Resources - by Rachel Kapelke-Dale

ACT Tips and Strategies

The top tips and strategies to help you do your absolute best on the exam.

Good ACT Tips and Strategies

If thinking about the ACT overwhelms you, take a second and think about what the ACT actually is: a standardized test. It's really important to realize that, because it holds the key to effective studying.

It's standardized!

To be fair to every student who takes the exam, the creators of the ACT ensure that each exam they administer meets certain standards. It has the same format. It has the same question types. It covers the same content.

Anxiety often comes from fear of the unknown. ACT test anxiety can stem from that same place: what will you see on the test? How can you possibly study everything in math, science, reading, and English before test day?

You can't—and the great news is, you don't have to. Realizing that the ACT is a standardized test is the first step to mastering it. Learning how to use that standardization to guide your studies is the next. So how can you do your absolute best on the exam? Let's take a look at the top tips and strategies to help you get there.

1. Start Early

When's the best time to start studying for the ACT? As soon as possible! That's why exposure to the ACT (often in the form of the PreACT) as early as sophomore year can be helpful: by the time you start studying, usually as a junior, you'll already have some sense of the format and content that you're likely to see during the official exam.

However, that doesn't do you any good if you're already past sophomore year—and even less good if your exam's fast approaching! If one of those cases applies to you, keep a few things in mind. First of all, it's entirely possible to get a significant amount of test preparation into a short time period if you're willing to commit the hours. Second of all, most students will achieve their best scores taking the ACT twice, anyway—so it's a good opportunity to pin down a second test date now, knowing that you'll have more time to prepare for that.

2. Select Your Materials Wisely

There's a sea of ACT materials out there, and it can be really tricky to sort through them when you start prepping. First, you have some choices to make: do you want to take a class? Hire a tutor? Prep with books? Work online? For most students, some combination of the above methods will work best. For example, although Magoosh offers online ACT prep, it also has an excellent ACT study guide available for download and printing, if you prefer to work on paper.

What should you look for in ACT materials? First, you want to make sure that they're test-like. They should absolutely never deviate from the types of questions or content you'll see on test day. Without taking the official exam, this can be tricky to evaluate, but luckily, the ACT organization posts limited practice materials you can look at and yes, prepare with, to get a sense of the exam. Use these materials as the gold standard by which you evaluate others.

Second, you want to make sure that the materials provide thorough answers and explanations. Some books and websites only offer the correct answer to a problem, without explaining how to arrive at it. This is pretty useless, as far as learning how to master the ACT goes! You'll see why as we look at…

3. Practice Problems and Practice Tests

These two materials should be the cornerstone of your ACT prep. Yes, lessons (whether written or live) are good, in terms of refreshing your understanding of material. However, answering a question incorrectly, then learning why you did and how to answer it correctly, is by far the more valuable tool.

So how should you structure your ACT practice around these two materials? First, take an ACT practice test to determine where you are now. No matter what your results are, don't be too discouraged or too pleased with yourself (unless you got straight 36s—in which case, why are you still reading?) The important thing about this first test is that it gives us a snapshot of where you are now.

The next thing to do is to study your practice test. No, I don't mean just looking at your answers—I mean really studying it. Get out a fresh notebook and write down the full text of every problem you got wrong on one side of the page (I promise, this isn't punishment!) Next, write down the answer and solution to the problem on the facing page or other half of the page. Make sure you understand how to get to the right answer now!

As you go through your ACT prep, be sure to return to this "Error Log" periodically. You should update it not only after each practice test, but also as you work through practice problems. Review it at least twice a month, re-doing missed problems, before you official exam.

After that first practice test, it's time for lessons and practice problems! Keep in mind that unless your official test is really close (as in, this coming Saturday), you should aim to complete about one practice test per week. It's important to tracking your progress and guiding your studies; it also keeps you ready for the test-day experience. Finally, it keeps you going back to that error log, which is always a good thing.

ACT Strategies

While there are many different ways to approach ACT prep and scheduling, there are a few tried and true strategies that you can also use on the exam. Here are just a few that can help save you time and effort on the ACT.

ACT Math Tips

Below are three excellent strategies/techniques for taking the ACT's math section.

"Plugging In"

For multiple-choice answers, we know that the answer has to be one of the options presented. If your answer choices are numbers (rather than variables) and there's an equation in the question stem, plugging in is a great option. Start with option C. If it's too small, you can eliminate A and B as well; if it's too big, there go D and E.

"Pick a Number"

If the question you're working with has variables in both the question stem and the answer choices, plugging in won't work. Instead, choose a number that fits the parameters of the question (positive or negative? Whole number or fraction?) and plug it into the equation in the question stem. Then, substitute that same number for the same variable in the answer choices. If you're lucky, only one will work. If you're not, choose another number until you've eliminated all but one answer choice.

"Mental Math"

Yes, you can bring a calculator to the ACT Math test. With that, though, comes the caveat that you need to be very careful about making that calculator a crutch. So often, we'll use calculators to do math we could do easily in our heads, and with fewer opportunities for error. As you practice, look out for problems that invite mental math, especially those with chances for estimation.

What's 1,002 multiplied by 47? Give me a minute…let me get my calculator out. But what's 1,000 multiplied by 50? Easy, 50,000! (That example would be more likely to show up as a step in a more complex ACT math problem than as an ACT problem itself, but you get my drift). If a question's answer choices aren't too close, mental math is a good choice. Just make sure you practice this strategy lots before using it on the official test—we're all a bit rusty without our calculators since the advent of smartphones!

For All ACT Multiple-Choice Sections

"Strategic Elimination": B or C? B … no, C… wait, no, maybe it was B? Believe me: we've all been there! One important thing to know about the ACT is that there is no wrong-answer penalty. You can only gain points on the ACT—you can't lose them. So if you're hesitating between two questions and your time's almost up, pick your favorite letter and go with that. This is also true for questions you have no clue how to approach or for questions you haven't even had the time to read. Make sure you always leave a minute or two at the end to bubble in that favorite letter, just in case. Statistically, it's bound to help at some point!

For All ACT Sections

The last two strategies can be applied to every section of the ACT. Make sure to remember these!

"The Strategic Test Approach"

In English class, you usually have to read the texts in the order they're assigned to you. In Science class, you perform experiments in the order your teacher requires. On the ACT, your teachers aren't there! While they'd probably be pretty good at the exam, be glad for this: it means that you can approach any given section of the exam in whatever order you want. Like fiction passages? Start there in the Reading section. Better at Research Summaries than other Science questions? Go there as soon as your test group's on the Science section.

One caveat here: you cannot flip between sections ("tests") on this exam! So definitely start with your favorite problem types to get those easier points and your confidence up…but don't forget to stay within the same section (or to be super careful about bubbling in your answers)!

"Know the Directions"

This isn't really a strategy per se, but it is a way of minimizing the time you take answering questions on test day. The instructions on each test aren't going to change—so read them at home and use the time on test day to answer the questions, instead!

A Final Word

See how lucky you are to be taking a standardized test? There's a lot you can do in terms of both ACT content and the ACT format to prepare yourself before your official exam, whether it's next week or next year. At the end of the day, though, remember: it is just one piece of your admissions file. Your grades, your essays: these will play important roles in your college applications, too. So don't let the rest of your life suffer in order to prep maniacally for the ACT! Just know that solid and regular effort will help you reach your goals if you're consistent, strategic, and adaptable.

Last updated on June 13, 2017

About the author: Rachel Kapelke-Dale

Rachel is a High School and Graduate Exams blogger at Magoosh. She has a Bachelor of Arts from Brown University, an MA from the Université de Paris VII, and a PhD from University College London. She has taught test preparation and consulted on admissions practices for over eight years. Currently, Rachel divides her time between the US and London.

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