The ACT—you know it, you love (to hate) it, and you need to know more about it in order to prepare for it effectively. Even with the explosion in the popularity of test-optional admissions policies that occurred during the COVID pandemic, getting a good score on the ACT can still help your college application, which leaves many students in the position of wanting or needing to take the test.
If that applies to you, then it’s important to know that the first step to doing well on the ACT is understanding as much as possible about the test. To that end, your friendly neighborhood test expert is here to answer one of the most common questions from students: how long is the ACT? We’ll cover the length of individual sections and the entire test, as well as discuss some strategies for coping with the pace of the test. Let’s dive in.
Table of Contents / Quick Reference Guide:
- An Overview of the ACT Exam
- How Long Does The ACT Take?
- ACT Test Sections & Time
- How Many Questions Are On The ACT?
- ACT Start & End Times
- Extended Time Accommodations for the ACT
- Time Management Tips For The ACT
- Frequently Asked Questions About The Length of the ACT
An Overview of the ACT Exam
The ACT is one of two tests—with the other being the SAT—that are used by colleges and universities in the admissions process to assess students’ readiness for college-level coursework. As I alluded to above, many schools implemented a test-optional admissions policy during the COVID pandemic, and most of those schools have indicated that they will remain test-optional for at least the foreseeable future. Test-optional is not the same thing as test-blind, however: schools with a test-optional policy will still consider test scores if you submit them with your application, which means that scoring well on the ACT can be a major boost to your chances of being admitted to one of those schools. There are also test score requirements attached to some scholarships, both athletic and academic. All of this means that the ACT still occupies an important place in the admissions landscape, which makes preparing for it a part of the high school experience for a large number of students.
Part of preparing for the test is knowing your enemy, from high-level strategy to content all the way down to logistical details. That leads us nicely to the main point of this post: tackling the question of ‘how long is the ACT?’
How Long Does The ACT Take To Complete?
In terms of purely testing time, the length of the ACT taken with standard time clocks in at 175 minutes—or just under 3 hours—without the Writing section; if you’re taking the Writing section, your total testing time will be 215 minutes, or just over 3.5 hours. You’ll use this time to complete 215 multiple-choice questions distributed between English, Math, Science, and Reading, as well as the optional Writing section if relevant.
Of course, there are other aspects of test day besides just the time you spend on each section. The proctor will read out instructions at the beginning and end of the test, and you’ll spend some time filling out biographical information on your answer sheet; additionally, a break of roughly 10 minutes is incorporated into the test after the Math section, as is a shorter break after Science if you are taking the Writing section. Finally, you may sometimes need to complete another short multiple-choice section at the end of the test—this is an experimental section that allows the ACT to test out questions for future administrations, and it does not affect your score.
Related Reading: What’s a Good ACT Score for 2023 & 2024?
With all of that factored in, the ACT’s website recommends that students testing with standard time should plan to be at the test center from 8:00am until approximately 12:35pm if they are not taking the Writing section or from 8:00am until approximately 1:35pm if they are taking the Writing section.
How Long Does Each Section of the ACT Take?
Though it’s helpful to know how long you should expect to be at the test center on the day you take the ACT, it’s more important as far as your preparation goes that you know how that time is distributed between the sections. The image below, taken from the ACT’s website, provides a high-level summary of the timing for each part of the test. For quick reference, the English Section of the ACT is 45 minutes long, the Mathematics section of the ACT is 60 minutes long, the Reading section of the ACT is 35 minutes long, and the Science section of the ACT is 35 minutes long. Finally, the optional Writing section of the ACT is 40 minutes long.
ACT Test Times & Sections
If you’re looking for a more in-depth breakdown of the timing for each section, take a gander at the table I’ve created below for additional details.
|Time Limit (Standard)
|Number of Questions
|Avg. Time / Question
|Questions are divided evenly between 5 passages; students have an average of 9 minutes per passage
|Math is the only section that increases in difficulty as the section progresses; students should expect to spend more time per question at the end of the section and less time per question at the beginning
|Questions are divided evenly between 4 passages; students have an average of 8 minutes 45 seconds per passage
|Questions are divided approximately evenly between 6 passages; students have an average of roughly 5 minutes 50 seconds per passage
|The time limit imposed on students in the Writing section includes every part of the writing process: brainstorming, outlining, writing, proofreading, etc.
If you’re looking for information about taking the ACT with extended time, don’t worry—we’ve got a whole section for you later in the post. Keep reading for additional details.
How Many Questions Are On the ACT?
The ACT exam has a total of 215 questions. These questions are broken down into four main sections we covered above: English, Math, Reading, and Science. The number of questions for each section varies, with the English section having the fewest and the Math section having the most. The English section has 75 multiple-choice questions, while the Math section has 60 multiple-choice questions. The Reading section has 40 questions, and the Science section has 40 questions as well.
Want To Get The Highest Score Possible On the ACT?
ACT Start and End Times
It will be pretty clear to you from the information above that the ACT is not a short test, even if you’re not taking it with extended time. The ACT takes about a minimum of about 3 hours, and you should expect to be at the test center for noticeably longer than that, especially if you’re taking the Writing section.
As I mentioned earlier, the ACT recommends that you arrive at your test center no later than 8:00am. Once you arrive, you’ll spend a few minutes checking in, finding your room, and getting situated; then, the proctor will begin the testing process by guiding you through the pre-test procedures. The specific amount of time required for this part of the process will vary depending on the proctor and the group of students; however, you can expect that you’ll likely begin taking the actual test somewhere between 8:30am and 9:00am.
One interesting aspect of ACT timing is that the first “half” of the test is significantly longer than the second half: English and Math combine for 135 minutes of standard-time testing, whereas Reading and Science comprise only 80 minutes. The upshot of this is that by the time you take your first break after the end of the Math section, you’re likely to be pretty fatigued; however, it’s important to remind yourself that you’re already close to two-thirds of the way through the test (if you’re not taking the Writing section). Use the break to rehydrate and refuel for the home stretch.
Once you finish the second half of the test, the proctor(s) will collect your materials and read a couple of final instructions; at that point, you’ll finally be free. Students testing with standard time are typically released from their testing room at roughly 12:35pm if they’re not taking the Writing section and approximately 1:35pm if they are taking the Writing section.
Extended Time Accommodations For the ACT
There are a number of accommodations available for students on the ACT, but one of the most common is extra testing time, or extended time (ET). This accommodation can take slightly different forms depending on the student, as the ACT tries to approve students for testing accommodations based on the accommodations that they receive in school, but probably the two most common versions of ET are 1.5x extended time (“time and a half”) and 2x extended time (“double time”).
Previously, ET on the ACT was administered as one lump amount: students would be given 1.5x or 2x the total amount of testing time and allowed to distribute it among the sections of the test as they saw fit. This is no longer the case, however. Instead, the ACT has adopted a more intuitive approach to ET wherein students are simply given 1.5x or 2x the standard time limit to complete each individual section. See the table below for specific numbers.
|Standard Time Limit
|Time Limit w/ 1.5x ET
|Time Limit w/ 2x ET
The ACT is a long test to begin with, but it can be an especially grueling experience for students who have extended time. Because of this, many students who are approved for the double time accommodation may also be granted the option to test over multiple days, which makes the testing experience somewhat more manageable.
If you use accommodations in school or think you may be eligible for accommodations on the ACT for another reason, such as a learning disability or recent injury, contact your school counselor for more information on how to apply for testing accommodations. You can also check out the ACT’s website for additional details about ET and other accommodations.
Time Management Tips for the ACT Exam
It goes without saying that knowing how long the ACT is will only be your first step to succeeding on the test; the next step is making sure that you’re able to complete each section within the time limit. Here are a couple of tips for managing your time on each section of the test.
ACT English Time Management Tips
- Read (or at least skim) the passage as you go. It may seem counterintuitive that doing more reading will improve your timing, which is why many students instinctively skip over the portions of the passage that don’t have any questions attached to them. There are two things you may not realize, however. First of all, context is your friend on many of the grammar questions, especially those annoying transition questions—knowing what came right before or comes right after after the sentence being asked about will make these questions significantly easier, and therefore faster. And second, most passages have 1-2 questions at the end that ask about the content of the entire text. You don’t need to read deeply enough to memorize specific details in order to answer these end-of-passage questions, but having a general sense of what the passage is about will help you address them more quickly.
- Use process of elimination (POE). This is true across the entire test, but English is one of the sections where POE can be most useful. Look for opportunities to play answer choices against each other. For example, semicolons and periods play the exact same role on the ACT 99.8% of the time—if you see two choices that are identical other than a period being swapped out for a semicolon, you can almost certainly safely eliminate both of those answers and focus on the others.
ACT Math Time Management Tips
- Break the section up into thirds. As I alluded to earlier, you shouldn’t expect every problem in Math to take you the same amount of time, despite the fact that you have a nice, round 1 minute per question in this section. Rather than approaching the Math section as one big blob of 60 questions, think of it as three subsections: #1-20 (the easiest portion), #21-40 (the medium-est portion), and #41-60 (the hardest portion). Give yourself a time goal for each of these subsections; then, as you practice, work to fine-tune those goals in order to give yourself as much time as possible for the harder problems while not moving so fast that you’re overly prone to careless errors on the easier problems.
- Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize. The range of content that can show up on an ACT Math section is massive, and very few students can go into the section expecting to be comfortable with absolutely every concept that could show up. As you get further into the section and the questions get harder, you should grow commensurately more willing to skip past questions that test content you’re not familiar with and prioritize those where you’re more comfortable. Remember that every question in this section counts exactly the same—if you’re going to run short on time, make sure the questions you have to guess on are the ones that you would have had the hardest time getting right anyway.
- Use your calculator! This one should be pretty obvious, but nonetheless students frequently forget how helpful of a tool their graphing calculator can be. In addition to using the calculator for complex arithmetic, look for opportunities to save yourself time by doing things like graphing equations.
ACT Reading Time Management Tips
- Address the section in the way that makes the most sense for you. Remember that the passages will always be the same four genres in the same sequence. If you notice during your practice that you are consistently performing worse on one specific passage-type, consider saving that passage for last in order to ensure that you have the time to bank the points on the passages that you find easier. Similarly, remember that you can answer the questions within an individual passage in whatever order is easiest for you. For most students, it’s better to answer the questions that ask about a specific portion of the passage first; in the process of close-reading the text to address those problems, you’ll naturally grow your understanding of the passage and therefore make the broader questions significantly easier and faster.
- Watch out for the ‘EXCEPT’ questions. Probably the question archetype that has the greatest potential to bog students down is the ‘EXCEPT’ question. Rather than asking you which of the four answer choices is correct, these questions ask you to identify the choice that is NOT found in the passage. To answer these monsters, you’ll need to locate the other three answer choices in the passage and use POE to identify the one that isn’t present, which is extremely difficult to do quickly. Save these questions for last, and be conscious of the clock—you may need to cut bait, take your best guess, and move on to the next passage for the sake of time.
ACT Science Time Management Tips
- Don’t read unless you need to… The dirty secret of this section is that most of the text will simply give you information that you could have gleaned more quickly from the graphs and charts. When you first start a passage, take a quick look at the figures to get the lay of the land, then go straight to the questions. Remember that you can always go back to the passage to read and get more information if questions require it, which they sometimes will; however, you can’t get back the time that you spend reading stuff that isn’t tested.
- …and if you do need to, don’t read the way the test wants you to. One of the six passages in this section—the Conflicting Viewpoints passage—will have few if any visual aids. There’s no getting around it: you’ll need to actually do some reading in this passage. The best way to approach this passage-type, however, is not to read the whole passage and then answer the questions in order. Instead, read the first portion, then answer any questions (and do any POE) that you can using that information; then, go to the next portion and do the same thing, and rinse and repeat until you’ve completed all of the questions. This allows you to keep less information in your brain at one time, and it also ensures that you’re earning points along the way rather than front-loading all of the time-consuming reading and not answering questions until the end, when you’re likely to be more frazzled and hurried.
Closing Thoughts On The Length of the ACT
The primary challenge of the ACT for most students is its timing, and understanding the specifics of that timing is the first step to mastering the test. Once you have a grasp on the information I’ve provided in this post, the next step is to incorporate it into your practice. Make sure you’re giving yourself plenty of time to prep for the ACT—most students require a significant amount of work and many practice reps before they start to feel comfortable with the speed of this test. You may feel overwhelmed at first by how fast everything goes, but don’t get discouraged: with practice, you can master the pace of the ACT and raise your score.
Frequently Asked Questions About The ACT’s Length
What happens If I’m Late To The ACT?
It’s crucial to be aware of the ACT guidelines when it comes to test day logistics. The organizers are quite strict about latecomers and may deny entrance if you arrive after the designated time. To ensure a smooth experience and guarantee admission, I recommend getting to the test center between 7:30 and 7:45 am. Typically, you’ll find a line of other students waiting outside, so it’s best to arrive early. The doors to the test center open at 7:45 am and give you a 15-minute window of opportunity to enter before they close promptly at 8 am. Once the doors shut, late entry is not permitted, so arriving on time is absolutely essential.
How long is the ACT without the Writing section?
The ACT Writing section, or Essay, is an optional portion of the test. Because colleges and universities don’t typically put a ton of emphasis on it during the application process, many students opt not to take the Writing section. If you take the ACT without Writing, your total (standard) testing time will be 175 minutes, and the ACT’s website states that you’ll be released from the testing center at approximately 12:35pm.
How many questions can you miss and still get a 36 on the ACT?
This is a very difficult question to answer with certainty: the scaled score conversion tables vary depending on the difficulty level of each section, which means that you’ll have more wiggle room to get questions wrong if your section is harder than average. Speaking broadly, though, we can say that to get a 36 in English or Math, you typically can’t miss more than 2-3 questions; to be guaranteed a 36 in Reading or Science, you have to have perfect accuracy. As a result, to be confident of getting a 36 on the ACT, you’re probably aiming to miss a total of 5-6 questions across the entire test, with most if not all of those needing to be concentrated in English and Math.
It’s also important to remember, however, that your section scores are averaged to calculate your composite score; as a result, you don’t need to get a 36 on every individual section to score a 36 on the ACT as a whole. You can get a composite score of 36 by earning 36s in two sections and 35s in the others, or even 36s in three sections and a 34 in the fourth. This gives students verrrrrry slightly more margin for error when it comes to earning a perfect score on the ACT.
Which is longer, the SAT or the ACT?
Currently, the SAT is almost exactly the same length as the ACT without Writing: the ACT without Writing clocks in at 175 minutes of testing time, while the SAT (without its Essay, which is only available in specific locations) comes in at 180 minutes of testing time. This means that the lengths of the two tests shouldn’t currently be a factor in your decision of whether to take the ACT or the SAT.
In March of 2024, however, the SAT will be switching to its new digital form for US testers. Once that happens, the SAT will be shortened to 134 minutes of testing time, which will make it a noticeably shorter test than the ACT. Test length is still unlikely to be the deciding factor between the two tests for most students, but it will become more of a consideration once this shift occurs.