What's On the ACT? & How to Study for It
Action item! The late registration deadline for the December 9, 2023 ACT is November 17!
Many colleges and universities now have test-optional admission policies, but most high school students still take the ACT or SAT in order to apply to college, get scholarships, and participate in honors programs.
Rich Goldman, Director of Tutoring at My College Planning Team in the Chicago area, states:
“Even in a test-optional environment, achieving a good score on one of these two tests can make the admissions application more attractive and help set the student above the pack.”
So you’ve decided the ACT’s subject areas and test format suit you better than the SAT (or maybe you plan to take them both). Now it’s time to get ready.
What’s on the ACT? How do you prepare in order to get the highest possible score? Here’s what you need to know.
When should I take the ACT?
First, decide when you will take the test. “I suggest taking the ACT at least three times, so starting early leaves you time to retake the test if needed,” says Rich Goldman, who recommends taking the ACT for the first time as early as spring of your junior year.
It can take a couple of months after a test date for scores to be received by the colleges and scholarship agencies you’re applying to, so the latest a senior can take the ACT in time for a January 1st application deadline is usually October.
Remaining ACT test and registration dates for 2023–2024:
How do I sign up for the ACT?
You need to create a MyACT online account to register for exams. You can set up email or text reminders so you don’t miss deadlines, and add a parent email address if you want someone else to know the schedule and help you keep track of things.
If you will need accommodations or are an English Learner (EL), you can find out more about this on the ACT website — your high school counselor can also help you.
To register for a test, be ready with a headshot photo and credit/debit card for payment. This year the ACT costs $68 without writing and $93 with writing. There are extra fees for late registration, adding additional colleges to receive your scores, and more. Read about ACT fees here, along with information about applying for a fee waiver.
Important note: No student will be prevented from taking the ACT out of concern for not being able to afford the test. If you qualify for a fee waiver, you get lots of other free resources, including free access to The Official ACT® Self-Paced Course, Powered by Kaplan®, free Test Information Release and additional score reports, and more.
Make sure you take advantage of all the help you’re entitled to. Your high school counselor can guide you to the resources.
What’s on the ACT?
The ACT covers four subject areas with multiple-choice questions in English, mathematics, reading, and science (tested in that order). The ACT writing test is optional and will not affect your composite score.
Here’s how it breaks down regarding the number of questions in each section and how much time you have to answer them:
- English: 45 minutes, 75 questions
- Math: 60 minutes, 60 questions
- Reading: 35 minutes, 40 questions
- Science: 35 minutes, 40 questions
- (break if taking optional writing)
- Writing (optional): 40 minutes, 1 prompt
That’s a lot of questions in a short amount of time! But keep in mind that in some sections, there will be a single passage to read and analyze and multiple questions related to that passage. You can get through it all.
Should you take the ACT with writing?
Here’s advice from Rich at My College Planning Team:
“Most colleges (including top colleges) do not require the writing essay. But a good essay can improve one’s overall package. If a student is a good writer, they should consider doing the essay. Otherwise, it’s OK to skip it.”
The ACT sections in detail
Now let’s dig a little deeper into each section (to see what actual ACT test questions look like, click on the Practice Test Questions for each subject on the ACT Test Overview webpage).
This section tests knowledge of grammar and fundamentals of composition, like word choice, style, and tone. You’ll be given a passage with portions underlined and must identify grammar and punctuation mistakes, and sometimes choose better wording. “NO CHANGE” is an option for each question and can be the correct answer!
With other passages, you’ll act as an editor to add, rearrange, and rephrase content in a way that improves the text. Comprehension comes into play. Concepts tested include your understanding of complete vs. incomplete sentences, parallel structure, verb/subject agreement, and more.
Yes, there are a lot of questions in this section so you need to move briskly. But some of them will be simply about a small punctuation change.
Maybe you love it, maybe you hate it. As long as you took it (pre-algebra, algebra, geometry and trigonometry), you’re probably more ready than you think for this section of the ACT. Which doesn’t mean you don’t need to review and practice!
You may use an approved calculator for every question in this section, BUT be aware that some questions will be best solved without a calculator. As with every section, but especially here, the ACT advises: “Don’t linger over problems that take too much time.” Do the ones you’re confident about first, then circle back to the others, and always double-check your work if you have extra time.
In this section, it’s essential to first carefully read the entire passage. (There will be three single passages and one set of paired passages.) Then, for each question, read each of the four possible answers before choosing the best one, and refer back to the passage to confirm your choice.
The passages come from literature (novels and short stories), the humanities (philosophy, the arts, etc.) and natural and social sciences. In the latter, there may be unfamiliar terminology; don’t get bogged down in it. Do your best to grasp the main ideas and arguments of the passage.
You’ll be asked questions related to point of view (in literature), audience (who is this written for?), the importance of details, etc. Expect quite a few questions that begin, “It can be reasonably inferred from the passage that…”
Part of preparing for this section of the test is to practice reading quickly and accurately. This is why taking timed practice tests is an essential part of test prep.
The ACT science section is more closely related to the reading section than you might expect. Rather than testing on specific science knowledge, it tests critical thinking and analytical skills in addition to your ability to interpret charts and graphs. The material is appropriate for anyone who’s taken the traditional three years of core high school science, including biology, chemistry, physics, and/or earth/space science.
As with the reading section, start by carefully reading the entire passage, paying special attention to science-related information. You’ll be expected to interpret data and evaluate conflicting theories (e.g., how do they differ and where do they agree?).
If you register for the optional ACT essay, you’ll receive one prompt that describes an issue along with three different perspectives on the topic. You’ll read and consider the prompt and the three perspectives, then come up with your own take on the issue and present it, offering reasons, examples, and an analysis of the relationship between your perspective and at least one of the others. Your stance isn’t what matters and won’t affect your score.
Here’s more information about the writing test, along with tips for preparing.
How do I study for the ACT?
You can review subject material and practice for the test itself with the help of books, online resources and/or by taking a class or working with a tutor. The essential thing is to become as familiar as possible with the way the ACT works, to take timed practice tests, and diligently go over your results, looking at where you got things wrong and, most importantly, why you got things wrong. By taking a practice test or two early on, you can see what subject areas you need to focus on most.
Sometimes a book is all you need. Your high school counseling office may have some to loan out or visit your local bookstore. Amazon has a wide selection. An obvious place to start is with ACT’s official test prep books and services. They sell subject guides and an all-in-one Prep Guide and also offer, through Kaplan, a live online class, a self-paced online class, and one-on-one tutoring.
Big fat books, weeks of classes, YouTube tutorials…yes, you’re getting the picture that preparing properly for the ACT takes many months. In fact, Rich from My College Planning Team advises starting four to six months prior to the first time taking the exam.
Whether you decide to work with a tutor, take a class, or just study on your own, Rich’s experience has found that the more hours a student commits to ACT prep per week, the better:
- Three hours of tutoring/class per week = great
- Two hours/week = good
- One 90-minute session or class a week = the bare minimum
Then don’t forget an additional two hours of ACT homework per week.
Are you now saying to yourself, “Impossible! There already isn’t enough time for everything!” If so, try doing a time management audit. Take a close look at your daily and weekly schedules hour by hour and make sure you’re putting everything into your planner/calendar — here are time management tips from Harvard Summer School.
Are there free ACT test-prep materials?
(Please note: The test-prep companies cited in this article are listed for your information and not endorsed by Appily.)
The ACT website offers a free ACT Test Guide with practice questions in each subject area. You can also sign up for a free online class and take a free full-length practice test (before committing, if you want, to one of their more intensive, paid test-prep options).
Kaplan is a well-known and highly regarded resource. You can sign up for their ACT Question of the Day. They have lots of free practice resources as well as the paid classes described below.
Varsity Tutors has free ACT diagnostic and practice tests, a free full-length and very comprehensive test prep book, and free flashcards, as well as paid tutoring options.
Don’t forget YouTube. Here’s a video from PrepPros with tips for improving your ACT score. They offer free practice tests as well as paid options.
Should I pay for an ACT tutor or take a class?
In Rich Goldman’s opinion, there’s no doubt about it.
“Taking the ACT is like many other activities — tennis, school subjects, driving... One needs the help of an experienced expert — in this case, a tutor — to do one's best.”
A big question is whether test prep is the right place for you to put time and energy depending on how important test scores are at your top choice schools. Private tutors can also be quite expensive.
But a tutor or class can completely be worth it, especially if you are someone who does better with the structure and expectations that come with a regular meeting. If you are organized and motivated, a less expensive self-paced online class or a book can do the trick.
Your guidance counselor may be able to recommend local tutors who’ve had measurable success helping students prepare for college entrance exams, and that personal touch might be right for you. Sometimes even just a few well-timed sessions with a skilled tutor to go over practice tests can yield solid information about where you should focus your studying along with strategies for test day.
Additional popular options for tutoring and classes:
- Many tutoring agencies that offer online services, such as Mindfish, also hold in-person classes at local schools or community centers.
- Princeton Review has a self-paced online class starting at $499, with 10 hours of on-demand, one-on-one tutoring available as an add-on. They also have a YouTube channel with live weekly sessions.
- In addition to many free test-prep resources, Kaplan offers a range of online options, from a self-paced class for $119 to live online classes and personalized tutoring ($449 and up).
- Magoosh offers a variety of test-prep packages starting at $129 with 24/7 email and chat support from expert tutors and the ability to customize your prep schedule in manageable daily chunks. They also have a Flashcard app for quick and easy prep on your phone.
- Peterson’s offers paid test-prep options but also has free ACT practice questions, and you can download their free ACT Test Prep Guide by providing an email address.
- PrepScholar has a money-back guarantee that you will see a four-point increase from a previous official ACT or converted PreACT if you complete their paid course.
Should I submit my ACT score to a test-optional college?
According to Rich, it’s pretty straightforward.
“Yes, submit your score if the score will IMPROVE the overall admissions package. If not, then don't submit it.”
Find a complete list of test-optional colleges and universities and calculate your chances of getting in here.
One last tip from an ACT expert
Remember that you won’t be penalized for guessing on the ACT. No points are deducted for a wrong answer; only correct answers count toward your score. So, as you move through a test section, answer the questions you’re sure about first. Mark the ones you don’t know or aren’t sure about, then return to them if you have time. DON’T LEAVE ANYTHING BLANK! Always bubble something in — you might get it right!
Here’s the analogy Rich uses with his students:
I bring you to a beach where I've roped off a section of sand the size of a basketball court. You see I have sprinkled $20 bills all over the top of the sand. You also see that I’ve buried numerous other $20 bills with just the tips sticking out of the sand — they’re more difficult to spot and to pull out.
Then I tell you that I have also completely buried numerous other $20 bills, and I point out a shovel with which to dig for them. Then I say that you can go collect as many $20 bills as possible in 10 minutes. Which one are you going to go for first? The ones on top, right? That is, the easiest ones first. Then when done, if time allows, grab the ones with the tips sticking out. If you still have more time, grab that shovel and dig for those hardest, buried ones.
Before the exam, be sure to double-check the ACT Test Day Checklist so you know what you can and can’t bring with you, have the proper ID, understand cell phone policies, etc. You’re ready to take the ACT! Good luck!
How competitive will your ACT score make you?
As you navigate the college application process, you'll want to make confident decisions based on facts. Whether your ACT score will help you get into the college of your dreams is just one of the factors admissions officers look at. You can use Appily's chances calculator to calculate your chances of getting into any college. Once you add your ACT score to the equation, you'll get an even better idea of how competitive you'll be.
Click the button below to learn your chances.