So you need to take the ACT, but you don't anything about it. What now? How do you go about preparing for the test?
If you're not sure how to prepare for the ACT, we can help! In this guide, we outline a ten-step process to preparing for the ACT. Then, we'll discuss the pros and cons of some of the major methods that students use to prepare. We'll close out with a brief roundup of helpful ACT prep resources that you might find helpful.
How to Prepare for the ACT: 10 Key Steps
This section lays out the ten main things you'll need to accomplish to be prepared for the test—from registration all the way to test day! This description is primarily targeted for those who are self-studying, but a good tutor or program will guide your prep in this same overall sequence.
#1: Register for the ACT
If you haven't registered for the test yet, you can take care of test registration at the ACT website. Registering for the test will include creating an account on the ACT website if you haven't done so already.
When you select a location, try to pick a location that's not too far away, since you'll have to drive there the morning of the test!
When you pick a date, make sure you give yourself enough time to prepare. I would advise picking a date at least three months in advance if you're totally unfamiliar with the test to give yourself adequate breathing room for studying. That said, don't panic if you have to work on a compressed timeline because of application deadlines! In that case, you'll need to spend more time preparing every week for a shorter number of weeks.
If you need more help with registration, check out our guide to registering for the ACT.
Make sure you have enough of this!
#2: Become Familiar With ACT Structure and Format
The next step after registration is to get familiar with the overarching structure and format of the ACT. The ACT is out of 36 points. It consists of four multiple-choice sections—English, Math, Reading, and Science, each scored out of 36 points. The rounded average of these four section scores becomes your composite score. There's also an optional Writing essay test, scored out of 12 points. Writing is not factored into your composite score.
Here's a chart with the order, number of questions, time, and question format for each test.
Number of Questions
Multiple choice, 4 choices
Multiple choice, 5 choices
Multiple choice, 4 choices
Multiple choice, 4 choices
2 hours 55 mins (without writing); 3 hours 35 minutes (with writing)
#3: Get Oriented With the ACT's Content and Question Styles
The different sections of the ACT each test different knowledge and skill areas. Hence, how to prepare for ACT English will be different from how to prepare for ACT Math, and so on.
Additionally, the ACT has its own particular question styles and formats that you'll want to become familiar with before test day. Otherwise, you could be thrown by some questions even if you know the content!
See our guides for more information on what's tested on each of the ACT's sections, and how that content is tested.
- What's Actually Tested on the ACT English Section?
- What's Actually Tested on the ACT Math Section?
- What's Actually Tested on the ACT Reading Section?
- What's Actually Tested on the ACT Science Section?
- The Complete Guide to Enhanced ACT Writing
Expect to see some of this!
#4: Identify Your Weaknesses
After you have an overall idea of what and how the ACT tests, you'll want to establish a baseline of your own skills. The most important component of this is identifying your weaknesses, so you can target them in your prep.
The most reliable way to establish a baseline is to take a complete, timed ACT practice test. Fortunately, ACT. Inc, has released six free and official practice tests—one online and five in PDF form. Take advantage of this!
When you take your initial practice test, be sure to find a quiet testing environment. Additionally, bring number 2 pencils and an approved calculator! You want to create conditions as close to the real test as possible. Note that the ACT doesn't allow additional scratch paper because they expect you to write in the test booklet.
If you're signed up to take the Writing section, you should also take a practice writing section when you establish your baseline. If you aren't sure whether you need to take the ACT with Writing or not, see our complete guide to deciding on ACT Writing.
Once you've taken the practice test, use the scoring guidelines provided in the back of the test booklet by ACT, Inc. to figure out your score. This will tell you what sections you're weakest in, what you're strongest in, and where your overall starting place is. Your highest-scoring sections are clearly your best, and your lowest-scoring sections are the worst.
However, it's best to get more detailed than that. Examine your incorrect answers to identify patterns. Did you flub all the questions on the scientific method on the Science test, or completely miss all the "big picture" questions on the Reading test? You'll know that you need to work on those things.
The ACT also gives you subscores in particular areas on 3 of the 4 tests, which you can calculate with their guidelines in the back of the test booklet.
- The English subscores are in Usage/Mechanics and Rhetorical Skills.
- The Math subscores are in Pre-Algebra/Elementary, Intermediate Algebra/Coordinate Geometry, and Plane Geometry/Trigonometry-based problems.
- The Reading subscores are in Social Studies/Natural Sciences and Arts/Literature.
- Science has no subscores.
These subscores will help you figure out what content domains you are strongest and weakest in within a section. So if you got a high score on English Usage/Mechanics subscore but a low score on Rhetorical Skills, you'll know to focus more on Rhetorical Skills to improve your score.
#5: Set a Target Score
After you've gotten a sense of your initial skill baseline, set a target score for how much you want to improve. Your target score should be something you can realistically accomplish in the time frame you have. 1-2-point improvement from your baseline in a month is totally reasonable. A 6-point improvement in that time frame? Not so much. Keep in mind that you'll have to put in more time for more point improvement.
See our rough estimates for how long it takes to get certain point improvements:
- 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+
In addition to something you can realistically accomplish, you goal score should also reflect the schools you are interested in. If possible, you want your ACT score to be within the middle 50% range of the schools you want to attend. The middle 50% describes the score range of the 25th-75th percentiles of admits to a particular institution. For example, if a school's middle 50% is 30-34, that means 25% of admits scored below 30, 50% scored between 30 and 34, and the top 25% scored above 34. See our guide to what makes a good ACT score here for more guidance on setting target scores that take your chosen schools into account.
Get ready to hit your target.
#6: Create a Study Schedule
The next step is to create a consistent study schedule. It's best to spend a consistent number of hours every week preparing until you take the test to avoid needing to cram close to the test date. So to determine how many hours you should prep each week, divide the total number of prep hours you think you need by the number of weeks until the test. Thus, if you need to study 80 hours and there are 12 weeks until the test, you should try to study around 6 hours and 40 minutes every week.
Its also best if you determine consistent days and times that you are going to study every week. So maybe you'll study an hour every day except Sunday, when you'll study for 40 minutes. Or maybe you'll study 3 hours and 20 minutes on Friday and Sunday afternoons. This helps you keep consistent. You should also make sure somebody else knows your study schedule and is willing to hold you accountable!
#7: Learn Essential Test Content
Once you have a goal and schedule, it's time to learn content! "Content" refers to the knowledge you need to answer ACT questions. So that will include learning grammar and mechanics for English, brushing up on functions for Math, reviewing how to write a hypothesis for Science, and so on and so forth.
You'll need to learn any material tested that you don't know yet. But you should also review what you already know. It's fine to devote the bulk of your time to prepping for Math if that's your weakest area. But you should still spend a little time preparing for the ACT English section even if it's your best subject to prevent backsliding.
Only you can best determine how to learn and review content most effectively for your own learning style. However, we have some methods and resources you may want to consider in sections below.
You might want to take neater notes than this.
#8: Practice Test Strategies
Knowledge isn't enough to succeed on the ACT—you also need to learn the most effective strategies to approach the test. "Strategy" refers to things like learning how to eliminate wrong answers, guess when you need to, manage your time, and additional section-specific tips. With expert guidance on the best strategies, you'll be able to come up with your own personal best approach to all parts of the test.
Here are some of our ACT strategy guides:
Overall ACT Strategy
- How to Ace the ACT: 6 Top Tips for Success
- The 21 ACT Tips You Should Be Using Today
- SAT/ACT Exam Time Management
- The Secret to Getting a Perfect SAT/ACT Score
- Top 9 ACT English Strategies You Must Use
- The 8 Most Common Mistakes You Make on ACT English
- The Best Way to Approach ACT English Passages
- How to Get 36 on ACT English: 9 Strategies from a Perfect Scorer
- The Secret to ACT Math: Mastering the Time Crunch
- How to Guess Strategically on ACT Math
- Plugging in Numbers: a Critical SAT/ACT Math Strategy
- Plugging in Answers: a Critical SAT/ACT Math Strategy
- How to Answer ACT Reading Questions: 5-Step Guide
- Top 10 ACT Reading Tips
- The #1, Critical, Fundamental Strategy of ACT Reading
- How to Stop Running Out of Time on ACT Reading
- The 11 ACT Science Strategies You Must Be Using
- The Hardest ACT Science Questions and Strategies to Solve Them
- Time Management and Section Strategy on ACT Science
- The Best Strategies for Reading ACT Science Questions
- ACT Writing Rubric: Full Analysis and Essay Strategies
- ACT Writing Tips: 15 Strategies to Raise Your Essay Score
- Why You Shouldn't Copy Skeleton Templates for the SAT/ACT Essay
Strategy: first you'll turn on the lightbulb, then turn the gears, then put together the puzzle...
#9: Use Practice Questions and Tests
If I could only write one step in "how to prepare for the ACT," it would be "practice!" Of course, you want to practice smart.
There are two key parts to practicing for the ACT: practice questions and practice tests. You can use practice questions to target the skills you need to hone for the test. You should practice the specific question types, topics, and/or entire sections that you need more work on. Be sure to really work through questions you get wrong to understand your errors so you can correct them in the future.
The second part of ACT practice is completing at least a couple of complete test practice runs. When you do a complete test practice run, use an official practice test and test yourself under the same conditions that you'll be in on test day. You may even want to try starting at the same time your test will really start for at least one of your practice runs to really get the full experience. Be sure to include breaks and a snack!
#10: Be Ready for ACT Day!
To give yourself the best chance to succeed on test day, be sure to engage in all your best test-taking practices! So get lots of sleep the night before, have a balanced, protein-packed breakfast, and pack your bag with pencils and an approved calculator!
Catch all your zzz's the night before the test.
4 Methods of Preparing for the ACT and How to Pick the Right One for You
We provide pros and cons to the most commonly used methods to preparing for the ACT here.
Many students prep for the ACT primarily on their own, using prep books, online resources, mobile apps, and so on.
- You can easily tailor your studying program to your own needs, because you have control over what and when you study. Of course, you need to have a good idea of exactly what you need to work on for this to be a real advantage.
- This is the cheapest option out there. It can even be free if you use free resources and get prep materials from the library.
- It can be hard to stay motivated. It's helpful to have someone else holding you accountable, so tell a parent or trusted friend when you plan to study so they can check in with you.
- It can be a lot of work to design and implement your own study plan! You need to figure out your own weaknesses, track down resources, look up answer explanations, and so on. You have to be willing to put some extra investment into planning and implementation with this prep method.
- It may be hard for you to self-diagnose your own weaknesses, especially if you have a lot of improvement to make. Even if you know that you're, say, very weak on math, you may not know exactly where to begin or how to attack the situation. Sometimes guidance is necessary!
Online Test-Prep Program
The online program is a relatively new innovation in test prep. But is it legit? Can it really help you succeed?
- The truth is that a high-quality online prep program can be a great asset to your test prep. How will you know if it's high-quality?
- It will accurately diagnose your strengths and weaknesses and assign lessons and practice problems based on those strengths and weaknesses.
- It will help you create a study plan and track your progress.
- It will have high-quality, clear content review and practice questions.
- A good prep program will even teach you the best ACT strategies!
- Here at PrepScholar, we have a comprehensive online ACT prep program that is customized to your needs.
- In general, online programs are much more affordable than hiring a private tutor or taking a prep course.
- Not all online prep programs are created equally! The wrong online prep program is a massive waste of time and money.
- A big mistake students make is assuming that an online program is good just because it comes from a big-name test-prep company. Make sure you know what you're really getting for your money before you commit to a program.
A good online prep program won't make you do this.
ACT Prep Course
Twenty students in a high-school classroom after hours, listening to an ACT prep teacher drone on about trigonometry. Is this a good prep method or bad one?
- If you have trouble motivating yourself to study, the schedule of the class forces you to stay on track with the pace the class sets.
- There's very little personalization to your needs and pace. For the most part, you'll need to proceed with the class, whether you know the material being covered like the back of your hand or you're completely lost. So a class can both waste your time and not give you enough help all at the same time!
- The quality of the teacher also makes a huge difference in the quality of a prep course, and you don't usually have any control over whether your teacher is good or not when you sign up for the class. A teacher who is invested in everyone's experience and tries to adjust curriculum to meet class needs can help you improve your score. A bad teacher may just stand in front of the class reading out essay prompts for two hours.
- Test prep courses are expensive! It can be more expensive than hiring a private tutor for a limited number of hours, which may frankly be more worth your money.
Hire a Private Tutor
Having your very own tutor for the ACT sounds like test-prep dream, right? Well, here are the pros and cons.
- A good tutor is truly invaluable. They'll help you make a study plan, identify your weaknesses, explain concepts you're shaky on, and help you come up with an ACT strategy that works best for you. From a high-quality tutoring professional, tutoring both provides you with an expert to guide you and takes the guesswork out of creating a study plan.
- Additionally, a tutor can help keep you motivated and support you throughout the prep process.
- A sub-par tutor is a serious waste of time and money. If they aren't a high-scorer (think 95th percentile at the very least) who's also a great teacher, it's just the blind leading the blind. You want a true professional who knows the test inside and out, and is a great teacher. Try to get recommendations from friends or references from past clients if possible.
- Private tutoring is expensive! This option just isn't available to everyone.
You wouldn't know by looking at him, but Mr. Whiskers comes highly recommended.
Key Resources for Preparing for the ACT
There are a variety of high-quality resources out there that you might want to use for your ACT prep. Here's a roundup of some of the best ones.
ACT Practice Tests and Questions
Practice tests and questions are the single most important resource for preparing for the ACT. You want as much practice that's really like the ACT as you can possibly get!
The absolute best source of practice tests is the six free ACT tests from ACT, Inc. They make the test, so their practice tests are the most like the real deal!
You can also check out additional official and unofficial resources at our guide to all the practice question sources out there for the ACT. Remember that official content is always best!
ACT Prep Books
A good prep book can help you out with lots of aspects of test prep—strategy, content review, even some practice! See our list of the best ACT prep books to help you decide on which ones might work for you.
Applications and Tools for Prep
There are also a variety of online tools and mobile applications for learning and practicing ACT material. Check out our guide to the best ACT prep games to check out some good ones!
Online Guides to Content and Strategy
You can also find a lot of information on ACT strategy and content for free online. Check out other articles on our SAT/ACT prep blog for comprehensive guides and advice on every ACT-related topic you can imagine!
If I had a fancy desk like this, I would study all the time.
Key Takeaways: How to Prepare for the ACT
Here's how to prepare for the ACT in ten overarching steps:
- Register for the ACT, if you haven't yet.
- Become familiar with ACT structure and format
- Get Oriented ACT content and question styles
- Identify your weaknesses
- Set a target score
- Create a study plan
- Learn essential test content
- Practice test strategies
- Practice questions and tests
- Do you best on test day!
There are a variety of methods you could use for preparing for the ACT, including self-prep, an online program, a prep class, or a private tutor. Each method has some pros and cons (although some, like prep classes, have a lot more cons).
Regardless of your study method, there are tons of resources out there for students to use, like practice tests, prep books, apps and tools, and online guides like ours!
Wondering if the ACT is hard? Check out 9 key factors for assessing the ACT's difficulty.
Do you even need to take the ACT? See 9 reasons why it could be important for you to take the test.
Applying to college? See the average ACT scores for colleges, and check out how to figure out the minimum ACT score for college admission. Also see a list of great colleges with automatic admission for certain ACT/SAT scores.
Want to improve your ACT score by 4 points?
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Ellen has extensive education mentorship experience and is deeply committed to helping students succeed in all areas of life. She received a BA from Harvard in Folklore and Mythology and is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.