How to Prepare for the ACT: The Ultimate Guide (2023)

Teenager sitting at a desk studying for the ACT
August 28, 2023
15 min read


Reviewed by:

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 5/4/23

If you want to achieve your target scores for the ACT, this article will be your guide on how to prepare for the ACT to make it happen!

The ACT is a very important test. ACT scores are used by college admissions committees to assess the abilities of applicants like you to determine whether they’ll offer you admission. But before you stress out, we’ve got you covered.  

This article will tell you how to prepare for the ACT, what you should know for the test, ACT prep tips, and a comprehensive explanation of each section to help you get started.

Steps to Prepare for the ACT

Preparing for the ACT may be a long and painstaking process, but don’t worry! We’ve listed all the important steps you need to take during your preparation, along with our best ACT prep tips to help you along your way. 

1. Register

You can register for the ACT on the official ACT website. The registration process will take 30 minutes in total and requires a stable internet connection to complete. You also need the following for your ACT registration: 

Before you begin the registration process, you also need to select a test date and an open test center. 

2. Learn Test Structure and Format

One of the most crucial ACT tips is to know what you’re dealing with before test day. The ACT consists of four sections: English, Math, Science, and Reading, with one optional essay. Here’s a breakdown of how long each section takes, in order: 

Test Subjects Total Questions Time
English 75 45 minutes
Mathematics 60 60 minutes
Reading 40 35 minutes
Science 40 35 minutes
Writing (optional) 1 essay 40 minutes

All questions in the four mandatory tests are multiple-choice. Each question will have four or five answer choices to choose from. There is no penalty for guessing since the final score is calculated based on the number of your correct answers. 

The optional writing test requires you to write one essay based on the prompt given to you. Along with the test format, you should also consider what you need for the ACT in terms of materials.

3. Choose an Ideal and Realistic Target Score

Our first ACT tip is always to determine an ideal target score and a realistic target score before you start preparing for the ACT. Setting your target scores will help you decide how much time to spend on ACT preparation. 

The final score for the ACT, also known as a composite score, is a number ranging from 1 to 36 and is calculated based on the number of correct answers in the four mandatory tests.

Your ideal target score is how high you want your score to be, whereas your realistic target score is how well you think you will actually do. Of course, you can always change it based on the outcomes of your test preparation, but it’s best to have at least a firm idea before preparation begins.

Most students choose their ideal and realistic target scores based on their goal universities. Although your ACT score cannot guarantee you a spot anywhere, it’s still a key component of your application. 

Take a look at either the average ACT score or the 50th percentile score of admitted freshmen students. (Scoring in the 50th percentile means the test-taker scored equal to or higher than 50% of other test-takers who took the same test.)

This way, you’ll know which ACT scores will give you a competitive edge for your goal schools. Of course, the higher the ACT score, the better, but this method still gives you an idea of what is enough for your goal universities.

4. Build a Manageable ACT Study Schedule

When it comes to ACT tips, our holy grail is creating a study schedule. Now that you have your target scores set, you must construct a realistic study schedule for the ACT. How much time every day and how many days per week do you need to study to reach your target scores? 

It’s important to maintain a balance between ACT preparation and other parts of your life, especially for other components of your university applications. Keeping a well-balanced schedule will ensure that everything is taken care of, and you won’t feel overwhelmed.

5. Take ACT Practice Tests

Practice tests are an excellent way to prepare yourself for the ACT, as learning is most effective when you can apply it in practice. Through practice tests, you can see which subjects and concepts you need to study for, which test-taking strategies work, how well your current performance is and how far you are from your goals. 

ACT practice tests also allow you to familiarize yourself with ACT questions, so you have a good idea of what to expect, which greatly reduces anxiety.

The official ACT website offers many free ACT practice tests in full length, as well as for individual tests, including for the optional writing test. If that isn’t enough, you can even order additional practice tests and material at the official ACT website.

6. Find Your Areas for Improvement

When learning how to prepare for the ACT, you’ll notice there are certain topics that you struggle with more than others. You’ll be able to pinpoint your areas of weakness better if you take practice tests. While you are preparing, keep notice of the type of questions that are most difficult for you. 

The best way to prepare for the ACT  is to know how and when to cover all of your bases. Take note of the questions you tend to get wrong and make sure you have a firm grasp of those concepts before moving on to the rest of your review. While it’s important to pay extra attention to your weak spots, you shouldn’t forget to cover your strong points as well. 

How Long Does It Take to Prepare for the ACT?

The amount of time ACT test preparation takes is dependent on your schedule, how much time you spend each week studying, and your target scores. In many cases, grade 11 or 12 students spend about 3 to 6 months preparing for the ACT. 

When determining how long you will take to prepare for the ACT, the most important factor is what is on the test. It’s no surprise that sufficient practice will allow you to cover and prepare for everything that the ACT asks you to do.

The next sections of this article will break down tasks and important concepts that you need to prepare for each individual subject test. 

How to Prepare for ACT Math

As written on the official ACT website: “The mathematics section is designed to assess the mathematical skills students have typically acquired in courses taken up to the beginning of grade 12.” This means that whatever will be on the ACT Math Test, you’ve most likely learned it in high school already.

The questions of the ACT Math Test cover seven categories:

  • Number & Quantity: These questions involve numerical quantities in many forms.
  • Algebra: Questions in this part require you to interpret, understand, solve, graph, and model many types of algebraic expressions.
  • Functions: These questions test your knowledge of functions (definition, notation, etc.)
  • Geometry: This part assesses your understanding and knowledge of shapes and solids, both two-dimensional and three-dimensional.
  • Statistics & Probability: For this section, you must have a solid understanding of statistics and probability concepts and measure them.
  • Integrating Essential Skills: These questions will test your ability to apply the concepts in the previous sections into more complex scenarios. 
  • Modeling: This category of questions will test your understanding of mathematical models and your skills of producing, interpreting, analyzing, implementing, and improving them. 

For a more detailed breakdown of each of these categories, take a look at our complete guide on tips for ACT Math test prep. Make sure to give each subject an equal amount of study time. If math isn’t your strongest subject, consider getting an experienced ACT Math tutor to help you get prepared. 

How to Prepare for ACT Science

The ACT Science Test covers biology, chemistry, geology, astronomy, meteorology, and physics. Usually, high school science courses (from grade nine up to grade 12) will provide enough information for you to correctly answer the questions.

The Science Test assesses your knowledge of interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning, and problem-solving skills required in the aforementioned science subjects. These questions will put you into scientific scenarios and you will need your knowledge and skills to figure out answers. 

In the ACT Science section, you’ll answer questions in the following categories:

  • Interpretation of Data: Questions in this category ask you to interpret, analyze and manipulate scientific data presented in written text, tables, graphs, and diagrams, similar to those found in science journals, documents, and writings. 
  • Scientific Investigation: This part tests your understanding and skills in scientific experimentation and investigations. (Concepts include experimental tools, procedures, hypotheses, experimental results, possible errors, etc.)
  • Evaluation of Models, Inferences, and Experimental Results: For these questions, you are asked to evaluate the validity of given scientific information and form your own hypothesis or conclusions based on it. You may also be asked to determine which explanation for a scientific phenomenon is more reasonable and more well supported. 

You must recognize and understand concepts relevant to the provided information; critically examine the relationship between the given information and the conclusions or hypotheses; and use known information to deduce new information, conclusions, or predictions.

For a more in depth review of science-related ACT test preparation, take a look at our guide on how to prepare for the ACT science section.

How to Prepare for ACT Reading

The ACT Reading Test is composed of multiple parts, each including one long passage or multiple small passages. The reading section requires you to read and comprehend all text and answer questions by searching in the text and using your own reasoning and interpretation skills. In this section, you’ll have to answer questions in the following categories: 

  • Key Ideas and Details: These questions ask you to determine central themes, accurately summarize ideas, understand relationships, and draw logical inferences and/or conclusions.
  • Craft and Structure: These questions require you to understand authorial decisions, how the text is composed, and be able to assess meaning behind text. 
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: This part tests how well you can understand and use the information in the written text. 
  • Visual and Quantitative Information: This part may include a graph, figure, or table that contains information relevant to the text. There will be questions where you must look into the provided visual information to get the answer.

When you’re taking the Reading Test, it’s best to read all the content once before you answer questions. You can skim through the entire reading section of the part you’re working on, and get a rough frame of the content, so you will have a better idea of where to search for answers for the questions. 

Take a look at our complete guide to the ACT Reading Test for a more in depth look at this section. There we cover detailed ACT reading tips and what to know before taking the test. 

How to Prepare for ACT English

The ACT English Test consists of multiple passages, each followed by multiple-choice questions. These questions could refer to a section of a passage, the passage as a whole, or underlined or highlighted parts of a passage. In this section the questions you answer will fall into the following categories: 

  • Production of Writing: This category tests your understanding of the purpose and focus of a piece of writing. 
  • Knowledge of Language: These questions require you to demonstrate effective language use. To do well here, you must have a good knowledge and awareness of word meaning and choice.
  • Conventions of Standard English: This part is straightforward, you must have a good understanding of standard English grammar and usage.

To do well in this section, think of yourself as the writer or an editor. Beware that many questions have a choice option labeled “no change”, which adds to the trickiness of the English section, as you will need to decide whether or not a change is needed at all. For more tips and a full detailed breakdown, check out our guide to the ACT English Test.

How to Prepare for ACT Writing

The ACT writing test is an optional section you can complete at the end of your test. In this section, you have 40 minutes to complete an essay that demonstrates your writing ability. The prompt you’ll be given is typically on a multi-layered issue, accompanied by three unique perspectives on the subject. 

You are asked to read the prompt and write an essay in which you develop your own perspective on the issue. 

The difficulty of the writing section matches that of the average high school English classes and in entry-level college composition courses. Your essay is scored based on the following four factors:

  • Ideas and Analysis: To do well in this part, you’ll need to effectively communicate your point, demonstrate a firm comprehension, generate productive ideas, critically engage with multiple perspectives, and clearly convey thoughts and perspectives in your writing.
  • Development and Support: Here you’ll have to show a clear understanding of your initial idea and be able to develop it with conviction throughout your essay. 
  • Organization: To do well in this part, you must clearly demonstrate strategic organizational choices that show the relationships between your ideas, and present a well-structured piece of writing that is easy for the reader to follow.
  • Language Use and Conventions: To score high in this factor, you must demonstrate smart word choice, reflect excellent use of conventions of grammar, syntax, word usage, and mechanics in your writing, and choose a style and tone appropriate for the topic.

This section is optional, which means it can be an excellent opportunity to boost your ACT score if you prepare properly. 

Ways to Prepare for the ACT

There are many ways to prepare for the ACT beyond the necessary steps we mentioned above. If you’re looking for more ways you can get ready for test day, read on for our top tips.

Have A Friend Test You

What are friends for? Well, a lot of things - but one of those things can be helping each other study. Consider asking a friend to study with you and help you go over your practice tests. Having a peer review your work is an excellent idea because they may catch mistakes that you missed.

Additionally, you and your study buddy can create flashcards to help each other memorize concepts. It may be a good idea to choose a friend who excels in different subjects than you do. For example, if one of you is a math wiz and the other is a top-tier english student, you have a match made in heaven. 

Form A Study Group 

Sort of like studying with a friend, a study group can be a powerful tool in helping every member achieve success. Your group could be composed of friends or simply of peers who are studying for the same test. You can then assign each member a section of the test to create practice questions for everyone to answer. 

As mentioned above, choosing members who excel in different academic subjects is the best way to go. Having multiple people review your work is also a good idea, the more the merrier! 

Practice Testing Strategies

There are a few different strategies you can use when you take the ACT. These strategies are especially beneficial for the four mandatory tests with multiple choice questions. In general, some of these strategies include:

  • Answer easy questions first
  • Skim through the reading material before answering questions
  • Find the best answer, even if it doesn’t match with your own answer
  • Reread the sentence using your select answer (for the English Test)
  • Redo calculations to check for mistakes (for the Math Test)

Every student has their own way of answering questions. While you explore how to prepare for the ACT, try out each of these methods to find what’s best for you. Once you know which method works best, stick to it when it comes time for the real test. 

Hire A Tutor

Sometimes, an expert opinion is the best way to go. Hiring an experienced ACT tutor can be extremely helpful. ACT tutors can help you create study schedules, stay on track, correct your work, and explain complex material in a comprehensive way. Much like having a 1-on-1 session with your teacher, a tutor can make a huge positive impact on your ACT score.

ACT Preparation FAQs

Looking for more information on how to prepare for the ACT? Here are some of our answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about ACT preparation, tips, and strategies.

1. What Is the Specific Calculator Policy for the SAT? 

It is up to the test-taker to bring a fully-functioning permitted calculator with enough power for the entire math section. Test-takers can only bring calculators that do mathematical operations. Advanced calculators with computer algebra system functionality are prohibited. 

Built-in calculators or calculation programs on cell phones, computers, and other devices are also banned. Further details can be found here.

2. Is the ACT Writing Section Required for Some Universities?

Yes. Some universities do require you to take the ACT test with the writing section. It is up to you to research beforehand and register for the ACT with the writing section.

3. Who Can Help Me With the ACT?

Other than tutors specifically trained for ACT preparation, because the ACT content is usually covered in the curriculum of corresponding high school courses, your teachers are an excellent option to ask for help. They can help you get better at many of the concepts and skills covered in the ACT and provide ideas to make ACT prep fun

Additionally, your guidance counselor that handles university preparation and application may also be a suitable helper. 

4. How Long Do I Need To Prepare For The ACT?

For most test-takers, three to six months is the recommended timeline to allow enough time to properly study for the ACT. This timeline typically gives students enough time to review all the material, take practice tests, and identify the areas that need a bit more attention than others. 

5. Is The ACT A Difficult Test?

The difficulty of the ACT ultimately depends on your strengths and weaknesses, and how much time you have spent studying. The test is designed to be challenging, but not impossible. Most students who adequately prepare for the test do not have trouble passing. 

Achieving an excellent score may take a lot of hard work and dedication, but with persistence, anything is possible!

6. How Can You Prepare For The ACT?

You can prepare for the ACT by following these steps:

  1. Familiarize yourself with the test format, materials, and content.
  2. Create a comprehensive study schedule (make sure it’s realistic and incorporates your daily needs).
  3. Study with official ACT practice tests and materials. Make sure to take full length practice tests!
  4. Review and practice each section on the test with a special focus on your weaker subjects (math, science, reading, and English).
  5. Seek extra help or tutoring as needed.

Remember, practice makes perfect!

7. How Many Questions Are On the ACT?

In total, there are 215 questions on the ACT. These questions are broken up between the English section (75 questions), the math section (60 questions), the science section (40 questions), and the reading section (40 questions). There is also one optional essay question on the ACT. 

Final Thoughts

That is everything you need to know when preparing for the ACT. It might seem like a lot, but as long as you plan everything, and put in the time, effort, and follow our expert ACT tips, you should be able to achieve your target score! 

Remember: almost everything in the test covers concepts, knowledge, and skills learned in your high school classes, so make sure you use that to your advantage. Have fun preparing, and best regards for your college admissions!

Access 5 free ACT practice questions here

Access 5 free ACT practice questions here

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