How to Prepare for the ACT - A Step by Step Guide

Aug 04, 2020

How to Prepare for the ACT - A Step by Step Guide

Junior year is a pivotal year in high school. You are more than half way through your high school years. You have probably started looking at colleges and you have to take your ACT test. Taking the ACT or SAT is big part of deciding where you will go to college and what scholarships you may qualify for. If you are undecided about which test to take, check out my post comparing the two tests.

Once you have settled on the ACT you need to decide how to prepare for the test. Let’s face it. Junior year is busy. You are taking challenging courses. You have extra curricular activities. You may have a job or a volunteer position. Those courses we mentioned, well they come with homework, and now you want to add studying for another test??? How in the world are you going to manage that in the time you have. The following tips will help you design a step by step guide on how to prepare for the ACT that will fit with your daily life and help you achieve your goals. 


Set Your Goals

You can’t achieve your goals if you don’t know what they are. When you are preparing for the ACT, your first step it is take a full length actual practice ACT and score it. Many tutoring companies offer this service. You can also find copies in ACT preparatory materials and online. Be certain that the test you use is an actual ACT written by the ACT. In other words, only the real thing will do here. 

Score your test. Don’t worry. This is just a baseline. It is designed to let you make a realistic plan. Rome wasn’t built in a day and your college plans will not be either. 

Find at least 5 schools that you are interested in: 1 sure thing, 3 good chances and 1 dream school. Use your practice test scores to help you set the benchmarks for each category. If you got a 24 on your practice test you may want to reserve schools that require scores above 30 for your dream school. You will also want to find out if the schools you are applying to want the essay portion of the test and if they superscore.  Actually write out the names of the schools and your target score for each. Post this above your desk to keep you motivated. 


Leave Time for a Second or Third Try

When you are deciding how to prepare for the ACT, I recommend taking your first test in the fall of your junior year. That leaves time for a second try in January or February and if needed  a third attempt in May or June. I try to avoid scheduling ACT tests around exams, AP tests and school vacations. The goal is to set yourself up for success and choosing a time without distractions is a big part of that. It takes approximately 2 weeks to get your results back so you want to leave at least 8 weeks between test dates.

Set your Path

Ok we know where we want to go. Now it is time to for a step by step plan for how to prepare for the ACT and get there. Look at your schedule. Mark off time that is already committed to school, work/sports/volunteer activities and leave yourself a little free time. Now with the time you have left, find  2 - 3 hours once a week for learning strategies, techniques and concepts and 20 - 30 minutes 4 days a week for practice. Remember this is going to help your determine where you go to college so you may need to make some tough choices to put this time into your schedule. Also remember, it isn’t forever. Once you get your desired score, you never have to do this again, so work hard, work smart and get it done!

It’s Only a Mistake if You Didn’t Learn Anything

So many students try to prepare for the ACT by grinding through one test after another. That is NOT an efficient use of time and should be avoided when deciding how to prepare for the ACT. Taking the test is only the first step. When you design your step by step plan for how you will prepare for the ACT you need to be sure to include time to go back over the questions you missed in detail! Why did you miss them? Did you not know a mathematical formula such as midpoint, distance or slope (all common on the ACT)? If you needed a formula you didn’t know WRITE IT DOWN. Did you not know a grammar rule regarding a comma or a semi-colon? FInd it and WRITE IT DOWN. Keep a list of problems you missed. Go back and try them again after a week or two. If you still missed them you aren’t done learning that skill yet. Look at it again! Remember, it isn’t a mistake. It is an opportunity to learn! Getting problems right that your previously missed is how you increase your score!

Get (the Right) Help If You Need It

So what do you do if you have taken the practice test, scored it, developed and implemented your plan and your scores are not improving. The ACT is VERY different from traditional school work. There are strategies and techniques that make a classroom teacher cringe. If you are not seeing improvement or not seeing improvement fast enough, GET HELP. There are LOTS of kinds of help available. You can participate in online classes, you can find video lessons to watch on your own schedule or you can hire a tutor either individual or group. Whichever choice you make answer the following questions first:

  • Does the timing of the classes work with your schedule? 
  • Do you have adequate time to commit to the classes and any homework they may require?
  • How important is accountability to your performance?
  • How often does the class provide feedback on your progress? 
  • Does the class supply supplementary materials for areas you may find more challenging?
  • Is the curriculum the same for each class or is it based on student’s needs? 

Once you have decided what you need for a program, ask your friends, check the web, ask your school counselors and find the perfect fit. 


Remember that preparing for the ACT is a big part of getting into the college of your choice and perhaps even getting some scholarship money. Make a plan and stick to it. You can work efficiently and reduce stress with the proper planning. 

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