All the basics about the ACT


All the basics about the ACT: what is tested and how to do well

The ACT, like the SAT, is a standardized test used for college admissions. If you're planning to apply to college in the US, you'll almost certainly have to take one of these tests (and you might still need to even if you're planning on going to school outside the US).

Unlike the SAT test, the ACT test has a science section. However, you should not make the grave mistake of assuming ACT Science is manageable just because you are strong in math and science at your high school. ACT Science is such a weird section that even smart students often can't just walk up to and do well naturally. 
It is actually not pure science, so you cannot use your knowledge of science learned in school to tackle it. 
ACT Science is in fact more like another reading section in disguise based on science and graphic data analysis.
Many top students fail ACT Science because they aren’t quite sure what or how to do on this section of the test.
No worries when you attend Vo-Sensei's boot camp!  He will teach you everything you need to know to successfully conquer ACT Science.

Vo-sensei is the author of the well-known MASTER KEY TO ACT SCIENCE circulated daily in the United States.  

Top American test prep instructors, including Harvard tutors, have selected THE MASTER KEY TO ACT SCIENCE as the best book for ACT Science in America and used it as their favorite material.の書籍販売サイトはこちら
Here is a video by an American tutor commenting on Vo-Sensei’s book:
Below is everything you need to know about the ACT, including why students take it, what it tests you on, and when you should plan to take it yourself.

Why Do People Take the ACT?

The ACT is a standardized test designed to show colleges how prepared you are for higher education by measuring your reading comprehension, knowledge of writing conventions, and computational skills, and then comparing you to the rest of the high school students who take it.

The exam essentially serves as a US nationwide college admissions test (though it's not the only factor schools consider when looking to admit students).
 Most four-year schools require applicants to submit either ACT or SAT scores (they don't distinguish between the two), which can then make up as much as 50% of the admission decision. A strong standardized test score is a key part of your application.
 There are also a lot of students who are required to take the ACT by their high school. A number of states use the ACT as a statewide assessment test, so every junior at a public school takes the ACT.

Which Schools Accept the ACT?

There's a common misconception that some colleges only accept SAT scores and won't take ACT scores. This is not the case: all four-year colleges and universities in the US accept ACT scores, and the schools don't distinguish between the two tests. You can take whichever you prefer.

If you're an international student looking to attend a US school, you'll need to take either the ACT or SAT. If you're an American student planning to apply to international schools, you will probably still need to take one of these standardized tests, but it will depend on the school you're applying to and which country it's in.

Two-year colleges and trade schools generally don't require applicants to take the ACT but will sometimes accept it in lieu of a placement test. 

What Does the ACT Cover?

The ACT consists of four sections—English, Math, Reading, and Science—plus an optional Writing section, or essay. With the exception of the essay, the test is entirely multiple choice: the Math questions each have five answer choices, while the rest have four.
 This chart quantifies the basic structure of the test. For more details on what's actually on the ACT, you can follow the links to full breakdowns of each section.
OrderACT SectionNumber of QuestionsTimeTime per Question
1English7545 minutes36 seconds
2Math6060 minutes60 seconds
3Reading4035 minutes52 seconds
4Science4035 minutes52 seconds
5Essay Writing
1 prompt40 minutes40 minutes
Total215 question + 1 prompt3 hours 35 minutes with essay / 2 hours 55 minutes without essay

How Is the ACT Scored?

ACT scores can feel arbitrary, so let's break down where that mysterious number between 1 and 36 actually comes from.

For each section of the test, you'll get a raw score, which is the number of questions you get right. That is then converted into a scaled score between 1 and 36. The composite score is simply the average of your four ACT section scores (the Writing score is left out because it's optional).

Currently, the average ACT score hovers around 21, though there's some variance from year to year.

While it's easy to fixate on trying to get as high a score as possible, most students don't need to get a 36. Instead, you should determine what a good score is for the colleges (and scholarships) you're planning to apply to. For top-tier, highly selective schools, you'll likely need at least a 33-34, but for less selective public universities, you could very well get in with a score closer to the average.

When Should You Take the ACT?

When you take the ACT will depend on what kind of score you want to get, when your application deadlines are, and whether you live in one of the states that requires the ACT.

Generally speaking, though, it's ideal to take the ACT for the first time in the fall or winter of your junior year, when you've covered most of the material in school but still have time to retake the test if needed.

Check out to see a list of upcoming ACT test dates and get tips on choosing one.

Everything You Need to Plan for the ACT

Having read this so far, you hopefully feel a bit more clear about what the ACT is. But the tricky part is still to come: preparing for the test. I've compiled a list of essential questions you should ask yourself as you begin to plan for college applications. 

What Do I Need to Know to Prepare for the ACT?

There are three key pieces to preparing for the ACT:
  • Understanding how the test works
  • Reviewing the material
  • Practicing
What is the ACT English Section Like and what does it take to succeed in this section?
The ACT English section is a 75-question, 45-minute test. That comes out to just 36 seconds per question! So you will have to work pretty quickly to complete each question before you run out of time.

Each English test has five passages, each of which is accompanied by a sequence of multiple-choice questions. Some of the questions ask about specific phrases or sentences in the passage, and some ask about a paragraph or the entire passage as a whole. We will explore what those questions specifically test below.

The major key to succeeding in the ACT English section is knowing all the grammar rules tested and question patterns asked, and there are many of them to remember!  Simply doing a few practice tests at random can only give you limited practice but will not give you enough cover of all the rules and patterns tested. That’s why at MATER KEY BOOT CAMP, Vo-sensei will first walk you through ALL these essential grammar rules and patterns before having you work intensively on practice tests.

What Does ACT English Cover?

ACT English tests two broad content areas. The first is Usage and Grammatical Mechanics (including punctuation, grammar, usage, and sentence structure). The second is Rhetorical Skills (including strategy, organization, and style). Usage and Mechanics requires advanced punctuation and grammar knowledge. Rhetorical Skills focuses on your comprehending of the passage as a whole and your ability to maximize the passage's organization and style.

You'll receive a subscore for each of those two categories, though keep in mind that your overall section score is more important.  So rather than worry about the subscore you'll get for each section, just use those two categories to help guide your studying.

While grammar rules are tested, you will be working with passages, meaning you can use context to help you find the correct answers. You won't be expected to know tricky, obscure grammar rules in isolation.

Now let's look at each subsection in depth, and show you some practice questions to give you an idea of what you will face on ACT English.

Subsection 1: Usage/Grammatical Mechanics

Think of this as the nitty-gritty, detailed portion of the English test. You have to know punctuation rules, grammar rules, and how to construct a sentence properly to do well on this part. One trick for these questions is to pretend you're editing a paper for class. Choose the answers that make the passage as clear and precise as possible.
These questions test conventions of internal and end-of sentence punctuation. In other words, you have to understand correct comma, apostrophe, period, and semicolon use.

Punctuation questions emphasize the relationship of punctuation to meaning. In other words, how can you use punctuation to make sure the writing is as clear as possible? Make sure to take the entire sentence into account, even if the question asks about the punctuation of just a short phrase. Check out the example below to see what we mean.

(No translation of the below example)
Source: ACT Assessment Practice Multiple-Choice Test (no translation)
Although the question is asking about the correct punctuation to use for the phrase "charcoal gray suits," you have to take the entire sentence into account to make sure you choose the correct answer choice. The phrase comes at the end of a list of various subway passengers, ending with "a group of stockbrokers in crisp, charcoal gray suits."  Since commas are used to separate items in lists, you do not need to add a comma after the last item in a list. Thus, you can leave this phrase alone and select F., No Change.

In other words, our process here was to take into account the sentence as a whole, and use that to guide our punctuation choice. Never focus on just the short phrase when doing ACT English questions. Always make sure your answer choice makes sense in the entire sentence.

Subsection 2: Rhetorical Skills

Think of this as the “big picture” part of the ACT English test. Rather than correcting individual sentences, you are now thinking about the passage and argument as a whole. You have to find the answer choices that make the ideas, organization, and style of the passage the clearest. We'll dive into the subcategories below.
Cohesion questions test how well you can develop a given topic by choosing words or phrases that match an essay's audience and purpose. You also have to judge the effect of adding, revising, or deleting supporting material. Ask yourself, does the extra material add to the argument, or just confuse it?

You have to judge the relevance of possible additional statements in context, and choose whether to include them or not. For these questions, you have to take the entire passage into account and carefully consider whether the possible revision clarifies or confuses the passage's message. For example, check out the example below, which asks about the entire passage.
You have to figure out two things: first, whether or not you should make the addition, and second, why you should or should not. We won't make you read the entire passage for this post, but when faced with a style question like this, consider the material the passage has already introduced. Would adding the sentence enhance the passage's point or confuse it? Only choose to add a statement if it directly ties to information already introduced in the passage.


Just as the SAT Reading is the hardest section for Japanese students on the SAT test, so the ACT Reading is the most challenging section for them on the ACT.  However, if you fret about ACT Reading, your worry stops here!

Over his 18 years of teaching ACT/SAT in Tokyo, Vo-sensei has designed effective strategies helping numerous students raise their ACT Reading scores from around 20 to 31- 36 for the same numbers of study hours and practice tests used on this boot camp. 

To excel in ACT Reading, you must be familiar with all the question patterns tested and have clear strategies to tackle them. Vo-sensei will walk you through these question patterns and teach you the best strategies to tackle them. Mastering all these patterns, you master the test. Especially, Vo-sensei will teach you how to spot any correct answer using his unique READING MASTER KEY FORMULA, which is so efficient that it is now shared by both American students and tutors.

What is tested on ACT Reading

The ACT Reading section has four different types of passages for you to read. First, let's consider how the ACT Reading section is formatted.

Format of the ACT Reading

The ACT Reading section asks 40 questions in 35 minutes. There are three single passages and one set of paired passages (usually either in the Prose Fiction or Humanities subject areas). Since there are four different categories of passage, this means 10 questions after each one. Each of these questions has four answer choices, A, B, C, and D (or F, G, H, J).

This chart shows the breakdown of the time allotment per question on the ACT Reading section:
sectionsection timenumber of questionstime per question
ACT Reading35 minutes4052 seconds
While you theoretically have 52 seconds to answer each multiple choice question, in actuality, it will be considerably less since you'll be spending a portion of your time reading. This is a doable task, but you'll want to spend some time working on the best ways to manage your time.

In terms of the entire test, the Reading section is the third section you do, right after you have a break. This can be really good timing, as the first two sections get you warmed up and then you have a quick break to refresh and refocus.

Just like the order of sections, the ACT Reading section is consistent in what kinds of passages it presents to you. Let's take a look at the subject areas from which the passages are taken.

Types of Passages

The five passages on the ACT Reading section always come from these four topic areas: humanities, social studies, natural sciences, and prose fiction/literary narrative. You're not expected to have any preexisting knowledge about any of the passage topics. Everything you need to know to answer the questions will be right there in the text.

Since these topics can cover a large number of subtopics, this chart breaks it down a little more specifically, along with some examples of passage sources from sample ACT Reading questions that introduce passages and help you put them into context. As you can see with the Natural Sciences passage, the blurb might define any subject-specific words that you might need to know to understand the text.

A typical social studies passage might be taken from a textbook, a natural sciences passage from a scientific article, a literary narrative direct from a novel, and a humanities passage from an essay or memoir.

(No translation for Table below)
passage subjecttopicsample passage introduction
prose fictionshort stories, excerpts from novels, memoirs, or personal essaysThis passage is adapted from the novel The Men of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor (1998).
social studiesanthropology, archaeology, biography, business, economics, education, geography, history, political science, psychology, and sociologyThis passage is adapted from the chapter “Personality Disorders” in Introduction to Psychology, edited by Rita L. Atkinson and Richard C. Atkinson (1981).
humanitiesarchitecture, art, dance, ethics, film, language, literary criticism, music, philosophy, radio, television, and theaterThis passage is adapted from “A Poem of One’s Own,” an essay by Mary Jo Salter in which she discusses feminist literary critics’ recent reappraisal of women’s writing. The essay was taken from Audiences and Intentions: A Book of Arguments (1994).
natural scienceanatomy, astronomy, biology, botany, chemistry, ecology, geology, medicine, meteorology, microbiology, natural history, physiology, physics, technology, and zoologyThis passage is adapted from the article “How to Build a Baby’s Brain” by Sharon Begley (1997 by Newsweek, Inc.). In this selection, the term neuron refers to a specialized cell of the nervous system, and tomography refers to a method of producing three-dimensional images of internal structures.
If you feel much more confident about reading about the natural sciences than about social studies, for example, you might choose to locate that passage in your Reading section and do that one first. Not only can that help boost your confidence, it can ensure that you're answering as many questions as you can correctly.

Some students skip around so they can answer questions about their favorite subjects first. The questions are not ordered by difficulty, so it's fine to choose your own order as long as you're not wasting valuable time trying to decide where to start.

6 Major Patterns of ACT Reading Questions

No. Pattern What is asked Example
1 Main idea/Bigpicture/Global These questions ask you about the main point or theme of the passage. Your job is to pick out the response that best represents the overall idea of the text you just read. The main point of this passage is to:
A. illustrate the importance of genetics in the formation of a baby’s brain.
B. illustrate the importance of stimulation and experience in the formation of a baby’s brain.
C. indicate the great need for conducting further research on babies’ brains.
D. compare the latest research on babies’ brains with similar research conducted fifteen years ago.
2 Detail/Little picture These questions will often refer you to a specific line in the text and ask what it means. The fourth paragraph (lines 31-37) establishes all of the following EXCEPT
A. that Abshu had foster brothers
B. that the Masons maintained a clean house.
C. how Mother Mason felt about the location of their house.
D. what Abshu remembered most about his years with the Masons.
3 Vocabulary in Context These questions will point you to a specific word or phrase and ask what it means or how it functions in context. These questions often point to a common word or phrase that might be being used in an unusual way. As it is used in line 65, the term ‘the edge’ refers to a place where Abshu felt:
A. most alive
B. unfulfilled
C. defeated
D. most competitive
4 Function These questions ask you to describe the effect of a phrase, sentence, or paragraph in the context of an entire passage. Function questions tend to be about smaller amounts of text. The narrator’s statement “I am looking at the MOON, I told myself, I am looking at the MOON” (lines 60–62) is most nearly meant to:
F. reflect the excitement of the astronauts as they prepare to land.
G. illustrate the narrator’s disappointment with the moon’s barren appearance.
H. express the narrator’s irritation at having to wait for Apollo to land.
J. convey the narrator’s awe at the event that is being broadcast.
5 Development Development questions will as you to think about larger ideas. How are ideas arranged within the passage? Does the passage introduce its thesis right away, or eventually build up to its main point? Does it offer countering opinions, or does each paragraph expand on the previous? The last paragraph of Passage A (lines 37-49) marks a shift in the passage from:
A. a description of events leading up to a sudden action by the narrator to a reflection on the intentions and meanings behind that action.
B. an overview of a family dilemma to an explanation of how the narrator solved that dilemma.
C. an example of the narrator’s typical response to family events to an analysis of the narrator’s personality.
D. a chronology of a historical event to a summary of the narrator’s circumstances at the time.
6 Inference Inference questions are the hardest ones. They ask what is indirectly implied, requiring some logical reasoning to arrive at the correct answers. It can reasonably be inferred from the passage that which of the following is a cherished dream that Abshu expects to make a reality in his lifetime?
A. Establishing himself financially so as to be able to bring his original family back under one roof
B. Seeing the children at the community center shift their interest from sports to the dramatic arts
C. Building on the success of the community center by opening other centers like it throughout the state
D. Expanding for some, if not all, of the children the vision they have of themselves and their futures
These examples illustrate major question patterns in ACT Reading.  There are many other minor patterns that are not listed here, such as
  • Tone and Attitude
  • Analogy
  • Logic
Vo-sensei will guide you through all of them and teach you the best strategies to tackle them at MASTER KEY ACT Boot Camp.

If, for some reason, you cannot attend Vo-sensei’s boot camps, you still can use the general tips below to improve your scores.

ACT Reading Tips

No. Tip Detail
1 READ IN THE ORDER YOU PREFER On Test Day, you will encounter four very different passage types: Prose Fiction, Social Studies, Humanities (history and fine art), and Natural Science. One or two passages could be unfamiliar to you. Don’t get discouraged, though. You don’t need any outside knowledge to answer ACT Reading questions; they’re all based on the passage in front of you.
If you feel much more comfortable reading about natural science than about social studies, for example, you might choose to locate that passage in your Reading section and do that one first. Not only can that help boost your confidence, it can ensure that you’re answering as many questions as you can correctly.
2 ALWAYS READ THE PASSAGE FIRST It is a common myth that you should read the questions first. It is almost impossible to remember to look for the answer to 10 different questions while reading an unfamiliar passage containing 750 words and trying to synthesize the big ideas. A much better use of your time is to read the passage and grasp the main idea and purpose before even glancing at the
3 READ QUICKLY BUT WITH UNDERSTANDING Read the passage as quickly as you can but not too quickly to grasp what you are reading.
If you can, write short notes next to each paragraph to help you keep track of what you have read.
Focus on the topic and purpose of the passage
Keep track of different people and opinions
Read the question and identify helpful hints.
Line references and keywords can help you find the answer
4 USE THE LINE REFERENCES Memories can be faulty; don’t waste energy trying to rely on yours during a timed, high stakes test. The line references are provided for a reason, so use them, and don’t forget to read around the line reference for context. If a question references line 12, for example, read lines 10-14. The correct answer will always have support in the passage.
5 FIND SUPPORT Always choose the best answer choice (based on support in the passage), not the one you think sounds most intelligent. You must find textual evidence supporting the right answer. The correct answer will be flawless
6 KNOW THE ACT READING COMPREHENSION TRAP ANSWERS ●Distortion – twists details from the passage so they are no longer correct
●Irrelevant detail – a true statement from the passage, but one that doesn’t answer the question
●Out-of-scope – includes information not included in the passage
●Extreme – too extreme to reflect the author’s purpose (often includes words like always, never, best, worst, etc.)
●Opposite – contradicts the information in the passage
7 ELIMINATE INCORRECT ANSWER CHOICES There will always be answers to eliminate, so look for them. Sometimes, just one word makes an entire answer choice wrong. Find the flaw in the answer choice, and cross it
8 KNOW HOW THE TEST IS SCORED There is no wrong answer penalty, so make sure you answer every question, even if you cannot eliminate any answer choices or if you run out of time.
Have a pre-specified “Letter of the Day” like (A)/(F) or (B)/(G) to fill in automatically so you don’t spend extra time deciding which answer choice you want to bubble in.


So many students are Not sure what to expect from the science section. You might be surprised to know that the science section is one of the most commonly misunderstood parts of the ACT.

So what exactly is tested on the ACT science section? And how much science do you need to know to do well? Below is the breakdown of this section for you with example questions so you know exactly what to expect.

ACT Science Section Format

The ACT science section is 35 minutes long and contains 40 questions. That means that you have about 53 seconds to spend on each question.

The science section’s format is more like the reading section than the math section – which is surprising for some students! Each question on the math section has its own task or problem. But for both the ACT Reading and ACT Science, you have to read a passage and then answer a series of questions about it.

There are seven passages in the science section. Each passage could contain graphs, charts, experiment summaries, or conflicting viewpoints from scientists. Every passage is followed by six to seven questions about it. So to do well on this section, you need to be able to quickly but accurately read and understand scientific data.

What Does ACT Science Test You On?

 Although the ACT Science section includes a wide range of science content, it tests your scientifically analytical skills more than your knowledge. As the ACT puts it, “the Science Test … measures the interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning, and problem-solving skills required in the natural sciences.”

In other words, the science section tests skills, not specific facts or topics. Therefore, you cannot use your knowledge of science that you have learned in school to tackle ACT Science no matter how good you are at the subject.

The key to doing well on the science section of the ACT is mastering the patterns of questions listed below.
  1. Text/Table/Graph interpretation
  2. Trends: direct trends inverse trends
  3. Interpolation and Extrapolation
  4. Yes No Yes No Dual Pairs
  5. Data Link
  6. Math-related
  7. Balanced Chemical Equations
  8. Experimental Design Questions
  9. Purpose
  10. Logic
  11. Multi-column
  12. 3-statement
  13. The inconclusive
  14. Double-layer
  15. The debating scientists
  16. Prior knowledge
Once you know how to recognize and handle the above patterns, you master ACT Science. These are the main patterns from the ACT science book THE MASTER KEY TO ACT SCIENCE, published by Vo-sensei himself.  He will cover all these patterns in-depth at his MASTER KEY ACT Bootcamp.