How to Tackle the Hardest Parts of the ACT

Managing Editor, Peterson's & EssayEdge

Sep   2016



Let’s face it: the ACT is pretty tough overall. But there are certain sections and questions that most students find more difficult than others. The good news is just getting a sense of how the questions are formatted and how much time you get for each section can help you maximize your study time.

There are five sections on the ACT: English, Math, Reading, Science, and Writing. Writing is optional, but you should plan on taking it anyway, just in case your schools require it. (Most of the top schools do.) There are 60 questions in 60 minutes for Math, 40 questions in 35 minutes for both Reading and Science, 75 questions in 45 minutes for English, and one essay in 40 minutes for the Writing section… Like I said, managing your time is essential!

Here are some of the hardest types of questions for each section that tend to stump first-time ACT takers. Remember, the more you practice taking the test—in the actual time allotted—the better prepared you’ll be for the real thing!

Related: How to Make Studying for Standardized Tests Fun


  • Even if you are a great math student, ACT questions will keep you on your toes. They test many different mathematical concepts at once, use multiple variables, and take several steps to complete. Questions often have multiple ways of being solved too, so be sure to double-check your work.
  • The hardest math questions will also have complicated scenarios. These questions will often seem easy at first, but be mindful of trick questions meant to fool you. Likewise, some questions will contain elements of concepts you might not be familiar with, like functions and trigonometry.


  • The hardest English questions are notorious for being unnecessarily complicated. Take an extra minute to make sure you understand the situation presented in the question and what the question is asking you to solve. Sometimes these two things can be conflicting.
  • Don’t forget to re-read the question and all of the answers, because the ACT is designed to ask several questions at once. For example, some of the multiple-choice answers might all logically work, depending on the interpretation. 

Related: Test-Optional Schools and the Changing World of Standardized Tests


  • Reading questions typically present you with a complex and potentially abstract situation, so you need to know how to break those down into the simple and concrete.
  • The hardest questions in this section will ask you to be cognizant of seemingly miniscule details and challenge you to understand how they contribute to the overall meaning of the paragraph.
  • Inference questions can also be difficult. Be sure you fully understand what the passage is saying.


  • Be aware of the science questions that ask you to look in unsuspecting areas for the answer, for example outside of the visual graph or in the introduction. Again, ACT questions are sometimes tricky!
  • Some questions will make you analyze and interpret multiple sets of data provided. Be sure to think about how certain data can have implications when paired with another set of data. Sometimes data will be provided in multiple graphs as well.
  • Know that some questions will require you to know about a wide range of scientific principles. Be sure to research the types of topics the ACT expects you to know and study accordingly.


  • The most important thing to keep in mind for the Writing section of the ACT is the timing. You have 40 minutes to write a fully formed and thoughtful essay from your own perspective and from one or more other perspectives. Start with quickly outlining your essay, then fill in logical gaps in your argument. Don’t start writing the actual essay until you have a good idea of everything you want to say. The writing is the easy part—the planning is where your brain needs to do the heavy lifting! 

There’s no way of knowing exactly what questions will be on the ACT when you take it, but being prepared for the types of questions you’ll be asked will go a long way toward helping you achieve a score you can be proud of. And remember, you can always take the ACT a second time to further familiarize yourself with the format and shake off first-time jitters. 

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About Ryan Hickey

Ryan Hickey is the Managing Editor of Peterson's & EssayEdge and is an expert in many aspects of college, graduate, and professional admission. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admission capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL; editing essays and personal statements; and consulting directly with applicants.