Are you taking the ACT soon? This complete guide will go over exactly what to expect on test day, from when to arrive at your testing center to when it’s safe to turn your cell phone back on.
Beyond the logistics, we’ll discuss what you can do in the days and weeks leading up to the test to fully prepare and feel confident. Read on to learn what to expect on ACT test day when you arrive, take the test, and finish up, alongside the most useful tips for doing your best throughout the day.
ACT Test Day: Arrival
The doors to your test center are open for just a fifteen-minute window of time, between 7:45 and 8 AM. A closed door means you won't be allowed in, so it’s absolutely essential that you arrive on time.
There may be a line of students waiting outside the test center. When doors open, you should be greeted by helpers that check you in and direct you to your testing room. In the rare instance that there aren’t enough helpers, you should be able to find your location by consulting lists outside each room. Typically, students are assigned to a room alphabetically.
After you check in with your ID and admission ticket, you’ll put your bags, jacket, and any other belongings in a designated area. This area may be a locker or simply under your desk. Seats are usually assigned in alphabetical order, so you’ll take your seat according to the test proctor’s instructions.
Once everyone’s packed away their things and taken their seats, the proctor will start to pass out testing materials, namely the test booklets and answer sheets. You can’t open any of these materials until told to do so and will spend the next half hour to an hour listening to instructions and filling out identifying information, like your name, email, and address.
All of this should be a highly structured process, but there are a few ways you can approach the morning to make sure everything goes smoothly. Read on for tips around your arrival to your ACT testing center.
Doors close at 8, so don't be late! No amount of rhyming will help fix your timing.
Tips for Arrival
It’s essential that you arrive on time to your ACT testing center, as latecomers won’t be admitted to the test. I’d suggest planning to be there around 7:30, or a little earlier if you’re concerned about logistics like parking. Arriving much earlier could mean you turn into a nervous wreck waiting around outside the school; much later and you’re rushing to get in after students have already started to enter. Right around 7:30 is the sweet spot.
So how can you set the conditions that will enable you to arrive on time? First, you should prepare everything you need the day before, a checklist I’ll elaborate on below. You should at least try to get to sleep early, as well as get up when your alarm goes off rather than adding an extra half hour via the snooze button. Leave yourself enough time to get ready in the morning, and plan out your clothes and breakfast the night before so you don’t waste time searching for clean clothes or discovering that you just ran out of your favorite granola.
In addition to preparing the day before, you should also familiarize yourself with the route before test day if you’re testing somewhere other than your usual high school. On a similar note, you should consider what traffic conditions will be like to account for any unusual delays. Underestimating the time it takes to get there would be a highly stressful way to start your day.
When you enter the testing center, make sure you know where your belongings are supposed to be and double check that your cell phone is turned off. ACT, Inc. is strict in prohibiting any technology that makes sound or could possibly record testing materials, so a mistake here could result in your test getting cancelled.
Finally, make sure to listen to all the proctor’s instructions and follow them to a T. The whole process is rather rigid, and you need to fill out everything correctly to make sure your test scores don’t get delayed. Plus, just as a ringing cell phone could result in your scores getting cancelled, so too could opening and looking at the test booklet before the test officially begins.
The proctor will instruct you when to start, so wait for her green light before commencing on your first section. Once you’ve gotten through this morning process, you’ll finally start in on the main event: taking the ACT.
Proctor says, get started! By the way, if your proctor's a Bordeaux mastiff, you should be eligible for a makeup test.
ACT Test Day: Taking the Test
There’s no exact time when you’ll start in on your first section of the ACT. Instead, it depends on how long it takes everything to get settled and to get through the first round of instructions. If you get through the preliminaries fast, then you’ll start around 8:30. If your group takes its time, then you’ll start around 9:00. Most test-takers will start somewhere in between.
The ACT consists of four sections, or five if you opt to take the essay. These sections are always in the same order: English, Math, Reading, Science, and optional Writing. Once you start testing, the next few hours will look like this:
- Begin with the 45-minute English section.
- When instructed, move immediately onto the 60-minute Math section.
- Take a 5-minute break. Touch your toes, have a snack, use the restroom. Then return to your desk to complete the next two sections.
- Take the 35-minute Reading section.
- When your proctor tells you to do so, move right onto the 35-minute Science section.
- Gather your things and leave quietly if you’re not taking the Writing section. Enjoy a 5-minute break if you will be writing the essay. After you complete this 40-minute section, you’ll be all finished with the ACT!
If you’re not writing the essay, then you’ll be finished around 12:15, perhaps a little earlier or later depending on when you started testing and how strict your proctor was about limiting the breaks to five minutes. If you do write the essay, then you’ll finish around 1:00 in the afternoon.
Just as the proctor will lead you through the morning steps with instructions, so too will she tell you when to start and stop each section. She may also give you a five or ten-minute warning when the section’s about to end, perhaps writing the time left on the board. While you’ve done everything you can at this point to prep for taking the ACT, is there anything extra you can do as you test to ensure that everything goes smoothly?
Prep with timed practice tests to help you win your race against the clock. Clocks don't have legs, so you're a crowd favorite for first place.
Tips for Taking the Test
As you’re taking the test, your prep and planning should kick in, helping you with time management strategies and the concepts you studied for the ACT. You should also have familiarized yourself with the order and timing of the test, so that you know exactly what to expect going in. Of course, you should still listen carefully to your proctor’s instructions, but ideally you already know exactly what she’s going to say.
You also have to make sure to resist the temptation of flipping forward or backward in your test booklet. Getting a preview of a future section is strictly prohibited, as is going back to fill in an answer or double check a question from a section that’s already concluded. This strict structure is all part of ACT’s confidentiality thing; make sure you don’t look at any section except the one currently open, as shuffling through could result in, you guessed it, score cancellation.
This rule also means that you should direct your focus on the task at hand. If you struggled with the English section, try to push it out of your mind and concentrate next on math. Try not to let one section or passage trip you up for the others. You can practice sharpening your focus and mindfulness in the months leading up to the test.
In between test sections, you should also definitely take advantage of your designated breaks. The ACT is a long and demanding test that requires a lot of energy. Physically moving around and stretching will get your blood flowing and re-energize you for the sections to come. Looking away from your test will also help reduce eye strain that comes from focusing up close for a long time. Take a walk, stretch, drink water, have a snack; all of these little behaviors will help you recharge and take on the rest of the test.
Finally, just as you should be familiar with the structure of the ACT, you should also be aware of your rights as a test-taker. You’re entitled to a five-minute break, or two if you’re taking the essay. You should get a quiet testing space free of disruptions. The unfortunate reality is that not all testing centers have equal conditions, and many students have had to deal with distracting noise problems, like construction outside their window.
Testing environment inequities are one more way that the ACT may not test students on such an equal playing field as it likes to claim. However, you can ensure the best possible testing conditions by being aware of your rights and speaking up if they’re not honored. If your test proctor skips over your designated break, speak up and make sure you get that time to move around and recharge.
If you prepare to take the test, focus on the sections at hand, and take advantage of your break times, then you’ll be able to maximize your performance on test day. As for after the test, what do you need to know about finishing up for the day?
Tip #1 for finishing up: don't start your 70s-style disco party until you've passed in your test and left the testing center.
ACT Test Day: Finishing Up
As you read above, your exact end time will vary depending on when you started testing and whether or not you’re taking the essay section at the end. Any discrepancies in break times could also have a small effect on end time. For the most part, students taking the ACT without Writing will be finished around 12:15, while those staying for the essay will be done around 1:00.
When you’re finished, the proctor will ask all students to close their test booklets. The proctor will instruct you about any last minute tasks and finally, collect all the testing materials. When you get the green light, you can leave the testing center. Once you’re outside, you can turn your cell phone back on, call for a ride or head home, and enjoy the rest of your day!
Tips for Finishing Up
While you may feel like turning your cell phone on and sharing with the rest of the world that you finally finished the ACT, I’d advise waiting until you leave the testing center. Especially if you’re not taking the essay section, you should respect that people are still in testing mode and leave quietly so as not to break their concentration.
All students should refrain from discussing specific test questions with one another or writing about them online. Just as ACT, Inc strictly prohibits technology, so too does it forbid the sharing of specific test questions. Basically, you should think of your test as being preserved in a big orange envelope with “Confidential” stamped across it, like a file in the Pentagon. Who knew standardized tests came with such high stakes?
Once you leave the testing center, though, feel free to throw your hands up and celebrate all your hard work! Congratulations, you finished the ACT. You’ll get your scores back in about two weeks (and your essay score about two weeks after that).
Now that you know the ins and outs of test day, let’s move beyond logistics to discuss what else you can do to prepare yourself for the challenge of test day. What steps can you take to tie up any loose ends and boost your confidence before the big test?
How can you channel a lion, nature's most confident and well-coiffed animal?
How to Feel Confident on ACT Test Day
There are several strategies you can use to feel calm, cool, and collected for test day. Some are operational, like packing your bag, while others have to do with promoting your physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Let’s go over the most important ones that will help you manage your time and stress and feel your best for the ACT.
Pack Your Bag the Night Before
Nothing can start the day off on a stressful foot quite like losing your admission ticket. Take this possibility off the table by preparing everything you need the night before. The essential materials are your printed admission ticket, an acceptable photo ID, No. 2 pencils (with erasers), and a calculator.
Beyond these necessities, you should probably also bring nutritious snacks and a hydrating drink, like water or Gatorade. You might also bring a watch, as long as it’s silent, to keep track of time. If a watch is just distracting, though, then leave it home. Finally, you could bring along backup batteries for your calculator, just in case!
Make sure you don’t have any prohibited materials, like technology with audible alarms or recording capabilities (or, if you do, that they’re turned off and don’t leave your bag). You can’t bring these out at all during the test, not even during break times.
Pack your bag in an organized way so that you can easily access everything you need. As long as you put everything together the night before, you can rest easy with the knowledge that the only thing you need to do the next morning is to grab your bag on the way out the door.
Taking care of your well-being should always be a top priority, and it becomes perhaps even more important during times of stress and pressure. Taking the ACT, along with the whole college admission and planning for your future process, certainly qualifies as one of those times. By taking care of your mental, emotional, physical, and perhaps, spiritual state, you can stay healthy and happy and meet these challenges with confidence and self-awareness.
How you go about self-care varies by individual, but you should set time aside to engage in activities that you enjoy and that bring you peace of mind. Some of these may include spending time outside, listening to music, doing yoga, practicing meditation, spending time with friends and family, or writing in a journal. Time management techniques might also help you reduce stress in your day to day life and divide up your responsibilities in a manageable way.
Self-care is about listening to your internal voice and being kind to yourself. Seek out environments that make you feel good (or clean up the one you’re in). If you haven’t recently, drink a big glass of water. Little gestures of self-care may make you feel better, stronger, and prepared to meet the challenges coming your way. Exercise can also play a big part in the self-care equation.
As we learned from Elle Woods (or, at least, my generation did), "Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don't [crash and burn during the ACT]." (Legally Blonde/MGM/EOnline)
Harness the Power of Exercise
Exercise is another great way to take care of your physical health, and it can significantly improve your mental and emotional health too. Being active can boost your endorphins, which are neurotransmitters that boost happiness and reduce stress.
Getting immersed in exercise can also serve as a sort of meditation, clearing your mind of its typical chatter and allowing you to lose yourself in the present moment. Overcoming physical challenges, furthermore, can make you feel even more capable of tackling other challenges that come along, like taking the ACT.
If you play on a sports team, then great; you’ve likely already got a routine of exercise, plus you can enjoy the benefits that come from being part of a team. If exercise isn’t a big part of your schedule, try to make room for walking, running, dancing, swimming, or even an at-home yoga practice.
Start at least a month before the ACT, at least for half an hour three times a week, and see if it has any effect on your mood and outlook. If you’re prone to test-taking anxiety or just want to boost your confidence before test day, throwing on your running shoes or rolling out your yoga mat might just be the game-changer you need.
Set the Conditions for Quality Sleep
Sleeping a peaceful, uninterrupted eight hours the night before a big test might be more aspiration than reality for you, but you can, at least, set the conditions to maximize your sleep before the ACT. Sleep will help you feel positive and alert, plus it’s essential for meeting that early morning wake up call before your 7:30 AM testing center arrival.
So how can you try your best to sleep well? There are a few methods you can use. One, you should use the day before your test to relax. You might do a light review, but don’t worry about last-minute cramming - at this point, you’ve done all the studying you can to prepare.
In the hour or two before bed, you should try a calming activity, like reading or writing. Screens just stimulate your brain, so try to put away your cell phone or computer before you want to sleep. Researchers also suggest that "blue light" can wreck your sleep, so try dimming the lights or even using a blue light-blocking app to set sleep-conducive lighting conditions.
Calming music can help, as well as sleep-boosting foods like yogurt, milk, bananas, oats, and herbal tea. Just like in our discussion of self-care above, you can consider a holistic approach to getting a good night’s sleep, considering your environment, food, and activities before you go to bed.
Bananas have been shown to make people happier. So has looking at pictures of cute animals. So eating a banana while looking at this picture of a squirrel eating a banana has got to be the ultimate happy experience.
Fuel Your Brain and Body with Nutritious Snacks
The ACT requires a lot of brainpower, and all that power needs to be fueled by an energy source. Wholesome foods and water will sustain you as you work your way through a long morning. Plan out what you’ll eat for breakfast, ideally opting for something with protein and whole grains. Avoid foods that are primarily sugar, as they’ll just give you a spike of energy followed by a big crash.
Eat breakfast before you leave, and bring a supply of snacks and drinks to reenergize during breaks. Avoid a mid-morning grumbling stomach so you can focus all your energy on taking the test.
Wear Comfy Layers
Just as an empty stomach would be distracting, so too would feeling cold, hot, or uncomfortable. Wear layers to prepare for unpredictable classroom temperatures, and choose clothes that are comfortable and make you feel confident. Pick these out the day before to help you get ready faster and easier the morning of the ACT.
Have you ever heard about the power of positive thinking? Or of looking at a glass like it’s half-full instead of half-empty? Thinking optimistically can be a choice, to some extent, and it can both reduce stress and improve your performance on high-pressure endeavors, like taking the ACT.
To be able to think positively, you have to understand the concept of self-talk. We often have a narrative running through our heads, drawing conclusions, shaping our perceptions, and causing our feelings. Someone who talks very negatively about herself and her surroundings will probably have a harder time succeeding in something like a big test, or, at least, will experience a good deal of stress. Someone who talks more positively about her circumstances and personal abilities may have a heightened chance of success, as well as experience lower levels of stress.
Of course, people have all different experiences and circumstances, and some are more naturally prone to pessimism or optimism. Regardless of other variables, though, you can still cultivate awareness of your thoughts and how they impact your feelings and performance. By becoming more aware, you can try to challenge the thoughts that are holding you back and replace them with ones that are more likely to help you feel confident, focus, and succeed.
Consider the words of encouragement you’d give to a best friend if she were nervous about the test or doubting her own abilities. Then consider giving that same pep talk to yourself. Focus on your strengths, rather than worrying about your weaknesses. Practice the power of positive thinking and be proud of yourself for taking this step toward the world of higher education!
Celebrate all your fabulous strengths, and feel proud of your commitment to higher education!
To Sum Up...
The ACT’s a challenging test, and you should do everything you can to prepare for test day. Empower yourself by learning exactly what to expect, and eliminate any unnecessary confusion or surprises on ACT test day.
Prepare your bag, lay out your clothes, and figure out your breakfast and snacks the day before. Strike a balance with all your hard work, and prioritize self-care by making time for activities that you enjoy and that leave you feeling good.
Finally, embrace the power of positive thinking when it comes to performing your best. As with all of your endeavors, you can continuously improve if you keep putting forth effort and persistence.
Are you taking the ACT with Writing? If so, check out this expert guide to learn how to write an ACT essay, step by step.
Do you have any questions about exactly how the ACT is scored? This article will explain the ACT scoring system section by section while also providing scoring charts that show your raw scores get converted to the scale between 1 and 36.
Want to improve your ACT score by 4+ points? Download our free guide to the top 5 strategies you need in your prep to improve your ACT score dramatically.
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Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.