The ACT is quite possibly one of the most important tests you'll take in high school; it's vital to go in prepared. With so many sources offering "the" solution to your test preparation needs, how are you supposed to know which path to take?
What follows is a summary of the best advice I have to offer on how to study for the ACT, based on my extensive experience as a tutor. I'll cover when to start studying, where to find practice materials, and how to approach the process itself. This guide will give you a complete plan for studying for the ACT.
3 Guiding Principles of ACT Study
We'll get to the specific recommendations in a minute, but first I want to establish the underlying tenets that should guide your preparation.
#1: Personalize and Individualize
No two people are exactly alike—nor should their study plans be. Make sure your study plan suits your individual needs. We at PrepScholar know a lot about test prep, but you know the most about you. Think about how you can use the flexibility in our suggested plan to serve you better. If you'd rather study two hours straight, fine. If you'd rather study for four half-hour increments, that's fine, too. Do what's going to work best for you!
#2: Start Early
Give yourself plenty of time for the test preparation process. Three months should be sufficient for most students' needs, but those looking for an extreme score increase might need to stretch this timeline out to six months. Of course, that means you should know which boat you're in at least six months ahead of the test, so you'll want to start paying some attention to the process that early.
#3: Doing Something Beats Doing Nothing
What if you don't have six months, or even three months, to think about test preparation? What if you only have fifteen minutes a day that you can spend studying? What if you don't have four hours straight to take a practice exam?
Use what you have—even if it's fifteen minutes a day for a month and a half, it'll be much better than nothing. If you have to break your practice exam(s) into multiple sittings, so be it. Not being in a position to do something "right" shouldn't be an excuse for not doing it at all: a little preparation is better than none.
Even a very little outweighs nothing at all.
The ACT Prep Process: 10-Step Plan
Now that we've covered the basics, let's get into details of how to study for the ACT.
Step 1: Read Up on the ACT
If you have any lingering doubts about the ACT's format, its scoring, or the implications of various scores on your college hopes, this is the time to sort those questions out. Being fully comfortable with the test will help you relax a little, not to mention study more effectively.
Step 2: Take a Practice Test
Give this first test your best effort so as to get a more realistic score. On that note, make sure you're using an official practice test; official practice tests will give you the most accurate sense of the test possible—and the most accurate results. Plus, they're available for free!
While you're taking this practice exam, make sure to read the instructions carefully; getting used to these directions will be a vital part of your test preparation. They don't change from edition to edition of the test, and you don't want to waste time on test day reading the same directions you could have grown familiar with months ago. Besides, fully understanding the task will save you a lot of grief; oftentimes, we tend to answer the wrong question because we don't fully realize what's being asked of us.
Step 3: Score Your Practice Test
Review each and every question you got wrong. See why you missed the questions you did—which ones were careless errors and which ones were genuine weak spots in terms of content? Pay attention to all these problems, as they give you good information on your tendencies, including where you tend to get careless and where you need to understand the directions better.
Many practice tests come complete with answer explanations, and these are a great tool to make use of when you're looking at the problems you missed. Otherwise, try plugging the correct answer in and working through the problem with the goal in mind; that may help clarify things. Don't forget you can also ask for help if you're still struggling to make sense of something.
Once you've got a good handle on which questions you missed (and why you missed them), identify the patterns of your strengths and weaknesses. Treat this as a diagnosis for where to spend the majority of your time for the next few months.
Step 4: Set a Reasonable Goal
You know how the test works, and you know where you stand. How much do you think you could stand to improve? What's a bit of a stretch, but still realistic? If you're scoring in the low 20s, it's too much to expect to land in the 30s. If you're scoring in the mid-high 20s, though, that might be reasonable, depending on how committed you are to the process and how many resources you're willing and able to use.
Winning at darts while blindfolded is not a reasoable goal.
Step 5: Decide What Tools You'll Use
Whatever course you take for studying, you'll need some good resources. Official resources are always the place to start; if you need to supplement the ACT's own materials, then make sure you're looking at the credentials behind any product and the average results of the people who have used it before you.
You may choose to work solo, using books and websites on your own. This is something you should be doing to some extent no matter what; again, you're the expert on you, and so it makes sense for you to work out some kinks on your own. It's one of the most efficient and cheapest ways to study. Many times, though, it's not quite enough.
You may choose to take advantage of an online prep program. This is kind of a happy medium; you're still working on your own, but you're getting external guidance and expertise. The guidance is all based off of your work and progress, and it's based off of very accurate algorithms. That being said, it lacks that personal touch of in-person contact.
You may choose to join a group course. There, you can bounce ideas around with peers and a facilitator. You've got the in-person feel, you've got great accountability, and you can ask questions specific to your needs, but the true personalization will be somewhat limited by the format.
You may also choose individual tutoring. The great thing about this option is that you can get the most specialized, individualized, expert instruction available. You also get that in-person need met, although the cost is frequently prohibitive, and your time with your tutor will almost certainly be limited by logistical constraints.
Generally speaking, you're going to get your best results when you mix-and-match; it would be ideal if you could work on your own while also taking a course or completing an online program and getting tutoring. Of course, you'll need to consider all the practical restraints—such as budget. Figure out what's going to get you the results you need without causing undue hardship in the present time.
Step 6: Practice
Follow some sort of routine for your ACT practice. Generally, you should be studying between 30 minutes and three hours each time you study—closer to 30 minutes if you're studying pretty much every day, and closer to three hours if you're only studying a couple times a week.
Make sure you plan in a combination of books, websites/videos, and in-person guidance. No matter what resources you're using, it's a good idea to switch things up once in awhile so you cover all your bases and give your brain some degree of variety. Our brains thrive on change; take advantage of that fact.
Step 7: Take Another Practice Test
This is where things start to sound a little repetitive. You'll want to take another practice test to measure your progress. This also serves as a chance to to continue getting more comfortable with the format and layout of the test.
You're actually going to do this a few more times, too, if you've got the room in your schedule. There's nothing like a practice exam for practice both content and format. Aim to take a practice exam every three weeks. You can take them less often if testing so frequently doesn't make sense in your situation, or you can opt for more often if you're feeling shaky on the tasks. Aim for about five to six practice tests before the real thing.
It's best to take any test in one sitting under exam conditions so you can acclimate to the environment. Afterwards, analyze your results with the same care you did the first time around and plan any necessary adjustments to your routine.
Time for practice tests should come around periodically.
Step 8: Practice Some More
Continue on with your study routine, making any adjustments according to the results of your most recent practice exam. Keep using the resources that helped you the most during the last round of practice, and also keep incorporating variety into your drills.
Whether you're working with a tutor or not, it's a great idea to find someone who's willing to help you by being a test preparation "buddy". This could be anyone from a parent to a friend to a school librarian, just as long as they help keep you accountable to your process and encourage you along the way.
Step 9: Repeat Steps 7 and 8
As I mentioned before, things become cyclical at this point. You're going to study and test, study and test, right up until exam time. Keep assessing your progress—and keep asking others who are following your efforts to weigh in, too. Always be open to adjusting your process according to what's working and what's not.
The week before the test, start to slow things down. Don't take a practice exam within that final week, and don't study quite as much; you know what you know, and it's no use driving yourself into a frenzy trying to cram any remaining factoids into your brain. A day or two before the test, stop studying altogether. Use that time to rest and recuperate.
Step 10: Maintain Your Self-Care
Throughout the process of studying, make sure you're taking good care of yourself, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Give yourself regular encouragement. Get good rest, and plan in recreational activities. Reward your hard work with small treats, whether that's an ice cream cone or a walk in the park.
While you should always pay attention to your sleep, it becomes especially crucial three days to a week before the test. Our bodies don't operate solely on the sleep of the night before, but a night or two before that.
Gather all your materials the night before the test, and don't forget to have a good breakfast and plan in plenty of extra time for getting to the test center. Also remind yourself that, while the ACT is an important test, it doesn't define you or your future success. Keep the test in perspective.
Reading is hugely important. Even when you're not officially studying, reading many different styles and genres (and actively engaging with the text) can help you prepare for the test.
Set minor goals to help you achieve your overarching goal. It's great to see goals getting checked off the list, and having a set of actionable, achievable items to work towards will provide invaluable guidance when you're not sure where to go next.
I've said this before, but vary the sources you use and the ways that you study. Our brains tend to shut down after too much repetition, so throw yourself a few curveballs.
Remember that study buddy I said to find? Seek them out for encouragement and help staying on track when things get difficult. They can talk you through any challenges that arise.
People who will give you good counsel are invaluable.
Studying for the ACT can seem like an overwhelming task. By establishing a routine of studying and taking practice tests, it can be broken down into manageable steps.
Your study plan should be personalized, but it should definitely include some basic elements like frequent practice tests and varied sources to use in solo study. It's also a good idea to purse an ACT preparation course (in-person or online) and/or individual tutoring.
In all of this, though, remember to take care of yourself—the ACT should be serving you, not the other way around. Get good rest, and make time for the fun things in life. Remember that the ACT does not determine your fate all alone.
If you want to get started on reading up about the ACT, we've got an article that covers what exactly a "good" score looks like, along with tips on how to get there.
Last, but not least, if you're aiming for a perfect score, read tips on how to get one from a verified perfect scorer.
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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.