How To Prepare For The ACT Test

How to study for the ACT is a question that is on the minds of many students, particularly high school students, all around the country and all around the world. 

Given the importance of the ACT exam in terms of college admissions, college scholarship opportunities, and other related academic pursuits, it is only natural that the question of how to study for the ACT and how to prepare for the ACT is on many students’ minds. 

In this article, we will discuss how to study for the ACT, studying for the ACT in general, along with the best ACT study plans and the best ways to study for the ACT in general.

What Is The ACT?

Before we delve into how to study for the ACT, it is important to discuss what the ACT is in general, of course. 

While many students reading this article may be familiar with the ACT, many others may be new to the college admissions and test prep process or deciding which test is best for them, so it is important to discuss this. You wouldn’t want to learn how to study for something without knowing what it is first!

The ACT is, along with the SAT, one of the two most prominent standardized tests used for college admissions and college scholarship purposes in the United States of America. 

The ACT is accepted at every college or university in the United States, as well as hundreds of colleges, universities, and institutions of higher education outside of the United States. The ACT was once less popular than the SAT, but now both tests are almost equally taken and are certainly equally respected, so each student should take the test most suited to their academic and test-taking strengths. In this article, we will just be focusing on the ACT.

The ACT consists of four main sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science Reasoning.

Additionally, unlike the SAT, which has discontinued its essay section, the ACT offers an optional Writing (or essay) section. Each section on the ACT (besides the optional Writing/essay section) is scored on a 1-36 scale, and those scores are then averaged to give a composite ACT score on a 1-36 scale. The optional writing test can be a good option for strong writers who want an extra boost to their college applications.

While other factors, such as GPA, essays, and extracurricular activities, all also play major roles in college admissions and scholarship offers, the ACT (or SAT) is still often one of the most important deciding factors in college admissions and scholarship offers, so preparing properly and thoroughly for the ACT is critical for almost all students taking the ACT exam.

How To Study For The ACT: Main Principles To Follow

Now that you most likely feel quite familiarized with what the ACT exam is, as well as the ACT exam’s role and importance within the college admissions and college scholarship processes, we will move on to discussing how to study for the ACT. The question of how to study for the ACT is an important one, given the importance of the ACT itself, as well as how realistic it is for many students to achieve a high score with the proper preparation, along with how easy it can be to prepare in the wrong way, thus wasting your time and costing you important ACT points.

In the following section of this article, we will discuss some of the main principles and overall points to consider and follow when determining how to study for the ACT, and executing your plan of how to prepare for the ACT.

Start Early

The ACT publishes the dates on which you can take the ACT throughout a given academic year well in advance of said test dates on their website. This means that if you are proactive and check their website frequently, you should be able to know when you are going to take the ACT well in advance, and start your preparation early in accordance with that plan.

Because, in many ways, just as important as deciding how to study for the ACT is deciding when to start studying for the ACT. And generally speaking, the answer is: as early as possible (within reason). 

The ACT isn’t a test you should memorize content for. In fact, you cannot really memorize content for the ACT. Rather, so much of studying for the ACT is about learning the test itself.

Studying for the ACT should be a marathon, not a sprint, so starting as early as you can (once you’ve taken most of the classes you need to understand what’s on the test fully, such as Algebra II) will allow you to better prepare and not overwhelm yourself. The more quality time you spend preparing for the ACT, the better chance you give yourself for success with a high score.

Make Sure Your Study Plan Suits Your Individual Needs

While there certainly are better and worse overall ACT study plans in a general sense, it is important to still remember that every student is different, and no advice for ACT prep is “one size fits all” as a result. 

You should fit a regular study schedule that works best for you. For example, some students may prefer studying a little bit each day (or most days), whereas other students may prefer spending an extended amount of time studying on a few days per week. 

Similarly, and just as important, is the fact that some students will be relatively stronger or weaker on some sections of the ACT or other aspects of the test when compared to others. For instance, a student who is quite strong at math but struggles in the English section may want to spend more time studying English than math. On the other hand, a student who excels in English and has more difficulty with math may want to study math more often and deeply than English (while still making sure to practice all sections thoroughly, of course).

Overall, every student is different, and you should ensure that you tailor your ACT study plan to your personal ACT needs, strengths, and weaker areas accordingly in order to achieve maximum success on the ACT.

Set Minor Goals

As we mentioned, studying for the ACT can (and should) be a marathon, not a sprint. The process can be long, and achieving your goal score can often seem far away and daunting to some students as a result. 

But in order to keep your motivation to continue studying and to achieve the best results from each study session along with the overall studying process, it is important to not get discouraged.

Staying motivated with studying the ACT is just as important as determining how to study for the ACT. Setting some minor goals is a great way to stay motivated and enhance your studying as a result.

For example, many students may benefit from, say, aiming to increase their composite score by 1 point in a month or two, or even to get, say, 2 more math questions correct in their next two study sessions.

While some of these goals may seem small, it is important to set smaller, individual goals, so that you notice your progress and stay motivated throughout the process. It is easier to cross many smaller hurdles than one giant hurdle.

Vary The Sources You Use And The Ways You Study

The ACT is, as we mentioned, an extremely important test. And the ACT has been an extremely important test for quite some time. As a result of this fact, there is an abundance of material and content related to ACT test prep available to many students. 

While not all of this material is good, many of it is quite good, and you should vary your sources and test prep methods as a result. Using several different test prep books, working with a tutor, studying in groups, taking timed and untimed practice tests, having specific section-focused study sessions and broader study sessions, among many other methods, are many ways to diversify your preparation materials and methods.

The more high quality sources on ACT test prep and ACT test prep methods you expose yourself to (without overwhelming yourself), the easier it will be for you to determine how to study for the ACT. Furthermore, such a diversified strategy will expose you to many different approaches and strategies, so you can be armed with as much knowledge and experience as possible on ACT test day.

Step-By-Step Plan On Studying For The ACT

Now that you know how to study for the ACT in general terms, we will outline a step-by-step plan for how to study for the ACT. Of course, as mentioned, no advice is the same for everyone, as every student is different, but this will provide a general, detailed framework for how to organize studying for the ACT in a way that works for many students.

Familiarize Yourself With The Test Directions

Every section of the ACT starts with an often lengthy list of directions and instructions for that section. These instructions never change, they are the same for every ACT administration. And if they were to change, the ACT would make it clear on their website well in advance. 

It is important to familiarize yourself with these directions before you start studying for the ACT for two reasons. Firstly, you can’t know how to study for the ACT if you don’t know exactly what you can and cannot do on the ACT, so familiarizing yourself with those directions is critical. Secondly, it saves valuable time on the test! If you already have the directions committed to memory, you won’t have to burn some of your minutes on the ACT reviewing the directions.

Take A Practice Test To Determine Your Starting Point

It is critical to understand where you are starting when you first take the ACT. The best way to do this is to take a “diagnostic” practice test cold at the outset of your ACT journey. Some people take this test untimed, some take it under completely accurate test conditions (the more accurate, the better). 

Taking such a “diagnostic” test is important because it gives you a clear picture of where you are at in terms of ACT knowledge and preparation at the outset. Don’t worry if you’re not at your goal score, as you haven’t even begun your preparation. Taking a diagnostic test allows you to get a sense of how much work you’ll need to do, as well as your stronger and weaker areas of the test, allowing you to determine how to study for the ACT based on that.

Taking ACT practice tests is the best way to gauge where you’re starting and also how much you’re improving as you practice.

Set A Reasonable Goal

The old expression goes that “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” and that adage certainly applies when it comes to how to study for the ACT and ACT studying in general. If your diagnostic test result is a 21, for example, don’t try to get to a 35 right away. Not that it isn’t possible, but it takes time, and you should set smaller, more quickly achievable goals in between, such as getting to a 23 consistently first, then a 25, and so forth.

Furthermore, if you are trying to improve by only 1 or 2 composite points, set goals to get 1 or 2 more math questions right in each session, for example. Smaller, more reasonable goals along the way, and a realistic overall goal (for example, while possible, jumping 10+ ACT points is quite hard for anyone), will make the process much more effective and enjoyable.

Plan Out A Reasonable ACT Study Schedule

Goals aren’t the only thing about your plan of how to study for the ACT that should be realistic and reasonable. Your study schedule should be, too. It is important to make sure you are studying for the ACT consistently and regularly, but also not overwhelming yourself.

Some students do best studying in large blocks for a few days, while others prefer a little bit every day. Early on, you should test out different study plans and determine what works best for you and what you can realistically stick to. Once you find a reasonable schedule that you enjoy, keep at it. Consistency is a key to success in how to study for the ACT.

Making sure you have plenty of time to plan and prepare for the ACT is huge, especially during the busy school year when there are other commitments and assignments to keep up with. It can also help you determine when you want to take the exam so you can meet the ACT registration deadlines — missing them will result in additional test fees.

Pinpoint Your Weaknesses And Attack Them

As much as it may be enjoyable to only practice what you’re already good at (who doesn’t like getting questions right?), and it is still important to consistently keep up on your stronger ACT sections, studying and focusing on your weaknesses is one of the most important aspects of how to study for the ACT.

Your diagnostic test and early studying sessions should allow you to identify your initial weaker areas, which very well may evolve and change over the course of studying for the ACT. Then, you can focus on them. For example, you can give a dedicated math study session(s) each week if that’s your weaker area, and so forth. Doing this while keeping up with your stronger areas as well will allow you to improve most quickly while studying for the ACT.

Do Timed Practice Periodically To Check Your Pacing

Every section of the ACT is timed. The more realistic your practice conditions are, the better. Mimicking test center conditions while taking ACT practice questions will help you figure out if you have enough time for each section and will help you relax any test day nerves when you go to take it for the first time.

While untimed study sessions dedicated to focusing on improving certain areas are quite important, you should ensure you practice under accurate timed conditions quite often to make sure you are comfortable with the time restraints, especially on the ACT, which can be something of a time crunch.

Knowing how to study for the ACT can only go so far if you aren’t prepared for timed conditions.

Learn The Most Frequently Tested Concepts

How to study for the ACT isn’t just about learning Algebra and grammar rules and such. It is also about learning the test.

The more practice you do, the more familiar you will become with what the ACT asks. At this point in your preparation, you should focus on learning the test and studying what comes up most often, allowing you to be most efficient with your time and studying techniques.

Focus On Practice And Review, Not New Topics

By this point in the process, if you’ve been following these steps, you’re probably not that far (relatively speaking) from your actual ACT test date. When you’re close to the test, you should focus on reviewing what you’re familiar with and practicing under test conditions as much as possible, rather than trying to learn too many new things too close to test day.

Take Another Practice Test

You should be taking practice tests throughout your studying process, but the closer you get to test day, the more you should take (without tiring yourself out, of course).

Taking timed, full-length practice tests under test conditions more often in the weeks leading up to ACT test day is a good idea, as it will get you in test mode and let you identify any test-taking changes you need to make or additional strategies you need to identify. 

If you’ve already taken the ACT and are preparing for a retake, consider taking a look at your test scores and determining which sections you performed the worst in. From there, you can create a study guide that will help you choose which areas to focus the most on.

Tips On Preparing For Each ACT Section

As we mentioned, the ACT has four main sections (which are mandatory) and one optional section. Those sections are English, Math, Reading, Science (or rather, Science Reasoning), and Writing (“essay,” the optional section). Each section should be approached differently, as they are distinct sections. We will discuss strategies for each section in the next, upcoming portion of this article. 


The ACT English section is always the first section on the test, and it consists of 75 questions to be completed in 45 minutes. There are several effective strategies for ACT English to keep in mind and practice while you go through the process of how to study for the ACT.

When approaching problems on the ACT English section, the process of elimination is an important strategy to keep in mind. Eliminating answers that you are sure are incorrect is a good way to make it easier on you to find the correct answer. 

Another very useful strategy is to (quietly, of course) read some questions and sentences aloud. It’s hard to remember every single grammar rule, but sometimes the “ear test” can bring you to the right answer if you’re unsure. It can be easier to notice when something doesn’t sound grammatically right when you’re hearing it as opposed to when you’re reading it. 

You should always try to eliminate before guessing, as mentioned, and not spend too much time on any one question. Keep in mind that you’re looking for the most grammatically correct and concise choice, unless stated otherwise, in most cases. Try to keep these tips in mind when studying the ACT English section.


The ACT Math section contains 60 questions and can be completed in up to 60 minutes, so if you spent equal time on each question, it’d be one minute per question. 

You can use an approved calculator on all of the ACT Math section, so familiarizing yourself with your calculator and practicing with it prior to the exam is extremely valuable. Keep in mind, however, that the calculator shouldn’t be totally relied on. Some questions can be quicker to solve without it, even if it is quite useful on other questions.

You should strive to identify your stronger and weaker areas of math early on, and focus on improving your weaker areas. Math is often one of the most learnable skills, even if it seems daunting at first. Process of elimination is also a useful skill in math, and you should try to keep all of these tips in mind when studying for the ACT math section.


The ACT Reading section consists of 40 questions (split up amongst four different reading passages) to be completed in up to 35 minutes. Generally, there will be one passage on each of the following subjects: literature, humanities, social science, and natural science. 

The ACT Reading section does not test memory or recall, but rather comprehension and understanding at about the level of a college freshman. Some students like reading the questions first and then the passage, and others prefer to read the passage first and then the question. Either way, you should read the passage and questions closely for meaning and structure. 

The goal is to find the best possible answer (or “most correct” answer) of the choices. Some questions may have more than one answer that appears right, but the best possible answer is what you should always choose. Oftentimes extreme statements tend to be incorrect ones on this section, so watch for the tone of language. While learning as many “ACT words” as possible is very useful, remember to try to use context to figure out the right answer if you don’t know the definition of a word.

Science Reasoning

The name of the ACT Science section, which we will call the “Science Reasoning” section from here on out, may confuse many students at first. This is because many students believe at first that the ACT Science Reasoning section requires specialized Science knowledge, when it actually does not. The section mainly tests critical thinking skills, and the “passages” should often be approached largely in a similar way that you would approach the ACT Reading section, which it has the same number of questions and time limit as.


The ACT Writing, or essay, section is entirely optional. Whether or not you should take it depends on whether the colleges, universities, or programs you are applying to require it. You should check their websites before deciding whether or not to sit for the ACT Writing section. 

The ACT Writing section tests your reasoning and persuasive writing abilities. It does not impact your composite score. It has a 40 minute time limit and requires you to write a persuasive essay on a given topic. 

You should consider starting with a rough draft on scrap paper, cite evidence from the passage in your essay, keep an even tone and avoid sweeping statements, and reference all three of the perspectives given if possible.

How Long Should You Study For The ACT?

How to study for the ACT and how long to study for the ACT are questions with somewhat different answers depending on the student. It depends on your goal score and how much time you have, but generally speaking, the longer you study for the ACT (provided you aren’t getting burned out in any way), the better, as it allows you to spread out your studying.

Most people take the ACT during their junior year when they’re preparing their college applications, but you should make sure there is enough time to get your score report back and decide if you need to retake the exam. College admissions boards require you to send your scores before a deadline, so planning when to take the ACT is also very important for applications.

An Effective ACT Test Preparation With SoFlo Tutors

SoFlo SAT Tutors are high scoring graduates and attendees of top universities who have mastered the SAT and ACT. Check out our virtual tutoring services to find an SAT or ACT tutor who will help you towards your score goals, whether it’s your first take, second take, or beyond. 

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Additional ACT Resources

About the Author

William Grossman

William Grossman is a student at the University of Florida studying Economics. He scored a 1500 on his SAT and a 32 on his ACT. While it may seem unorthodox, William always reads the last chapter of a new book before going back to read it from the beginning — that way, he can see if the book will be any good before deciding to read the whole thing!

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