ACT Prep for College-Bound Students

Navigating the Testing Process with Online Help and Expert Advice

The ACT is now the most commonly taken standardized test for college admissions in the United States. Read below to learn more about this exam and gain insider knowledge from a tutor who earned a perfect score.

Over the past few years, prospective college students have turned the ACT into the most commonly taken standardized test for college admissions in the United States. Scores from the test are now accepted by every four-year institution in the country.

The ACT is a comprehensive exam that helps institutions determine whether a student is prepared to study at the college level, by testing competency in English, math, reading, science — and an optional writing section. Examinees looking to learn more about this test and gain insider knowledge from a tutor who earned a perfect score can find this info by reading below.

What is the ACT?

Developed in 1959 as a competitor to the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), the American College Test (ACT) is a comprehensive standardized exam that tests a student’s readiness for college. Sections of the exam measure a student’s ability to comprehend reading passages, use standard writing conventions, understand scientific principles and employ mathematic formulas and equations in a series of questions.

The ACT is an important yardstick used by admissions panels, with Prep Scholar noting that standardized test scores can account for up to 50 percent of the final decision of whether to admit a student. A comparison to other high school students throughout America is also captured and sent to prospective schools.

The four sections comprising the ACT take two hours and 55 minutes to complete and consist of varied numbers of questions. An optional writing section, lasting an additional 40 minutes, is also available to students who either plan to study a writing-intensive discipline or whose school requires this fifth section.

Which Subjects Are Included in the ACT?

The current version of the ACT covers four subjects: English, math, reading and science. Each section varies in time limitations and the number of questions, but each follows a common, overarching approach to testing student knowledge and preparedness.

Unlike the SAT, which relies more heavily on existing knowledge (e.g. vocabulary words, mathematical formulas), the ACT relies on a student’s ability to intuit and follow directions closely.

English

The purpose of the English section of the ACT is to test two broad areas: usage/mechanics and rhetorical skills. Comprising 75 questions and lasting 45 minutes, examinees have an average of just 36 seconds per question.

The section consists of five passages or essays, with a series of multiple-choice questions asked about each. Questions may focus on individual words, phrases or sentences, or they may seek answers related to the passage as a whole. None of the questions test vocabulary or spelling, but students should be prepared for a few related to grammar.

Tips & Strategies
  • Review basic grammar.

    The ACT is a national exam designed for students throughout the country – including those who haven’t taken AP English. The questions test basic grammatical skills, so reviewing things like pronoun usage, proper sentence structure, punctuation, conjunctions and subject-verb agreement will go a long way.

  • Read the sentences to yourself.

    It’s often easier to spot an error when you can hear the sentence. Even if just reading to yourself in your head, take time to slowly digest the sentence to see if something sounds off.

  • Read as you go.

    Because students need to get through a lot of questions in a short amount of time, don’t read the whole passage before answering questions as you’ll end up going back through the text again. Instead, read the relevant portions for each question to save time.

Math

Math concepts on the ACT exam run the gamut of educational levels, with each accounting for a specific percentage of the exam. For 2017, these include:

  • Pre-Algebra (20 to 25 percent)

  • Elementary Algebra (15 to 20 percent)

  • Coordinate Geometry (15 to 20 percent)

  • Plane Geometry (20 to 25 percent)

  • Trigonometry (5 to 10 percent)

Examinees have 60 minutes to answer 60 questions, making it essential for them to come into the test with a quick recall of the steps involved in solving different types of equations and questions. A list of permitted calculators is provided, but all of the exam questions can be solved without this assistance if students prefer to work on paper.

Tips & Strategies
  • Use practice tests.

    While this is true of every section, students who feel like they need additional study time on the math portion can use a range of practice exams provided by Varsity Tutors or other prep services to build skills and confidence.

  • Understand why you got a problem wrong.

    After scoring a practice test, don’t skim over incorrect answers. Dig into these problems and figure out why you missed them and learn the skills or knowledge needed to get the next one right.

  • Translate into math.

    If a question has lots of words, try to translate them into math symbols to get a better visual of what the question is asking. Example: if you see the word “of,” you’ll probably need to multiply something.

Reading

The Reading test is comprised of 40 questions over 35 minutes, with four main themes and types of questions.

  • Prose fiction and literary narrative.

    Questions surrounding these passages focus on main themes, tone and intent, and questions that can and cannot be answered with the given information.

  • Social science.

    Questions after the social sciences passage are likely to require examinees to paraphrase how the passage uses information to describe the subject, and to answer questions about statements the author may or may not agree with (inference).

  • Humanities.

    Humanities passage questions zoom in on understanding the point of view or tone of the passage and/or author.

  • Natural science.

    These passages and questions allow examinees to demonstrate their ability to focus on details or statements that can be backed up with evidence or facts found in the passage.

Tips & Strategies
  • Focus on information provided.

    Reading questions can be tricky as they often touch on topics that students may have previous knowledge of. Be sure to use only the information provided when deciding the appropriate answer.

  • Review questions first.

    Before digging into the passage, glance over the questions so you’ll have an idea of sections to read more closely.

  • Eliminate incorrect answers.

    This strategy is effective for all sections, but especially for the reading section. Questions on the math and science portions tend to be factual, whereas those on the reading section ask for skills of inference and an understanding of implied information.

Science

Like the reading and English sections, the ACT science exam — which comprises 40 questions spread over 35 minutes — provides passages before asking a series of questions about the information contained within. More so than general scientific knowledge, this section tests scientific skills. Students won’t be asked to recall facts or figures, but they will need to analyze, evaluate, interpret and reason with topics related to the natural sciences. Areas of science covered include biology, chemistry, earth science and physics.

Tips & Strategies
  • Understand different types of questions.

    Science passages are divided into charts and graphs, experiments and opposing viewpoints, with each of these creating different types of questions. Honing in on the differences amongst these topics will help students move through the test more quickly.

  • Study common terms.

    Much like in the English section, there are common things such as variables, constants and relationships that will need to be understood. Study these topics to get a firm grip on what the question is asking.

  • Be prepared to make an educated guess.

    No matter how much studying you do, there may be a question that stumps you on test day. Rather than using significant time on one question, try to eliminate a few answers to make an educated guess, then move on.

Writing

The writing section of the ACT was given a major facelift in September 2015 and the new version is far more student-friendly. While the old version required students to take a position and develop an argument on a given passage of text, the new ACT writing section provides the arguments and reasoning so students only need to use that information to craft a strong essay.

Examinees have 40 minutes to read a passage, create an outline and write their essay. Metrics used to grade this portion of the ACT include: ideas and analysis; development and support; organization; and language use and conventions.

Tips & Strategies
  • Don’t worry about subject matter.

    ACT writing prompts provide all needed information, so even if a student isn’t familiar with the topic, there’s no need to panic. Simply pay close attention to the prompt and perspectives, then work with the given information.

  • Keep writing.

    There is a correlation between longer essays and higher scores, according to Prep Scholar, so don’t stop at one page. The ideal length is a page-and-a-half.

  • Intros and conclusions are key.

    Grading panels will certainly consider the body of your essay, but the spaces where you develop your thesis in the introduction and bring it all home in the conclusion will receive their undivided attention.

Understanding ACT Scoring

The last thing a student wants to do after taking the test is wait months for scores, and fortunately the ACT won’t leave them waiting long. The majority of scores can be found online within two weeks of the exam, while those sent via mail can take between two and eight weeks. Writing scores, which must be done individually, are typically released one month after the exam. Scores are also sent to prospective schools provided by students at registration.

Once scores are received, it’s important that students know how to properly read them. Each of the four main sections is scored on a scale of 1 to 36, and a composite score is provided based on the average of the individual scores. A composite score ranging between 1 and 36 is used for the exams, but students will also be given a percentile number related to how they stacked up against other test takers.

For instance, a student who scores in the 80th percentile achieved a higher grade than 80 percent of all examinees. The national average ACT score in 2016 was 20.8, meaning students with that score placed better than 50 percent of all test takers, while those who scored a 24 did better than 74 percent of examinees. Students should research scoring requirements at prospective schools before taking the exam to get an idea of an acceptable range.

Online Prep

Students preparing for the ACT have plenty of study resources at their disposal, including both free and paid services. Whether seeking a paid course, individual practice tests or an on-the-go mobile app, there are multiple options available.

Practice Tests

  • ACT ACT provides a range of practice questions for all four sections plus the optional writing test.

  • Peterson’s A number of practice questions and answers are available for free via Peterson’s.

  • Prep Scholar Comprehensive practice exams are available at no charge.

Courses

  • Kaplan Kaplan has online courses in addition to prep centers throughout the country that cater to individual student need. Options range from a basic online prep classroom course to intense, one-to-one tutoring options.

  • Princeton Review A range of paid courses are available at Princeton Review, including a $299 self-paced option or an ultimate classroom experience priced at $899.

  • Sylvan Prep Like Kaplan, Sylvan Prep has brick-and-mortar centers throughout the country while also offering a diverse range of online courses.

Apps

  • ACT’s Online Prep Designed by the provider of the ACT exam, this app costs $39.95 (students who pay for ACT’s online prep program can access it for free) but it is customizable to individual skill sets. The app includes actual practice questions and exams alongside systematic content review.

  • ACT Prep A free app providing practice tests, flashcards and quizzes via a user-friendly interface.

  • ACT Up Another free option, ACT Up includes more than 1,000 practice questions, “daily workouts” to ensure students get sufficient practice, progress reports and vocabulary games.

Registering for the ACT

Signing up for the ACT is made easy by using a simple online registration form that takes approximately 40 minutes to complete. After selecting a location and testing day, users must provide details of high school courses, a headshot, payment information and career aspirations that will be used when analyzing test scores.

Students may also opt in to the Educational Opportunity Service, a complimentary program that connects them with colleges, universities and financial aid opportunities based on final scores.

Examinees planning to take the ACT without the writing portion pay $42.50, while those who take the optional section pay $58.50. This fee includes a report for the student, their high school and up to four prospective colleges or universities.

Score reports for additional schools are $12, while registration via telephone costs an additional $15. If test takers sign up for the exam or change their testing date during the late registration period, an additional $27.50 is tacked on to the final cost.

Important ACT Dates

Test Date Deadline for Registration Late Registration Period (Fee Applies)
Sept. 9, 2017 Aug. 4, 2017 Aug. 5-18, 2017
Oct. 28, 2017 Sept. 22, 2017 Sept. 23-Oct. 6, 2017
Dec. 9, 2017 Nov. 3, 2017 Nov. 4-17, 2017
Feb. 10, 2018* Jan. 12, 2018 Jan. 13-19, 2018
April 14, 2018 March 9, 2018 March 10-23, 2018
June 9, 2018 May 4, 2018 May 5-18, 2018
July 14, 2018* June 15, 2018 June 16-22, 2018

*Note that no tests are administered in New York for the February and July exam dates.

Your Test Day

After weeks of studying, the day before testing is a time for students to clear their heads and rest. Rather than trying to stay up late and cram a few more facts in, take this time to relax and rest. Consider having a nutritious meal with family or friends and getting to bed early — testing day will come early.

On the morning of the ACT, make plans to wake up an hour before usual to have a balanced breakfast, take a walk to clear your mind, and make sure all the items needed during the test are packed and ready. The last thing a student wants to feel during this time is rushed or hungry, so use the morning wisely.

ACT provides a list of items that may be brought into the testing room. These include:

  • A copy of your testing ticket. Students who don’t have their ticket will not be admitted.

  • Acceptable photo identification, such as an official photo ID provided by a city, state, federal government agency or a school district. ACT student identification forms that include a photo are also permissible.

  • Sharpened No. 2 pencils with new erasers (no mechanical pencils or pens are allowed).

  • A watch without an alarm feature.

  • A calculator that meets the requirements of the ACT Calculator Policy.

Students should plan to arrive at the testing center by 8:00 a.m., as those who arrive late will not be admitted. Proctors will check each student’s ticket and identification before directing them to an assigned seat.

After the first two sections are completed, students will be allowed a short break to find food, water or a restroom, but cell phones may not be used. The exam, when taken without the writing component, typically ends at 12:15 p.m. Students completing the writing section finish by 1:15 p.m.

Expert Q&A: Is the ACT Right for You?

Ted Dorsey is founder of the test prep company Tutor Ted, which aims to provide high quality, non-boring ACT and SAT prep to every student.

How many times should a student take the ACT?

Some students are fortunate enough to take the ACT one time and be done, but many others take the test two or even three times. Taking the test two times is the “sweet spot” — you’ve had the experience of taking the test already, which means that the environment and setting will be familiar to you. Plus, you’ve had the chance to learn more in school and get a little bit older and wiser. That experience and wisdom will make you a better ACT taker and will almost certainly help improve your score.

What are some of the most effective ways to prepare for the ACT?

You need two things to be successful on the ACT: knowledge and strategy. Knowledge will help you rock the English and Math tests. The English section is particularly “preppable” because it tests a limited set of grammar and editing knowledge that every student can learn. Adopting an ACT-friendly strategy is essential on Reading and Science. ACT Reading is fast, so you need to practice and find the pace that will get you through that section in time. ACT Science is much easier than it looks. Consequently, students should practice so they get comfortable identifying the information relevant to answering each question.

How can a student determine whether to take the ACT, SAT or both?

The best way to make that determination is to take a full practice test for each. Make sure you take them on separate days, though, because if you take them back-to-back, you can be sure the second score will be worse than the first! Use a comparison of the scores as well as your own reaction to the tests to make a decision. Keep in mind that just because you don’t know something on one of the tests doesn’t mean that should disqualify that test — you can always learn that knowledge.

Why is it important for students to take the ACT in relation to college acceptance and scholarships?

Many merit-based scholarships use test scores as a measuring stick. In addition, your ACT score will be used to compare you to the other students applying to college. It is worthwhile for you to invest the time to get good at taking this test, because the higher your score, the greater your opportunities will be. And we all love great opportunities!

What are your best tips for preparing to ace this examination?

The ACT is a standardized test, which is awesome. That means it is always the same. Keep these strategies in mind as you take the test:

  • English. Shorter is better. Get rid of as many commas as you possibly can. Unless you KNOW you need a comma, get rid of it.

  • Math. Use your calculator to work efficiently. Did you know that calculator programs are legal so long as they don’t contain more than 25 lines of code? Most programs fit that description, so bring a quadratic program, a distance formula program, a midpoint program and a slope-intercept program into the test with you. They will save you time and guarantee you a right answer.

  • Reading. Try playing with the balance between accuracy and speed. You will likely be better off working faster and a little less accurately than you normally do. Imagine this: If you get 90 percent of all of the questions right, you’ll do better than if you get 100 percent of them right but only get through 75 percent of the passages.

  • Science. Learn as little as possible. See this video for a more in-depth explanation.