Best ACT Prep Tips

These five ACT prep tips will help you earn the score you want...and the score that colleges want to see.

Are you registered for the September 10 ACT? (Or maybe the October 22 one?) More importantly, are you ready?! Let’s get you there.

With so many ACT prep books out there, many high school students assume they can just keep turning pages and they’ll boost their scores. But you need to be a lot more strategic about your ACT prep if you want to see a sizeable score improvement and end up with more than just an average ACT score.

These five ACT prep tips will help you earn the score you want—and the score that colleges want to see.

Become an avid reader

The ACT is ultimately a reading test. Paragraph-long word problems in math; dense science passages carrying on for a few paragraphs; paragraph after paragraph where you have to evaluate grammar and style; and, of course, the reading comprehension passages. It all adds up to testing your reading and comprehension skills!

One way to deal with this is to start reading more often—especially if you aren’t reading that much to begin with. Sure, a test prep strategy involving study blocks and flashcards will help you to an extent. But if your eyes start glazing over midway through a paragraph, you’re in trouble. Set little reading goals—as short as tacking on five extra minutes of reading a time a day—and build from there. So take some books out of the library, read news online (like New York Times news), and seek out longer online articles (five to eight pages) on subjects that interest you.

Become an active reader

Yeah, I know—we just talked about reading. But letting your mind drift to what you ate for breakfast or what you plan on eating for lunch while you’re reading—so that when you get to the end of the page and have no idea what it was about—doesn’t count.

To combat this tendency to drift, employ active reading tactics. This includes things like pausing briefly to think about what you just read, paraphrasing the text to make it easier to understand, and maybe even jotting down a few notes. You might think this will cost you time, and it might at first do exactly that. But when you become more adept at active reading, you’ll actually save time in the long run, because you won’t have to reread text over and over again to get the larger meaning of the piece. Active reading helps you get at the main ideas the piece is conveying. And on the ACT, it helps you answer the questions more quickly—and more confidently.

Don’t forget the essay

Many forget that an essay comes at the end of the ACT. In fact, when many do practice tests they forget to do the practice essay. Then, on test day, they are completely zonked by the time they have to write it. Just because the ACT essay is optional, you shouldn’t treat it as optional in your ACT prep. After all, what will you do if your top college requires your Writing score?

Of course, doing well on the ACT essay doesn’t just come from doing a few practice prompts. You’ll want to make sure you know how to read and understand the nature of the prompt, which has recently changed and is probably unlike any essay you’ve written before. Once you get what the graders are looking for, take a look at some ACT essay examples (you’ll find them in the Official ACT Prep Guide). Then write example essays trying to model the high-scoring sample essays as much possible. 

(Re)learn your grammar fundamentals

Many students rely on their ears and gut when determining what grammar is correct in their writing and to answer questions on the ACT. But doing this can only get you so far; you’ll have to know the rules of sentence construction and punctuation to get to the next level.

As intimidating as learning grammar sounds, the range of grammar tested on the ACT is not that vast. In fact, it’s likely stuff you’ve already learned (though perhaps forgot!). So think of doing a grammar review, where you learn the fundamentals while doing some practice writing and test-taking, so you can apply what you’ve just learned.

Take several practice tests before the real deal

Once you’ve brushed up on your reading technique and the fundamentals needed in the different sections of the ACT, it’s time to take a few full-length practice tests. After you finish each test and score it, write down at least three general areas in which you need to improve on.  Then, for each section, write down at least two things you’ll do differently next time around.

Finally, make sure you understand why any of your initial answers were wrong and why the correct answer is correct. By following this method, you’re likely to boost your ACT score after each test. And test day you’ll hopefully get your best score yet!

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About Chris Lele

For the last 10 years, Chris has been helping students excel on the SAT, ACT, and GRE. In this time, he’s coached five students to a perfect SAT score. Some of his GRE students have raised their scores by nearly 400 points. He has taken many GMAT students from the doldrums of the 600s to the coveted land of the 700+. Rumor has it he does a secret happy dance when his students get a perfect score. You can read Chris's awesome blog posts on the Magoosh High School Blog and study with his lessons using Magoosh SAT Prep.


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