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ACT Practice Tests: How to Reflect and Get the Most Out of Them


ACT practice tests can be a great tool in preparing yourself for the real exam. In order for these tests to be worth your time, however, you’ll need to learn to evaluate your mistakes effectively. In this article, I’ll show you the most productive ways to reflect on ACT practice tests so that you can use them to your best advantage.


Time-Based Reflection Strategies for Practice Tests

It’s crucial that you reflect on your mistakes on practice tests in order to learn from them and improve your scores. First off, regardless of your time constraints, you should always take ACT practice tests under realistic testing conditions. This means appropriate timing, access to materials, and environment (an inconveniently small desk is optional). Print out the practice test; don’t take it on your computer! The only way to be sure that your assessment of your mistakes is accurate is to replicate test day conditions as closely as possible.

You may have more or less time to reflect on the results of practice tests, so I’ll give some advice based on how many hours you think you can devote to studying before the ACT.


If You Have Fewer Than 40 Hours:

Students who have less time to study often benefit more from taking practice tests. First, take an initial practice test to get a baseline reading on your score level. After you score the test, you should review your mistakes to see where you have the most problems. If you really messed up on one section or on certain types of questions, you should think about how you can change your strategy to fix your mistakes.

If you find yourself running out of time, you might decide to read passages differently (skim instead of reading closely) or make more of an effort to skip difficult questions that are slowing you down. If you see many careless mistakes, you may need to do the opposite and stop yourself from rushing too much and glossing over important aspects of questions. If you have small problems with content that are relatively easy to resolve, you can focus on learning those concepts. 

Since you don’t have a ton of time, don’t worry about large content gaps that might take a ton of practice to fix. Focus on the mistakes that you can resolve most efficiently. Try not to spend more than four hours on fixing your mistakes. After this, take an additional practice test to see where you stand, and do another basic evaluation of your mistakes. Then you should have time to take at least one more final practice test before the real ACT!


body_otters.jpgTwo otters, carefully evaluating their situation. On your practice tests, you OTTER do the same (wow I'm really sorry about this).


If You Have 40 to 100 Hours:

Just like in the previous plan, you should take an initial practice test, score the test, and mark off all of your wrong answers. With this amount of time, however, you can afford to be a little more specific. For each incorrect answer, you should figure out exactly why you got it wrong so you can make judgments about where you have the most problems on the test. Most mistakes will fall into one of four main categories:


Careless Error

A careless error is a mistake that makes you facepalm. It’s when you get a question wrong, but you should have easily known the correct answer. Most of the time, this happens because you were rushing too much and didn’t read the question carefully. 


Content Issue

A content issue is when you are missing the basic knowledge that you need in order to answer a question. Most of the time, this happens in the math section if you don’t remember how to solve certain types of problems. 

When you’re labeling content issue questions, it’s helpful to be specific about what you’re missing. You might say something like “didn’t know how to calculate angle measurement” or “forgot formula.


Question Comprehension Issue

This is a weird mistake category. It means that the wording of the question was confusing, and you couldn’t figure out what it was actually asking. Usually, these problems can be solved through greater familiarity with the test and reading more closely.

This type of mistake is less common on the ACT than on the SAT because questions are asked in a more straightforward manner. 


Time Issues

Mistakes due to time issues usually happen on questions at the end of a section. If you can’t make it to the last few questions and end up leaving them blank or answering randomly, you have problems with time. These types of mistakes can be fixed by modifying your test-taking strategy and getting used to moving more quickly through the sections. 


body_existentialdread.jpgTime stops for no one. This image is pure existential dread.


Once you’ve categorized all of your mistakes, you can list them in descending order from most common to least common so that you have a good sense of which areas need the most attention. 

Work towards fixing your mistakes beginning with the ones that you think will be easiest to eliminate. This is a good time to fill in gaps in your content knowledge that were causing you to miss questions. If you struggle with time pressure, you might reevaluate your testing strategy by reading passages a different way or making a point of skipping difficult questions on the first pass through a section.

After you’ve spent about five to ten hours fixing your mistakes, you should take another practice test and see how you do. Go through the same process that you did with the first test with your mistakes, and do another round of evaluation and fixing problems. You can then take another practice test to see where you stand, and keep repeating this process until you’re at the level you want or you run out of study time. 

If you don’t seem to be improving from test to test, you should rethink your test-taking strategies and whether you’re really understanding your mistakes. You may need to get help from a tutor or prep program to get to the bottom of what you’re missing.


Practice Testing Strategies for High and Low Scorers

Now I’ll give more specific advice on the best ways to approach practice tests for high and low scorers. You’re a high scorer if you’re scoring a 27 or higher consistently, and you’re a low scorer if you’re scoring a 20 or lower consistently.

If you're in between those two scores, you can read the advice for both categories and decide which strategies might be most helpful to you based on the types of mistakes you struggle with the most. For example, if careless mistakes make up a big chunk of your incorrect answers, the high scorer advice might be more helpful to you. If time is more of an issue, the low scorer advice may be more relevant to your situation. 


For High Scorers:

Most of the time, high scorers have more problems with careless mistakes on easy questions than anything else. With that in mind, it’s important for you to always double check your work at the end of each section if you have time left. This will prevent you from losing points as a result of misreading questions or solving for the wrong value. On math questions, sometimes it’s helpful to underline or circle the value that you need to find so that you don’t lose track of your goal in the midst of the calculations.

When you come across a difficult question, make sure that you fully understand what it’s asking. Don’t rush through it! Rushing too much can lead you to perform worse overall than you would have if you slowed down a bit and answered more deliberately (even if you don't get to every question due to time pressure). This is why it’s sometimes a good idea to answer all the easy questions first and then go back for the more difficult ones. You’ll feel less time pressure on hard questions and able to think clearly. 


For Low Scorers:

If you’re a low scorer, skipping difficult questions is one of the most important test-taking strategies for you. Many low scorers suffer from issues with time pressure because they get stuck on questions that give them trouble. 

You can avoid this by taking one pass through each section initially where you focus solely on easy questions and ignore any that confuse you. On the Reading and Science sections, you will need to look at the questions in groups because they correspond to different passages. For each set of questions, skim the passage first and then answer the relevant questions that come easily to you. If you find yourself spending more than 30 seconds on one question, move on. 

After you do this, you can allow yourself to spend more time on difficult questions since you’ve already locked down the questions that are a sure bet. With this strategy, you won’t be missing questions at the end of sections that should have been easy for you. You also won’t waste too many valuable minutes of your time on questions that you can’t figure out.

Whether you’re a high or low scorer, it’s often helpful to treat the test like a game or a race where you’re trying to score as many points as possible as quickly as you can. This will make the whole experience feel less boring and pointless (pun intended). You might find that when you introduce this element of competition, you’re more energized and can answer questions more efficiently. 


body_obstaclecourse.jpgThe ACT is just like this except it has words and there's no physical activity involved!



It's important that you take the time to go over your mistakes on ACT practice tests so that you can figure out which types of errors are causing you to lose the most points. If you're aware of your mistakes, you will have the power to prevent yourself from repeating them in the future. Depending on how much time you have, you might be more or less meticulous in this process. Even if you only have a little bit of time before the test, you can still take one or two practice tests and fix your more superficial mistakes. Even small changes to your strategy can make a big difference in your scores!

High and low scorers tend to make different types of mistakes on the ACT, so there are certain test-taking strategies that are more applicable to students who fit into each of these categories. Most people will struggle at least a little with time. Make sure you're not rushing or spending too much time on difficult questions before you get through the whole section.

Learning how to reflect on your practice tests effectively is a crucial aspect of studying for the ACT. Taking an honest and thorough survey of your mistakes is the best way to reach your score goals on the real test.


What's Next?

Not sure how to formulate an effective study plan? Learn more about how long you should study for the ACT in order to reach your score goal.

Is online studying more your style? Here are the best ACT prep websites you should be using. Don't forget to supplement with printed practice tests!

If you're interested in using books to help direct your studying, read our guide to the best ACT prep books.



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Samantha Lindsay
About the Author

Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.

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