Eight ACT Prep Tips for Overwhelmed Seniors

A girl sits on the floor of the library and learns how to study for the ACT.

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You have just over a month to study for the September 9th ACT. On top of that, you are putting the final touches on your college admissions essays and trying to keep up with the demands of schoolwork and extracurricular activities. It’s a lot to deal with; I’m not going to deny you that. But before you throw in the towel on ACT prep, take a moment to consider what achieving your target ACT score would mean to you. If an increase of a couple of points is going to put you in the accepted students’ range for your dream school or help you meet the qualifications for a merit-based scholarship, carving out time to prepare is well worth it.

Unfortunately, you can’t add more hours into the days leading up to the test. Instead, you are going to have to become a master of time management and learn to balance your commitments and study time efficiently. It’s not going to be easy, but the following steps can guide you:

1. Decide what activities can take a backseat.

If your schedule is jam-packed, something is going to have to give in order for you to find time to study. Take a hard look at your commitments. Can you take a few days off from your weekend job? Can you find time on a Friday night instead of going to a movie with friends? Do you need to attend every club meeting after school? Remember, any adjustment in your schedule is only temporary. Additionally, sleep and exercise are necessary for mental alertness and stress reduction. Compromise on activities, not on your wellness.

2. Create a study schedule.

Once you clear time, map out a schedule in your planner for studying. Ideally, study between 6 and 8 p.m., the optimal time for concentration. You need to invest roughly 20 hours to raise your composite score by one to two points. If you start working today, that’s about an hour a day until the test. Totally doable!

3. Know what you need to reach your target composite score.

Your ACT composite score is the average of your scores from the four sections: math, science, English, and reading. Thus, if you want to raise your composite score by one point, you will need to earn four more points in one section or distributed across multiple sections. If you want to raise your composite score by two points, you will need to earn eight more points across multiple sections. Make sense? If not, take a look at these scenarios:

  • Student 1 receives a 32 in math, a 31 in science, a 26 in English, and 31 in reading. Her composite score is 30, but Student 1 wants to increase it to a 31 the next time she takes the test. The most logical place to improve is in English, so she decides to focus all of her time on studying grammar rules. To meet her composite score goal, she realizes she needs to aim for an English score of 30 (four points higher) while maintaining her scores in math, science, and reading.
  • Student 2 receives a 28 in math, a 28 in science, a 28 in English, and a 28 in reading. His composite score is obviously 28, but he wants to increase it to a 30 the next time he takes the test. He feels confident that he can increase his math and science scores each by three points and his English score by two (eight points overall) while maintaining his reading score. Thus, with 24 hours set aside to study, he chooses to dedicate nine hours to math, nine hours to science, and six hours to English.
A boy looks up ACT prep tips online.

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4. Use our recommended study resources.

Once you have decided what knowledge gaps you need to fill in to achieve your target composite score, turn to one of these study guides for assistance:

  • Barron’s ACT: This book is a great overall study guide for the ACT. It will give you a study plan; practice tests; time-management tactics; an overview of basic math, grammar, and punctuation rules; and the strategies needed to interpret critical reading and science questions. Many students believe that the questions in this book are actually harder than those found on the real ACT. Why not challenge yourself with Barron’s questions so that you feel extremely confident on test day?
  • The Critical Reader: Erica L. Meltzer began her career as a test prep tutor, but now devotes all of her time to writing and sharing her ACT and SAT grammar, punctuation, and reading comprehension tips and tricks with as many students as she can reach. Browse her blog for quick ACT English and reading testing strategies, but consider purchasing her books for comprehensive lessons. The Complete Guide to ACT Reading and The Complete Guide to ACT English will teach you the ins and outs of these two sections of the test.
  • Brian Leaf’s Resources: Brain Leaf is a test prep tutor and best-selling author of several ACT and SAT prep books. Use his website to browse his teen-friendly material, and pay considerable attention to these two highly regarded books: McGraw-Hill’s Top 50 Skills for a Top Score: ACT Math and McGraw-Hill’s Top 50 Skills for a Top Score: ACT Reading, Writing, and Science. The former will provide you with math concept drills and strategies written in a personable tone. The latter is the best resource for ACT Science. It will teach you how to analyze science content and will emphasize the critical reading skills needed to ace this often misunderstood section.
  • TestRocker: While not all of the resources provided by TestRocker are free, there is a collection of blog posts, webinars, and videos that you can access without paying a nickel. If you are in the market for paid ACT help, you can sign up for full access to TestRocker materials (a diagnostic test, study plan, videos, and practice questions), but this will cost you $699.

5. Create a dedicated study space.

You don’t have much time to study, so when you do, you need to eliminate all distractions. It’s best if you can recreate the atmosphere of the ACT testing room so you learn to succeed under those conditions. If necessary, put earplugs in to cancel out noise. Use a number 2 pencil with an eraser and an ACT-approved calculator. Wear a watch and time yourself when you take practice tests.

6. Memorize these rules when taking practice tests:

  • Don’t get stuck on one question. Timing is everything on the ACT. If you are spending more than a minute on a question, mark it, and move on!
  • Eliminate wrong answers to increase your odds. You may not know the right answer, but you may be able to discern which ones are obviously wrong. Cross them off to increase your guessing odds if you don’t have time to work through the question for a second time.
  • Guess before leaving something blank. There is no penalty for guessing, so do yourself a favor, and practice filling in those bubbles when there’s less than a minute to space.

7. Regulate your sleep schedule.

You’ll be happy to know that one of the most productive things you can do is nothing at all. For at least a week before your test day, train your body to get at least eight to nine hours of sleep a night by going to bed and waking up at the same time every morning. Any sleep deprivation will affect your ability to recall information and perform at your highest level, so by no means should you consider pulling any all-nighters leading up to the test.

8. Chill out the night before.

Studying the night before the test is a no-no. You need to keep anxiety at bay instead of fueling it by cramming in material. Choose instead to exercise, eat well, and do your best to clear your head.

September 9th will be here before you know it, so this ACT stress is only temporary. Until then, keep your head down and do your best to focus on what’s important. Plan to reward yourself with a night out with friends or a celebratory dinner with family after you finish the test. You will deserve it!

Good luck!

Updated: August 2017

About Megan Reynolds

Megan loves listening to podcasts while doing all of her favorite things: researching, cooking, taking long road trips, and running in freezing temperatures. Curious to a fault, Megan thinks her personality is best suited for teaching so that she can constantly learn alongside her students. While she pursues a master’s degree in New York City, she hopes to share her strategies for conquering admissions and financial aid with all students who are interested in pursuing higher education. Stay tuned to see if she can break her undergraduate habit, formed at Emerson College, of pulling multiple all-nighters fueled by a mixture of coffee and Swiss Miss—the poor student’s mocha.

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