How to Study for the ACT: An Expert’s Guide

Here’s How To Study For The ACT The Easy Way

College-bound high school students usually take the SAT, the ACT, or both in order to complete the college admissions application process. The ACT is a timed test consisting of four sections: English, math, reading, and science. Unlike the SAT, which purports to test how you think rather than what you know, the ACT simply assesses your knowledge to date. The goal of the ACT is to help colleges understand how well-prepared you are for college.

Although there’s a lot riding on your ACT scores, they aren’t the only thing that admissions offices look at when you apply to college. Your high school grades, letters of recommendation, your application essay and portfolio all demonstrate your skills to date.

The ACT, however is the only item in your application package that you share in common with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other people applying for a limited number of spots in the freshman class. Because the ACT is a standardized test, it provides a common yardstick by which all applicants can be measured. High schools vary a lot in how well they prepare kids for college, and an “A” at one school may not be an “A” at another. When you score well on the ACT, it demonstrates that you have the same knowledge as others who scored similarly, and are likely to do as well in the college of your choice.

Like most tests, the more you can prepare for the ACT, the better. Knowing how to study for the ACT, as well as planning your study time carefully, can help you do your best on test day. You can learn more about the test in our ACT Test Overview.

How to Study for the ACT: Your Action Plan

The ACT is administered six times across the United States each year. You can register for the test on the ACT website.

Give yourself plenty of time before the testing date to prepare for the ACT itself. Don’t rush it. Allow at least eight weeks, preferably 12, to prepare for the test. Registering for the ACT in the fall of your junior year also gives you enough time to retake the test if you’re unhappy with your scores.

The test consists of multiple-choice questions. You’ll be given all of the information that you need within the test question itself in order to answer it. On the Science section, for example, you will be shown graphs, charts and information about scientific concepts. You’ll be asked to answer the question based on the text and charts that you see, not on concepts you may have learned in class.

You can use a calculator on the math section of the ACT. Only certain types of calculators are allowed, and it’s up to you to know which type you can bring with you. The ACT website lists allowed calculator types and brands.

With your calculator in hand, here are 6 steps for ACT success:

Step 1: Familiarize Yourself with the ACT

The best way to prepare for any standardized test is to familiarize yourself with the test format and questions. To do this, you can:

  • Check out our ACT Test Overview and Review the ACT information on the official test website. This information includes how long you have to take each test section, the location of the testing centers, and the structure of the test Read sample tests available online. There’s a sample on the ACT website, and many other sites offer either actual ACT tests or questions that mimic the ACT.
  • Take a sample test. This gives you your baseline, or starting score.
  • Compare your baseline score to what your first choice college gives as the average freshman score. Figure out how many points you’ll need to meet or exceed that score.

Once you’ve completed Step 1, you’re ready to make a study plan that will help you prepare right up to the test day.

Step 2: Make a Study Plan

If you’ve given yourself plenty of time to prepare for the ACT by registering for the test well in advance of the test date, and you’ve taken a sample test to see how you would do if you took it today, you are ready to make your study plan.

A study plan takes into account:

  1. How many hours you have available to study
  2. The areas of the test you should concentrate on the most
  3. Areas of the test which you can study the least

First, figure out how many hours are actually available for you to use to study for the ACT. A student who is involved in a lot of extracurricular activities, holds down a part time job, or spends time after school practicing an instrument has less time than someone who does only one of these things. A good rule of thumb is to devote one hour a day to practice for the ACT, for at least four days per week. Most people can fit that into their schedule.

Next, look at your sample test. There are four sections: English, Reading, Math and Science. There’s also an optional Writing section, so you’ll need to include that in your review of the test.

How did you score on each section? Did you feel confident about the questions or did you feel like you didn’t know how to approach them?

Set aside more study time for sections that you struggled with rather than sections you breezes through. If there’s anything that’s especially hard for you to do, give yourself at least twice as much time to review it.

Now write down what you will study each week. If you have eight weeks to prepare for the test, and you are taking four sections of the test without the writing section, you can assign two weeks to each section. If one area gives you more trouble than others, give yourself two and a half or three weeks to that area and take the time from the section that’s easy for you.

Step #3: Take a Timed Practice Test

Make sure you take at least one additional timed practice test before the test date. Use your watch, a kitchen timer, or a timer app on your phone or computer to give yourself a time limit.

One way to save time on the test day is to read through the instructions for the sections carefully at home. The more familiar you are with the test format and the instructions for each section, the less time you’ll need to think about this or check it again before working on the section on test day.

Step #4: Get Ready

Get ready for the test day the night before. Don’t try to cram before the test day. Shut down your computer, close the books, and get a good night’s sleep.

Set your alarm so that you have plenty of time to get ready in the morning. Make sure you know how to get to the test center, and have all your equipment ready to go in the morning. Eat breakfast before you leave, because you can’t bring food or drinks into the testing room.

Step #5: Do Your Best

Do your best on the test itself, but don’t take too long on tough questions. Move on if you don’t know how to answer them. Remember that you can take the ACT again if you need to.

After the Test: How Did You Do?

The ACT gives you more than just the test scores. It also gives you insights into how well you did on each section. If your scores weren’t what you’d hoped for the first time around, read through the information that the ACT provides so you can see the areas where you might need more work. Then use this information to help you prepare for the next ACT administration.

Resources: Study Online for the ACT

There are many places to find free sample tests. These include:

  • TestPrepPlace: We offer free ACT sample questions
  • ACT: The test makers provide plenty of test-taking tips as well as sample questions and the test instructions to help you prepare for the ACT. This is the site where you can learn more about the test, find testing centers, and register for the next test administration.
  • The Princeton Review: The Princeton Review offers sample ACT test prep and other resources for college-bound students.