Preparing for the ACT: What You Need to Know

There’s nothing in life quite as nerve-racking as prepping for a standardized test. After all, your results will determine so much about your future. 

That’s why you probably put a lot of pressure on yourself to score well on your ACT exam.

But what if you didn’t score well your first time around?

Fortunately, even if you received a less than stellar score on the ACT before, you can take it again. Your highest test score will be the one colleges consider for your application. Hooray for that!

Plus, you'll find lots of help on this site and through one of our one-on-one tutoring packages here.

But what if this is your very first time taking the ACT, and you’re completely terrified?

Don’t worry—I’ve got you’ve covered there, too! Below, I’m sharing my absolute favorite tips for ACT prep.

What to Expect on the ACT

The ACT is composed of four required components: English, Math, Reading and Science. 

There is also a fifth component, the essay, that is considered optional because not all colleges require it. However, if the college you’d like to apply to does indeed require the ACT Writing component, you’ll need to invest the extra 40 minutes to write this essay.

Let’s break down what to expect during each section.


There are 75 questions to answer within a 45-minute time allotment. Questions cover grammar and usage, punctuation, sentence structure and style.

Top Tip for Acing the ACT English Section:

Focus your studies on the most important rules of grammar (also known as usage and mechanics) and on rhetorical skills. 

Take the time to read the whole sentence or paragraph before you start thinking about the answer. By doing this, you’ll come away with a better grasp of the sentence.  You'll know what the subject is (and if it's singular or plural), or if the passage is in past or present tense. This will help you figure out what may “sound” wrong or out of place. Only reading the part of the sentence leading up to the question, and then trying to answer the question, is a disaster waiting to happen!


There are 60 questions in the math portion of your ACT and 60 minutes to answer. You’ll need to know a wide assortment of mathematics, including algebra, geometry and trigonometry. 

Top Tip for Acing the ACT Math Section:

Ready for some good news? You’ll be able to use a calculator for the math portion of the ACT.

The bad news? A calculator won’t help you much if you don’t know the information. 

The calculator should only be used to help you with speed, but it’s not mandatory and you can solve the problems without one. If you do use a calculator, remember to use one that you’re already familiar with, so that you don’t waste time trying to find out where the square root symbol is, for example.

The best advice I can give you for the math portion is to pace yourself. Don’t speed through the “easy” questions (the first 30): this is material you have no excuse to miss! At the same time, don’t linger on the hard ones, either. Give each question a proper amount of consideration (you have up to a minute per question)— although I’d recommend taking slightly less than a minute so that you can have time leftover to review.


There are 40 questions and 35 minutes to answer them, meaning that you have less than a minute per question. Reading measures your comprehension.

Top Tip for Acing the ACT Reading Section:

Once upon a time (in other words, any time before the end of 2014), the ACT included four single passages within its reading section. However, the ACT made a few significant changes, including the introduction of the double passage. The double passage basically takes one passage and splits it into two. You’ll need to answer questions that compare these two passages.

My best advice for acing the infamous double passage is to know what order to go in. First, read the first passage and answer the questions that are ONLY about the first passage. Second, read the second passage and answer the questions that are ONLY about the second passage. Finally, answer the questions that are about both. 


Just like with the reading portion of the ACT exam, there are 40 questions and 35 minutes to answer. Science in the ACT focuses on analysis and interpretation, and can include topics from chemistry to geology.

Top Tip for Acing the ACT Science Section:

The best advice in the science portion is to make sure that you’re looking at the right figure. It’s easy to get confused and make careless mistakes! I like to physically POINT to the table or figure as I read the question. As in, when I read "table 2," my left finger actually TOUCHES the page where table 2 is located. Sounds crazy, but it works! 

Writing Test

As I mentioned before, the optional writing test is one prompt that you must complete within 40 minutes. 

Top Tip for Acing the ACT Writing Test:

On the essay portion of the ACT test,  you’ll be evaluated on how well you’re able to organize and express your ideas in written form...about a very weird question that doesn't really fit the standard "persuasive essay" you learned to do in school. 

Be sure you spend time in your ACT prep to practice the essay! The prompt is different from any other essay you've ever been asked to write, so you need to understand the three components to the question: analyze the three perspectives, create your OWN perspective, and—this is what everyone forgets to do—RELATE your perspective back to the other three. Please don't forget to do the last part! You can relate your point of view to the given ones with a couple well-placed sentences or clauses, and that's a third of your assignment!

Here are the Best General ACT Preparation Tips

Get Some Rest

The night before is not the time to cram. If you don’t already know it, cramming won’t help.

Research shows that cramming only helps you recognize familiar content, but it doesn’t help you recall it.

Research also shows that getting enough sleep at night will help boost your memory better than spending those hours cramming for your test.

Focus On Your Weak Areas First

When you’re planning what you should study first, start with the areas you need a little more help in. 

Take a Practice Test

Practice tests help you learn what to expect and give you a sense of familiarity with the structure and types of questions asked on the ACT. While the content will change, this will give you a chance to get comfortable with taking the ACT. 

Also, be sure to learn the ACT instructions. While you’ll still want to skim the instructions of test day (to make sure nothing’s changed), committing the ACT instructions to memory will allow you to speed through the test just a tad bit faster.

Pace Yourself

In three sections of the ACT exam, you have less than one minute per question to consider your answer. While you should never rush yourself through, you definitely want to consider each question carefully. Read through your question before jumping to the possible answers, but don’t take too long on any question. If something stumps you or slows you down, move on to an easier question and return at the end of the test, if you still have time.

This is one of the benefits of taking the ACT practice exams. You’ll be able to time yourself and see how quickly you’re able to answer questions.

Check Through Your Work

If you’ve done a good job at pacing yourself, you’ll probably have a few minutes at the end of the exam. Use this time to go back through and check your work. A lot of test takers, in a rush to complete the job, end up making careless mistakes. If you have a tendency to do this, too, then take the opportunity to double-check that you’ve answered all questions and to the best of your ability. No regrets! 

When All Else Fails… 

Guess! There’s no penalty for answering incorrectly, and you may just be right! Don’t leave blank answers, if you can help it.

Additional Resources

Here’s a good primer to know whether you should take the SAT or ACT
And don’t miss this post on the three ACT changes you should know about before taking the September test.