Ultimate Guide to ACT Test Prep

Jun 2024

19 Minute Read

Tagged as: ACT

A comprehensive guide to preparing for the ACT exam, including general test prep tips and links to specific topic study guides

Create an ACT Test Prep Plan

One of the most frequently searched for items associated with standardized tests is "How should I prep for the ACT?" "How to prepare for ACT" is one of the most-asked questions that we receive from students. The answer is not simple nor easy because proper ACT test prep involves a number of things. The most important thing you can do is to create an ACT test prep plan as early as possible. Follow the subsequent steps and tips as best as you are able, and you will increase your scores significantly.

Take an Authentic Practice Test

By authentic, we mean actual former ACT exams. Not third party facsimiles, which are often poor imitations. Once you’ve taken a full length practice test or the ACT for the first time, you’ll have a baseline score. A baseline score will determine where you are in relation to your goal score. Now it’s time to create a prep plan you can follow that will help you achieve that goal score.

Your ACT Test Prep Plan

Your test preparation plan should include many important aspects. It should have the date(s) of each of the ACT exams you plan to take. Importantly, your plan needs to include your practice plan. It should include how frequently you will study for the exam, and how long each study session will last (approximately). What section(s) will you cover during each session? Your plan should have a frequently-updated list of topics, question types, passage types and subjects you can prioritize your endeavors on.

Your Study List

This very important last item on your ACT test prep plan, your study list, may be difficult to create. Just based on an ACT score report, you won’t immediately know what types of questions or passages you struggled with. However, when you register for the ACT, you may have the option to purchase a test information release (TIR). The TIR will give you a copy of all the exam questions, your answers, and the answer key. This is extremely helpful in pinpointing the types of questions, passage styles or subjects you need to strengthen before your next attempt at the exam. The only issue? Not all testing centers or test dates offer a TIR, so this is not always a viable option.

If you’ve taken a practice test but haven’t yet taken the actual ACT, you can analyze your practice test results on your own. You can try to identify the types of questions you missed and which topics you need to focus your preparation on. This assignment is more complicated than it seems, though. At Occam we’ve coded every recent practice exam the ACT has released and concluded that there are over 85 different question categories on the exam. Our practice exam score reports do the heavy lifting for you and identify those question types, topics, and skills you need more work on. The ACT test scored and classified. This makes creating a practice program that much easier!

ACT Section-specific Preparation

Every ACT section has its own unique challenges. The ACT is a standardized test designed to show colleges how prepared a student is for higher education. Thus, the ACT measures various skills necessary for college. Some sections examine your knowledge. The ACT English test, for example, evaluates your knowledge of basic grammar and writing conventions. The ACT Reading section, on the other hand, is not a knowledge-based test, but a measure of your reading comprehension. See the following articles for information and ACT test prep methods specific to each of the sections.

The ACT also offers an optional writing test that you can take after the standard exam. For more information on this test, visit out our blog articles below:

Finally, don’t neglect your areas of strength as you prepare for the exam. While the majority of your time will be spent working on areas of weakness, your strengths matter as well. All scores contribute equally to your composite score. For instance, if you're a mathematical genius, try for a 36. A 35 or 36 in ACT Math is very impressive, even if your Reading score is a 28. This is especially true if you want to study in a mathematical field. Further, some schools superscore. Each additional composite point, no matter the area in which it comes, could be worth thousands of dollars.

ACT Test Prep Tips

The above section-specific preparation recommendations will help improve your test scores section by section. The ACT test prep tips, techniques, and preparation skills found below are beneficial for the ACT exam as a whole.

Begin Early

One of the most important components of an ACT study plan is to begin as early as possible. If you know you’ll be taking the ACT test in your junior and/or senior years, then begin your ACT test prep at least several months in advance. This will allow you to be adequately prepared for test day. Further, you will have an opportunity to sit for the examination more than once if your first scores are not as high as you want. For addition information on long-term principles of ACT test prep, see our article ACT Prep the Right Way: Long Term.

Set SMART Goals

Having a goal score for your performance on the ACT will help you focus your preparation. Scoring goals motivate you when your energy and willpower lag (which it will eventually, you’re only human). Your goal can’t just be any general statement. "I want to get a top score on the ACT." A poorly worded goal is like having a map with no street names on it: it can only get you so far.

Your goal needs to be a "SMART" goal: one that is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. A SMART goal for the ACT would look something like this: "I want to score a 33 on the ACT exam by the fall of my senior year." Now, if the student making this goal scored a 15 on their first practice exam, a 33 may not be "attainable." You ACT goal should be highly specific to you and your abilities.

Practice Frequently with Authentic Tests

Practice is the most important aspect of your preparation. However, not all practice is created equal. Prepping with authentic ACT practice tests is essential. These exams most accurately reflect the topics, question types, and passage styles you’ll experience when you sit for the actual exam. High quality frequent practice with actual ACT questions is indispensable.

Your ACT test prep practice should be frequent over the course of several months as you prepare for the exam. Weekly practice, covering one or more of the sections of the ACT exam, will keep you from cramming for the exam at the very last minute. Cramming is not an effective study strategy for most individual learning styles. Proper preparation will also alleviate a great deal of stress and anxiety.

Do a Full Practice at 8am

Ugh, we know the thought of getting up voluntarily on a Saturday morning to do a practice ACT exam sounds terrible. BUT, it’s a SUPER effective preparation strategy. When you do most of your preparation, you likely are completing one or two sections at a time, perhaps a leisurely pace, after school or later in the day on the weekend. But those aren’t the testing conditions you’ll actually encounter when you take the exam. The ACT exam is given at 8am on Saturday, is strictly timed, and takes almost three hours. You have to get your body and brain used to those conditions. The more comfortable you are with the testing conditions, the more comfortable you’ll be when you sit for the actual exam.

So over the course of your preparation, take the time to do at least one full practice exam at 8am on a Saturday morning. You might not like us very much right now for suggesting it, but you’ll be thanking us later!

Time Yourself

Similar to the strategy above, time yourself as you do your weekly ACT test prep. Even if you are just doing a passage or two, keep time as you work through the practice questions. The amount of time you’re given for each section of the ACT exam is challenging. Therefore, you’ll have to train yourself to read quickly, scan and answer questions quickly. Again, practicing with the time constraints you’ll experience on the exam will prepare you for the real deal. You will be more likely to complete each section within the time allotted. And like other proper preparation techniques, you will experience much less stress and anxiety.

Don’t Neglect Your Mental and Physical Health

When you get caught up in the ACT preparation frenzy, you may find yourself neglecting your physical and mental health. With the rigors of high school, you may be skipping sleep, staying up late, and not eating properly, particularly as the exam date gets closer and closer. Anxiety may creep up, and you may think that this is the best course of action. But trust us, taking care of yourself is one of the most important ways you can prepare yourself for the exam.

You want your brain and body to be in top condition. After all, they are essential to doing well on the ACT exam. Make sure you are getting enough sleep. Not just the night before the exam, but sleep well and consistent in the days and even weeks leading up to the exam. Eat properly, and manage your stress. By keeping yourself in "fighting shape" for the exam, you walk into the test center on exam day with a clear head. You will have a rested and properly fueled body and mind.

What's next?

In need of more ACT prep or test-taking tips? Our new app Wend has over 450 free test prep questions for the SAT and ACT. Download Wend on the App Store for free test prep, essay writing tips, and more!

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