)0.88
Science 35/175 (20%)40/215 (19%)0.88

Essay (optional)40
(without essay)
175 minutes215 questions

What is Tested on the ACT? 

The ACT test sections always appear in the same order: English, followed by Math, Reading, and Science at the end. 


ACT English test puts you in the position of a writer revising and editing a text. Short passages rife with grammatical errors are paired with questions asking you to identify and correct the errors in the passage. This section covers standard grammar conventions and rhetorical skills. For this section, brush up on your knowledge of commas, semicolons, and sentence arrangement.  

English resources:
Should You Study ACT Vocabulary Lists?
How to Get a 36 on the English Section
Sentence Formulas Study Guide


The ACT Math section covers Number & Quantity, Algebra, Functions, Geometry, and Statistics & Probability. This is all math you probably learned throughout your freshman, sophomore and junior years of high school. In general, the ACT’s math questions are straightforward. This can make them easier to solve, in the sense that it’s usually obvious what the question is asking. On the other hand, if you don’t know how to do the problem, you can be out of luck.

You are allowed to use an approved calculator on the math test. You are not given a formula chart. 

Math resources:
Math Formulas to Know
Math Vocabulary to Know
Strategies for the ACT Math Section
What Calculator to Use on the ACT


The ACT Reading section tests your ability to read and interpret passages of text. Like the English section, the Reading section is set up in a passage-question format. You’ll see 4 types of passages on the Reading section: Literary Narrative/Prose Fiction, Natural Science, Humanities, and Social Science. Each passage type is written in a different style and requires different strategies. 

Reading resources:
About the Social Science and Humanities Passages
About the Literary Narrative/Prose Fiction Passage
About the Natural Science Passage
How to Ace the ACT Reading Section
How to Stay Focused on the ACT Reading Section


Also in a passage-question format, the ACT Science section is least like anything you’ve seen in school. Through passages and data, the Science section tests your ability to read and extract information from scientific passages and data. This is one of the more difficult sections of the ACT because you only have 35 minutes to read 6 passages and answer 40 corresponding questions. But don’t freak out – there are plenty of strategies to help you own this section. 

Science resources:
Strategies for the ACT Science Section
Graphs to Know for the ACT Science Section
How is the ACT Science Section Structured?
The 4 Basic Categories of ACT Science Literacy

How is the ACT Test Scored?

Each ACT section is scored on a simple raw point to #/36 scale. There are no deductions for errors. The individual scores for the 4 sections (English, Math, Reading, Science) are averaged to create a composite score, which is also out of 36.  

You can read in detail about how the ACT is scored in this post:
How is the ACT Scored?

Something interesting to note: on the ACT, while each section is ¼ of your score, ¾ sections are reading based – meaning your ACT score is 75% reading-based

This is something to consider if you find yourself a stronger reader or a stronger mathematician.

When Can I Take the ACT?

The ACT is offered seven times throughout the year. Register for the ACT by visiting the ACT’s website and registering online. They say this takes about 40 minutes to complete. To register, you’ll need:

  • Your high school course details
  • Your high school’s code
  • A headshot photo
  • A credit card or other payment method in order to register.

Review the ACT website for a full list of information you’ll need to register for the ACT.

Many students take the test at least twice because your score almost always increases on the second try. We recommend taking your first test in the winter or spring of your junior year and your second test in the summer or fall so there is plenty of time to get your scores back before college applications are due.

When Should I Take the ACT?

2022 ACT Test Dates

Test DateRegistration Deadline(Late Fee Required)
February 12, 2022January 7, 2022January 21, 2022
April 2, 2022February 25, 2022March 11, 2022
June 11, 2022May 6, 2022May 20, 2022
July 16, 2022*June 17, 2022June 24, 2022

* No testing centers are scheduled in New York for the July test date

How Do I Study for the ACT?

Studying for the ACT is not about memorizing formulas or tricks. It’s about learning the content that the ACT tests. If you fully understand the concepts behind the test questions and can apply your knowledge to new situations, you’re on track for a great score. 

When you’re looking for study materials, look for materials that teach the concepts behind the questions rather than teach to the test. Not only will learning these concepts help do better on the ACT, but help you become a better student, too! 

We put together a list of the best ACT prep companies for every budget to help you get started on your search. At the top of the list is our ACT course. The content of the course covers every section of the test and is designed to help you connect with the material through relevant questions and animated explanation videos.

Developed by veteran ACT tutors and high school teachers, the course teaches you the concepts you need to know to own the test. And since it’s online and self-paced, you don’t even have to work around someone else’s schedule!

Head over to to enroll and start studying right away. 

Get a better score. Get into a better school.

Olive Book’s free online ACT and SAT courses are all you need to boost your score. Check them out:

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