How Long Does The ACT Test Take

The biggest mistake students make on the ACT is running out of time. This comes as no surprise since the ACT is a roughly three-hour commitment and on average, students get about 40-60 seconds per multiple-choice question on the ACT, depending on the section. Whether getting stuck on a math problem or taking too long to read a passage, students can easily lose time that could have been used to score even more precious points. The high-stakes environment in the testing room can make students even more anxious, making it even harder to make the most of the three hours for the exam. To avoid losing crucial time during the ACT, students must know the structure and length of the entire exam, the section-by-section timing breakdown, the average number of seconds per question, and key time management strategies to increase testing endurance and speed.

ACT Exam Structure

In order to grasp just how demanding the timing of the ACT is, it is important to understand the actual breakdown of the test. The ACT consists of four multiple-choice sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science. Unlike the SAT, the ACT math section is composed entirely of multiple-choice questions and does not include any free-response questions. The Science and Reading sections also include passages that students must read before answering questions. Along with the basic four sections, students can opt to take the optional essay section, which adds more time to the exam.

There is often also a fifth section (after the first four sections) that is unscored and used by ACT to test out possible future questions on test-takers. Some students panic if they receive this unexpected fifth section from the ACT, but this possible fifth section actually does not get scored. It does add to the overall testing time, however, and students should be mentally prepared for this possible extra portion of the test. Since it does not technically factor into your score, there is no need to specifically study for or worry about performance on this experimental section. 

How long does the ACT take?

In total, the ACT without the essay takes 2 hours and 55 minutes, or about three hours. With the optional essay section, the ACT will require 3 hours and 35 minutes. Of these few hours, the English section is 45 minutes, the math section is 60 minutes, the reading section is 35 minutes, the science section is 35 minutes, and the optional essay section is 40 minutes. As mentioned earlier, the unscored, experimental fifth multiple-choice question section will take 20 minutes. The experimental section does not count as part of testing time because it does not contribute to a student’s score.

Aside from actually answering the multiple-choice questions and writing the essay on the pencil and paper test, there are other procedural items that increase the overall amount of time that the ACT takes out of a student’s day. First off, there are two short breaks built into the exam which add to the overall testing time. There is a scheduled five-minute break after the first two sections, during which students can stretch, eat a snack, or drink some water. If students choose to complete the optional essay, there is another short five-minute break between the multiple choice questions and the optional essay. Besides breaks and actual testing time, transitions between sections, distributing materials, and other proctor responsibilities will add to the overall time, but it is difficult to estimate exactly how long these parts will take.

How Long Does the ACT Take With Extended Time?

Certain students are able to request extended time as an accommodation for a disability or condition that makes it unreasonable or impossible to take the exam under the usual time limit. With extended time as an accommodation, students get 50% more time (or, time-and-a-half) so that the entire exam takes roughly four and a half hours, or five and a half hours with the optional essay section. Each section is still separate and the exam still requires students to stop after each section, but students will have extended time to complete each section. With extended time, the exact section-by-section breakdown becomes 70 minutes for the English section, 90 minutes for the Math section, 55 minutes for the reading section, and 55 minutes for the Science section. Students who are allowed extended time for the ACT are also exempted from the aforementioned experimental fifth section, which adds to the testing time but is not factored into the student’s score.

In order to request extended time, students must have documentation of a particular condition or disability that warrants extra testing time as an accommodation, such as a learning disability, psychiatric disorder, visual or hearing impairments, or speech and language disorders. In order to find the most accurate and up-to-date information about extended time and other accommodations, students should consult the ACT website that specifically details the conditions that warrant accommodations, the process to request accommodations, and the required documentation to secure accommodations.

What Time Does The ACT Start And End?

Students are expected to report to their testing locations by 8:00am on the day of their exam, and can expect to leave by 12:35pm if they do not take the optional writing portion, and 1:35 pm if they do take the optional writing portion. There is usually extra time between the starting and ending time in order to pass out materials, transition between sections, provide breaks to students, and read out instructions. When students sign up for the exam, they should consider the time it will take to drive to the testing center on the morning of the exam, as they could feel more sleepy during the exam if they have just driven for a long time. Also, when all students come prepared for the ACT with all necessary items and without any prohibited items, proctors and students can avoid the delays and get started with the exam more quickly. Students who received extended time should expect to leave at least a couple of hours after the usual ending time for the exam. 

ACT Test Time Breakdown For Each Question

By this point, it should be clear that the ACT is a long exam that requires focus and mental endurance over at least a three-hour span. However, when considering the number of questions that a student has to answer in the limited time of each section, it becomes clear that speed is just as important as endurance on the exam. Students should be prepared to have the long-term stamina to make it from the start to the end of the exam, along with the concentration and speed to answer multiple-choice questions as quickly as possible under intense time constraints.

When the amount of time allowed for each section is divided by the number of questions a student is expected to answer, the time for each multiple-choice question comes down to approximately 40-60 seconds per question, depending on the section.

In each section, the question-by-question time breakdown is as follows:

  • 36 seconds per question for the 75 questions in the English section
  • 60 seconds per question for the 60 questions in the Math section
  • 52 seconds per question for the 40 questions in the Science section
  • 52 seconds per question for the 40 questions in the Reading section.

Keep in mind that the science and reading sections also include passages that take time to properly read, so that must be factored in with the amount of time that goes into answering the questions.

Time Management Tips For The Test Takers

The ACT is a long exam, taking up at least three hours of the day. With the limited time for each section and the less than a minute allowed for each multiple-choice question, students need to be prepared. To perform as well as possible, students should keep in mind the following time-management techniques to bolster their ability to handle the demanding structure of the ACT.

Tip #1: Go fast at the beginning of the math section so you have more time for the end.

The math section starts with the easiest questions and ends with the hardest questions, meaning that the more time test-takers save at the beginning of the section, the more time is left over at the end to tackle the more challenging questions. With faster mental maths skills, the math questions at the beginning of the section should take about 20-30 seconds per question. As the questions gradually increase in difficulty, so would the amount of time students need to figure out how to solve the questions.

Tip #2: Preview the reading section questions and annotate the reading passage.

The most time-intensive task of the reading section is actually reading the passages, which can take a while for students who prefer to read more slowly and carefully. In order to save time and read more efficiently, previewing the questions before actually reading the passage can train students to become more efficient readers. By knowing what the questions are asking for, students will be more attuned to parts of the passage that are critical to answering the multiple-choice questions. In order to indicate which parts of the passage are especially important, students can very quickly annotate the passage according to what the questions are asking for, using large brackets or easy scribbles that do not take long to draw. For example, if a question asks about paragraph 3, then a student can mark the whole paragraph so they will pay more attention to it while reading.

Tip #3: Read as you go in the English section.

Although the English section features passages just like the reading and science sections, it is absolutely not recommended to read the passage in its entirety before answering the questions. In contrast with the reading section, students should complete multiple-choice questions in the English section as they read the passage, which will have marked stopping points within the passage for students to answer questions. If there is ever a question that requires a student to read more than just a sentence, the question will specify that the students need to read an entire paragraph before answering it.

Tip #4: Plan out the essay before writing it.

The optional essay section after the four multiple-choice questions allows students 40 minutes to respond to an essay prompt. In order to organize ideas for the essay before delving into the actual writing process, it is essential to brainstorm and sketch out ideas. Even taking just 5-10 minutes to jot down an outline in whatever format, whether it is a flowchart, a bubble-chart, or even just a list or scribble of ideas with arrows connecting them, will help students write their essay more quickly when their thoughts are already laid out. With a clear brainstorming outline, students will not just write the essay faster, but the essay content will be more organized and thoughtful.

Tip #5: Start with what you can do and come back to the rest.

This tip applies to all multiple-choice sections, so if a question is taking much more time than it should (basically, more time than the usual amount of seconds per question for that particular section), skip it and continue with the test. Each question contributes the same amount to the score for the section and for the overall ACT score, so there is no point in trying to spend five minutes trying to figure just one question when that same amount of time could be spent answering easier questions. There is no penalty for guessing on the ACT, so save at least a minute at the end of each multiple-choice section in order to go back and guess on any questions that were truly undecipherable.

Tip #6: Limit distractions, get a good night’s rest, eat a good breakfast, dress in layers, and bring snacks and water.

Most distracting items such as cell phones or other electronic devices are prohibited in the testing room anyways, but other distractions can still naturally occur in the testing environment, such as a cold room or a drowsy mood. For example, the room may be too hot or too cold to focus optimally, so dress in layers in case you need to adjust to the temperature. It is even more difficult to focus on an empty stomach or while yawning constantly, so if possible, eat a filling breakfast and sleep at least eight hours the night before. Bringing snacks and water for the short breaks throughout the exam will allow students to fuel up and stay focused throughout the three-hour exam, rather than feeling distracted by thirst or hunger.

Bonus Tip: Stressed out by the amount of time per question? Take the SAT instead.

One of the biggest differences between the SAT and ACT is the amount of time allowed per question. While the ACT ends up requiring an average of 40-60 seconds per question among the various sections, the SAT has less questions per section in a similar amount of time, meaning that students can take an average of 70 seconds per question.

Start Preparing For The Tests Today With SoFlo

Studying with one of SoFlo’s ACT tutors can boost your ACT score and help you feel more confident during the exam. One of SoFlo’s tutors can help you identify the individual weaknesses that slow you down on the exam and work with you to improve your ability to answer questions with accuracy and speed.

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