To completely prepare for the ACT, you must spend time taking official ACT tests in the same conditions that you’ll face on the day of the real thing.
But what if you’re stuck on a concept that you just can’t seem to quite wrap your head around? Or what if you gone through many of the available practice tests already, but still would like to keep working on your skills? The great news is that there are many other ways to effectively study the concepts being tested on the ACT!
In this article, I’ll talk about what alternative practice ACT resources are good for, and how to use them best when preparing for the test. Then, I’ll also go through the ACT section by section and lay out all the available alternative resources. By the end of this post, you'll have a huge stock of extra practice material to help you prep for the ACT.
How Do You Use Alternative Practice Resources?
What do I mean by "alternative" resources? Basically, any test preparation material that isn't the official ACT practice tests that are released by ACT.
Getting good at taking the ACT is a combination of three things.
First, you have to understand the basic content being tested. For instance, you have to have mastered algebra concepts for the math section and grammar nuances for the English section.
Second, you have to know how to apply this content to solving problems and answering questions. For example, you must know which punctuation rule applies when, and which math formula goes with which calculation.
Third, you have to be very comfortable with the test itself. In other words, the format, pacing, time pressure, and having built up enough stamina for this very long test should be second nature from repeated practice.
Now, it's 100% true that the only way to master the last of these three things is through taking official ACT practice tests in test day conditions. Nothing can give you that day-of-test confidence like having gone through it a bunch of times already.
However, learning content does not necessarily have to come from ACT materials! In fact, it’s good to be exposed to the same concepts presented in many different ways to really cement your understanding of how they work. This means that alternative resources that aren't necessarily specifically designed for ACT practice are actually a great way to boost concept mastery.
Alternative Study Resources for Each ACT SectionNow lets go through each of the ACT test sections one by one, and discuss ways to study for them other than using the offical ACT practice question sets and tests released by ACT.
MathBefore diving into study alternatives, let's first go over what concepts are tested on the ACT Math section. Not surprisingly, it's the math you've been learning in school:
Alternative Study Resources for ACT Math
- Your school math textbooks or an online math textbook like the Khan Academy. These resources are great for explaining difficult concepts, formulas, and theorems, and potentially for doing some of the non-multiple choice problems.
- Online ACT-style math questions. It's true that other companies generally aren't that good at reproducing actual ACT questions. Still, third-party question banks can be helpful for some extra work attacking your math weaknesses. We've combed through them all to bring you an overview of the best question bank websites.
- Math sections from the new post-2016 SAT. The new SAT math section is much more like the ACT, since it now includes trigonometry questions and gives only 4 answer choices per question. This means that practice SAT questions a great way to get in some more multiple choice practice. But, you're best off treating SAT math sections the same way you would treat question banks from other companies: their wording and format also don't reproduce those on the ACT.
- ACT Math review books. These will go over the key concepts you have to know to do well on ACT Math, and explain how the ACT will test them. To make your life easier, we’ve put together a guide to the best ACT study books out there.
- PrepScholar’s ACT Math guides. Our section on everything to do with ACT Math has some of the best researched and most detailed information you'll find anywhere. Some especially helpful guides include:
- All about math formulas. ACT won’t provide you with formulas, so you have to have the most commonly used ones down cold. Sounds stressful, but we can help! Read through our guide to the 31 math formulas you must know coupled with our explanation for how to actually use those formulas to get the full scoop on what you have to know.
It's nice how 1+2*3 is mixed into the infinity/pi/square root of 2 morass there. Looks like kindergarten and 10th grade are sharing the math room again.
EnglishThis section will test your knowledge of how the English language works by asking you passage-based questions on the rules that apply to formal writing. There are two main types of questions:
- usage and mechanics (punctuation, grammar, and sentence structure)
- rhetorical skills (writing strategies, logic, paragraph and passage structure, and style)
Alternative Study Resources for ACT English
- Grammar guides. There's just no way around it: knowing grammar and punctuation rules is critical for this section of the test. In order to learn the best grammar practices, go back to any textbooks you may have used in English class. I also recommend that you scroll through Erica Meltzer's Critical Reader blog for her helpful posts on ACT English, and read our complete guide to ACT grammar rules.
- Writing sections from the new post-2016 SAT. After its major overhaul, the new SAT will much more closely resemble the ACT. This means that you can use new SAT questions to drill your understanding of grammar and sentence structure. In particular, seek out practice questions from the Writing portion of the Writing & Literature section from the post-2016 SAT.
- "Improving Paragraphs" questions from the pre-2016 SAT. The old version of the SAT offers one useful type of question for studying for the ACT. Part of the old SAT Writing section was devoted to Improving Paragraphs: questions about grammar and punctuation in the context of a passage, rather than an isolated sentence. These are fairly similar to the questions you'll encounter on ACT English. But be careful to avoid the other questions in that section, because they are simply too far removed from what you have to be able to do well on the ACT.
- Read, read, read. Read widely, read challenging material, and particularly read nonfiction. The more you read complex writing, the more the nuances of grammar and structure will embed themselves in your mind, the more familiar you will be with elevated vocabulary, and the more you will learn how an author uses logic and rhetoric to get a point across. I recommend slowly digesting and really trying to understand a few articles a week from Grantland, The Atlantic, or Slate. If you have access to a subscription, you can also read the New York Times.
- PrepScholar's ACT English guides. We've worked hard to bring you as much helpful information about ACT English as possible. Some especially useful guides include:
- Strategy. Part of doing well on the test is using a great approach to attack each section. We've analyzed and compiled 9 different key tactics for ACT English.
- All about grammar, syntax, and diction. We have broken down the complicated rules that you need to know into manageable chunks like: common word choice errors, the relative formality of the language on the ACT, and how to deal with shifting verb tenses.
Maybe ACT English should actually test your relative English-ness. I think I could ace the tea test, especially if cucumber sandwiches were involved.
This portion of ACT tests your reading comprehension abilities. Let's once again start with a quick overview of what's actually covered on the ACT Reading section:
- 4 sections of passages from different genres (fiction, or nonfiction from the humanities, social studies, or natural sciences)
- questions ask you to compare and contrast ideas, extract information, generalize from narrowly focused facts, and explain vocabulary in context
Alternative Study Resources for ACT Reading
- Vocabulary guides. The ACT does not test vocabulary by itself, by you will see many complex words in context so if this is a challenging area for you then it will be helpful to see some guides to commonly occurring vocabulary. Check out resources like our free set of 200 flashcards and our guide to the vocabulary commonly used on the ACT vocabulary.
- Reading sections from the new post-2016 SAT. The redesigned SAT now has a section that also tests reading comprehension by asking questions about provided passages. Looking at these would be a good way to get in some extra practice. When studying, seek out passage-based questions from the Reading portion of the Writing & Literature section.
- Passage-based reading questions from the old SAT. On the pre-2016 SAT, there were a few sections that could help with preparing for ACT Reading. Look for the parts of the Critical Reading section that feature multiple-choice questions based on provided passages. These won't be exactly like the ones on the ACT, but they can help you practice context-based questions.
- GRE Reading Comprehension questions. The Verbal Reasoning section of the GRE has a number of passage-based Reading Comprehension questions. It's true that these are pitched at a higher level than the ones you'll see on the ACT because the GRE is meant for college students heading to grad school. But if you are a student who is consistently getting medium- to high-scores on practice tests, you can use the GRE to challenge yourself.
- AP Language and AP Literature multiple choice section questions. Both of these AP test feature portions with passage-based multiple-choice question that test reading comprehension and your understanding of logic and structure. They are pitched at a higher level than the ACT, but if you do well on these, you’ll be fine on the ACT as well.
- Reading widely will also really help here. The test wants to measure how you are at understanding information being presented in written form, and how much you can tell about the way authors structure arguments. Try making time for weekly explorations of Reason or The Root. On the paid subscription side, you can't go wrong with The New Yorker.
- PrepScholar’s ACT Reading guides. Let us guide you through some of the trickier parts of what you have to know to ace this part of the test. Some particularly helpful guides:
- Dissecting the test. We describe the 4 types of ACT Reading passages you should know, give you some pointers on the best way to read ACT passages, and enumerate every single type of question you're going to encounter.
Her hair is from Pippi Longstocking, her book is The Little Prince, and her candy is Turkish delights from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe?! Pick a fandom, already, will you!
ScienceUnlike its name suggests, this section relies more on your ability to understand visually presented data then on your knowledge of hard sciences. A quick refresher on what's tested on the ACT science section:
- paragraphs with visually presented data you’ll have to interpret
- descriptions of experiments that you’ll have to evaluate and analyze
- a set of two or more alternate theories or hypotheses that you’ll have to compare and contrast
- concepts from Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Astronomy, and Geology
Alternative Study Resources for ACT Science
- Basic science guides. The test is almost exclusively focused on your ability to comprehend passages about science that are written for a non-scientist audience. Nevertheless, you will find it helpful to be familiar with some of the more basic concepts from biology, chemistry, physics, and math. We have put together an explanation of the science you actually have to know for the ACT. If you need to re-familiarize yourself, go back to your high school textbooks, or use an online version (again, I like Khan Academy).
- ACT Prep books. Many of these will give you tips and tricks on dealing with this portion of the test. Our guide to the best ACT books for intense study saves you from having to navigate the hundreds out there.
- Reading sections from the new post-2016 SAT. The redesigned SAT has some passage-based reading comprehension questions based on scientific passages in the Reading portion of the Writing and Literature section. These are very similar to what you will encounter on the ACT science section because they also ask you to draw conclusions about graphs, charts, and tables, as well as passages describing a scientific process, theory or experiment., so you can seek those out. Make sure you look only at test prep designed for the post-2016 SAT.
- Popular science articles. You don’t need to dig out scholarly journals, but you should spend time reading scientific nonfiction intended for lay readers. It’ll give you familiarity with how data can be presented graphically through charts, graphs, and tables. My favorites are Wired, FiveThirtyEight, Scientific American, and Nature. If you can access a subscription, read The Economist or the magazine Science.
- PrepScholar’s ACT Science guides. Some especially helpful guides:
- Strategy. Check out our suggestions for attacking this section and tips to keep in mind while taking the test.
- All about the question types. We can explain the 3 types of ACT Science passages you'll encounter, along with how to deal with questions about interpreting experiments, how to handle questions about experiment design, what to make of questions about trends, and finally, how to approach the conflicting viewpoints part of the section.
How much science do you need to know to play Fruit Ninja in space?
The essay section was dramatically changed in 2015 to more closely align the test with Common Core standards and the kind of writing you'll do in college, so make sure you're familar with the updated format:
- You'll be asked to write an essay on a controversial topic, including information and analysis from 3 different presented perspectives.
- You also need to explain your own point of view.
Alternative study resources for ACT Writing:
- Guides to the standard 5-paragraph essay. This is our recommended structure for the ACT essay. For many explanations of how a 5 paragraph essay works, search for “5-paragraph essay,” or read our guide to ACT format and essay templates.
- Staying well informed. The essay will ask you to present evidence to back up your thinking. The best places to draw that evidence from? Current events, historical events, and incidents from your own life. So read newspapers, listen to NPR, and download podcasts like Planet Money, RadioLab, and On the Media.
- Excellent essays written by others. Reading well-written essays can help you understand how essays work and how authors structure arguments and ideas. You may even pick up some helpful ideas for your own writing as well! One great source of excellent short essays is The Electric Typewriter.
- PrepScholar’s ACT Writing guides. We've put together some helpful advice on tackling the ACT essay. Great guides include:
If I were an ACT writing grader, I would totally give super bonus points for any essays written in Aztec pictographs.
The Bottom Line
So what should you take away from this article?
- Studying content and concepts for the ACT can be done really effectively through resources not designed for test prep, andnd there are many of these kinds of resources!
- There are enough similarities between ACT and the SAT that you can use certain sections of both the old and new SAT as extra study materials for the ACT.
- Reading widely, reading often, and reading for meaning will help you on almost all of the different ACT sections you'll face the day of the test.
Stuck trying to motivate yourself to get started studying? We hear you. Here’s our advice on how to beat the urge to procrastinate and how to give yourself the gift of properly structuring your study time.
Unsure what your ACT target score should be? We explain what score you need to get into your target college, and give you some pointers on figuring out what’s a good ACT score for you.
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Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.