The 4 ACT Subtests: An Overview of What Your Child Needs to Know

Posted by Julia Wasson

Jul 29, 2014 6:00:00 AM

ACT testThe ACT test is one of two tests used by colleges and universities for the purpose of admissions, and is primarily intended to be a test of content.

Students who have done well in the recommended sequence of courses through their junior year are likely to have learned the content they need to know for each of the ACT subtests: English, math, reading, and science. The ACT test also includes an optional writing essay.

But even students who are comfortable with the subject matter of the ACT test usually find time management to be a serious challenge. Knowing the best way to approach each section depends a lot on your child’s skill level in that subject area. A “C” student in English will likely need a different strategy than a “B” student to earn the same score. And students who are not confident in math, science, or reading will benefit from time management strategies that might seem counterintuitive until they try them.

Knowing what’s on the four ACT subtests and preparing with the right test-taking strategies is vital to earning a personal-best score.

The following is a breakdown of the four ACT subtests (plus the optional essay), including insights into how to prepare for each section:

ACT English Test Section

45 minutes, 75 questions

The ACT English test section covers punctuation, grammar, usage, sentence structure, logic and strategy, organization, and style.

Attention to detail is critical for this portion of the ACT test. Your child likely learned most of the ACT English rules way back in junior high school, and may be a little rusty on grammar. One effective way to prepare for the English section is to get an ACT study guide that includes a grammar review. Although cramming won’t be of much help on the ACT test in general, reviewing grammar rules a day or so before the test can be very beneficial.

ACT Math Test Section

60 minutes, 60 questions

The ACT math test section is comprised primarily of Algebra I, Algebra II, Geometry, and four questions from Trigonometry.

If your child has taken the recommended sequence of courses, he or she has already been exposed to most — or all — of the mathematical content on the ACT test. The trig questions are basic and may have been covered in a Geometry class. One possible pitfall, especially for advanced math students, is that students often forget the “easy stuff” and end up making mistakes. An ACT review of basic math is very important. Your child should also be aware that the test does not provide formulas, so memorizing the most common ones is essential to scoring well.

ACT Reading Test Section

4 challenging reading passages, 35 minutes, 40 questions

The ACT reading subtest measures reading comprehension and includes four types of reading passages — Natural Science, Social Science, Humanities, and Literature — with 10 questions each.

Even though vocabulary isn’t tested outright on the ACT reading subtest, having a strong vocabulary base is extremely beneficial. During the reading section of the ACT test, it’s also important to be an active reader, using specific strategies for attacking passages and finding correct answers.

ACT Science Test Section

7 challenging passages with data sets, 35 minutes, 40 questions

The ACT science subtest isn’t so much a test of science as it is a test of science reading. This portion of the ACT test measures your child’s ability to interpret, analyze, evaluate, and problem-solve using scientific data, experiments, or arguments.

Your child doesn’t need to know a lot of science facts or even heavy science vocabulary. However, a basic understanding of the scientific method is helpful, particularly for the experimental summary questions. And, similar to the reading subtest, a solid understanding of college-level vocabulary words will be of benefit for the conflicting viewpoints passages, which compare and contrast the ideas of different scientists.

Data analysis is also required — reading and interpreting charts, graphs, tables, and diagrams, as well as comparing related data presented in different formats. A good way to prepare for the data analysis questions on the ACT science subtest is to practice reading data representations (charts, graphs, tables, and diagrams), asking questions and looking for their answers within the data sets. As with any subject, the more your child practices, the easier this portion of the test becomes.

ACT Writing Test Section (Optional)

30 minutes, 1 writing prompt

The optional ACT writing test — the essay — is not required by all colleges and may only be taken at the same time as the full ACT test. The essay is intended to be persuasive and measures writing skills emphasized in entry-level college composition courses.

To be successful at writing the ACT essay, your child should focus on organizing his or her thoughts before ever putting pencil to paper. The biggest challenge is that your child must write a compelling, persuasive essay in only 30 minutes. That may sound daunting, but it’s easy when there’s a proven strategy to rely on. Even better, by mastering this portion of the ACT test, your child will have gained an important skill that will serve him or her well through high school, college, and beyond.

Ready to help your child learn the best strategies for conquering all four of the ACT subtests? Click below to download Raise Your Score: Tips for Success on the ACT and SAT.


Topics: ACT test, ACT Subtests

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