Budgeting Your Time Wisely on the ACT Exam

By Lisa Zimmer Hatch, Scott A. Hatch

The ACT exam contains five sections that cover English, math, reading, science, and an essay. To pass the ACT, studying beforehand really helps, but you also need to budget your time wisely on test day.

English section

The first test is the English exam, where five scintillating passages await. Each presents around 15 questions for a total of 75 questions. To maintain the pace required by the ACT, plan to spend no more than 9 minutes answering the questions for one passage.

The English questions may be classified in one of two main categories. Grammar and usage includes such concepts as punctuation, parts of speech, subject and verb agreement, and parallel structure. Rhetorical skill (a fancy way of saying knowing what makes for good writing) questions test your ability to eliminate redundant and irrelevant information, choose precise words and phrasings, make smooth transitions between ideas, organize sentences and paragraphs logically, and so on.

Math section

The 60 questions on the ACT math exam must be answered in 60 minutes, so you should average a minute for each one. ACT math covers a wide range of subtopics, including pre-algebra and elementary algebra (core arithmetic and algebra concepts, as well as basic and advanced statistics), plane geometry and trigonometry (the rules and formulas surrounding basic 2D and 3D shapes, including trigonometric ratios and identities), and intermediate algebra and coordinate geometry (a variety of concepts, from functions to vectors to logarithms to imaginary numbers).

Reading section

The ACT reading section tests your reading ability through a set of four passages: fiction, social science, humanities, and natural science. You’re given 35 minutes, and each passage contains 10 questions; this means that the questions for each passage should be answered in less than 9 minutes. One of the passages in each section is actually a set of two passages on a similar topic; a few questions require to you to compare the ideas in both.

Science section

The passages in the ACT science section primarily test your ability to carefully examine and apply data conveyed in tables and graphs and evaluate experimental procedure and the reasons for a study’s setup. The ACT presents you with six science passages per test, and you get 35 minutes to complete the section; this gives you roughly six minutes per passage. Although almost all you need to know comes straight from the passages, a few questions require you to rely on basic vocabulary and concepts you picked up in middle school science and freshman biology.

Essay section

The ACT gives you the option of writing a 40-minute essay. “If it’s optional, why do it?” you ask? Many colleges require the essay part, so if you’re applying to one of those colleges, taking the writing test is not optional. For your writing pleasure, the ACT describes a current issue, gives you three perspectives on the issue, and asks you to create a persuasive essay that advances your position.