If you’re a high school student, you’re probably already feeling the pressure to take the ACT and do well on it – even if you’re just a freshman or sophomore.
So when exactly should you start studying for the ACT? If you wait too long to study, you won’t get the highest score you’re capable of. But if you start too early, you might struggle because you don’t know all the content on the ACT yet. Or you might just forget things if you study over too long a period.
So what’s the perfect balance? We will introduce you to the content you have to know to do well on the ACT, and then give you a study plan based on your college goals.
What You Need to Know for the ACT
The reading section of the ACT consists of 40 passage-based reading questions. You will read four passages that cover the following topics: social science, natural science, humanities, and literary narrative/prose fiction. You have 35 minutes to complete the section.
There are two main types of questions.
The first type asks you questions on what is directly stated in the reading. This could take the form of having you find significant details, understand the meaning of words or phrases, or understand the sequence of events and cause-and-effect relationships.
The second type asks questions about what is implied. These questions will have you interpret details, make comparisons, determine direct ideas, and analyze the author’s voice or method.
So your task is basically to read a passage quickly, and to be able to understand and interpret it. The more advanced of a reader you are and the more English courses you’ve taken, the better you will do on this section.
Having two years of high school English under your belt by the time you take the test junior year is good. High school English courses give you practice in identifying an author’s purpose, as well as identifying techniques like figurative language. English classes also help you understand increasingly complex books and stories, which will help you decode ACT reading passages. Any extra reading you do outside of class will also help you prepare for this section.
You can read our detailed breakdown of the reading section here.
The math section of the ACT tests pre-algebra (including data collection and basic statistics), algebra, and some algebra II concepts. It also tests coordinate geometry, plane geometry, and trigonometry. (Read a full breakdown of the section here.)
Once you have taken Algebra II, you will have learned all the content you need for the ACT math section. However, since the ACT math moves very quickly – you have to complete 60 questions in 60 minutes – you need to put in some serious studying to do well on this section.
Think of it as a longer, much more intense version of those mad math minute worksheets you did in elementary school.
Don’t attempt the ACT or a serious study regimen before you’ve completed Algebra II, because you will struggle with the content and it will be hard to study effectively. As long as you complete Algebra II by the end of sophomore year, you will be on track to do well on ACT math.
The English section tests your writing and grammar skills. It is broken down into two main components: usage/mechanics (punctuation, grammar, usage, sentence structure) and rhetorical skills (strategy, organization, style). Read more about the English section here.
The more familiar you are with English grammar rules, the easier this section will be for you. Again, two years of high school English should be sufficient preparation to do well on this section, but reading widely outside of class is helpful too.
Also check out our post about ACT grammar rules to learn more about the ACT English section.
Science on the ACT is less about knowing content – like the intricacies of cell biology or physics equations – and more about being able to read and interpret graphs, charts, experimental data, and conflicting points of view. You also need to be able to draw conclusions or predictions from data.
The ACT science questions will show you a graph, chart, or experiment, and you answer multiple-choice questions about what the data shows or suggests. You can read more about the Science section here.
Having a strong science background is helpful, but not required to do well on this section. As long as you're taking science classes each year that teach you about the scientific method and other science skills, ACT science should not be too challenging. Still, it will be important to do practice questions to understand what ACT science is asking and practice breaking down charts and data.
When to Start Studying for the ACT
You should aim to take the ACT fall of junior year. This gives you time to retake the test in spring if needed, and then totally frees up your senior year for college applications. This also gives you the first two years of high school to learn the content you’ll need to do well on the ACT.
Also, taking the ACT for the first time in the fall means you won’t have to split your ACT study time with AP and IB exams, which can happen if you take it for the first time in spring.
It’s up to you if you’re going to have a more intense ACT study schedule (like 10 hours a week for 2 months) or a more gradual one, say 1 hour a week for 6 months. Your study schedule will also vary based on the type of schools you're applying to and how large a point improvement you need to make.
How Long You Should Study
How many hours you need to put in before the ACT depends on how large a point improvement you want to make. You can use the following hours per point improvement recommendations as a starting point. (We’ll go over how to get your base score and target score below.)
0-1 ACT Composite Point Improvement: 10 hours
1-2 ACT Point Improvement: 20 hours
2-4 ACT Point Improvement: 40 hours
4-6 ACT Point Improvement: 80 hours
6-9 ACT Point Improvement: 150 hours+
(Read more about ACT scoring here.)
This is just a starting guideline and heavily depends on how much you've prepped before, your starting skill level, and your ability to learn. If you're looking for a small improvement like 1 point, you can do this by optimizing your testing strategy and possibly even just by retaking the test.
But for serious improvements at 3 points and above, you need to learn a lot of fundamental content. Little tricks and strategies aren't enough to raise your score - you will need to learn actual material and attack your weaknesses.
Think about it this way: the ACT tests academic skills that you've been learning your entire life, like how numbers work and how to read. As a high school junior, you've gone through over 20,000 hours of schooling and homework. An improvement of 3 or more composite ACT points requires a serious retooling of your knowledge and skills. If you can't devote at least 80 hours to prepping, you will find it very difficult to make huge score improvements.
Working backwards from junior fall, it’s a good idea to start studying at some point during sophomore year for a longer, less intense plan. You could also start studying the summer after sophomore year for a more intense, short-term plan.
Taking a practice test as a sophomore is a great way to get introduced to the test and get your base score.
In some states the ACT will be part of your school’s state testing, but since the ACT got rid of the Plan (its more straightforward ACT practice test), you will likely take a test called Aspire as a sophomore or younger. Aspire will let you know where you stand content-wise, but it won’t give you practice for the ACT’s structure. So you should take an actual ACT practice test on your own time at some point sophomore year to get your base score.
What Are Your College Goals?
The length and intensity of your study plan will strongly depend on your college goals. There is a huge difference between studying for a 26 than a 36, after all.
If you’re looking to go a decent in-state school, there is less pressure riding on your score than if you are set on the Ivy League. Because of that, we have come up with recommendations based on your college goals. Use the three plans below to help you come up with a good plan for you.
Ivy League/Highly Selective School ACT Study Plan
If you want to apply to Ivy League schools or other highly selective schools like Stanford and MIT, these recommendations are for you. Your ACT score goal for highly selective schools is a composite of 33 or higher – this puts you in the 99th percentile nationwide.
First of all, definitely plan to take a practice ACT early sophomore year to get your base score.
Once you have a starting score, decide whether you want to study during sophomore year at a more gradual pace or use the summer for a more intensive study schedule. Also keep in mind how much you have to improve – if you score a 30 on your practice test, you won’t have to put in as many hours than if you a score a 25. Use the hours guide above to estimate the study time you need to put in, then come up with a study plan based on your schedule.
Again, you could stretch out your study hours over sophomore year, or pack them into the summer after sophomore year. It all depends on your schedule and study style.
Take the ACT for the first time during junior fall. If you fall short of a 33, keep studying and plan to retake it in junior spring. The closer to 36 you can get, the better, but breaking 33 is very important to be competitive at highly selective schools. (Read more about ACT scores for the Ivy League.)
Selective School ACT Study Plan
If you know you want to apply to selective schools but you aren’t quite reaching for the Ivy League, these recommendations are for you.
First, take a practice ACT test as a sophomore to figure out your base score. Next, look up the ACT score ranges for your target colleges (for a guide on finding ACT score ranges, see our post). Set a target score based on the most selective school you are applying to.
For example, let's say you’re applying to the University of Virginia as your top reach school. Their average ACT score is a 30. If you can achieve a score that’s competitive for the most selective school on your list, you will be able to easily apply wherever you want. So in this case, if you get a 30 on your ACT, you’ll be competitive at UVA as well as any other colleges you’re applying to.
Once you have your base score and target score, come up with a study plan using the hours guide above. You can either study over the course of sophomore year or the summer after. Keep in mind you will have to undertake a more rigorous study plan if you have a large point improvement to make (for example, going from a 22 to a 30).
Finally, take the ACT junior fall. If you are short of your goal, you can keep studying and retake it in junior spring. That will give you time to start working on your college applications after junior year and during senior fall.
Less Selective School Study Plan
If you’re not trying to get into a super-competitive school, but you want to pursue the best local or in-state options, this guide is for you.
First, either take a practice test as a sophomore, or you can use your Aspire data if your school uses that test, to predict your ACT score.
If you seriously struggle with the practice test or Aspire – you are predicted to get below a 20 or get below a 20 on a practice test – begin studying sophomore year.
Otherwise, wait until after sophomore year is over and prep during the summer. How much time you put in during the summer depends on your starting score and the score ranges of your target schools.
For example, say you’re applying to the University of Arizona as your top choice, and you got a 21 on your ACT practice test. The University of Arizona’s average ACT score is 24. That means you need to make a 3-point improvement, which you can easily accomplish if you study over the summer.
Take the ACT junior fall. If your score is way lower than your state school’s ranges, you can retake the test in junior spring.
No matter what your college goals are, you should take the following steps to maximize your ACT studying time and score: take a practice ACT sophomore year to get your starting score, begin your studying either during sophomore year or the following summer, and take the ACT junior fall. This will give you another chance to take the ACT junior spring if needed, and give you senior year to focus on college apps.
The intensity of your studying will vary by how selective the schools you want to get into are, and also your starting point based on your practice test. By using our hours guide above and basing your target score based on the schools you want to apply to, you can achieve an excellent ACT score your junior year.
Are you aiming for a perfect or close-to-perfect score on the ACT? Get tips from our full-scorer about how to get there.
Learn what a good/bad/excellent ACT score looks like, and get more advice on finding a target score.
Get tips on writing the ACT essay. While the essay doesn't affect your overall composite, getting a high essay score is important, especially if you're aiming for selective schools.
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Halle Edwards graduated from Stanford University with honors. In high school, she earned 99th percentile ACT scores as well as 99th percentile scores on SAT subject tests. She also took nine AP classes, earning a perfect score of 5 on seven AP tests. As a graduate of a large public high school who tackled the college admission process largely on her own, she is passionate about helping high school students from different backgrounds get the knowledge they need to be successful in the college admissions process.