The same way that musicians practice their concerts before going in front of a live audience and athletes have scrimmages before a game, it’s important to practice taking the ACT before you sit down for the real exam.
There are many free ACT practice tests available that you can take in your own home, however; it can be difficult to simulate real test-taking conditions. The closer the conditions of your practice test are to the real ACT, the more useful and accurate your results will be.
Read this guide to learn ways that students and parents can create realistic test conditions in order to achieve the most accurate results from ACT practice tests.
This guide will give you all the information you need to create realistic testing conditions for a practice ACT exam. There are eight recommendations to follow in order to have an ultra realistic practice test:
Take a complete test
Have the required materials
Have a set starting time
Simulate a classroom environment
Have an “official test” mindset
Keep strict timing on each section
Use only official breaks
- Review your exam results
Benefits of Realistic Practice Testing
As with other methods of preparing for the ACT, taking ACT practice tests can help students become more familiar with the types of questions that are asked on the exam and identify subject areas they need to strengthen.
Taking a practice test in a realistic setting is even better because it gives you the most accurate sense of how you're scoring and helps you feel comfortable with and prepared for the test day proceedings. Let's go over the benefits of realistic testing in more depth so you know why this extra hassle is worth the effort.
More Accurate Scores
The closer your practice ACT is to real test-taking conditions, the more accurate your scores will be because your practice tests will take many variables into account, such as if you were able to finish each section before time ran out and how well you were able to concentrate with only limited breaks.
Having more accurate scores gives you a better estimate of what your total ACT score would be, as well as how well you would do on each separate test section. This will let you more accurately determine what your strengths and weaknesses are and make your future studying more effective.
Better Understanding of How the Length of the Test Affects You
ACTs are long: with the optional essay and breaks included, the entire test takes 3 hours and 40 minutes. While taking a few practice questions here and there can help you improve your score, it is important to also take full-length exams to learn how well you manage to hold up after several hours of testing.
You may learn that your accuracy drops after the first two hours, which gives you something to work on that you probably would not have discovered if you’d never taken a full-length practice test under realistic conditions. Taking multiple full-length practice tests with only the officially designated breaks will also increase your test-taking stamina, so you are less likely to run out of energy during the real ACT.
Less Anxiety About the Test
The more familiar you are with something, the less worrisome it becomes. By making your practice ACT exams as close to the real test as possible, you will become more comfortable with the exam and its format, so that when you take the ACT for real, you will have a better idea of what to expect and will likely be more confident and prepared.
Image source: YSU
How to Make Practice Testing as Realistic as Possible
Below are eight steps you can take in order to make your practice ACT as close to the real test experience as possible. You don't have to follow all of the recommendations, but doing so will give you a highly realistic test experience.
1. Take a Complete Test
In order to make your practice test as realistic as possible, you should take a complete practice test. You can get old ACT tests here.
If there is any chance that you’ll be applying to a school that requires the ACT essay, it’s recommended that you include the writing section as well. (Wondering which schools require ACT writing? We have a complete list available!)
Take the sections in the order you will take them for the real ACT: English first, then Math, Reading, Science, and the essay if you are including it. Before you begin the test, print off the entire exam and its instructions so that you are ready to go. For your practice test, you should bubble in the answers on the answer sheet, just like you would for the real ACT.
To help manage your time, know that real ACT tests begin at 8:00am, and generally finish at 12:15pm, or around 1:00pm if the student is taking the optional essay.
2. Have the Required Materials
The ACT has strict rules on what you must bring with you on test day and certain things you are forbidden to bring. Learn these rules ahead of time and follow them during your practice test.
The ACT requires you to bring:
- A photo ID (such as a driver’s license or school ID)
- Your ACT admission ticket with your photo printed on it
Even though you won’t need either of these things for a practice exam, you should have them with you at your practice test (using a blank sheet of paper that represents your admission ticket), so that you get used to remembering to bring them.
You should also have:
- No. 2 pencils: bring several in case one breaks and NO mechanical pencils. Make sure they have good erasers as well.
- A calculator: try and use the same calculator you plan to use for the real ACT, and make sure it meets the ACT’s calculator requirements.
- A watch: this will help you keep track of your time because you can never be sure if there will be a visible clock during the test. Make sure your watch doesn’t beep though, because that is grounds to get you dismissed from the exam.
- Snacks and water: the ACT is a long test and having something to eat and drink during the break can help keep your energy up.
Don’t bring pens, highlighters, or additional scratch paper to use during the practice test, since none of these things is allowed for the real ACT.
3. Have a Set Starting Time
You and the parent who is proctoring you should establish beforehand a starting time for your ACT. In order to simulate a real ACT as much as possible, this practice test should begin when real ACTs do: at 8:00am on a Saturday. This is early, but taking your practice test at that time will help you be better prepared for the real ACT. If you stayed out late the night before and spend your practice test exhausted and half-asleep, that will be a strong incentive to be more prepared and better rested for future practice tests, as well as the real ACT.
Regard this start time as unchangeable. You cannot push it back or change it, even if you accidentally ended up staying out with your friends late the night before, decide you want to go for a run first, or find something really good on television. You won’t be able to delay the start time of the real ACT, so don’t do so for the practice ACT either.
Get up early enough so that by 8:00am, you are sitting at the desk or table where you’ll take the exam, with all your materials ready.
4. Simulate a Classroom Environment
Make the room where you’ll be taking your practice test as close to a classroom as possible. Don’t take your test while sitting on the couch or hanging out at the kitchen table where the rest of your family is eating.
Pick a quiet room where you and your proctor you will be undisturbed. You should take your practice test at a desk or table. Only have necessary materials around you. Your workspace shouldn’t be cluttered with extraneous papers or other material not related to the test, and your phone should be turned off and put away, like it will be for the real exam. This is very important to remember because having your phone on for the real ACT is enough to get you kicked out of the exam and your scores tossed out.
Image source: York Libraries
5. Have an "Official Test" Mindset
Both you and your proctor should have the mindset throughout the entire test that this a realistic practice exam and should be as close to a real ACT as possible. The person acting as your proctor (likely your parent), should act as much like an official proctor as possible. This means things like reading instructions aloud, not making jokes, and not watching TV or listening loudly to music while you’re taking the test.
You should take this test as seriously as you would a real ACT. Don’t ask for extra time, don’t try and check your phone during the test, don’t skip questions just because you got tired and know this isn’t a “real” test. Say it with me: If you wouldn’t do it during the real ACT, don’t do it during this practice exam.
Taking a practice test under realistic conditions can provide you with a very accurate example of how you’d score on the real ACT, which can significantly help your future studying and raise your score for the actual exam, so take the practice test seriously.
6. Keep Strict Timing on Each Test Section
This is an important consideration to keep in mind and one of the most critical things you can do to make your practice test as close to the real ACT as possible.
The ACT includes a lot of questions in each section, and taking the test under real timing conditions will help you get used to the time pressures of the ACT and improve your time management skills.
Your proctor should follow the ACT’s time restrictions exactly:
- English: 45 minutes
- Math: 60 minutes
- Reading: 35 minutes
- Science: 35 minutes
- Optional essay: 30 minutes
Have your proctor keep track of the time with a watch or timer, announcing when you have five minutes left in each section. You can also keep track of the time with your watch, if you’re wearing one.
As soon as your proctor calls time, set your pencil down. Do not ask for or try to take any additional time. Even adding two extra minutes to a section can allow you to answer several more questions, which will give you an inflated and less accurate score. Also, if you finish a section before time is called, do not move onto the next section. Just like for the real test, review your answers for that section until time is called.
7. Use Only Official Breaks
The ACT allows only 2 breaks: a ten-minute break after the Math section and a five-minute break after the Science section for those writing the essay.
During your practice test, only take breaks at these times, and only for the specific amount of time allowed. Like strictly timing your sections, this will get you more used to the challenges of taking a long test and let you see if having few breaks affects your score. Taking multiple practice tests with limited breaks can help you manage long tests better over time and improve your score.
During these breaks, don’t do things you wouldn’t be able to do during the real ACT breaks, like check your phone, go on the computer, or go outside. You can (and should) use these breaks to get up and stretch, sharpen your pencils, use the bathroom, and eat the snacks or drinks you brought with you.
Optional: Take Your Practice Test with Others
This isn’t a requirement, but if you have other friends studying for the ACT, it can be helpful to take your practice tests at the same time. Doing so will make your practice test closer to the real thing because you’ll take the real ACT with other people in the room, and, when you do, you’ll be more used to noises other test takers can make, like rustling papers or tapping their feet.
8. Grade and Review Your Exam
Once you have finished with the entire test, take a bit of a break before reviewing your answers. This can be anywhere from a few hours to a few days.
>Either you or your proctor should grade your multiple choice answers. If you included the writing section, try to have two other people grade it, following the ACT’s essay rubric. Also check out our guide on converting your raw score into a scaled score.
Now you have your score for your practice ACT, but you’re not finished yet. You should review each question you got wrong, working to understand what mistake you made and how you can avoid making it again in the future. If you skip this step, your ACT scores likely won’t improve very much, no matter how many practice tests you take because you’ll keep repeating the same mistakes.
We also have a ton of resources to help you study for the ACT and raise your score. Check some of them out below.
ACT Study Resources
Want to learn ways to boost your ACT score? Check out our guide on the 21 ACT tricks you should be using.
Don't have a lot of time to study for the ACT? Learn the best last-minute study tips you should use.
Wondering when you should start your ACT prep? We have a step-by-step guide that tells you how long you should study for the ACT
What should you do when you get a question wrong on a practice test? Read our guide on the best way to review your ACT mistakes.
Aiming for a 36 on the ACT? Check out our guide on how to get a perfect ACT score.
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Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.