When you’re starting to prepare for the ACT, it can seem like there are a million “tips and tricks” out there that promise you a perfect score by tomorrow. Too good to be true, right? Right. The ACT is a standardized test, which means that it’s learnable and that you can master it, but there’s no fast-forward button for test prep.
With that said, there are a few things you can change about how you approach the ACT to maximize your chances of success, and make your preparation more efficient in the process.
You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘it’s a marathon, not a sprint’ before. This is true for the ACT, but it’s even better if you can think of the test as a process, rather than an event. To get your score as high as possible on the ACT, it’s important to put in time and effort to master the materials. Once you’ve done that, test day becomes just a chance to put your newly honed skills to work.
One of the biggest questions future test-takers have: “When should I start preparing for the ACT?” The answer depends on you (your schedule, your commitment, whether you choose to study on your own, with a class, with a tutor), but it also depends on external factors.
For example, you may be a sophomore with a chance to take the PreACT. By all means, take it! (If you don’t know what the PreACT is, don’t worry, it’s relatively new. Just check out a guide to the PreACT to get you grounded!) This starts your ACT prep early and gives you a sense of what content you’ll see on the test, as well as an abbreviated version of the test format a year before you’ll take the official ACT.
On the other end of the spectrum, you may be a senior or rising senior trying to get your ducks in a row at the last minute. Most college application deadlines are at the end (or very beginning) of the year, which means that your prep time may necessarily be limited. If that’s the case, it’s okay! Just be honest with yourself about your goals, how much time you can give to the ACT prep process, and your other commitments between now and test day.
No matter how long you have before test day, taking an ACT practice test at the beginning of your preparation is vital. This acts as a “diagnostic”, while it doesn’t tell you anything about your potential score on test day, it does give you a sense of what your score might be if you took the exam right now.
However, the most valuable part of taking a practice test actually isn’t the scores. The reason a lot of students invest so much time and effort into taking practice tests and then see little to no increase in their scores on test day is that they’re using the practice tests wrong.
That’s right–not all practice makes perfect! Only perfect practice makes perfect.
That doesn’t mean that you have to be perfect in your practice. After all, if you were perfect at answering ACT questions – why practice? What it does mean is that your mindset, practice materials, and test strategies should all be top-notch.
With the huge amount of ACT prep materials out there, it can be difficult to know where to start. Here’s what you need to look for:
- full-length practice tests;
- problem sets for every question type you’ll see on test day (that’s ACT English, ACT Math, ACT Reading, and ACT Science – and possible ACT Writing, too!)
That’s it! Of course, there are two big caveats: first, those materials should be as test-like as possible. Check out the ACT’s website to get a sense of what the test questions actually look like. Taking a diagnostic test can also help you do this.
Second, you want to make sure that both the practice tests you take and the problem sets you do have thorough and clear explanations. Just giving you the correct answer isn’t enough. If you want to check out some great practice problems while getting an overview of the content the ACT tests, Magoosh’s ACT study guide is a great place to start.
Special thanks to Rachel Kapelke-Dale for providing us with this article. 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.