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10 Steps To Preparing For The ACT

Need to take the ACT for college but don't know anything about it? Our handy 10 step guide is here to help you prepare and succeed in the ACT, and get yourself into your chosen college.

The ACT is a set of national admissions tests accepted by every college in the US.

ACT is a great guide for colleges on how well students are progressing in high school and therefore how ready they are for college.

1. Know what's involved

You will sit mandatory ACT tests in 4 core subjects:

  • English (45 minutes - 75 questions)
  • Math (60 minutes - 60 questions)
  • Reading (35 minutes - 40 questions)
  • Science (35 minutes - 40 questions)

This is 2 hours 55 minutes in total.

There is also an optional writing test for 40 minutes. You will be given a topic and asked to write an answer about your position on it.

Before deciding whether to take the optional writing test, check if the colleges you’re thinking of applying to require the test.

If you’re not sure which colleges you may study at, take the test anyway to be on the safe side.

For each of the 4 mandatory tests, you will be asked multiple choice questions.

These will be based on the skills and knowledge you have already learnt in high school. This is fantastic as it means you can showcase all the hard work and study you’ve put into your school classes.

It's important to realise that the different sections of the ACT test different knowledge and skills. This means preparing for the ACT English will be different from how to prepare for ACT Math, etc.

Additionally, the ACT has its own particular question styles and formats that you’ll want to become familiar with before test day. Otherwise, you could get confused by some questions even if you know the content!

For each of the 4 mandatory ACT tests you will receive a score from 1 to 36. You will also receive an overall ACT score from 1 to 36 which is an average of your 4 main scores.

To help you understand your score better you’ll be given national score rankings so you can see where you are in comparison to other students in your state and across the country. If you took the optional writing test, you’ll also receive a score for this from 1 to 36 along with comments on your essay.

A STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) score combining your math and science scores and an ELA score combining your English, reading and writing scores will also be available. 

You can assess your scores online through your ACT student web account or you can wait for them to be sent in the post. In addition, you can select which 4 colleges are automatically sent your ACT scores.

2. Get registered

You will need to register online at act.org and create an ACT student web account to apply for the test.

There are thousands of test centers across the country in every state as well as overseas, many of them being high schools. In 2019/20 there are 7 test dates available.

Remember to try and pick a location that isn't too far away - you don't want to worry about spending ages just getting there!

When you pick a date, make sure you give yourself enough time to prepare. We recomment selecting a date at least three months in advance if you’re totally unfamiliar with the test to give yourself plenty of time for studying.

That said, don’t panic if you have to work on a compressed timeline because of application deadlines! In that case, you’ll need to spend more time preparing every week for a reduced number of weeks.

The good news is you can resit the test at a future date (up to 12 times), if you want to try and increase your scores.  

3. Start your prep early

Leaving everything to the last minute is a bad idea.

Try to revise every day for at least several weeks before your test, and check what you have learned at regular intervals.

It's never too early to start your prep, and remember that the sooner you learn the things, the better your final score will be.

Once you have a test date organised, we recommend you don't do more than 3 hours of prep each day, otherwise you'll become overloaded and it won't actually further your cause.

Be sure to take frequent breaks during your revision to allow the information to sink in.

Grab a snack, go for a walk or visit a friend. Whatever you do, get away from the books for a while and let your brain rest.

4. Work on your weaknesses

After you have an overall idea of what and how the ACT tests, you’ll want to establish a baseline of your own skills. The most important component of this is identifying your weaknesses, so you can target them in your prep.

The most reliable way to establish a baseline is to take a complete, timed ACT practice test.

Fortunately, ACT has released six free and official practice tests—one online and five in PDF form, so make sure you use these.

When you take your initial practice test, be sure to find a quiet testing environment.

You should also bring number 2 pencils and an approved calculator, as you want to recreate the test conditions as closely as possible. Please note that the ACT doesn’t allow additional scratch paper because they expect you to write in the test booklet.

If you’re signed up to take the Writing section, you should also take a practice writing section when you establish your baseline.

If you aren’t sure whether you need to take the ACT with Writing or not, take a look at this handy guide to deciding on ACT Writing.

Once you’ve taken the practice test, use the scoring guidelines provided in the back of the test booklet by ACT, Inc. to figure out your score.

This will tell you what sections you’re weakest in, what you’re strongest in, and where your overall starting place is. Your highest-scoring sections are clearly your best, and your lowest-scoring sections are the worst.

However, it’s a good idea to look more closely at your results and examine your incorrect answers to identify patterns.

For example, did you misinterpret all the questions on the scientific method on the Science test, or completely miss all the “big picture” questions on the Reading test? Wherever you went wrong, this is where you need to study some more to improve your score.

The ACT also gives you subscores in particular areas on 3 of the 4 tests, which you can calculate with their guidelines in the back of the test booklet.

  • The English subscores are in Usage/Mechanics and Rhetorical Skills.
  • The Math subscores are in Pre-Algebra/Elementary, Intermediate Algebra/Coordinate Geometry, and Plane Geometry/Trigonometry-based problems.
  • The Reading subscores are in Social Studies/Natural Sciences and Arts/Literature.
  • The Science section has no subscores.

These subscores will help you figure out what content domains you are strongest and weakest in within a section.

So if you got a high score on English Usage/Mechanics subscore but a low score on Rhetorical Skills, you’ll know to focus more on Rhetorical Skills to increase your score.

5. Set your sights on a score

After you’ve gotten a sense of your initial skill baseline, set a target score for how much you want to improve. Remember to be realistic, and set a target score you can actually accomplish in the time frame you have.

A 1-2-point improvement from your baseline in a month is totally reasonable, but not a 6 or 7 point improvement. Bear in mind that you’ll have to put in more time for more point improvement.

In addition to something you can realistically accomplish, you goal score should also reflect the schools you are interested in.

If possible, you want your ACT score to be within the middle 50% range of the schools you want to attend.

The middle 50% describes the score range of the 25th-75th percentiles of students admitted to a particular institution.

For example, if a school’s middle 50% is 30-34, that means 25% of admits scored below 30, 50% scored between 30 and 34, and the top 25% scored above 34.

6. Write a study plan

The next step is to create a consistent study schedule. It’s best to spend a consistent number of hours every week preparing until you take the test to avoid needing to cram close to the test date.

So to determine how many hours you should prepare each week, divide the total number of hours you think you need by the number of weeks until the test.

This means that if you need to study 80 hours and there are 12 weeks until the test, you should try to study around 6 hours and 40 minutes every week.

Its also best if you determine consistent days and times that you are going to study every week. For example, you could study an hour every day except Sunday, when you’ll only study for 30 minutes.

Or maybe you’ll study for 2 hours on a Monday and Thursday.

This helps to keep your study consistent, and you should also make sure somebody else knows your study schedule so they can help you keep to it.

7. Learn the basics

These include:

  • grammar and mechanics for English
  • mental arithmetic and functions for Math
  • writing a hypothesis for Science.

You’ll need to learn any material tested that you don’t know, but you should also revise things that you already know, even if you think you don't need to.

It’s OK to spend a lot of time prepping for Math if that’s your weakest area, but don't ignore the other sections (even if they're your best subjects).

Only you can best determine how to learn and review content most effectively for your own learning style. However, we have some methods and resources you may want to consider in sections below.

8. Create a strategy

Knowledge isn’t enough to succeed on the ACT. You also need to think about what will the most effective strategy to approach the test.

This should involve how to eliminate wrong answers, guess when you need to, manage your time, and additional section-specific tips.

With expert guidance on the best strategies, you’ll be able to come up with your own personal best approach to all parts of the test.

For tips and advice on ACT strategies, take a look at:

9. Practice, practice, practice

We highly recommend you try to do lots of practice before your ACT.

There are lots of free online and downloadable app practice tests available as well as paid for ones. You may also find your high school has past test papers you can access.

Spend as much time as you can preparing for the ACT test and take as many different practice papers as time permits.

The more time and effort you put into this, the more skills and experience you will build up on the types of questions and answers needed.

When taking practice papers always keep to the time limits set for the tests. This should mean you’ll find the real test date easier to manage, giving you confidence to overcome any nerves, as you’ll know exactly what to expect and when.

There are two key parts to practicing for the ACT: practice questions and practice tests.

You can use practice questions to target the skills you need to brush up on for the test.

You should practice the specific question types, topics, and/or entire sections that you need more work on. Be sure to really work through questions you get wrong to understand your errors so you can correct them in the future.

The second part of ACT practice is completing at least a couple of complete test practice runs.

When you do a complete test practice run, use an official practice test and test yourself under the same conditions that you’ll be in on test day.

You may even want to try starting at the same time your test will really start for at least one of your practice runs to really get the full experience. Be sure to include breaks and a snack!

10. Look after yourself

To give yourself the best chance to succeed on test day, make sure you look after your mental and physical health.

This means going to bed a little earlier the night before, and eating a balanced, protein-packed breakfast (even if you don't feel like it!).

Pack your bag the day before with pencils and an approved calculator, plus any other essentials you might need, such as cash or snacks.

Finally

Although there is a fee for your ACT test you may be eligible for fee waivers. Your high school will be able to advise you further on this.

The ACT test is your opportunity to shine and show colleges just how amazing you are and why they need you as a student.

Still undecided about taking either the ACT or the SAT? Find out more about the SAT in our comprehensive guide.

Further information

For more tips and advice on applying to college, please see: