How to Prepare for the ACT

An excellent ACT score is within reach, as long as you prepare.

Edited By Sydney Nikols | March 18, 2014

If you’re planning on tackling the optional writing section, make sure to practice the ACT 30-minute essays.
Photo: Thinkstock

Preparing for and taking the ACT can be an intimidating part of the college admissions process, but it doesn’t have to be. In order to get the best ACT score you possibly can, aim to do the following three things: understand the test, practice the questions and come prepared on test day. Read on for detailed advice on how to get positive results out of your ACT experience.

The Basics of the ACT

The ACT includes four multiple-choice sections and one optional writing section. The four multiple-choice sections are as follows: English, a 45-minute section that includes 75 questions assessing written English and rhetorical skills; mathematics, a 60-minute section that includes 60 questions assessing mathematical skills; reading, a 35-minute section including 40 questions assessing ability in reading comprehension; and science, a 35-minute section including 40 questions assessing ability in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning and problem-solving relating to the natural sciences. The optional 30-minute writing section, which includes one essay that is meant to measure your overall writing skills, is required by some colleges but not by others; use the College Writing Test Requirements Search Tool to find out if the colleges to which you are applying require that you take it.

In addition to understanding what’s on the ACT, it’s also important to understand how the test is scored.

In addition to understanding what’s on the ACT, it’s also important to understand how the test is scored. The multiple choice sections of the test are scored by giving students one point for each correct answer and no points for each incorrect or omitted answer. These points add up to make a student’s raw score (for instance, a student who gets 50 mathematics questions right gets a raw score of 50 for that section). That raw score then translates into a scaled score, which is calculated by considering differences in difficulty among the various test administrations. Scaled scores range from 1 to 36, with 36 being the highest possible score. The final ACT score, or composite score, is assessed by averaging the four scaled scores from each individual section.

The writing test is scored a bit differently. First, two readers assess a student’s essay, giving it a score between 1 and 6. The two readers’ scores are then added together to make a number between 2 and 12, with 12 being the highest score. The writing score doesn’t affect a student’s ultimate ACT score; instead, it’s used as a stand-alone score for schools to separately assess.

How to Study for the ACT

ACT, Inc., provides a variety of test prep resources to help you prepare for the big day. The most important of these resources is the practice test, which is the best tool you can use to ready yourself for what’s to come. (Princeton Review also offers free practice tests, both in-person and online.)

Practice tests are sample tests that are structured like the ACT and filled with questions similar to the ones you can expect on test day. Taking practice tests will allow you to become familiar with the ACT’s structure and brush up on the skills you’ll need to get a good score. Taking practice tests will also help you save time on test day, which can boost your score; if you are able to memorize the instructions to each section beforehand, you won’t need to waste time reading them while you’re taking the actual test.

In order to start taking practice tests, set up a study schedule that works for you. U.S. News and World Report recommends that busy students try the “Question of the Day” approach; instead of trying to set aside hours of study time every day, simply commit to answering one question a day. You can do so by either breaking out a practice test or visiting the ACT Question of the Day website, on which a new practice question is posted every 24 hours.

In order to start taking practice tests, set up a study schedule that works for you.
Photo: Thinkstock

If you’re planning on tackling the optional writing section, practice the ACT 30-minute essays, as well. Because essays are more subjective than multiple choice, this section is a little trickier when it comes to preparation. Consider ACT, Inc’s suggestions regarding how to tackle the writing section; namely, choose a specific point of view about the issue, jot down your ideas before you begin writing, and be clear about the stance you are taking. Address counterarguments and use specific examples in order to bolster your argument. Also, make sure to vary your sentence structure and word choices and be careful to use correct grammar, spelling and punctuation.

U.S. News and World Report also suggests signing up to take the real ACT test more than once. Doing so will help you become more comfortable with the test and receiving your first scores will help you identify problem areas; this way, you’ll know which sections you need to practice and which skill-sets you need to improve upon.

Tips for Test Day

On the day of the test, make sure to bring your test center ticket, a photo ID, a number-two pencil, a watch to pace yourself, the correct kind of calculator and snacks and drinks for the allowed break period.

Beyond bringing the necessary items, make sure to employ certain strategies in order to pace yourself. Don’t spend too long on a certain passage or question. Always answer easy and moderately easy questions first; this will ensure that you don’t waste time on a question that has you stumped. Once you’ve come to the end of a section, go back to reconsider the hard questions you skipped. If you don’t know the answer, always take a guess; you won’t get docked for a wrong answer, but if you don’t give any answer at all, you’ll lose your chance at getting a point for the question.

Now that you’re armed with this information and advice, you can properly prepare for the ACT, allowing you to tackle test day with confidence.

People Who Read This Article Also Read:

ACT: The Essentials
What's a Good SAT Score or ACT Score?
How to Improve Your SAT and ACT Scores
Low SAT or ACT Test Scores? You Still Have College Options

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