The ACT is upon us, and it seems fair to assume (since you're reading this article) that you're under-prepared. If you've got less than three weeks before the exam and haven't really studied yet, you're officially cramming for the ACT.
Now, if you're willing and able to put in some 60 hours of preparation before the test, take a moment to read our cram plan for those very circumstances. If that doesn't sound realistic for your circumstances, though, read on to discover the most useful strategies you can employ to get up to speed on the test in a pinch. We'll cover tips specific to each part of the test, as well as some global advice on topics like guessing and keeping a level head on test day.
General Guidance: Work Hard, Rest Well
It's important to put serious, committed effort into cramming for the ACT. You should go all out on the test, and you need to practice what that's really like. Plus, with limited time, you need to work especially hard to make the most of your studying.
However, it's important to take care of yourself, too. A day or two before the test, slow down the pace. Don't stop preparation altogether, but focus on recuperating from the past several days of pushing so hard.
Focus on getting good sleep. It takes more than just one night to catch up on those z's, and fatigue is not your friend on test day.
Pay attention to your mindset. As cheesy as this may sound, ask yourself whether you're looking at the test through the lens of a glass half-empty or a glass half-full. Remember, this is an opportunity to excel at the test.
Pay attention to your stress level, too. Nerves are healthy—they can give us the adrenaline we need to complete Herculean tasks. Pure stress is less helpful—it freezes us up and tears us down.
Finally, take a realistic view of the test. It's important; I'm definitely not denying that. However, it's not a matter of life and death—so don't treat it like one.
Wear your reality goggles when you look at the test.
Let's talk about some specific, actionable steps to take between now and the test.
#1: Take a Practice Test
This is a crucial step; taking a practice test will help you get used to the format and directions of the test, not to mention practice the content. You don't want to spend a lot of time sorting through instructions on test day, so use the practice test to work out any kinks. Also, knowing what you're up against on the test will help ease the anxiety you're likely to feel.
For every answer you get wrong, take the time to read the explanation of why that answer is wrong. This is an important first step towards understanding the way the test-makers think.
Use your performance on each section to determine which task (English, Math, Reading, Science, or Writing) is your weakest. Focus your energy there.
#2: Practice, Practice, and Practice Some More
Practice with sample problems, and drill the ones that are a challenge for you. That being said, don't burn yourself out; try to situate yourself in the sweet spot of studying, between about one and three hours a day (on average). There's more information on what to practice and drill as we continue on below. Mostly, though, try to use as many official practice materials as you can.
#3: English — Review the Basic Rules of English
Review some basic grammar rules, including:
- Punctuation marks (and how they function)
- Basic sentence structures (and how they function)
- Parts of speech (and how they function)
Now, it's all about how these concepts are put into practice. You won't be asked to parrot rules; you'll be asked to apply them to passages in context. As an experiment, take a text that you trust to be error-free, and work through part of it, identifying what's going on with the punctuation, structure, etc.
That's "English" the language, not "English" the nationality.
#4: Reading — Immerse Yourself in Literature
Read (a lot). This doesn't have to mean holing up with a giant volume for hours on end—just keep reading on hand for spare moments throughout the day.
Don't read just any old thing, though—Calvin and Hobbes is sadly not going to help. Read material that feels a little tough—newspapers, academic journals, challenging books, etc.
I know you know how to read; that's not the issue. The question is your level of comfort with being immersed in a difficult text and your willingness to reach beyond your comfort zone. I've acted Shakespeare professionally, and it still takes me a little time to adjust to the language I'm hearing when I go see a Shakespearean play. That's because I'm not immersed in it every single day; it would be a different matter if I were. By loose analogy, getting regularly cozy with tricky writing leading up to the ACT will save you some discomfort on test day.
Read critically and analytically, not passively. Engage with the text—ask questions, look for answers, and make observations. This is the quickest path to understanding a text on the level the ACT requires. The test is going to ask you questions that require more than a once-over, surface-level familiarity with the text, so, again, you'll be glad to be comfortable with the literary delving process on test day.
#5: Math — Get to Know Your Formulas
The ACT, unlike the SAT, does not give you any kind of formula list—so get memorizing. The more complex geometric formulas will be given to you in the context of the question—but the bulk of it all you need to provide on your own. Memorize at least the most crucial formulas, and make sure you know how to apply them.
#6: Science — Find Scientific Writing to Analyze
Don't worry about cramming actual scientific facts and data—you should be more concerned with being able to interpret the facts and data being given to you. Read scientific publications with a decent reputation (like Popular Science), and spend extra time poring over all the charts and graphs that you find. Beyond that, keep up the pace with drilling practice passages.
#7: Writing — Debate, on Paper or in Person
Outlining samples essays is, as one might suspect, golden. If, however, you just can't take any more silent, individual activity, try setting up a debate with fellow crammers—or even other friends or family members, if they're willing. It's a great way to get instant feedback on your ideas! The Writing test is all about argument, and learning how to articulate ideas clearly and effectively is of the utmost importance.
Keep your debates civil, now.
ACT Test-Taking Tips
Cramming is a journey all its own, but don't forget that nothing's over until you turn in that test. Here are some ideas on how to get through test day.
#8: Warm Up on the Morning Of
Wake up early, giving yourself plenty of time to get ready and arrive at the test center.
Take a moment to do a warm-up problem or two. Don't cram any more, but review a particularly nasty problem you've mastered or try a moderately difficult question that you haven't seen yet. This will warm your brain up a little—get the cobwebs out—without taxing it by trying to cram more information in.
#9: Mind Your Mindset
Talk to yourself in a positive and supportive manner. Visualize what's going to happen over the course of the morning, and visualize yourself coming through with flying colors.
#10: Guess When You Don't Know the Answer
The ACT doesn't have a guessing penalty; a wrong answer won't gain you points, but it won't actually lose you any points, either.
Do all the questions you're confident in. Next, make educated guesses where possible. Finally, put down answers for everything you're completely lost on. Take a moment now to read some additional guessing strategies prepared by our experts.
So there you have it: the techniques you need to cram your way to test day with the ACT.
We've seen the importance of practicing as much as possible while maintaining a reasonable balance of work and self-care in your life. We've seen tips for each category on the the test, and we've also covered test day do's and don't's.
One of the biggest things left to say is: don't get stuck cramming if you can avoid it. If at all possible, think about taking the test again when you've had more time to prepare in a traditional fashion.
Take it leisurely, next time around.
If you've read this and you're thinking you want to rely almost solely on the practice test side of things, check out our twenty-hour guide to prepping with mock exams.
However you prepare, we here at PrepScholar wish you the best of luck on this test. If, though, it doesn't go as well as it might, we hope to see you back here as you prepare for the next one.
One article that might come in handy covers your options with a low score. Don't think it's all over; you've got a few different paths you can take.
For a morale boost, there's also our article examining whether your ACT scores really predict your future success.
Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
Vero is a firsthand expert at standardized testing and the college application process. Though neither parent had graduated high school, and test prep was out of the question, she scored in the 99th percentile on both the SAT and ACT, taking each test only once. She attended Dartmouth, graduating as salutatorian of 2013. She later worked as a professional tutor. She has a great passion for the arts, especially theater.