Must-Know ACT Test Tips And Strategies

The secret weapon to dramatically increase your options for college is improving your ACT score. At first glance, the ACT can seem pretty intimidating — it’s a three-hour exam with a combined total of over 200 multiple-choice questions and an optional essay, and the score you earn could be a make-or-break factor in the colleges you apply to. These tips and tricks for improving your ACT score could be the key to landing a spot at your top colleges.

What to expect during the test?

Knowing exactly what to expect on test day will alleviate any nerves that could harm your ability to perform well. The ACT exam is an approximately three-hour paper-and-pencil test with four sections of multiple-choice questions and an optional essay section. The multiple-choice sections each cover a separate academic subject — English, mathematics, reading, and science. Each section is timed as follows: 

  • 45 minutes for the English section
  • 60 minutes for the match section
  • 35 minutes for the reading section
  • 35 minutes for the science section
  • 40 minutes for the optional essay section

The English section consists of passages with interspersed multiple-choice questions about English grammar and writing style. The mathematics section covers high school algebra, coordinate and planar geometry, and basic trigonometry. The reading section consists of 500-600 word reading passages with questions that test students’ reading comprehension and vocabulary. Lastly, the science section consists of shorter passages of 200-300 words along with charts and graphs that describe scientific research or experiments, and students are tested on their understanding of the provided information. Notably, the science section of the ACT does not necessarily require strong background knowledge in the sciences, but instead, it focuses on an analysis of the provided passages, charts, and graphs.

Each multiple-choice section is scored out of 36, and all four sections are averaged to find the composite score out of 36. The multiple-choice sections differ in the number of questions: 

  • 75 questions in the English section
  • 60 questions in the math section
  • 40 questions in the reading section
  • 40 questions in the science section

This means that each question in the science or reading section is worth more of their respective section scores than each question in the English or math section.

Helpful Preparation Tips For The ACT To Improve Your Overall Score

Familiarize yourself with the test.

This means that you know the content that is necessary to succeed in each section, but you are also familiar with the intense time constraints of each section. Even beyond just knowing the basics of each section, make sure you are familiar with the general patterns of the sections. For example, the passages in the reading section are almost always in the exact same order: narrative fiction, social studies, humanities, and natural sciences. In the math section, the questions always increase in difficulty. The most surefire method to familiarize yourself with the ACT is to repeatedly take practice tests. When completing practice tests, make sure you simulate test conditions by eliminating all distractions and strictly adhering to the time limits.

Identify areas that need improvement.

Start broad by figuring out your weakest section, then get even more specific by identifying specific topics within sections that you struggle with in particular. To identify your weakest section, take a practice ACT (or a few) and see which multiple-choice section you’re scoring the lowest in. Then, within that section, further identify exactly which concepts, skills, or topics you’re struggling with in that section.  

Set your target score.

Setting a goal is the first step of tracking your progress. Any goal score is valid, but what matters most is that you set a goal that is specific to your own overall academic ambitions. If you want to score well enough to get into your nearby state school, find out the median score range of admitted students and aim to score slightly higher than the median. Some state universities offer scholarship money simply for achieving a certain ACT score, such as Florida’s Bright Futures Scholarship. For students aiming for admission to extremely selective colleges with acceptance rates of less than 15%, they should aim to score high — as close to a perfect score as possible. Ultimately, students will have different target scores depending on their own goals for college and scholarships.

Plan out a study schedule according to your specific ACT test date and grander timeline of applying to college.

Most college application deadlines are in November-January of your senior year of high school, so plan accordingly for a test date that will allow you to receive your score back in time for college application deadlines. Once you sign up for a test date, plan out at least 1-2 months of studying in advance, allowing you to complete at least 3 full-length practice tests. Each week, dedicate a certain number of hours to study, which could mean completing practice exams, going over missed questions, watching YouTube videos that explain difficult concepts, or reworking math problems.

Tailor your strategy to each section of the ACT.

Each separate section of the ACT demands its own approach. For the reading and science sections, you should preview the questions before reading the accompanying passages so that you’re aware of what to read for in the passage. In contrast, in the English section, read the passage as you go through the questions, rather than wasting time by reading the passage in its entirety before answering the grammar questions. In the math section, the questions increase in difficulty through the section, so you should complete sections much more quickly at the beginning to save time for the harder questions at the end.

Start preparing in advance.

You can sign up to take an ACT whenever, but you should prepare for at least 1-3 months before the exam to perform your best on exam day. Preparation differs by intensity and length among different students and their individual timelines, with some students preferring to study intensely during 1-2 summer months when they aren’t bogged down with schoolwork while others prefer to spread out their studying over 3-4 months during the school year. Most students take at least one ACT in their junior year, so you should plan to start studying at least in the summer before your junior year so you can have plenty of time to retake the exam and study more as needed.

ACT Prep Tips – Choosing The Best What To Study For The Exam


Self-preparation should be the first approach you take to preparing for the ACT. This method usually takes the form of taking practice exams, analyzing your mistakes, and repeating this process over and over. Getting started with this method can be as simple as finding a practice ACT online, completing the exam, and scoring your first attempt at a practice exam. The ACT is a widely-known exam, so there are plenty of free materials available online to learn the concepts. Reddit is a great resource for finding free printable practice tests, while Khan Academy and YouTube have tons of videos that teach specific concepts or even work through problems from past ACT exams. If you are willing to spend some money to bolster your self-studying process, ACT prep books are a solid option and can be purchased for $20-30, sometimes even less.

The most obvious advantage of the self-preparation study method is that the costs are either low or zero. Finding free practice materials online is obviously much cheaper than paying for ACT prep services from a private tutor or test prep company, but finding practice ACT materials might become time-consuming. Another potential disadvantage of self-preparation is that you are the one ultimately responsible for holding yourself accountable for studying. There is no tutor, instructor, or classroom environment to get you in the studying mode, and you have to set your own study schedule and challenge yourself to stick to it. Furthermore, many students find it much more beneficial to study under the guidance of an experienced tutor or instructor who is already an expert on preparing for the ACT. Inevitably, most students will end up having to self-study for the ACT, but whether they want to supplement their self-studying with prep courses or private tutoring is where studying strategies start to differ.

Prep Courses

This is a study option for students who need a bit more structure and guidance. For students who work well with in-person instruction, a face-to-face instructor, and a classroom environment, there are often options for in-person ACT preparation courses in most areas. These prep courses usually happen in group settings with a trained instructor. Alternatively, students can also find online ACT prep courses that are self-paced and don’t involve an actual live instructor. These virtual prep courses can analyze your exact strengths and weaknesses on the ACT and streamline your studying process, but like self-studying, require you to hold yourself accountable to sit down and study.

Prep courses will definitely cost more than self-studying, ranging from $300-$1800 depending on the length of the course and whether it is virtual or in-person. Also, prep courses in the form of in-person, group instruction typically offer less flexibility for students and require them to show up consistently at a scheduled time. In addition, some students may not fully reap the benefits of prep courses in group settings, as they may get distracted easily by peers or require more individualized time and attention from an instructor. However, group ACT prep courses usually cost less than hiring a private tutor.

Private Tutor

Hiring a private tutor for the ACT is an option for students who would benefit from individualized guidance and attention and also need flexible scheduling. A private tutor is usually already an expert on how to crack the ACT, having achieved a near-perfect score and tutored many other students to improve their own scores. Of course, private ACT tutors add extra costs to the preparation of the exam, but these costs vary depending on the tutoring company and any potential financial support they may offer. Typically, private ACT tutors meet with students at a time that works best for both of them and continue tutoring them as frequently and as long as they need. Through private tutoring, students can rest assured they have one-on-one support throughout the studying process.

Hiring a private ACT tutor is usually the most expensive ACT preparation strategy. Tutors charging anywhere between $40-150 per hour. Some students might be able to find lower-cost or discounted private tutors, but nonetheless, it still remains the most costly option for preparing for the ACT. Even with a private tutor, students can still expect to have a substantial amount of homework and studying that they still need to complete on their own time.

No matter which acts preparation strategy you choose, the students who perform best on the ACT are usually self-starters, self-disciplined, and self-motivated. Their accomplishments are a reflection of strong individual work ethic and determination to succeed, rather than over-reliance on a tutor or other external support sources. This means that whatever ACT preparation strategy you choose, the responsibility for your own success will fall on you.

Strategies And Tips For Taking The ACT That Actually Works

Start with your strengths in each section.

This means in the reading section, you can skip to the passage you tend to feel most comfortable with, whether that is the narrative fiction passage, social studies, or natural science passage. In the math section, you can easily spot which questions test for topics that you are most comfortable with, such as seeing a triangle and immediately recognizing a geometry or trigonometry question.

Read each question carefully.

With such little time to complete each section, you might fall into the trap of rushing through the multiple-choice questions and skipping key details, especially in the sections with reading passages. While speed is an important factor in doing well, so are thoroughness and accuracy. Pay attention to each word in questions and answer choices, noting important qualifier words such as “never,” “always,” or “everything” that can make an entire answer choice incorrect.

Use the process of elimination.

While the best approach for answering multiple-choice questions on the ACT is to look for the correct answer, if you find yourself lost on a question, the process of elimination is a solid backup strategy. This process requires you to rule out answer choices that you definitely do not think are correct and then choosing any remaining answer choices even if you are not completely sure that they are correct. 

Don’t change your answers.

We’ve all done it before — we had the right answer initially, but then ended up deciding to change our answer at the last minute and then finding out we were wrong for changing it. A useful tactic to avoid this is to challenge yourself to find proof that you need to change your answer; this could mean finding a specific piece of text evidence in the reading section or reworking a problem in the math section. With this tactic, you have to be extra assured that your new answer choice is correct before you change it.

Mark up your test booklet.

No matter which section you’re working on, you should always be writing in your test booklet as you complete the ACT. In any section that includes short passages, you should annotate the passages as you read. These annotations don’t have to be super neat or detailed but can be as simple as underlining a word that you know there’s a vocabulary question about or bracketing an entire paragraph that you know you have to summarize for another question. In the math section, you should absolutely work out your problems in the test booklet. Working out your problems in the test booklet also makes it easier to come back and check your answers when you’re done with answering all the questions because you can see exactly where you might have messed up a calculation or a part of the problem.

Skip hard questions.

Depending on the allotted time and number of questions in each section, each question on the ACT needs to be answered in 40-60 seconds. If a question is taking much longer than the usual amount of time required for each question, such as taking an entire two minutes when it should only take 52 seconds, then you should skip the question and come back to it once you have completed all the questions you know how to answer. Use the handy table below to get a feel for how long each multiple-choice question should take:

Answer every single question.

There once was a time when standardized tests for college applications used to actually penalize you for guessing wrong, meaning that they would actually take away more points from your score than if you left it blank. Thankfully, there are no longer guessing penalties for answering every question on the ACT — so make sure you do exactly that.

Be Sure You’re Ready For The Exam With SoFlo

SoFlo tutors have all scored near-perfect on the ACT and attend top colleges, but most importantly, they are super cool, funny, and relatable. Sign up for a private ACT tutor with who you can crack jokes as you’re studying for one of the most important exams of high school.

About the Author: Masaraat Asif is born in Texas and lives in Washington D.C. She spends most of her day cranking out papers for her Georgetown classes or writing jokes about her family on Twitter. She was an AP Scholarship with distinction and the valedictorian of her high school

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