If you’re using practice tests for your ACT prep, great job! That’s the best way to prepare for the ACT, but how do you make sure you’re learning from each ACT practice exam you take? How do you make sure you’re really prepared for the actual ACT? You must sit for each ACT practice exam with realistic testing conditions. What might you be doing (maybe on accident) that’s destroying your realistic testing conditions?
#1: Not Using Accurate ACT Timing
When taking ACT practice test, you need to use the exact timing from the real ACT. The ACT is extremely tough on time. It’s a very fast-paced test. If you’re not using the actual timing in your practice, you won’t be ready the day of your ACT test.
Use the real ACT time on your practice test, so you have your pacing down when you take the real ACT. Think of ACT prep like marathon training. You wouldn’t show up to run a marathon without timing your practice runs and expect to win 1st place.
Do you know the exact timing of the ACT? If not, you can find the time allowed for each ACT section listed on the first page of that section of the practice test. See below:
If you’d like to know more about timing, read about the exact timing of the ACT.
#2: Using Your Cell Phone
Wait, Dora, didn’t you just say I need to time my ACT practice tests, and if I can’t use my cell phone, how do I do that? You need to use a watch. If you ignore my advice and use your cell phone to keep time, you’ll likely feel a little lost in timing when you’re not able to use your cell phone the day of the test. (NOTE: you can’t use your phone at all at your test center even during the test breaks).
So don’t use your cell phone! Buy an inexpensive watch like this one which you could use when you take the real ACT. Buy the watch now so that you can start using it during practice tests, so you get familiar using it to pace yourself.
But, Dora, what if I time myself with my cell phone in airplane mode? No!!! That’s better than using your cell phone in regular mode. However, you will still feel lost the day of the test when you can’t use it to time yourself the day of the test.
Dora, what if I need to use my cell phone as a calculator? BAD! As I said, you won’t have access to your cell phone at all while at your test center, so buy yourself an approved calculator now if you don’t have one and use it during your practice on ACT Math.
You can check Instagram when your practice test is over!
#3: Using Your Calculator During the Entire ACT Practice Test
While we’re talking about calculators, remember you can only use your calculator on the math section. Do not have your calculator on your desk for the Reading, Writing, Science, and the Essay. Only have your calculator during the one math section that allows you to use a calculator.
#4: Watching TV, Listening to Music, and/or Wearing Ear Plugs
Some students watch tv and/or listen to music while taking ACT practice tests, and it will be a distraction, decreasing their score because they can’t concentrate. Others watch tv and/or listen to music, and it helps them maintain their focus, artificially increasing their score. Whichever category you fall into, you should never have the TV or music playing while you take an ACT practice test. Familiarize yourself with taking the ACT in a quiet room.
However, you cannot wear ear plugs during your practice tests. I understand many people like wearing ear plugs because it cuts out background noise and helps maintain focus. The ACT doesn’t allow you to wear ear plugs.
Get used to hearing background noise as you take your practice tests because when you take the ACT, you’ll have to deal with background sounds of paper moving, pencils writing, erasers rubbing, and more.
#5: Eating and/or Drinking
At the real ACT, you cannot eat during the test. However, you’ll be able to eat and drink outside of your testing room during the breaks. Don’t eat/drink while taking your ACT practice tests (except during breaks).
There are two important reasons not to: If you're attempting to eat/drink and take the test at the same time, you may be very distracted and reduce your score. Also, you get a boost of energy when you eat or drink. This boost may make the ACT seem “easier.” Then, on the real ACT, you might be surprised when the ACT seems “longer” and “more difficult” because you don’t have the artificial energy boost from food/drink.
As I’ve said earlier, the ACT is like a marathon. Train for it with the same intensity. During your ACT practice, only have food/drink during the breaks.
No food or drink!
#6: Taking Extra Restroom Breaks
You will not be allowed to leave your test to go to the restroom. You’ll be forced to wait to go to the restroom until the breaks. You need to get familiar with holding it until the break!
Practice this during your ACT practice tests. You don’t want to be thinking about how badly you need to use the restroom while trying to concentrate on your ACT.
I strongly suggest you use the bathroom right before the ACT begins (or you start your ACT practice test), so you start with an empty tank.
#7: Not Sitting at a Desk
Where you take your ACT practice test is significant, don’t take the test on your couch or in your bed! Take the ACT practice tests while sitting upright at a desk. If you ignore me and take your practice tests on the couch/bed, you might feel strange during the actual ACT when you’re forced to sit at a new, uncomfortable desk for four hours.
Make sure your practice test environment is just like the actual ACT test environment. You should be sitting at empty desk or table with nothing other than your ACT practice test print out, pencils, erasers, and calculator (when allowed).
Sit at a nice clean desk!
#8: Splitting the ACT Practice Test Over a Few Days
At the start, I said the ACT is like a marathon. Marathon runners aren’t permitted to split up a marathon over a few days. You must practice taking full-length ACTs. I understand if you don’t have 4 hours every day to take a full-length practice ACT, but you should take at least two full-length practice tests before taking the real ACT.
On the days where you don’t have time for the whole practice test, you need to complete at least one full section of the ACT. For example, take the full 60-minute math section without any breaks. If you sit for just one section, the same rules mentioned in this article apply: no phone, no extra bathroom breaks, etc.
#9: Not Filling Out the Scantron
I know it’s tempting to forget about the scantron and just to circle the answers in your ACT practice test. Using a scantron can be tricky, so you don’t want your first time using one to be on the real ACT. While doing ACT practice tests, bubble in your answers as you work through each section.
Practice bubbling in so that you don’t accidentally bubble in wrong answers the day of the real ACT. If you have some time at the end of the section, I recommend checking your scantron answers with your booklet answers to make sure you didn’t accidentally bubble any answers incorrectly.
#10: Using Pen
While practicing with the scantron, you also must use a pencil and eraser! You’re required to use a #2 pencil on the ACT (not even a mechanical pencil!). I suggest you have at least 3 sharpened #2 pencils when you take the ACT. Additionally, you should bring a basic pencil sharpener and a big eraser. Take your ACT practice tests with these items.
On the real ACT, you want to feel confident and comfortable. To get that feeling, you need your ACT practice to be as similar as possible to the real testing environment! Get familiar having these supplies on your desk. Get comfortable sharpening a broken pencil with your hand sharpener!
For many students, any small issue can be distracting during a big test (I know it did for me!). Practice with your pencils, erasers, and pencil sharpener, so you don’t get flustered on the real ACT.
Don't use any support!
#11: Using Any Support Material
Finally, don’t use any additional material while taking ACT practice exams. As I said, on the real ACT, you won’t be allowed anything on your desk except for your test booklet, pencils, erasers, pencil sharpener, and your calculator (only during the math section). So don’t use anything other than those materials during your ACT practice!
Don’t use a formula cheat sheet, and don’t use a dictionary to look up words! There will be not outside help during the real ACT, so don’t use outside help during your practice.
If there are words you don’t understand while taking a practice test, try to figure out their meaning using context clues. Try to answer questions without looking up vocabulary. Circle the words you don’t know, so when you’ve finished, you can easily go back to those words and look them up in a dictionary.
Summary: How to Get the Best ACT Practice
All of the above can be summarized in one sentence: follow the rules of the ACT during your practice tests! Realistic practice will prepare you the best to excel on the ACT and is key to feeling prepared and relaxed on the day of the actual ACT.
Do you still feel uncertain as to how to make your practice tests the ideal prep for test day? Check out our guide to getting realistic ACT practice.
Not sure where you’d like to go to college? Figure out how to find your target school.
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:
Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
As an SAT/ACT tutor, Dora has guided many students to test prep success. She loves watching students succeed and is committed to helping you get there. Dora received a full-tuition merit based scholarship to University of Southern California. She graduated magna cum laude and scored in the 99th percentile on the ACT. She is also passionate about acting, writing, and photography.