Developing Your Own Personalized ACT Prep

You just registered for the ACT. Your next step should be getting as prepared as possible for the test.

The ACT is not a typical high school subject test. You already have all the skills you need to do well on it. So, what makes the ACT so tricky for students? The way most students study for a test is by learning new material. The ACT does not ask questions that require you to memorize facts or know random knowledge. You can begin preparing but understanding the material on the ACT and knowing your own strengths and weaknesses.

There are four required ACT sections (the Writing test is optional) with a certain number of questions in a given time.


The ACT Reading section

The Reading section is 35 minutes with 40 questions. That means you have 52 seconds for each question, but you will need to read passages to answer those questions, so the time per question will be lower depending on your reading speed.


The ACT Math section

The Math section is 60 minutes with 60 questions; you have 1 minute per question.  


The ACT Science section

The Science section is 35 minutes with 40 questions. Again, this leaves about 52 seconds per question, but you will be reading passages or looking at graphs for questions so that the time will be slightly less depending on your confidence in scientific data.


The ACT English section

The English section is 45 minutes with 75 questions. With this many questions, it makes this section the hardest to see an increase in your score. For example, if you answer two more questions correctly in the English portion, your ACT score would rise by 1 point. In contrast, if you focus on the sections with fewer questions, you will earn one more point on your ACT score for every additional question answered correctly.

Scoring is one element to keep in mind when developing your study schedule.


Basic ACT prep tips

The biggest challenge with any test preparation is where to start. When beginning anything new, it is always good to get a baseline. Then you get to see how you are improving and where to continue focusing your efforts.

Think of your ACT prep as a cycle and continue following these steps for each section or as time allows.

1) Do actual ACT questions in the allotted time. You do not need to do an entire practice test. If you do ten math questions, give yourself 10 minutes. If you do 10 English questions, give yourself 6 minutes. Some students believe that if they find “hard” ACT questions, they will be studying better. The best questions to practice with are questions from previous ACTs. The questions on the ACT must follow the same format, or an ACT score would not mean anything if the difficulty of each exam was different. Understanding the questions and answers is more important than the content of the questions.

2) Take time to go through your mistakes with the questions you answered incorrectly. Don’t just agree with the correct answer and move on. You will never see the same question again. So, you need to recognize your mistake and then learn how to fix it and not make it again on future questions. This second part of your preparation is where it would be helpful to work with a tutor. A tutor specializing in ACT prep knows common mistakes and can help you see patterns in your thinking. Someone that does ACT tutoring also knows the types of questions on the ACT and how to work through them most efficiently.  

3) Do another set of ACT practice questions for the section you reviewed. Did you get more questions correct? Were you able to catch the errors you made and avoid them this time? Depending on your target score, you may decide to continue reviewing and learning from your mistakes or go on to the next section and go through the same process.

The critical thing to keep in mind is that you will see more improvement when you do quality practice on actual ACT questions than doing large quantities of questions. For most high school students, this seems illogical. Since we are always learning new material and then tested on that, we think that is how all tests work. The ACT is not like any test you have taken in a high school class. It is not a curriculum test, but rather it is a standardized test.

Timing and prioritizing your own ACT prep

The next part of your ACT prep schedule is unique to you. Ask yourself the following questions to begin the framework of your personalized plan.

1) How much time do I have before I take the ACT?

2) How long can I study at one time and gain something from my session?

3) In what order should I study to raise my score the most?

Only you can answer the first two questions. But a general rule of thumb is that the earlier, the better. This approach allows you to review your incorrect questions more and learn from your mistakes. It also puts less pressure on you and gives you more time to synthesize the material and techniques you are learning. However, don’t spread out your ACT prep for so long that you forget what you learned from lesson to lesson.

Think about the time it takes you to learn and work through a new unit in school. It is about one to two months for most students and topics if working with the material a couple of times a week. This is a reasonable time frame to use when doing ACT lessons.

Studying for the ACT    

In terms of how to study for the ACT, think about how preparing for one section might help you with other areas. 

English and Reading 

Reading is the most critical skill for the ACT. With this in mind, starting with the Reading portion of the ACT will then help you with all the other sections. Also, keep in mind that increasing the correct number of answers on the Reading section will correlate with the same increase on your overall ACT score. The more quickly you learn how to read each question, the easier it will be to avoid careless mistakes.  

If you are thinking about how to get a 36 on the ACT, you know that the English section has the lowest ratio of correct test questions to the overall score. Preparing for this section last allows you to see the most considerable improvement in your overall score by first improving the other three areas.

Science and Math

You might think that the Science section would be good to do second to boost your score since it has the same number of questions and the same time limit as the Reading section, but the Math section usually takes a longer time to find patterns with style and grasp your errors.

Plus, the Science section puts your skills from the Reading and Math sections together.  

A Sample ACT prep schedule

Let’s look at a sample ACT prep plan so that you get a feel for how to structure yours.

  • Take a full-length ACT in with test-like conditions. Set aside a block of time not to be distracted and make sure you have your calculator for the appropriate sections.
  • Next, score your exam to find your section score and a composite score for the practice test.
  • Now that you have a starting point, decide your goal score for the ACT. Consider the colleges or universities you are applying for and if they accept students with ACT scores above or below the average ACT score.
  • Look at how you did in each ACT section. Were you consistent with your scores in each area? Remember that correct Reading and Science answers will raise your overall score more than Math and English solutions. Do the first four steps all on the same day.
  • Look at your calendar leading up to the actual ACT. Being realistic and consistent with studying will yield better results and help you retain the information you learn in your ACT lessons.
  • You might not have as much time as you would like, so decide how to study most effectively. One way could be using an ACT online prep course. These ACT courses allow you to work at your own pace or pick and choose which sections you review. Or find an ACT tutor that can work with you one-on-one and tailor your ACT lessons to your strengths and weaknesses. If you are tight on time, ACT tutoring with a well-versed tutor will allow you to focus on precisely what you need and not waste time reviewing what you already do correctly. Do these two things together to supercharge your plan.
  • Finding the patterns for correctly answering questions you previously got incorrect. An ACT tutor has worked with ACT questions and can help you dissect the question and the answers. Doing specific ACT tutoring is different from tutoring for a class in school. The tutor will not be teaching new equations or facts but instead going through questions, you have answered and helping you see their structure.
  • Book prep sessions with an ACT tutor. The number of sessions you book with a tutor should mirror how many sections you want to improve. Please don’t think that a single ACT lesson can encompass every type of question. The minimum number of sessions to book with a tutor is 2 – 3 ACT lessons for each ACT section you want to improve. Booking multiple sessions will allow for an ACT tutor to give you some sample questions and listen to your thought process as you answer them.

They will hear and see your patterns and what you may be missing in the question or answers during this time. The next session might consist of going through those questions, but this time picking them apart and focusing on what is important and unimportant. The final session will allow you to go through another sample set of ACT questions so that you have the chance to apply the strategies you learned with your tutor. 

Depending on your goal ACT score and how many different techniques your tutor found for you to work, you may want to add in more sessions before taking another set of practice questions.  

  • Consider your schedule. Giving yourself time to digest the material and apply it to ACT questions will yield the results you want. Make sure you space out your tutoring or prep sessions and think about 1 – 2 per week to see progress and allow yourself time to think about the information you have gone over with your tutor. The frequency of meeting with your ACT tutor will depend on how much time you have before taking the ACT.

Engineering your own perfect ACT prep plan

Begin with having a general study schedule in mind. Think of which days allow you to study, when during the day, and how much time you can devote to doing ACT prep. It is not feasible to take a full-length ACT every time you study. And as you have learned by now, that would not be helpful if you are making the same careless mistakes and not knowing how to answer the questions better. The more realistic you can be with the time you plan to prepare for the ACT, the more you can focus your efforts on the sections and types of questions that will make the most significant impact on your overall score.

Think about your goal score on the ACT, your time, and how to raise your score more effectively. Doing what is right for you will help you the most. If you are unsure of where to start, look up ACT tutors to discuss and make a study plan personalized just for you.

And remember that the ACT is another data point for college admissions, but it will not explain you as a whole student as it is a single test. Take your prep seriously, but remember to maintain perspective. Good luck!

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