ACT® Study Guide
How to Do Well on the ACT
Creating a study plan for the ACT® can be difficult since it is an exam that isn't directly tied to a course in which students are currently enrolled. Without the structure of a class or syllabus, the first step in ACT preparation is to identify "what" and "how" to study. Our study guide will help you set goals for your upcoming ACT test and advise you on when to start studying and how to study for the ACT.
Planning Your ACT Prep: Things to Consider
You have signed up to take the ACT and you know when you plan to take it, now it is time to begin studying. Regardless of how much time you have before test day, if you begin preparing you will see improvement. To help make an ACT study plan start by answering these five questions:
What’s my target score?
Research the schools you want to get into and identify the average scores they accept. Your target score will ideally match the highest of these averages.
How much time do I have to prepare?
Many students will want to take the ACT twice to take advantage of superscoring; best case scenario, plan to study three to four months before your first test and two to three months between each subsequent test.
Have I taken a full-length test?
Sit for a timed diagnostic test even if you're unprepared. If possible, have a family member, friend, or teacher proctor it so you can see how you'll feel on test day.
What are my content strengths and weaknesses?
After taking the diagnostic test, review all your correct and incorrect answers. Categorize the types of questions you missed and use this information to set a study plan.
What study strategies work best for me, and what do I need to succeed?
Some students prefer short sprints of practice throughout the day, while others prefer a structured course setting. Regardless of your study style, focus on the content you need to review first and include well-explained practice problems.
Setting Goals for the ACT
Since the ACT score should align with your preferred colleges, make a list of at least five schools you’d be happy to attend, then research the 25th and 75th percentile scores accepted by each. Armed with that information, your first step is to set a target ACT score so you can plan a study schedule that will help you achieve that goal. To solidify this goal, consider building a three column chart with the following information.
- In the first column, list the schools you’re interested in attending
- Title the second as “25th” percentile
- Title the third column as “75th” percentile
Once you’ve populated the chart with the relevant scores, you should have a better idea of what your goal score should be. If your score matches the highest value in the 75th percentile column, you’re more likely than not to be accepted by each school on your list.
25% of accepted applicants scored at or below the 25th percentile score, which indicates the minimum score you should expect to be accepted. Similarly, 75% of accepted applicants scored at or below the 75th percentile, this provides you with a target score that helps you feel fairly confident of acceptance.
When Should You Start Studying for the ACT?
After you’ve set a target score that will help get you accepted to your school of choice, you need to determine when you should start preparing for your ACT test. Be sure to consider these two factors when deciding how long to study for the ACT:
- Your goal score
- How much time can you devote to practice each week
If you don’t already have a diagnostic score, take a practice test to establish a baseline for your performance. You can use the data from your initial performance to streamline an effective study plan that will help you achieve your goal score.
Even students who tend to score well on standardized tests benefit from practice and exposure to the exam’s format and content, and many find that the ACT tests at least a few concepts that they are unsure of how to approach. By studying for three months before your test date, taking about seven full-length practice tests, and completing at least 70 hours of untimed practice, you will have the opportunity to close your content gaps by test day. However, it is imperative to practice smart and use practice material that includes comprehensive explanations and intentional consideration of strategy.
How long should you study for the ACT?
How many months you study is not as critical as how much time you study each day. Most experts note that consistent studying, even for only a short time each day, can help close content gaps and earn you a great score. In fact, studying for even a short amount of time every day is usually the best option. An hour of studying daily is usually sufficient, and if you like, you can break this into two thirty minute sessions with a short break in between. To get the most out of that hour of study, consider the following tips:
- Choose a study time or times that work well with your schedule and stick to them
- Keep all your study materials and stationery handy; that way, you won’t waste time looking for pencils, paper, a calculator, or other supplies
- Turn off your phone, get rid of distractions, and focus solely on your studies
ACT Study Plans
Our personalized ACT study plans are intended to assist you in efficiently preparing for the ACT. These study plans are tailored to your preparation time, learning habits, and tactics, with a focus on a section-by-section preparation schedule to ensure your success.
Begin month 1 with a timed, full-length practice test, and review your answers to determine your knowledge and strategy gaps. If you’ve already mastered a section, limit your practice to one week. Spend an hour a day practicing ACT-like questions, studying or creating explanations, and journaling mistakes. Alternate sections between weeks, but devote about two weeks to your weakest section. Take a timed, full-length practice test every weekend before the exam to assess your strengths and weaknesses.
From month 2 onwards, review the broader gaps you identified during Month 1. Work on those areas by streamlining your strategies, practicing with less common question types, and developing a deeper conceptual understanding of what each question is asking of you.
Take a full-length, timed practice test every other weekend before the test to assess your strengths and weaknesses. If you feel compelled to study, do so by going over your own notes rather than trying to learn new content.
How to Study for the ACT?
Having a study plan is foundational, but it’s also important to understand where your focus needs to be during your studies. Preparing for the ACT has two major challenges: familiarizing yourself with the format of the test and learning the content within the test. Let’s look into each challenge in detail:
- Format – We cannot stress enough the importance of taking ACT practice tests. Familiarize yourself with the structure, language, and timing of ACT questions by taking regular practice tests. This will improve your ability to comprehend question prompts quicker, limit confusion, and manage time effectively.
- Content – Each component of the ACT is designed to assess specific aspects of college readiness. It is crucial to understand the content and skills tested on the exam. Start by familiarizing yourself with the syllabus of the ACT sections and then focus on each separately. You can review each of our English, Math, Reading, and Science study guides for help.
Given the challenges of the ACT, the best method of preparation is to practice with questions that match the format of the exam, paired with comprehensive explanations that teach its content. Use a timer only for full-length practice. Practicing untimed will allow you to focus on learning content and experiment with different approaches as you settle on which ones to implement in timed practice.
Once you’ve taken a few practice tests, you will be able to focus on the questions you missed or answered incorrectly. Missed questions can be attributed to one of two issues: content gaps and ineffective strategies.
- Content gaps represent topics that students need to remember or comprehensively learn. While these gaps often feel the most daunting, they’re the easier of the two issues to correct. Learning the solution once, taking notes, and reinforcing it with additional questions is often enough to ensure that you never again miss a similar question.
- Ineffective strategies represent approaches that take too much time, are not consistently successful, or are utilized without conscious intent. The common complaint of “silly mistakes” also falls into this category because such mistakes generally correspond to questions approached without a comprehensive strategy. These issues often take longer to resolve than content gaps because many are ingrained in how a given student thinks about a section. Therefore, they must repeatedly and consciously practice a new strategy until the former habit is broken.
Fortunately, both issues can be overcome with proper practice. To perfect your practice, here are a few ACT study tips:
Start studying while you still have time
As a rule of thumb, begin studying at least three months before you plan to take the ACT–or, if you want to improve by much more than 10 points, at least six months of prep time is advised. This schedule provides you more time in which to spread the workload evenly and conduct multiple full-length practice tests before the real thing.
Identify your learning pattern
Every student learns differently from their peers, and knowing your learning style is key to an effective study plan. Some learn best in a group; others do better alone. Some can study for longer durations; others absorb information better in shorter, more frequent sessions.
Choose review materials carefully
Practice tests alone will not effectively prepare you for the exam. Analyze your answers and determine why you got a question wrong and how you can correct your mistakes next time. Consistently incorporate full-length practice ACTs and evaluate every question you get wrong.
Learn Concepts You’re Unfamiliar With
Do you struggle with basic math concepts? Take a refresher course. Is grammar your hangup? Then brush up on grammar rules. Do you struggle with scientific concepts or reasoning? Take some time to learn how to re-learn critical science concepts and how to interpret and read scientific graphs and charts. Learning the concepts that you are not familiar with before you take the test will help your score.
Personalize your study to your strengths and weaknesses
Identifying your testing strengths and weaknesses is crucial as you refine your study plan. If you’re struggling with a particular content area or skill, you’ll want to identify and prioritize it with more thorough practice. Full-length tests interspersed with untimed practice will help you craft a single, accurate approach to every question type in a section.
Maintain a healthy routine
A well-balanced lifestyle should accompany any intensive ACT prep course. Without adequate rest and nutrition, the constant stress of test prep can lead to fatigue and anxiety. Prepare your mind and body before every prep session. A healthy breakfast, mindfulness techniques, and breathing exercises will help you achieve calm and focus.
Remember that the ACT can only fulfill its function as an assessment of college readiness if its questions are objective and clearly connected to some academic focus. This requirement means that every question on the exam is designed to have an objectively correct answer. While that fact is likely obvious on the Math section and, to a lesser extent the Science section, keeping it in mind can help you perform better on the Reading and English sections as well. Free yourself from the assumption that any reading or writing question is based on a subjective comprehension of the passage or preference for a particular writing style–or “what sounds right”.
- Ensure that for every question you review, you have a particular in-text citation, grammatical rule, or strategy that clarifies how the right answer is undeniably correct
- Make use of your pencil, whether it’s drawing out images described in the Math section, annotating portions of the Reading and Science sections, or circling and underlining sentence parts on the English section
- Limit accidental mistakes or misreadings, and simplify the process of checking over your work at the end of any given section
ACT Review/Study Materials
Finally, here are the best resources to help you with your ACT test preparation.
- ACT's Practice Test: While the ACT no longer provides extensive free practice, they do provide a full-length practice test that can serve as your initial diagnostic and provide a baseline for your current scoring potential.
- UWorld’s ACT practice questions: Make your exam prep more effective with ACT-like questions and thorough, immediate explanatory feedback, including tips, fundamental content, and strategies for scoring higher and more consistently. Question explanations are also frequently accompanied by visuals, definitions, and hyperlinked lessons, ensuring no content on the ACT is left unexplained. All UWorld ACT practice questions are written by former teachers and ACT tutors and are designed to mimic the feel and difficulty of the questions you’ll see on test day.
The key to performing well on your ACT is knowing how to study effectively, but the best method varies for everyone. It’s up to you to find or design your own process. Follow the previously mentioned tips, and come test day, you’ll have the preparation to perform at your best. And if you’re unsatisfied with your score, remember that you can usually retake the exam and superscore to combine your best performance in each section. Good luck!