You’re studying ACT English and learning all about important topics like verbs, pronouns, and transitions. Now you just need some practice tests to implement your new skills on!
But before you rush out to take the nearest practice test, make sure it's the right one. Many students use sub-par practice materials—tests that are formatted strangely or full of the wrong types of questions or even just too hard—and it really hurts their progress.
In this post, I'm going to go over everything you need to know about picking out effective practice material and list the very best sources for practice tests.
Feature Image: Alberto G./Flickr
4 Reasons You Should Only Use Accurate Practice Tests
Generally speaking, the best materials to practice with are official ACT tests. The ACT English has its own rhythms and quirks, and you'll only learn them by studying the actual test.
Ideally, you'd be able to supplement the official tests with extra practice materials designed to help you study specific concepts. Unfortunately, most unofficial ACT practice tests and questions, including those from big companies like Princeton Review and Kaplan, don't reflect what's actually on the test.
(Here at Prepscholar, we believe our program is an exception—but don't take my word for it. Read the rest of this guide and then give it a try—for free!—yourself.)
Using inaccurate practice materials not only wastes your time but can also hurt your progress. I've expanded on some of the most important reasons you shouldn't use bad practice materials below.
#1: They Won't Test You on the Concepts You Really Need to Know
The ACT English covers a pretty limited set of concepts, and most non-official practice tests will include questions about other topics. Even when they do focus on the same concepts as the real ACT, unofficial tests often don't do so in the same ways.
For example, a bad test might ask you whether a period or a semicolon is better between two independent clauses—the ACT does test punctuation, but periods and semicolons are similar enough that it would never ask you to choose between them.
If you're using these kinds of materials, you're learning to take the test the wrong way—to look for errors you won't see on the real thing—instead of getting comfortable with the kinds of questions the ACT English section actually includes.
#2: They Won't Allow You to Practice Big Picture Strategies
A lot of the worst practice materials don't use the standard ACT English passage format at all, instead breaking questions up into single sentences or even forgoing multiple choice.
This change may not seem important, since these types of questions still help you learn the grammar concepts the ACT covers. But ACT English isn't a regular grammar test, and succeeding on it is just as much about understanding how to attack the test as it is about knowing the rules.
Make sure to use differently formatted questions sparingly, if at all.
#3: They Won’t Help You Understand the Unique Logic of ACT Questions
I briefly mentioned this idea above, but it is really, really important: ACT English tests concepts in it's own special way. If you spend enough time analyzing official tests, you'll start to spot patterns that can help you answer similar questions in the future.
Even the best unofficial tests aren't substitutes for real ACTs.
#4: They Can Give You a False Sense of Confidence (or Failure)
A lot of unofficial tests are either much easier or much harder than the actual ACT. Working with easier tests, you're likely to end up thinking that you're extremely prepared and then panicking when you take the real thing. With harder ones, it's easy to become discouraged because the tests feel impossible (sometimes they are!).
In neither case do you get a good sense of what the material on the official ACT is like, which is a major aspect of studying for the ACT.
3 Key Qualities to Look for in Practice Material
Now that we've established some of the issues that come up with weaker materials, let's discuss what you should look for in good practice materials.
The best place to start is with real ACTs. ACT, Inc. has released a total of 12 official tests that you can use, which will hopefully be plenty to carry you through all of your studying. (I'll go over where to find these materials below.)
If you do find yourself in need of further study material, however, there are three questions you need to ask yourself as you evaluate potential practice materials.
#1: Does the Test Use the Same Format as the ACT?
The first step to evaluating practice materials is glancing over them and making sure they look the same as a real ACT. Are there fifteen questions per passage? Are the passages roughly 300-350 words long? Are the rhetorical questions worded similarly to those on a real ACT?
You'll likely be amazed by how many practice tests don't fulfill these criteria. Make sure not to use materials that don't even look right, because they'll probably be off in other ways as well.
#2: Do the Materials Test the Same Concepts as Real ACT English Sections?
This question can be very difficult to answer, since it requires you to have a deep understanding of what's actually on the ACT. As such, you should only turn to unofficial tests if you've used most of the official ACTs available.
I recommend working through one or two of the unofficial passages to test them: see if anything jumps out at you as obviously unlike a real ACT English section. Are there questions on topics you've never seen on the official tests? Or are there topics clearly missing?
#3: Are the Questions of Roughly the Same Difficulty as Those on the ACT?
Again, it can be tricky to determine the answer to this question without investing a lot of time into materials that may or may not be helpful.
After completing a few of the passages (as I suggested above), compare how many you missed on the unofficial passages with your per passage average from an official test.
Is the number much higher? Much lower? If so, think about why—if you suspect the unofficial practice materials differ significantly from official ones, don't use them.
How to Use ACT English Practice Tests in Your Prep
Exactly how you use practice tests in your ACT English prep will vary depending on how you're studying for the test (independently, with a tutor, with an online program), but there are three main types of ACT English practice: taking full tests, analyzing questions, and practicing with passages.
I've outlined some general advice on how to get the most out of your ACT English practice below.
Take at Least 3 Full Practice Tests
Part of studying for the ACT is building up the endurance to sit through a three-hour test (even longer if you include the optional writing section)—the only way to do so is with practice.
No matter what your study program looks like, it's vital that you take at least three full practice tests and simulate testing conditions as closely as possible. That means timing yourself, sitting at a desk in a quiet room, staying off your phone, and taking only the one ACT-allowed break.
Make sure to use official ACT tests for this form of practice, since the whole point is to mimic the experience of test day as closely as possible.
Carefully Examine the Questions
One of the main reasons to focus on using official ACTs is that ACT English questions follow specific patterns that are unique to the test. As such, it can be exceptionally helpful to spend some time picking apart real ACT English questions and analyzing how they work.
What concept is the question testing? What kinds of different answer choices are you given? Are there traps meant to trick you into picking the wrong answer? If so, how can you avoid them in the future?
The better you understand how ACT questions are constructed, the easier it will be for you to answer them. For some more tips on analyzing questions, take a look at our post on reviewing your mistakes.
Do Both Timed and Untimed Practice
Many students believe that the key to success on the ACT is answering every single question, so they focus on timed drills in an effort to increase their speed on the test. However, this strategy is a mistake, especially on the English section.
Once you’ve set a baseline with a full practice test, it’s better to start with untimed practice and focus on getting a sense for the structure and style of the ACT English section. Then work up to doing timed passages.
Practicing for the ACT is just as important as practicing for a big game.
The Best ACT English Practice Tests
As I mentioned (multiple times) above, you should use official ACT English tests for your prep whenever possible. I've collected all the sources for official ACT English practice materials—both free and for sale—and outlined the best ways to use them.
Free ACT English Practice
Let's start with some of the free ACT English prep materials online.
Official ACT Website
The ACT website has free ACT English practice that anyone can use. Because of the passages' online format, they aren't ideal for taking as a full test or doing timed practice, but they're great for getting a sense of the test's format and the general style of the questions. There are also helpful explanations for the answers, which you should be sure to read.
Current Official ACT Practice Test
Unless you're focused only on ACT English, I recommend taking this test in one timed sitting and doing your best to simulate test day conditions. As the most up-to-date practice ACT available, this test will give you the best sense of what your test day will be like.
Other Free Official Tests
Since ACT, Inc. has been releasing tests online for a decade, there are four more free ACT practice test PDFs you can use to study. I've included links below.
ACT English Practice Tests for Sale
In addition to the 6 free tests online, there are some official ACTs you can purchase.
The Real ACT Prep Guide
ACT, Inc. puts out a study guide for the test that includes real ACTs, as well as basic information about the test. The major benefit of this book is that has detailed explanations of all the test questions.
ACT, Inc. recently released a new edition of this book, but I recommend getting the previous version (the 3rd edition), if you can find it, as it has five practice tests instead of three.
You can buy the 3rd edition of The Real ACT Prep Guide used from Amazon or get the 4th edition new for around 25 dollars. You can also likely find the books at your local library. However, if you do buy or borrow a used book, make sure it hasn't been written in—having another student's notes will just confuse you.
Official Online ACT Program
You can also purchase an online ACT prep program from the ACT website. It costs 40 dollars and includes one full-length practice test, as well as a collection of practice questions. The high price makes it a considerably worse investment than the book, especially since the tests are designed to be taken online, making it impossible to properly simulate testing conditions.
Nonetheless, if you need the extra practice material and feel comfortable spending the money, this program is a good back up option.
Now that you know where to find the best ACT English practice, make sure you can make the most of it with these helpful study strategies.
Another key part of preparing for ACT English is understanding the big picture ideas—these 5 key concepts will help you avoid some of the common misunderstandings about the test.
Aiming high? Be sure to check out our guide to getting a 36 on ACT English from a perfect scorer.
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Alex is an experienced tutor and writer. Over the past five years, she has worked with almost a hundred students and written about pop culture for a wide range of publications. She graduated with honors from University of Chicago, receiving a BA in English and Anthropology, and then went on to earn an MA at NYU in Cultural Reporting and Criticism. In high school, she was a National Merit Scholar, took 12 AP tests and scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and ACT.