How to Prepare for the ACT: The Ultimate Guide (2022)

Teenager sitting at a desk studying
June 1, 2022
Steps to Prepare for the ACTHow Long Does It Take to Prepare for the ACT?How to Prepare for ACT MathHow to Prepare for ACT ScienceHow to Prepare for ACT ReadingHow to Prepare for ACT EnglishHow to Prepare for ACT WritingACT Preparation FAQs

”Rohan

Reviewed by:

Rohan Jotwani

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 6/1/22

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 everything you need to know to prepare for the ACT, the steps you need to take, and a comprehensive explanation of all concepts on the test.

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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. 

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 start registering,  you also need to select an open test date and an open test center.

Learn Test Structure and Format

The ACT consists of four individual tests and one optional test in total, and in the following order:

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.

Choose an Ideal and Realistic Target Score

Before you start preparing for the ACT, it’s best to first determine an ideal target score and a realistic target score. 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.

Build a Manageable ACT Study Schedule

Now that you have your target scores set, you must determine your 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.

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.

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:

Every student has their own way of answering questions. While you prep 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. 

Find Your Areas for Improvement

While you prepare for the test, there are bound to be certain topics that you struggle with. 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. Take note of the questions you tend to get wrong. Perhaps then your areas in need of improvement will be more clear to you.

Additionally, if there are certain topics of content you are unfamiliar with or have never even heard of before, consider taking coursework in those topics before you take the test.

How Long Does It Take to Prepare for the ACT?

The amount of time it takes to prepare for the ACT 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:

Let’s break each of these sections down, so you’ll get a detailed idea of what skills and concepts you must learn for the ACT Math Test and discover several tips for ACT Math test prep.

Number & Quantity

These questions involve numerical quantities in many forms, such as:

You must develop a strong understanding of these values (such as what they mean and what they represent), and the ability to do calculations and operations with them. 

Algebra

Questions in this part require you to interpret, understand, solve, graph, and model many types of algebraic expressions, such as:

An understanding of common algebraic equation systems, the ability to find the solution to unknown values, knowing how to do operations with algebraic expressions, and a solid idea of what the expressions look like on graphs are all a must to do well for algebra questions in the ACT. The ability to apply this knowledge to real-life situations is also needed.

Functions

These questions test your knowledge of functions in terms of: 

Geometry

This part assesses your understanding and knowledge of shapes and solids, both two-dimensional and three-dimensional. Important concepts that you should prepare for in this part include:

Statistics & Probability

For this section, you must have a solid understanding of these concepts:

Integrating Essential Skills

These questions will test your ability to apply the concepts in the previous sections into more complex scenarios. For these questions, you should have an excellent understanding and calculation skills for the following:

These questions may also require you to apply multiple various concepts together to find solutions, and require flexibility and fluency between different concepts and knowledge for different topics. 

Modeling

This category of questions will test your understanding of mathematical models and your skills of producing, interpreting, analyzing, implementing, and improving them. 

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. 

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.

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. The skills and concepts you need to do well in this section include:

Note that although the science section will require you to do many calculations, the use of calculators is prohibited for this section.

Scientific Investigation

This part tests your understanding and skills in scientific experimentation and investigations. Important concepts for such questions include:

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. These kinds of questions may include explanations that conflict with one another, either due to differing premises or incomplete data. 

The questions of this category require a firm understanding of scientific and experimental concepts, as well as a strong ability in scientific reasoning and thinking.

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. To do well in this section, you must show great ability to: 

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. This tends to work better than just searching for answers while not even knowing where to look.

Even though you are required to use your own logic and reasoning to make deductions, always refer to the passage. Do not make assumptions. If a choice option isn’t directly stated or implied from the text itself, it is usually wrong.

Key Ideas and Details

These questions ask you to:

To do well in this section, you must be good at close reading and keeping track of details. You must also show clear comprehension at multiple levels, whether it be a singular piece of information, multiple joined together, or the entire full picture of the text.

Craft and Structure

These questions require you to understand authorial decisions and how the text is composed. To do well in these questions, you must be skilled in the following:  

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas 

This part tests how well you can use the information in the written text. To do well for these questions, you must have the ability to:

Visual and Quantitative Information in the Reading Section

One part of the ACT Reading Test may include a graph, figure, or table that contains information relevant to the text, and there will be questions where you must look into the provided visual information to get the answer.

These questions don’t just require you to be good at interpreting visual and quantitative information. You must also integrate the text into the graphic information and get a combined answer. After all, the graphic information is meant to complement the text, so you must read into both of them as a whole. 

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. And you will select the most appropriate choice for the questions asked. 

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. 

To do well in this section, think of yourself as the writer or an editor. You must compose or improve the text by using your knowledge and skills in English and writing. Make sure your answers make sense in terms of word choice, style, and tone, and are correct according to language rules (such as grammar and usage).

Production of Writing

This category tests your understanding of the purpose and focus of a piece of writing. For this part, you must show prowess in:

Knowledge of Language

These questions require you to demonstrate effective language use. To do well on these questions, you must have a good knowledge and awareness of word choice. You must select the option that is precise, concise, and reasonable based on the context and maintains consistency in terms of both style and tone.

Conventions of Standard English

This part is straightforward: you must have a good understanding of standard English grammar and usage. More specific relevant concepts include:

In addition, you must also show prowess in editing text, whether it be fixing errors or simply improving the text.

How to Prepare for ACT Writing

The optional ACT writing test is taken after the previous four tests. The writing test is a 40-minute essay that measures your writing skills. You’ll get a writing prompt that describes a complex issue and three different perspectives on the issue. You are asked to read the prompt and write an essay in which you develop your own perspective on the issue. 

You may use the previous three perspectives as references or supporting evidence, but direct copying is prohibited. Additionally, you can develop your own perspective entirely different from all three given ones.

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 aspect, you must show strong ability in the following:

Development and Support

To do well in this domain, you must show prominence in the following:

Organization

To do well in this part, your writing must clearly demonstrate the following:

Language Use

To score high in this factor, you must do well in the following:

ACT Preparation FAQs

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. How Long Does it Take for ACT Scores to Come Out?

ACT tests without the writing section will usually take 2 weeks for the final results to come out, but this can take up to eight weeks. 

If you’ve also taken the written section, the score for the written section will come out 2 weeks after the four mandatory ACT section scores are finalized. (Note that the ACT written section’s score is calculated and presented separately from the four mandatory ACT sections).

4. What Is a Superscore?

If you’ve taken the ACT more than once, you can combine your test scores from different test dates by taking your highest individual score for each of the four subjects to get a new composite score. This is called an ACT superscore.

5. 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. 

Final Thoughts

That is everything you need to know when preparing for the ACT. It might seem like a lot is on your plate, but as long as you plan everything, and put in the time, effort, and mental fortitude to do everything you need, 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!

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