The ACT has a straightforward test format, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy test. You’re going to need to know how it’s structured and what kinds of questions to expect on each section in order to do well. In this article, I’ve listed 20 essential ACT tips, broken down by section, that will help you conquer the most difficult aspects of the test.
ACT English Tips
Tip #1: Know Your Grammar Rules
The safest way to make sure you feel confident on the ACT English section is to memorize the grammar rules that will be on the test. On the ACT, it’s not enough to rely on whether something "sounds correct" to you. Since the test is standardized, you need to be prepared for the specific types of rules it will test and what it considers to be correct grammar. These won’t necessarily be rules you consistently use or are aware of in your everyday speech and writing.
The passage-based format of ACT English can also present unique challenges. You need to make sure you’re reading the WHOLE sentence that you're being asked to edit. Sometimes the phrasing of an earlier part of a sentence will determine the correct answer for a change to the grammar of a later part.
Tip #2: Watch Out for No Change Answers
Many questions on ACT English that ask you about improving the grammar of sentences will also include a “no change” answer option. This option is risky because if you don’t know the grammar rule being broken, it’s easy to pick “no change” by accident. That’s why it’s important to be aware of how often you’re choosing “no change”.
If it seems like you're choosing it more often than once every 4 or so questions, there might be something you’re missing. On any question where you’re tempted to pick “no change”, look at the sentence extra carefully and make sure there isn't another possibility. Read the sentence through again using all of the other options presented. If all of them still seem wrong, then “no change” is probably correct.
ACT Writing Tips
Tip #3: Plan Essay Examples Beforehand
A great way to reduce stress on the ACT essay is to plan out the examples that you’ll use before the test. The essay prompts on the ACT are all relatively similar, so it’s not too difficult to come up with universal examples that could work for any of them. If you already have examples prepared, the hard work will be done for you. The only thing you’ll have to do during the test is relate them to the specific details of the prompt and to your opinions.
You should also know that you don’t have to be factually accurate in your essay; if you have to twist the facts in your examples a bit to fit the needs of the prompt, that’s ok! The graders won't take points off because the essay is about your ability to structure your thoughts and answer the prompt logically, not about your level of outside knowledge.
You can even say we actually landed on the moon! WAKE UP SHEEPLE
Tip #4: Cater to the Essay Graders
Just like all other parts of the ACT, the essay has to be as standardized as possible. This means there are a couple of things you can do to raise your score reliably:
Make it at least two pages
The grade of an essay isn’t technically supposed to be related to its length, but there is a positive correlation between essay length and essay score on the ACT. This does make some degree of sense: longer essays are going to provide more examples and support for the points they’re making. A good rule of thumb is to try and make your essay at least two pages long.
Be sure to write an introduction and conclusion
The quality of the introduction and conclusion of your essay will disproportionately affect your score, so you should ALWAYS include both of them. The essay graders are looking for a clear thesis that answers the question posed by the prompt and lists relevant examples. If you make it easy for the graders to figure out the point you’re trying to make, your score will come out better.
Use varied word choice and writing style
High scoring essays are the ones that flow well and are not repetitive. Try not to use the same phrases over and over or structure every topic sentence and transition the same way. Switch around your wording as much as possible while preserving the integrity of your original points.
ACT Math Tips
Tip #5: Know the Formulas
It’s very important to know math formulas for the ACT because you aren’t provided with any of them on the test (except sometimes for individual questions that require the use of a weird formula). You’re going to waste a lot of unnecessary time on easy questions if you don’t memorize formulas, so you should get this out of the way first if you’re just starting to study for the ACT. Read our article on the formulas you need to know so you’ll be prepared!
Tip #6: Fill in Content Gaps
Sometimes knowing formulas isn’t enough if you haven’t encountered a certain type of question or content area in your classes before. When you do practice tests, make note of the questions you miss and see if there are any patterns in terms of question type. This could indicate weakness in a specific content area.
Before you go any further with your math studying, you should focus on filling in the content gaps you find; this will improve your scores dramatically. Find study resources that deal directly with the problems you’re having, whether it’s geometry, algebra, trigonometry, or something else.
Tip #7: Solve It on Your Own
In order to fully understand your mistakes on ACT Math, it’s a good idea to force yourself to solve for the correct answer before reading answer explanations. When you get a question wrong, make note of the answer you should have gotten and see if you can arrive there without reading the explanation. You will have a much more solid grasp of the solution process if you go through it yourself rather than just reading about it. This exercise will give you a better chance of answering correctly if you come across a similar question in the future.
Do we, though?
ACT Reading Tips
Tip #8: Read to Your Strengths
The ACT is a very predictable test, and this is especially true on the reading section. There will always be four topic areas on ACT Reading in the following order:
1. Prose Fiction/Literary Narrative
2. Social Science
4. Natural Science
Since you know what’s coming, you can make an informed decision about the order in which you’ll read the passages. If, for example, you’re more of a science person, you might decide to read the Natural Science passage or pair of passages first because it’s going to be the most interesting to you and the easiest to get through.
This will give you an advantage because you’ll have enough time to answer questions that are easy for you and will earn you the most points. If you were to go through the reading section in order, you might end up rushing on the Natural Sciences passage(s) and not reaching your full score potential!
Tip #9: Find a Good Passage Reading Method
It’s extremely important to make sure you’re reading ACT passages in the most efficient way for your learning style. You don’t get much time per question on the reading section, so you have to use every minute wisely. Here are three potential reading strategies you might use:
1. Skim the passage first
In my view, this is the best way to read ACT passages. By skimming first, you get a good sense of the main ideas of the passage and also might catch a lot of the details that the questions ask about. The best way to skim is to read the introduction and conclusion paragraphs, then the first and last sentences of every body paragraph. After skimming, you should try and answer any big picture questions about the passage first while the main ideas are fresh in your mind.
2. Do the questions first
This is another viable option, even though it might seem risky. If you skip straight to the questions, you can start with detail questions and work your way up to big picture questions. In the process of finding the details, you will accumulate knowledge about the main ideas of the passage and eventually be able to answer the questions that are wider in scope. If you don't get all the information you need for big picture questions this way, you can always go back and skim, paying close attention to the introduction and conclusion paragraphs.
3. Read thoroughly
This is the method that most people use instinctively because it’s what they’ve been told to do in school. Reading thoroughly can be fine if you’re a fast reader and have strong reading comprehension skills even under pressure. BUT if you experiment with the other methods and find that you can save yourself some time and not sacrifice any points, you’re probably better off using one of them instead.
Whichever strategy you use, make sure you read the introductory blurb that’s included with each passage before you do anything else! This will give you helpful context for what to expect in the passage in terms of setting, content, and writing style.
Tip #10: Predict the Answer
Before you look at the answer choices for a reading question, you should try and think for yourself about what the answer might be. Doing this exercise can help to eliminate some of the confusion that might occur if you just looked at the answer choices right away. If you already have an answer in mind, you will be less compelled to pick answers that are plausible but not objectively correct.
Sometimes it’s also helpful to rephrase the question in your own words if you find it to be confusing. This will likewise allow you to maintain your focus and avoid choosing answers that are not quite the right fit for the question based on the passage.
(ACT questions only)
Tip #11: Rely on Direct Evidence
Remember that every question in the reading section has an answer that is supported by direct evidence in the passage! You shouldn’t have to make unsupported assumptions in order to answer any of the questions. There will always be SOMETHING that you can cite to give credence to your choice.
If you can’t find evidence for an answer, you have to eliminate it even if it sounds plausible. There’s a big difference between plausible and correct on the ACT. Even with inference questions, which ask you to look beyond literal facts in the passages, you should still be able to find evidence for your answers. This is when you might have to look for context clues or connotation in words around the section of the passage you’re referencing in order to point you in the right direction.
Tip #12: Get Intellectually Curious
It might seem silly, but try and be interested in the material you’re reading. This will not only help you to absorb information better, but will also allow you to get something productive out of the test besides your score. You’ll have a much better time if you treat ACT reading as a pleasant learning experience and not a chore!
ACT Science Tips
Tip #13: Do the Conflicting Viewpoints Section Last
The conflicting viewpoints passage on ACT Science is usually the most time-consuming part of the section and often the most difficult. It’s different from the rest of ACT Science because it doesn’t present any actual data. It just gives you a couple of passages that express different scientific opinions and asks you to answer questions about them.
This requires a strong combination of reading comprehension and scientific reasoning skills. It’s a good idea to save conflicting viewpoints for last because you will eliminate the risk of getting stick on it and not having time to answer easier questions later on in the science section.
Tip #14: Focus on the Visuals
It’s best to ignore the introductions laden with technical terms that are provided to you on the science section and skip right to the graphs. When it comes down to it, almost all the questions you’ll see on ACT science can be answered just by looking at the data presented in the visuals. All of the other information is just there to distract and confuse you - don’t let it!
Tip #15: Don’t Be Intimidated
The main obstacle to succeeding on ACT science is just the fact that it LOOKS scary. Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s really not that hard - you don’t even have to know much science beyond what you learned back in elementary school.
You may run into terms that you don’t know, but you most likely won’t have to understand them in order to answer questions correctly. They’re only in there to make this section seem more difficult than it actually is. This fools a lot of people, but if you stay calm and remember that you’ll never have to know any high-level science to do well, you should be fine. Focus solely on what the questions are asking and read the graphs logically, and you’ll do well!
But you should probably watch out for that train behind you...
Overall ACT Test Taking Tips
Tip #16: Use Process of Elimination
As I’ve written in another article, the fundamental rule of ACT Reading is that there is only one absolutely correct answer for each question, and you need to learn to eliminate the other three choices. This elimination rule applies to the other sections of the ACT as well. It’s far easier to work on eliminating incorrect answers than to try and pick out the correct answer right away.
For each choice, ask yourself - where is the evidence? Does this answer the question? If anything in the choice doesn’t match up with what you read in the passage or the data you’re referencing, eliminate it. If an answer is only halfway right, it’s wrong!
Tip #17: Skip Difficult Questions
For students who struggle with running out of time on the ACT, lingering too much on hard questions is a major pitfall. If you find yourself floundering on a question, it’s a good idea to skip it on your first pass through the section. Just circle it so that it will be easier to spot when you go back through the questions.
If you’re spending more than:
30 seconds on an English question
60 seconds on a Math question
45 seconds on a Reading or Science question
Take timed practice tests to experiment with how it feels to spend this much time on a question so that during the real ACT you’ll have a good sense of when you need to move on.
Tip #18: Double Check Your Answers
At the end of each section, if you have a few minutes left, you should go back through and check your answers to be sure you didn’t make any careless mistakes. As you’re answering questions, you can put a little star next to the ones you’re unsure about so you will know to focus on them if you have time at the end.
Things to look for when double checking:
1. “LEAST” or “EXCEPT” questions - these are breeding grounds for careless mistakes.
2. Questions where you went back and forth between two answers - if you were unsure about a question, it's a good idea to go back and check it again.
3. Whichever types of questions you know you tend to have trouble with - for example, you might be extra careful with double checking the conflicting viewpoints passage questions for science.
Tip #19: Do Your Bubbling Last
You can actually save yourself a few minutes of time if you don’t bubble in your answers until the end of the section. As you go along, circle your choices in the test booklet so it will be easy for you to go through and fill in all the correct bubbles on your answer sheet later. This tip helps you to avoid the annoying process of switching between the test booklet and the answer sheet that will cost you a few seconds on every question.
Before you decide to use this tip, make sure you’re capable of finishing the section with at least 3-5 minutes to spare. You don’t want to get stuck in a situation where you answered all the questions but didn’t have time to fill in all the bubbles.
Another important thing to remember on the ACT is that you should always bubble in an answer for every question. There is no guessing penalty, so it’s to your advantage to fill in a bubble for every question even if you don’t have a clue what the answer is. You could get lucky, and if you don’t it won’t impact your score!
Sooooo tippy (this has nothing to do with any specific tip I just wanted to include it somewhere)
Tip #20: Get All Your Stuff Together the Night Before
The day of the test, your palms will be sweaty, knees weak, arms heavy. The last thing you want to do is forget your ACT test ticket or pencils.
So the day before the test, make sure you have all your stuff in one place, ideally in a backpack. The most important things:
- ACT admission ticket
- Acceptable photo ID
- #2 pencils and erasers
- ACT-Approved Calculator
There are other optional things like snacks and water bottle we highly recommend. Don't even question it - just pack it in the day before so on the morning of the test, you'll be ready.
Tip #21: Remain Calm
When all is said and done, the best tip that anyone can give you is to stop psyching yourself out. Since your score for any given section on the ACT is riding on the single block of time that you have to answer the questions, freaking out about one hard question could really hurt you.
If you run into a question you don’t know, just skip it! It might seem easier when you come back to it later with less time pressure.
Keep in mind that it’s not the end of the world if you don’t get your highest scores on this test. You’ll have opportunities to take it again, and you can always improve!
We've gone through 20 of the most important tips you should be using to do well on the ACT. Here's a complete list:
1. Know your grammar rules
2. Watch out for "no change" answers
3. Plan essay examples beforehand
4. Cater to the essay graders
5. Know the formulas
6. Fill in content gaps
7. Solve questions on your own first
8. Read your strongest topic area first
9. Find the right passage reading strategy
10. Predict the answer before looking at the choices
11. Rely only on direct evidence
12. Get intellectually curious
13. Do the conflicting viewpoints section last
14. Rely on the visuals
15. Don't be intimidated
Overall Test Taking Tips
16. Use process of elimination
17. Skip tough questions
18. Double check your answers
19. Bubble at the end, and fill in all the bubbles
20. Pack all your stuff the day before the test.
21. Stay calm
If you follow this advice in your studying and during the test, you'll end up dramatically improving your scores! Remember to use more in-depth strategies to study for each section and improve your content knowledge before implementing tips. Check out our articles on how to get perfect scores on every section of the ACT for more strategies.
Need more resources to supplement your studying? Read this article on the ten best books for ACT prep.
Are you trying to figure out when you should take the ACT? Here's our guide to figuring out your ideal test dates!
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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.