How long does ACT take and ACT test dates are not things you have to worry about so much now, as many colleges and universities in the US do not require you to submit ACT or SAT scores. Previously, the SAT and ACT tests were essential steps of how to get into Ivy League colleges or any post-secondary institution in the US, but times have changed. Colleges and universities have now acknowledged that standardized tests are inherently bias for a number of reasons and they are slowly phasing out the need for them; replacing them instead with the Common App service that asks for other application materials besides standardized test scores. Regardless, over 1 million students took the ACT last year, so this blog will answer questions such as how long does ACT take, and explore proven strategies to improve your test time effectively. 


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Article Contents
11 min read

Why Are Colleges Phasing out the ACT Test? How Long Does the ACT Take and What is Covered? How the ACT is Scored How to Improve your Speed Taking the ACT Conclusion FAQs

Why Are Colleges Phasing out the ACT Test?

Neither the ACT nor the SAT test are being used as much as before for many reasons, some of which you’ve probably already heard. One of the main reasons has been the controversy surrounding the test’s racial bias, as white students regularly score higher in all sections of the test over their Black counterparts. But even with this evidence, not all colleges and universities in the United States have decided to eliminate standardized test scores from their admission requirements.

Why?

Because there are counterarguments that say the ACT and SAT tests help increase diversity, not stifle it, which is why major post-secondary schools in the US including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology still make it a part of the application process. What this means for you and your college application is up to you. Many colleges and universities only started to remove the ACT and SAT from their requirements during the pandemic, so you may have already taken the test.

If you have, then you can submit your scores, if you are happy with them. If you haven’t taken the test, you should decide as soon as possible whether you want to or not. You should also know whether the scores (SAT vs. ACT) are even required by the school you want to apply to. While we’ll talk about the different parts of the test and how long does ACT take, we’ll also include some reasons why you should, and should not take the test so you can make a decision for yourself.

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How Long Does the ACT Take and What is Covered?

Four hours.

That’s how long the ACT usually takes for most students who take the entire test, meaning the four sections dedicated to ACT English, ACT Math, ACT Reading and ACT Science. But if you decide to write the optional essay that tacks on another hour to the entire test. If you choose to not write the optional essay, the test length is shortened by an hour, so it lasts a little over three hours, including the breaks you are given.

Each section of the ACT takes an approximate time to complete depending on whether you have taken practice tests and timed your strategy to fit well below the time allotted for each section. The four sections, the number of questions and their estimated completion time are:

  • English – 75 questions/45 minutes
  • Math – 60 questions/60 minutes
  • Reading – 45 questions/35 minutes
  • Science – 40 questions/35 minutes

If you decide to add the optional writing essay portion, you’ll add at least 45 minutes, which, taken together with a ten-minute break, adds to up to close to one hour. But what do these individual sections cover and how can you prepare for them so you can answer in time to all 215 ACT questions? We’ll cover that in the following sections.

How the ACT is Scored

The two things that all ACT sections are supposed to measure are your:

  • Cognitive complexity
  • Depth of knowledge

This basically means the test is aimed at measuring what you know and your problem-solving abilities in relation to questions asked in each of the sections. You’ll see on your practice tests (and you should, at the minimum, do two or three practice tests; but you should try for even more if you have the time since they are free) that the questions get harder and more complex as you near the end, since there are three levels to depth of knowledge (DOK). We’ll explain more about how the various levels of depth of knowledge are distributed throughout each section.

English Section

This section of the ACT lasts for 45 minutes and gives you 75 different questions, or “items” to answer to measure three aspects of your knowledge of English:

  • Production of Writing
  • Knowledge of Language
  • Conventions of English

Within each of these three areas are sub-topics that the individual questions will aim to look at, so during the Production of Writing section, you’ll be asked to write passages based around specific prompts and your answer will be assessed by how you:

  • Identify and explain a piece of writing
  • Demonstrate your knowledge of writing and language

In this section you have to read specific passages and identify how a text explains its argument, what literary conventions and devices the text uses, and whether it is successful in relating its main argument. Then, you will be asked about those conventions of writing so you can demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of these conventions.

Even though there are 75 questions in the English section, you will spend the most time on the Conventions of Standard English section (almost 50%), which is the hardest part since you have to distinguish between correct grammar, punctuation usage, where modifiers should be placed, and the relationship between clauses. The other sections should be fairly easy, so you should try to focus on the Conventions of Standard English during your practice tests.

Math Section

With 2 sections and 8 sub-sections, the Math category is usually the longest part of the ACT, since it reviews all the math knowledge you were taught throughout grade school, in the US, from kindergarten to Grade 12. This is one section where the questions will get harder as your progress, as this section is designed to measure your DOK in three levels with DOK 3 being the most difficult.

The sections and subsections in the Math part include:

  • Preparing for Higher Mathematics
  • Integrating Essential Skills
  • Modeling

Preparing for Higher Mathematics (PHM) is the section with eight subsections, which include things such as:

  • Algebra
  • Functions
  • Geometry

The Integrating Essential Skills is also in-depth and is the part of the test that most resembles a high school math test, where you have to answer questions testing your knowledge of measurements (volume, units, and quantities), data analysis, and functions, among many other areas. The PHM section is where you’ll spend the most of your time since it is the longest, but you can shorten your time if you give your best possible answer and don’t dwell too long on ensuring you get the right answer.

Reading Section

The reading section is where you are given a series of passages of varying lengths (three sections with one prose passage each; one section with two shorter passages) and have to analyze them for certain features, such as:

  • The main ideas and argument of a text
  • The ways an author uses language
  • The voices and methods an author use

According to the estimates of ACT, Inc., the non-profit that administers and writes the ACT, the reading section should only take you half an hour. This is mostly because you are reading, analyzing and answering the separate questions, which is not as time-consuming as figuring out equations or statistics and probability as you would in the Math section.

There are three reading categories that are assessed in this section, which are:

  • Key Ideas & Details
  • Craft & Structure
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas

These sub-sections explore all three Depths of Knowledge (I, II, III) meaning the questions get progressively harder. So, you’ll start by analyzing texts in the Key Ideas & Details section, and then summarizing them through a series of multiple questions (40 questions in total), whereas in the subsequent sections you’ll take apart the passages more in-depth and be asked to analyze, explain and evaluate whether the passage is well-written and demonstrate how through your answers.

The KI&D section is what takes the longest, as you will have more questions to answer (20-24 questions) and you will have to read over the passages carefully. Again, you don’t want to spend too much time overanalyzing whether you have the right answer or not, but you can answer the other questions faster to give yourself more time to answer the KI&D questions. To change things up, you’ll also be asked to answer reading questions that combine visual aspects and text to better gauge your comprehension.

Science Section

According to some estimates, the Science section is where you’ll spend the second-longest, answering questions, as this section is divided into three categories:

  • Interpretation of Data
  • Scientific Investigation
  • Evaluation of Models, Inferences & Experimental Results

The types of questions you’ll be asked include questions based on universal high-school science curriculums in subjects, such as:

  • Biology
  • Natural sciences
  • Physical sciences

Meaning that you won’t see anything in this section that you don’t already know or haven’t been taught. Still, science is not everyone’s strongest subject, so, if this holds true for you, you need to brush up on how to read diagrams, tables, graphs, as well as knowing about the principles of scientific investigation. Again, as with the reading section, the questions will get more complicated and abstract as you progress.

The longest section is the Interpretation of Data and you will spend more than half your time answering these questions (between 40-50%). This section will have you looking for and identifying patterns, trends, and summarizing research findings from various data-sets. The other sections will take less time, but they can be just as tricky as you have to draw logical conclusions from data you are shown and present scientific explanations for the situations outlined in the questions.

Writing Section (optional)

The Writing Section is what actually takes up the most time if you choose to write the essay. This section is usually the hardest for most students because it asks them to do something even premed and prelaw students struggle with: creating an original, compelling, thoughtful and insightful piece of writing. This section is similar to being asked the “tell me about yourself” college interview questions, as it seems simple, but, in reality, it is a difficult task for most.

What makes it so difficult is that, as with the “tell me about yourself” question, there doesn’t seem to be a wrong or incorrect way to answer these questions, but there is, and you will be graded on your essay through an analytical scale, which is different from the holistic way the writing section used to be graded. Now, you’ll graders will look for specific things in your essay that will determine your overall score on a scale between 2-12.

The four categories the graders will look at include:

  • Ideas & Analysis
  • Development & Support
  • Organization
  • Language Use & Conventions

The structure of this section is laid out by ACT and it requires you to respond to a specific prompt and three argument threads that you can choose to continue or come up with your own. You must also relate how your perspective connects to at least one of the opinions given on the test, which is another thing that your essay will be graded on.

Again, this part of the test is based on what you learned or developed in high school, namely:

  • Critical thinking skills
  • Analyzing various perspectives
  • Forming your own cogent argument

You don’t have to write this essay, but it is good preparation for later in life, especially if you want to go to college and take writing-intensive courses such as English, philosophy, psychology or sociology. The best way to shorten the time you take to complete the essay is to write practice essays, not timed, at first, because you want to first develop your critical thinking and writing skills so don’t pressure yourself too much at the beginning.

Write practice essays and let other people read them, which is another advantage of preparing. You can get an idea of what works, and what doesn’t, as your practice readers will be able to tell you if they followed the argument you were trying to make or not. But making an argument is also something that you have to master, as your entire essay will be based on this thesis and you need to know how to state and defend one.

How to Improve your Speed Taking the ACT

1. You Need to Practice

There are many free practice tests available to take right up to when you have to take the real test, and you should take advantage of them to work on your test time. As with anything, the more you practice the more comfortable you’ll be with the format since you know what’s coming and how long you have to take for each answer. Writing practice tests also gives you an idea of how long you take to answer certain questions, meaning, the longer you take on a specific question means you have to dedicate more time to brushing up on that subject to improve your time.

2. Tackle the Hardest Questions First

You don’t have to write the ACT test sequentially so you can focus first on the questions or subjects that you struggle with the most and then write the other sections of the test, which you are most comfortable with. You can always return to the questions that require more attention and thought, after you’ve completed other sections that are easier for you. This is a strategy you can use with most multiple-choice questions and it is useful in helping you organize your time and reduce your stress, as you will feel more confident after you have answered the easier questions for you.

3. Don’t Spend too Much Time on a Single Question

Perfect ACT scores are extremely rare so you won’t get every question right and don’t put that pressure on yourself. Remember that this test is only one part of your college application, so don’t keep thinking about “what is a good SAT score?” or ACT score since admissions committees will look at your other feats such as your extracurriculars for college and your other written college essays. If one particular question is vexing, then save it for later or give your best guess and move on to a question you know you can handle.

4. Memorize Key Scientific/Mathematical Concepts or Theory

Studying for the ACT test should be like studying for any other high school exam in that you should enter the test having memorized key aspects of scientific theories, and formulas. The Science section will test specifically for this knowledge, so in your ACT test prep, you should cover these areas and try to memorize them if possible. You don’t want to memorize every aspect of the test, but if you struggle with these areas you should try to review them as many times as possible so you can easily recall them during the exam.

5. Practice Close Reading

During your ACT test prep, you should also practice close reading, meaning you should analyze particular passages of various texts (fiction, non-fiction, scholarly work) and look closely at the way the text is written and structured. Close reading means you isolate single words, sentences and paragraphs and then deconstruct them to understand how they contribute to the overall story or argument of the text. This way you can familiarize yourself with the way many writers demonstrate their thinking, which is then useful to you so you can replicate that structure when (if) writing your personal essay.

Conclusion

The time it takes to write the ACT is not that different from how long is the SAT, as both tests take up to three hours, but the ACT will be longer if you decide to write the optional essay, which, by all measures, you should. The choice between the ACT vs. SAT is entirely up to you and whether you have chosen to apply to colleges that do not require the SAT or ACT. While there are arguments for and against the test, you should make your decision based on what you think you are capable of and whether you are willing to put in the time and effort to prepare for the test.

FAQs 

1. How long does the ACT take?

The ACT usually lasts for three and half-hours with breaks included, but the test will take longer if you decide to write the optional essay, extending the test time to almost four hours. 

2. Should I take the ACT?

There are many ways to look at this answer. Both the ACT and SAT have been used to assess whether students are prepared for college academically and intellectually, so, despite claims of inherent bias, the test still offers admissions committee a view of your academic abilities. But if you want the school you are applying to, to know more about you than your test scores, you should participate in activities and extracurriculars that you enjoy doing and are a truer reflection of the whole you. However, if you are the kind of student that enjoys studying, taking tests and challenging yourself academically, then, by all means, you should take the test. Ultimately, unless the school you are applying to requires it, the choice to take the test is entirely up to you. 

3. Are the SAT and ACT biased?

Whether the SAT scores and ACT scores are biased is something that is still being debated. But whether they are biased or not, it should not affect your decision to take it, or not. The question of bias is something that is part of larger discussions about inequality, institutional racism and fairness, which are important discussions to have, but they should not affect your personal decision on whether taking the test will serve your goal getting into college. 

4. How can I prepare for the ACT?

You can prepare for the ACT test by looking closely at ACT test dates, as you would when preparing for SAT test dates, so you can time the amount of preparation you need. When you have chosen a date to take test – at least three months out – you can create a study schedule that you should follow, which should consist of you taking practice tests, taking timed practice tests, practicing close reading, and writing practice essays. You can also hire an ACT tutor to help you devise your own strategies for taking the test that are more suited to your strengths. 

5. Which part of the ACT test is the hardest?

The “hardest” part of the ACT test could be whatever subject you struggle with most, so it will be different for everyone. The longest part of the test is writing the essay, since many students struggle with writing overall, but whatever subject you struggle with is where you should focus your preparation and study. 

6. How should I prepare for the ACT test day?

You should get enough sleep the night before, and get to the testing center at least a half an hour before your test time, so you don’t have to worry about getting there on time. 

7. Can I skip questions on the ACT?

You can skip them, but make sure you return to give an answer, even if you are not sure it is the right answer. 

8. What is a “good” ACT test score?

A perfect ACT score is 36, but if you get a 20 that is still an achievement. Some schools may have cut-offs or require a specific score to apply, so make sure you know all about the admission and application requirements before you take the test. 

To your success,

Your friends at BeMo

BeMo Academic Consulting


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