ACT Study Strategies to Improve Your Overall Score

In this post, we’re going to give you a few strategies to help you improve your ACT score. However, before we discuss specific strategies, we want you to know that you CAN study for the ACT. The ACT is not an IQ test. You can develop the skills and knowledge you need to improve on the test by studying the ACT’s content and practicing test-taking.

With that in mind, let’s discuss specific ACT study strategies:

First, Take a Practice Test

Before you start studying (or continue studying), take a practice test. You should take the practice test in an environment as similar to the actual testing environment as possible. Try to find a quiet desk in your house or go to your school or local library.

If you’re an anxious or easily distracted test taker, it is particularly important to practice under testing conditions. Going to the library or another unfamiliar environment may help you practice in a more stressful setting.

Make sure that the practice test you choose to take is an official ACT practice test from ACT, Inc. The ACT does not share all of its criteria for writing test questions. As such, ACT, Inc.’s practice tests will always be closer to the real test than any third-party company’s tests.

Time yourself as you take the test. When you time the test, set your watch for 5 minutes before the test ends. In the ACT, your proctor should let you know when there are 5 minutes left in a section. However, you should have your own watch in case they don’t. Setting your timer for 5 minutes before the end of the section will give you a sense of how much time you’ll have after the reminder.

If you have a 5-minute warning in the actual test and you know you won’t finish the section, that will give you a heads-up to bubble in remaining questions with a guess. Depending on how quickly you’re moving, you may not need 5 minutes to bubble in guesses, but be aware that you should start thinking about it. You want to answer every question since there is no penalty for guessing on the ACT.

When you’re timing yourself, you can also set your watch to count down or up to the time limit, depending on your preference.

If you are less than certain about an answer, mark that question with a slash. Even if you get it right, it would be worth reviewing further to make sure the same concept doesn’t trip you up on the actual test.

If possible, it would be best to print out the test so you can write in your sample test booklet as you would on the day of the ACT. If you can’t print out the full booklet, print out the answer sheet so you can practice bubbling in answers.

Score Your Practice Test

Once you have taken a practice test, score it using the specific scoring chart at the back of the test. From there, you can check the percentiles to see where your score puts you at the national level. That will be useful information to show you if you’re in the ballpark of scores for the colleges that interest you.

The other thing to keep in mind about scoring is that scores ending in 0.5 or above round up while scores ending in 0.25 round down. For example, a score of 29.5 will round up to a 30 while a 29.25 will round down to a 29. This can tell you whether you just barely achieved a score or have a good shot of moving up with little effort.

Target Your Studying

Targeting your studying is one of the most impactful ACT study strategies you can pursue.

After checking your overall score, look closely at which answers you got right and wrong. Identify which subjects you struggled with and focus your studying on those subjects. For example, if most of your wrong answers in the math section were in algebra, get a list of the most common algebra topics on the ACT and focus on learning more about them.

Make a note of whether you tend to miss questions because you don’t know the content, you struggle to recognize the content, you make careless mistakes, or you run out of time.  

There are several ways to study from there. If you understand the content, you can drill yourself with test questions in the subject until you’re more comfortable answering them. If you don’t understand the concepts you’re being tested on (e.g., you don’t know what a cosine is in the math section), you can use a number of sources from textbooks to test prep sites (like ours!) to teach yourself the content.

Prioritize studying content that covers the most common questions you got wrong. If you notice that the same mistake cost you three questions and a subject you didn’t know made you miss one question, study the mistake that cost you the most questions first.

If you don’t recognize a certain topic on the math section, you can look through our math flashcards to learn more about it.

After studying the content you struggled with on your first practice test, take a second practice test. Use that test to figure out whether there are any new subjects you need to study and which topics you need to study further. Do not churn through practice tests; instead, thoroughly review the material you missed on each test before trying another test.

Study Familiar Content First

If your test day is rapidly approaching, study difficult subjects that you have already covered in class first. For example, say you’re having trouble with algebra and trigonometry questions in practice tests and you have only studied algebra in school. Focus on learning the ACT algebra content first before studying trigonometry. That way, you can start with material that is familiar to improve your score more quickly.

Use Your Study Time Wisely

You can save yourself a lot of time and maximize your ACT score by studying smart. Do not spend time answering practice questions in areas of the test that you already understand. Instead, focus the bulk of your study time on familiarizing yourself with ACT concepts that you don’t understand and taking practice tests to figure out test timing.

Pay attention to yourself while studying. If you can’t remember the information you just reviewed, you may have worked on the material for too long. Close your books, go for a walk, and do something else for a while. If you’re reviewing material you already know, you may be able to study productively for longer than you can when learning a new topic.

When learning new topics, it is best to see them multiple times. Studying for 30 minutes a day for three days in a row is better than spending an hour and a half on one day on new material. Consistent study really beats cramming for the ACT (and for pretty much everything you’ll ever need to learn!).

Practice Pacing Yourself

One of the most important ACT study strategies is to figure out how many questions you intend to answer in each section. The number of questions you should answer is based on how quickly you can go while still answering questions correctly. This number will be different for every person.

The ACT is a balancing act between trying to answer as many questions as possible to increase your score while making sure you give yourself enough time to answer questions correctly.

Here is how the overall timing for each section works. When you practice, you can make a plan for the day of the test.

Regular Time (applies to most ACT test takers):

  • English: 75 questions — 45 minutes: 36 seconds per question
  • Mathematics: 60 questions — 60 minutes: 60 seconds per question
  • Reading: 40 questions — 35 minutes: 52.5 seconds per question
  • Science: 40 questions — 35 minutes: 52.5 seconds per question

50% Extended Time*:

  • English: 75 questions — 70 minutes: 56 seconds per question
  • Mathematics: 60 questions — 90 minutes: 90 seconds per question
  • Reading: 40 questions – 55 minutes: 82.5 seconds per question
  • Science: 40 questions — 55 minutes: 82.5 seconds per question

*Do not practice using extended time unless you already have approval or will have approval soon for ACT testing accommodations. Certain students may have double time or additional accommodations.

Because the ACT is very timing-dependent and each individual uses their time differently, develop a personalized timing strategy instead of planning to spend an equal amount of time on each question. Here is more specific information about timing on individual sections of the ACT**:

English

The English section has 75 questions to complete in 45 minutes. The difficulty of questions on the English section is mixed: the questions aren’t arranged in order of increasing difficulty. So, if one question seems hard, that doesn’t mean the next question will be. The English section has 5 passages with 15 questions per passage. You would spend 9 minutes per passage if you used all of the time and split it equally between sections.

If you’re pressed for time, you may benefit from guessing on editing questions that involve sequencing information (putting paragraphs or sentences in order), as these can take longer than some other question types.

Math

The math section has 60 questions to complete in 60 minutes. As a general rule, the questions on the math section start out simpler and get trickier, although you will likely move fastest on the content that is most familiar to you. If you intend to finish the math section, aim to finish the first 30 questions in under 30 minutes. You can generally miss around 10 questions and still score near a 30 on the math section. Many students might want to guess on the last questions to gain more time to answer questions earlier in the test.

Reading

There are 40 questions total in the Reading section to be completed in 35 minutes. Like the English section, the order of difficulty in the reading section is mixed. The test is divided into 4 sections: 3 long stand-alone passages and 1 pair of short passages that are related. You will have ~8 minutes, 45 seconds per passage. This section is very fast-paced, and many students do not finish the last passage or have to skim it.

Each passage is on a different topic: Literary Narrative, Social Science, Humanities, and Natural Science. If you know you struggle to maintain interest on a certain passage type and you also tend not to finish the reading section, consider leaving that passage for last. Try this in practice to see if it helps you before using this strategy on an actual ACT.

Similarly, if you know you have a low accuracy rate on a particular question type (main ideas, for example), you can skip some of those questions if you are pressed for time in order to get to ones that you get right more often.

Science

The science section has 40 questions to complete in 35 minutes. There are typically 6 or 7 passages. The Science section doesn’t follow a consistent order of difficulty, although sometimes the last 1-2 passages can be tough.

The passages fall under 3 types: single experiment, more than one experiment, and essay/prose. Passages with one experiment are often less time intensive than the other two types of passages. Keep track of the passage and question types that you like and struggle with as you are studying.

**Note: the times provided in this section are for regular time. See above for extended time estimates

Everyone is different; try timing strategies out until you find what works best for you.

The Takeaway

It is possible to improve your ACT score by using the right ACT study strategies. However, it is really important to study smart. Identify the parts of the test that are easy for you and the parts that are challenging. Before the test, focus on studying the subjects you struggle with. During the test, answer questions in sections that are easy for you first to get as many points as possible before tackling harder questions.

Photo Credit:Sarah Pflug from Burst 

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