Are you just starting your ACT prep and wondering how to tackle the daunting task of readying yourself for the ACT? Have you been studying for the ACT but not getting your desired results? Do you just want to confirm that you're on the right track?
In this article, I'll help you find the best way to study for the ACT by explaining all of your study options and letting you know how to figure out which ones to use. I'll also give you essential ACT study tips that are guaranteed to help you reach your target score.
What's the Best Way to Study for the ACT?
The truth is, there’s no single best way to study for the ACT. Rather, there are several options you can use, such as self-study, a tutor, a prep class, an online program, or any combination of these. The option you should choose ultimately depends on your resources and what you need.
Regardless of which study method you go with, your ACT studying should include strategies that are essential for optimal ACT preparation. I’ll explain the different strategies you can use, and then discuss how to find the right way to study for you.
4 Key ACT Study Strategies
Although there's no one-size-fits-all, perfect ACT study plan, there are four strategies that are vital for everyone preparing for the test. So what are these strategies? Let's take a look.
#1: Determine Your ACT Target Score
Before you begin your studying, you should determine the score you’re aiming for on the ACT. Having a target score will give you motivation and inform your studying.
To figure out your ACT target score, look up the 75th percentile ACT scores for the schools you’re applying to. (You don’t need to include your safety schools—just the ones you’re most interested in attending.) You can find this info by searching for "[School Name] PrepScholar ACT" on Google. Use the link to the PrepScholar page for your school to see what its 75th percentile ACT score is. Then, repeat this process for each school you plan to apply to.
Below is an example of the PrepScholar page for the University of Nevada, Reno. Here, you can see the school's average ACT score as well as its 25th and 75th percentile ACT scores:
Your ACT target score will be the highest 75th percentile score you find for your schools. Why is this an ideal score to aim for? If you get an ACT score that's equal to or above the 75th percentile score for a given college, you’ll have a great chance of getting accepted since you'll have received a higher ACT score than what 75% of admitted applicants got.
Know what score you're aiming for.
#2: Figure Out How Long You’re Going to Need to Study
You can get a rough idea of how long you’ll need to study for the ACT by calculating the difference between your target score and your baseline score.
To determine your baseline score, use the score from your last ACT. If you haven’t taken the ACT yet, take an official practice test. Be sure to simulate real testing conditions as you take it (i.e., find a quiet room and abide by official time limits).
Here’s an estimated breakdown of point improvement per number of ACT study hours:
- 0-1 point improvement: 10 hours
- 1-2 point improvement: 20 hours
- 2-4 point improvement: 40 hours
- 4-6 point improvement: 80 hours
- 6-9 point improvement: 150 hours+
Say your ACT goal score is 30 and your baseline score is 25. This means you'll need to improve by 5 points in order to hit your target score. According to our estimates, 5 points equals about 40 hours of prep.
Once you know how long you need to study, you can make a plan to help you put in enough study hours and reach your ACT target score. For example, if you need to study about 80 hours to reach your goal and you're planning on taking the ACT in eight weeks, you'll need to schedule at least 10 hours of study time per week.
#3: Analyze Your Mistakes and Focus On Your Weaknesses
It’s not enough to just put in study time; you need to study effectively. You’ll make the best use of your ACT study time by figuring out why you’re missing questions and focusing on improving your weaknesses.
There are three major areas you might need to improve: content, time, and strategy.
The ACT tests you on a number of skills related to reading, writing, and math. By determining the specific types of questions you’re getting wrong, you can identify the topics you need to learn better.
For example, on the Writing section, maybe you’re struggling with pronoun agreement questions. On the Math section, perhaps you keep missing coordinate geometry questions.
As soon as you know which topics are most challenging you, you can then use your study time to understand them better and do more practice questions to improve your weaknesses.
The ACT is a strictly timed test, so even if you’re comfortable with the content, you might struggle to finish each section in time.
If you're somebody who often rushes (i.e., you finish a section more than five minutes early and make careless mistakes) or you're somebody who struggles to complete a section in the allotted time, you’ll need to work on your time management.
If you're running out of time, try to pay more attention to your time spent per question in your practice. Here's an overview of (roughly) how much time you have per question on the ACT:
|Section||Total Time||# of Questions||Time per Question|
|English||45 minutes||75||36 seconds|
|Math||60 minutes||60||60 seconds|
|Reading||35 minutes||40||52.5 seconds|
|Science||35 minutes||40||52.5 seconds|
You might also need to improve your content knowledge or use different test-taking strategies depending on why you're having trouble finishing in time.
The ACT is known for having questions that can be confusing or misleading. If you struggle to understand what a question is asking or often succumb to common ACT tricks, you’ll benefit by improving your knowledge of ACT strategy.
For example, if you comprehend the content on the ACT Science section but are spending way too much time trying to figure out the conflicting viewpoints questions, you should spend more time learning how to decode these questions more efficiently.
Or say you're missing ACT Reading questions because you're not reading the passages effectively. That's another sign that you need to improve your ACT strategy.
More generally, if you can grasp the content being tested but are having issues understanding or approaching the questions, this is a clear sign that you should change your test-taking strategy.
#4: Use Real or Realistic ACT Practice Questions
Undoubtedly, the best questions to use are those that most closely resemble the questions on the ACT. A huge flaw of many ACT prep books is that their practice questions aren’t similar to you’d see on the actual ACT; they’re either too difficult or presented in a way that differs from the usual ACT question format.
It won't help your ACT score much to focus on questions that aren’t like those you’ll encounter on the ACT. Therefore, be sure to use official ACT practice tests in your studying. Also, the official ACT website offers additional practice questions you can access for free.
Furthermore, you can get more official questions by buying The Official ACT Prep Guide and/or ACT, Inc.'s online ACT prep program (which is mainly worth it for the extra full-length practice test).
How Should You Study for the ACT? 4 Options
Now that you know the strategies you should use to study for the ACT, let's go through the various options for ACT studying to help you determine which one will be the best for you.
Option 1: Self-Study
It’s possible to reach your ACT target score by studying on your own. While some test takers prefer to study independently, others might have to if they don’t have the resources to pursue other prep options. Ultimately, effective self-study for the ACT requires you to be extremely disciplined, organized, and motivated.
You should set a definitive study plan and stick to it as closely as possible. Other than real practice tests and any prep books you use, I highly recommend using the articles on this blog to help guide your studying. We've written content and strategy articles for English, Math, Reading, Science, and Writing.
Option 2: Private Tutor
A private tutor may be a good option for you if you’re looking for customized instruction or you need more help learning the material that’s tested on the ACT. Meeting with a tutor can also help you stay on track if you need a little extra push for motivation. Keep in mind that tutors can be expensive and often vary greatly in terms of their knowledge and effectiveness.
Before hiring a tutor, learn what ACT tutors do and how much they cost. Equip yourself with the knowledge to decide if you should work with a tutor or on your own.
Monrovia Public Library/Flickr
Option 3: In-Person ACT Prep Class
In-person prep classes have a set curriculum, and, like tutoring, they’re a good option to help you stick to your ACT study plan. A prep class can be a great idea for you if you want to learn test strategies and increase your overall familiarity with the ACT.
The best classes will provide you with a solid foundation to help you study more effectively on your own. In addition, some students learn better in a traditional classroom setting and enjoy being able to socially interact with their peers.
Prep classes do have some significant drawbacks, though. In my opinion, the biggest disadvantage of a prep class is that it's not customized to your individual needs. There will be students of varying skill levels, and much of the content of the class might feel like review. Some of the content might be too challenging as well if you've never been exposed to the material before.
Depending on the length of the course, you might not have enough time to thoroughly cover all the material on the ACT.
Finally, ACT classes can be expensive—many prep classes cost more than $1,000.
Option 4: Online ACT Prep Course
Online ACT prep courses can be a great option for students who want some structure and the freedom to work independently. The biggest advantages of a good online prep course are that you’ll get an effective study plan along with thorough content instruction. The course will also be customized to your particular skill level.
I might be biased, but our PrepScholar ACT program is an exceptional online ACT prep course. It focuses on improving your weaknesses, and all the practice test questions were written by ACT experts who scored in the 99th percentile on the ACT.
Like all the other options, however, online prep courses do have their disadvantages. You need to have the self-motivation to push yourself to put in the necessary hours. In other words, you won’t have the encouragement of a teacher or tutor to help you stay focused. A quality tutor can keep you engaged with material you might not find overly exciting, while a prep course might not be able to do the same.
How to Decide the Best ACT Study Method for You
Finally, let's take a look at the four key questions to ask yourself as you determine the best way to study for the ACT.
#1: How Much Money Are You Willing to Spend on ACT Prep?
While I think spending money on ACT prep can be a worthy investment, some students simply can’t afford an ACT tutor or prep course. If you want to take a prep course but can’t afford one, consult your school counselor or look online to see whether there are any free prep courses available in your area.
#2: How Do You Learn Best?
Personally, I’ve always preferred studying independently. In school, I learned better when I was alone reading from a textbook than when I was in class listening to my teacher. So ask yourself: which ACT study option will work best for your learning style?
Keep in mind that you can always combine study options. For example, you could primarily self-study and then hire a tutor for a couple of hours to help you understand a puzzling concept. Or you could take an in-person ACT course to learn fundamental test strategies and then enroll in an online course for further content instruction.
#3: How Likely Will You Be Able to Stick to a Study Plan?
Self-studying and online courses work best for the most disciplined and determined students who are able to stay on task without the help of an instructor. However, even if you take a class or hire a tutor, you need to be motivated enough to do the necessary work to reach your target score.
#4: How Much Help Will You Need?
If you're only 1 point away from your target ACT score, you might be able to reach your goal with a couple of weekends of self-studying or a short in-person prep course.
However, if you need to raise your score by 7 points and you’re struggling to understand important test concepts, you'd probably benefit from more intensive instruction, either from a tutor, online prep course, or multi-week class.
Regardless of how you decide to study for the ACT, you can get your desired results, as long as you improve your weaknesses, analyze your mistakes, and use real/realistic practice problems.
Is time running out for your ACT prep? Get tips on how to study for the ACT in a month, and find out how to properly cram for the ACT if you've got just 10 days before the test.
Are you using real ACT practice tests to study but not improving by as much as you'd like? Maybe you need to learn what to avoid when you're taking practice tests.
Do you already have a high ACT score? Figure out how to improve even more. Who knows—you might even be able to get a perfect 36!
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Justin has extensive experience teaching SAT prep and guiding high school students through the college admissions and selection process. He is firmly committed to improving equity in education and helping students to reach their educational goals. Justin received an athletic scholarship for gymnastics at Stanford University and graduated with a BA in American Studies.