Studying for the ACT can be challenging without a plan. Contact your local C2 and get a free ACT prep consultation!

After much deliberation (or perhaps none at all?), you’ve decided to take the ACT. Now what? We’ve put together a simple step-by-step ACT study guide to help maximize your score on test day.

Step One: Get to Know the Test

Sun Tzu said, “Know your enemy.” While the ACT isn’t the world’s coolest nemesis, it’s still a challenge to be defeated, so to study for the ACT, you should know the test inside and out. Check out our introduction to the ACT to learn about the test’s format, content, and scoring.

Step Two: Find Your Baseline

It’s hard to figure out how much work you need to do if you don’t know where you’re starting from. Take a full-length practice test under timed conditions to assess your current ACT skills. Bonus: Every practice test you take—including this first diagnostic one—takes you closer to your goal score. Read more about why practice ACT tests are key to boosting scores.

Step Three: Figure Out Your Score Goals

Now that you know where your ACT prep journey is starting, you need to decide where it should end: what’s your score goal? You can get a good idea of the ACT scores your chosen colleges expect by searching for them on College Navigator, a database of college stats.

Step Four: Strategize

Your approach to studying for the ACT will differ depending on your starting scores and your goal scores.

  • You have a high score, but you want a perfect (or almost perfect) score.

    You’re going to need to grab every point possible, which means you need to be prepared to handle even the hardest questions on the test. You’ll need to focus on:

    • Time management: You can’t afford to waste any time on easier questions, so you have to hone your speed. Your ultimate goal is to get fast enough to have time to double-check all of your answers. Check out this post on ACT time management.
    • Really tough passages: You can’t let a boring passage or a particularly difficult passage trip you up. Check out our post on handling boring passages here, and make sure you include plenty of dense and dry passages in your practice sessions. (Project Gutenberg is an excellent resource for material written in more challenging, somewhat antiquated language.)
    • The hardest math concepts: If you’re shooting for perfection, you need to be able to handle anything the ACT throws at you, including the toughest concepts like trig and logarithms.
    • The science-y science questions: There are a handful of questions on the science section that require basic science knowledge. Make sure to review basic concepts in biology, chemistry, physics, and Earth science.
  • You have a low score, and you want a higher score.

    If the bad news is that you’re scoring in the mid-twenties or lower on the ACT, the good news is that you have plenty of room to improve. At this score range, you’ll see a bigger bang for your test prep time because you’ll be able to start by gathering low-hanging fruit. You’ll need to start with:

    • Shortening the test: At this score range, you’re probably really struggling with that clock. You’d do so much better if only there were fewer questions! Good news: There can be! (Sort of.) It’s all about understanding the test.
      • Reading and English: If you get hung up on a question, circle it, skip it, and move on. If there’s time, you can always come back to it. If not, at least you’ll have gotten to all of the easier questions later in the section. Don’t forget—there’s no guessing penalty, so always guess if you run out of time.
      • Science: Passages get harder as you go, and within each passage, questions move roughly from easiest to hardest. After you get through the easiest passages, plan on skipping the last one or two questions on each of the remaining passages. Use the time you save to make sure that you get all the other questions right!
      • Math: Questions move roughly from easiest to hardest. The last ten questions on the test are almost certainly going to be the most time consuming. What’s more, they’re the ones you’re most likely to miss anyway. You’re going to score much better if you focus on doing really well on the first 50 questions than you are if you focus on getting all the way to the end of the section.
    • Memorizing math formulae: The SAT gives you a helpful guide to common geometry formulas (even though there aren’t very many geometry questions on the SAT). The ACT does not give you these formulas—even though a good chunk of math questions deal with geometry.

Step Five: Make a Plan and Follow Through

Once you know what you need to focus on, you can create a study plan.

  • When will you study? Be realistic. This needs to be a schedule that you can stick with, so consider school demands, extracurricular activities, and other obligations.
  • What will you study? Decide which specific concepts or skills you’ll focus on during each study session.
  • How many progress checks can you fit in? You don’t want to give yourself too many practice tests—not only will you burn out, but you will also likely become demotivated because you won’t have given yourself enough time for improvement between tests.

Make sure you incorporate study sessions for all four subject areas. You don’t want to ignore a subject you do well in because you could easily get rusty and lose ground. Check out our tips for each section of the ACT:

Step Six: It’s Showtime

Approach test day with good habits—a well-rested, well-nourished, well-hydrated brain will perform better than one fueled by Doritos, soda, and three hours of sleep. Don’t cram the night before—relax and de-stress. Do your best, and when the results come in, get ready to celebrate.

If you follow the steps in this ACT study guide, you’ll have a good understanding of what you need to do in order to study for the ACT effectively. If you’d like extra support, you can reach out to your local C2 Education center to take a free practice test and see how our personalized ACT prep can help.