If you’re looking for a concise, effective list of the best ACT advice, you’ve found it. Sometimes too much information can do more harm than good - in this post, I’ll lay out the five most important things you should do in order to do well on the ACT.
Let's get to it!
Tip #1: Figure Out Your Pain Points
If you're gearing up to study for (and take) the ACT, you'll want to focus on improving your weakest skills. So what are the biggest, most common problem areas that students have when preparing for the exam?1. Content
- The ACT isn't a one-subject test - in order to do well, you'll have to prepare for the English, Math, Reading, and Science sections (not to mention the optional Writing section). If you're weak in a particular subject area in school, for example, you may see a weaker performance in the corresponding ACT section.
- The ACT is divided into strictly timed sections, meaning you have less time to both complete questions and check your work. You may know everything you need to know, but still have issues with completing sections within the allotted time limit.
- Many standardized tests (the ACT included) list confusing or even misleading questions and/or answer choices. You may lose points (even if you know the relevant material) on tricky questions like this.
To do well on the ACT, you'll, of course, need to think about all three major problem areas. You'll want to spend time thinking critically, though, about which of these areas are your major "pain points" - areas that are leading to the greatest loss of points.
The best way to do this is to work through official ACT practice material. Once you've gone through a few practice sections (or, ideally, a whole ACT practice test) under realistic timing conditions, you can get a better idea of where you should focus your efforts.
Get started by checking out our guide to reflecting on your ACT practice tests.
Tip #2: Make a Study Plan
Once you figure out what you need to practice most, your next step should be to lay out a time-sensitive and weakness-sensitive study plan. What I mean by this is you should set a study schedule based on 1) the amount of time you have to prepare for the ACT, and 2) your test content and strategy weaknesses.
The amount of time you need to study depends on how much you want to improve from your baseline score. Here are some general guidelines for the amount of time you should prep depending on these goals:
- 0-1 Composite Score Improvement: 10 hours
- 1-2 Composite Score Improvement: 20 hours
- 2-4 Composite Score Improvement: 40 hours
- 4-6 Composite Score Improvement: 80 hours
- 6-9 Composite Score Improvement: 150+ hours
Some students can follow through on a plan with just independent study, whereas other students fare better with help from a tutor or an ACT prep course. If you’d like some more information on coming up with a study plan, check out our posts on how long you should study for the ACT and putting together a sample study schedule.
Tip #3: Learn From Your Mistakes
The most important part of studying effectively is critically analyzing how, why, and when you mess up. It’s also perhaps the least fun part of prepping for the ACT. Just keep in mind that if you’re not thinking about the problems, concepts, and strategies that you’re weak in, you’re missing out on valuable opportunities to improve your score.
Mistakes and errors are only "bad" if you don't use them to improve.
The big categories of errors and mistakes include:
- Careless errors - you should have known the right answer
- Content issues - you didn't have the information needed to answer the question
- Comprehension issues - you couldn't figure out what the question was asking
- Errors due to timing - these usually happen at the end of a section
There are some simple, but important steps you should follow if you want to learn from your mistakes on ACT practice tests. Lucky for you, we have an awesome comprehensive guide on these strategies. You can also check out more detailed information on reflecting on ACT practice tests, ACT English, and ACT strategy mistakes.
Tip #4: Work Efficiently
You have to work efficiently if you want to do well on the ACT - this tip applies both when you’re studying for the test and when you’re actually taking the test. The bottom line is that if you’re not using your time wisely, you’re wasting time.
To work efficiently as you study, it’s important that you do a few things:
- Stick to your study plan (Tip #2). It helps to set reasonable study goals, so you don't get distracted or side-tracked.
- Use the right study materials - don’t prepare with practice materials that won’t serve you well on the actual test.
- Focus on your pain points (Tip #1) first!
To work effectively as you take the test, know that you'll be most effective if you've practiced developing time management skills through your prep. If you still need help with timing, though, you should read more about:
- How to stop running out of time on ACT reading
- How to stop running out of time on ACT math
- Time management for ACT science
- General ACT time management
Tip #5: Take Care of Yourself Physically & Mentally
All of the previous ACT advice won’t serve you well at all on test day if you’re stressed, hungry, or tired. No matter how much you may want to cram for the ACT the entire night before, keep in mind that your health and wellness is super important when it comes to your test performance.
The ACT is a marathon, not a sprint, so prepare yourself the night before for a mental workout. This means getting a good night’s rest and a healthy breakfast (your brain needs fuel, you know)! There are even more things you can do to take care of yourself the night before and the morning of the ACT - following those strategies will help you optimize your score.
In short, here are the five most important things you should do to prepare for the ACT:
- Figure out your pain points
- Make a study plan
- Learn from your mistakes
- Work efficiently
- Take care of yourself physically & mentally
There's a lot more detail to get into when it comes to prepping for the test, but if you follow this ACT advice, you'll be on the right track.
Next comes the work of actually studying for the ACT!
As it's best to focus first on your weaknesses, you may want to read up on the three core areas of ACT prep: content, timing, and strategy. Check out our guides to ACT reading, math, science, and writing.
Read more about how to beat the clock when you're taking the test.
Finally, read up on 12 last-minute strategies that will boost your score.
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!
Francesca graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and scored in the 99th percentile on the SATs. She's worked with many students on SAT prep and college counseling, and loves helping students capitalize on their strengths.