SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

The Best Way to Study for the ACT: 4 Expert Tips

Posted by Justin Berkman | May 12, 2016 8:00:00 PM

ACT Strategies



Are you just starting your ACT prep and wondering how to tackle the daunting task of readying yourself for the ACT? Have you been studying for the ACT and not getting your desired results? Do you just want to confirm that you're on the right track?

In this article, I'll help you find the best way to study for the ACT by explaining all of your study options and letting you know how to figure out which ones to use. Furthermore, I'll give you essential ACT study tips that will help you reach your target score.


The Best Way Is What’s Best For You

There’s no single best way to study for the ACT There are multiple options you can use: self-study, a tutor, a class, an online program, or a combination of these options. The option you should choose depends on your resources and what you need.

Regardless of which option you choose, your ACT studying should include strategies that are essential for optimal ACT preparation. I’ll explain the different strategies you need to use, and then I’ll discuss how to decide the right way to study for you.


4 Key ACT Study Strategies

Although there's no one-size-fits-all perfect ACT study plan, there are a few strategies that are vital for everyone preparing for the test.


Determine Your Target Score

Before you begin your studying, you should determine the score you’re aiming for on the ACT. Having a target score will provide motivation and inform your studying. Figure out your target score by looking up the 75th percentile ACT scores for the schools you’re interested in applying to. Don’t include your safety schools; only look up the scores for the schools you’re most interested in attending.

You can google “(name of school) prepscholar average ACT” to help find the 75th percentile scores. Your target score will be the average of the 75th percentile scores. If you achieve a score that is equal to or above the 75th percentile score for a given college, you’ll give yourself a great chance of getting into that school.



Know what score you're aiming for.


Figure Out How Long You’re Going to Need to Study

You can get a rough idea of how long you’ll need to study by calculating the difference between your target score and your current score. To determine your current score, use the score from your last ACT, or if you haven’t taken the ACT yet, take an official practice test simulating a real test situation.

Here’s an estimated breakdown of point improvement per number of study hours for the ACT:

  • 0-1 point improvement: 10 hours
  • 1-2 point improvement: 20 hours
  • 2-4 point improvement: 40 hours
  • 4-6 point improvement: 80 hours
  • 6-9 point improvement: 150 hours+

Once you know how long you need to study, you can make a plan in order to put in enough study hours before you take the ACT to reach your target score. If you need to study about 80 hours to reach your goal and you're planning on taking the ACT in 8 weeks, you know that you need to schedule at least 10 hours of study time per week.


Analyze Your Mistakes and Focus On Your Weaknesses

It’s not enough to just put in study time; you need to study effectively. You’ll make the best use of your study time by figuring out why you’re missing questions and focusing on improving your weaknesses. There are three major areas that you might need to improve:


1. Content

The ACT tests you on a number of skills related to reading, writing, and math. By determining the specific types of questions you’re getting wrong, you can identify the topics you need to learn better.

For example, on the Writing section, maybe you’re struggling with pronoun agreement questions. On the Math section, perhaps you keep missing the coordinate geometry questions.

As soon as you know the topics that are challenging you, you can use your study time to understand them better and do a ton of related practice questions to improve your weaknesses.


2. Time

The ACT is a strictly timed test, and even if you’re comfortable with the content, you may struggle finishing each section on time.

If you’re somebody who either rushes (you finish a section more than 5 minutes early and make careless mistakes) or struggles to complete a section in the allotted time, you’ll need to work on your time management.

If you're running out of time, pay more attention to your time spent per question during your practice. You may also need to improve your content knowledge or develop better test-taking strategies, depending on why you're having trouble finishing on time.




3. Strategy

The ACT is known for having questions that can be confusing or misleading. If you struggle understanding what a question is asking or allow yourself to succumb to common ACT tricks, then you’ll benefit by improving your knowledge of SAT strategy.

For example, if you comprehend the content on the ACT Science section, but you're spending way too much time trying to figure out the conflicting viewpoints questions, you should spend more time learning how to decode these questions more efficiently. If you're missing SAT Writing questions because you're not reading the whole sentence, that's another sign that you need to improve your ACT strategy.

More generally, you're having problems with ACT strategy if you grasp the content that's being tested, but you're having issues with your understanding or approach to the questions.


Use Real or Realistic Practice Questions

Undoubtedly, the best questions to study from are those that most closely resemble the questions that appear on the ACT. A huge flaw of many ACT prep books is that their practice questions aren’t like those you’d find on the ACT. They’re either too difficult or presented in a way that differs from the usual ACT question format.

It won't help your ACT score much to focus on questions that aren’t like those you’ll encounter on the ACT. You should use official ACT practice tests in your studying. Also, the ACT website has additional practice questions. Furthermore, you can get more actual ACT questions from The Real ACT Prep Guide or use the online ACT prep program from the ACT website.


How Should You Study?

Now that you know the strategies you should utilize to study for the ACT, I’ll go through the various options for ACT studying to help you determine the best one for you.


It’s possible to reach your target score by studying on your own. You can choose to study independently, or you might have to if you don’t have the resources to pursue the other options. Effective self-study requires you to be extremely disciplined, organized, and motivated.

You should set a definitive study plan and stick to it as closely as possible. Other than real practice tests and any prep books you use, I highly recommend using the articles on this blog to help guide your studying. We've written content and strategy articles for Reading, English, and Math. Additionally, we have articles to help you with ACT Writing.


Private Tutor

A private tutor may be a good option for you if you’re looking for customized instruction or you need more help learning the material that’s tested on the ACT. Also, meeting with a tutor can help you stay on track if you need a little push. Keep in mind that tutors can be expensive, and they vary greatly in terms of their knowledge and effectiveness.

Before hiring a tutor, learn what ACT tutors do and how much they cost. Equip yourself with the knowledge to decide if you should work with a tutor or on your own.



Monrovia Public Library/Flickr


In-Person ACT Prep Class

In-person prep classes have a set curriculum, and like tutoring, they’re a good option to help you stick to your study plan. A prep class can be a great idea for you if you want to learn test strategies and increase your familiarity with the ACT.

The best classes will provide you with a solid foundation to help you study more effectively on your own. Additionally, some students learn better in a traditional classroom setting, and you may enjoy being able to socially interact with your peers.

Prep classes do have some significant drawbacks, though. In my opinion, the biggest disadvantage of a prep class is that it's not customized to your individual needs. There will be students of varying skill levels, and much of the content of the class may feel like review, or some of the content may be too challenging if you've never been exposed to the material.

Also, depending on the length of the course, you may not have enough time to thoroughly cover all of the material on the ACT. Furthermore, ACT classes can be expensive—many prep classes cost more than $1,000.


Online ACT Prep Course

Online prep courses can be a great option for students who want some structure and the freedom to work independently. The biggest advantages of a good online prep course are that you’ll be given an effective study plan and thorough content instruction. Also, the course will be customized to your skill level.

I may be biased, but the PrepScholar program is an exceptional online ACT prep course.
It focuses on improving your weaknesses, and all the practice test questions were written by ACT experts who scored in the 99th percentile on the ACT.

Like all the other options, online prep courses do have disadvantages. You need to have the self-motivation to push yourself to put in the necessary hours. You won’t have the encouragement of a teacher or tutor to help you focus and stay on task.

You may learn better with an instructor in front of you who can immediately answer your questions and provide more explanation. Furthermore, a quality teacher or tutor can keep you engaged with material you may not find overly exciting.


How to Decide the Best SAT Study Method for You

Here are the main points to consider as you determine the best way to study for the ACT:


How much money can you spend on your ACT prep?

While I think spending money on ACT prep is a worthy investment, some students simply can’t afford a tutor or prep course. If you want to take a prep course but can’t afford one, check with your counselor or look online to see if there are any free ACT prep courses available to you in your area.


How do you learn best?

Personally, I’ve always preferred studying independently. In school, I learned better when I was alone reading from a textbook than when I was in class listening to my teacher lecture. Which of the ACT study options works best for your learning style?

Keep in mind that you can also combine study options. You can primarily self-study and then get a tutor for a couple of hours to help you understand a concept that's puzzling you. Or you can take an in-person course to learn test strategies and then take an online course for further content instruction.


Realistically, how likely are you to be able to stick to a study plan?

Self-studying and online courses work best for the most disciplined and determined students who are able to stay on task without the help of an instructor. However, even if you take a class or hire a tutor, you need to be motivated enough to do the necessary work to reach your target score.


How much help do you need?

If you're only 1 point away from your target score, you may be able to reach your goal with a couple of weekends of self-studying or a short in-person prep course. But, if you need to raise your score by 7 points and you’re struggling to understand important ACT concepts, you would probably benefit from more intensive instruction, either from a tutor, online prep course, or a multi-week class.

Regardless of how you decide to study, if you focus on improving your weaknesses, analyze your mistakes, and use real/realistic practice problems, you’ll be capable of getting your desired results.




What's Next?

Is time running out for your ACT prep? Find out how to properly cram for the ACT.

Are you using real practice tests to study but not improving as much as you'd like? Maybe you need to learn what to avoid when you're taking practice tests.

Do you already have a high ACT score? Figure out how to improve even more.


Want to improve your ACT score by 4 points? 

Check out our best-in-class online ACT prep program. We guarantee your money back if you don't improve your ACT score by 4 points or more.

Our program is entirely online, and it customizes your prep program to your strengths and weaknesses. We also have expert instructors who can grade every one of your practice ACT essays, giving feedback on how to improve your score.

Check out our 5-day free trial:

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Justin Berkman
About the Author

Justin has extensive experience teaching SAT prep and guiding high school students through the college admissions and selection process. He is firmly committed to improving equity in education and helping students to reach their educational goals. Justin received an athletic scholarship for gymnastics at Stanford University and graduated with a BA in American Studies.

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