8 Tricks for Preparing for the ACT

Test Prep & Grades
September 24, 2019
Are You Getting Ready To Take The ACT And Wondering How To Prepare?

If so, you’re not alone: over 1.9 million people took the ACT in 2018, and it’s safe to say that those who were most successful took the time beforehand to get ready for it. After all, learning how to take the ACT can take a lot of pressure off your shoulders on test day.

Of course, preparing for the ACT properly has many steps; first, you must define what the ACT is and why it’s so important to the college admissions process. Once you know what the ACT will cover it’s time to take some practice tests and sharpen your test taking skills, while learning some important tricks along the way!

Are you planning to take the SAT too? Then check out our companion article to this one, 8 Tricks for Preparing for the SAT, to hone your SAT taking skills as well!)

What You’ll Find In This Article

What Is The ACT?

The ACT organization describes the test as a measure of what students have learned in high school. Accepted by nearly all public and private institutions within the United States, the ACT is used by schools to evaluate a student’s academic performance.

The ACT consists of four different sections: English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science. Students may also take an additional Writing section of the exam, which some colleges require.

Your scores from each of these sections is averaged together to form your final composite score.

Importantly, the ACT is a timed test, with the entire test lasting 2 hours and 55 minutes. Students who take the optional Writing portion will have 3 hours and 35 minutes to finish the test. Due to the number of questions in each section and the pacing of the test’s time limits, many students will find this time limit challenging.

This is what sets the ACT apart from other tests; the tight time limit pushes students to move quickly from question to question, leaving little time for error. Fortunately, there are some easy tips for the ACT that students can use to make the most of their limited time!


Taking the ACT is an essential step in getting into college. Your ACT performance can help you determine your target and reach schools, measure your strengths and weaknesses, and allow you to meet the requirements for some merit-based scholarships.


While the ACT is important, it is far from the only standardized entrance exam students can take to get into college.

The SAT covers similar subjects, however contains fewer questions and has a slightly longer time limit. Still, though they use different scoring systems and have different time limits, the two tests are similar in terms of difficulty. In recent years, an increasing number of students have begun to take both the ACT and SAT, and more and more colleges have begun accepting and even requesting both test scores.

What Is A Good Score On The ACT?

Whether you’re planning on taking the ACT soon or you’ve already gotten your scores back, knowing what makes a good ACT score can help you determine what score to aim for. Your ideal ACT score will depend on a variety of factors such as the colleges you are interested and your personal strengths and weaknesses.

The ACT is scored on a range from 1-36, and the average composite score for most students is 20.8. However, the ACT scoring system also compares scores using percentiles. For example, if your score is in the 65th percentile (in 2018 that’s around a score of 22), that means you’ve scored better than 65% of ACT test takers. At the lower end of the scale, an increase of even a few points increases your percentile by a larger amount than it would at the upper end of the scale.

As a general rule of thumb, these are the average accepted ACT scores for the different types of colleges you may be applying to:

  • Non-competitive Colleges: 26 - 28
  • Competitive Colleges: 27 - 30
  • Ivy League: 30 - 33

These ACT scores are important to colleges because they act as a standardized way of comparing applicants to one another. Your ACT score reflects your overall academic ability and is considered important, but not essential, to most colleges. Students with scores lower than a college’s listed average can focus on showcasing themselves through their essays as well as studying to retake the ACT until they reach their target ACT score, so don’t panic if you didn’t get the score you wanted. There’s always room to improve, and even if you don’t have time to retake the test, you can still make your application shine in other ways!


The most influential factor when deciding what your ACT target score should be is where you want to attend college. Ideally, students should aim to hit the 75th percentile score of the schools they’re interested in. This means that your ACT score is higher than 75% of the students accepted; this increases your chances of acceptance far more than simply hitting the average ACT score.

For example, Harvard’s average ACT score is 34, while the 75th percentile score is 35. UCLA’s average is 28 and the 75th percentile score is 33.

Our 8 Tricks For Passing The ACT

Preparing for the ACT can seem overwhelming at first, but there are strategies you can use to give yourself the confidence you need to pass. Every student can benefit from learning and implementing these test taking strategies for the ACT.

Ultimately, a well rounded test taking plan should include both familiarizing yourself with the test beforehand and having strategies you can employ during the test.


The number one way to prepare for the ACT is to take practice tests.

Taking an official ACT practice test will allow you to experience the types of questions that the ACT asks firsthand. Once you’ve graded your practice tests, you’ll not only have a better understanding of the test overall, but also your own academic strengths and weaknesses. You can then go back through your practice tests to find questions that you struggled with, working from there to build a study plan around those specific topics.

Taking an ACT practice test in the same conditions as the real test can also help ease your nerves when test day actually comes. Find a quiet place where you can focus, time yourself as you take the test, and take breaks between sections. The more you practice being test ready, the more confident you’ll feel on test day.


While speed is important when taking the ACT, students should take care to read every question completely before answering. Often, questions will be complex enough that merely skimming them will lead a student to the wrong answer.

While you only have a little under three hours to complete the test (or around three and a half hours if you’re completing the option Writing portion), have faith that you have plenty of time to do your best work. After all, answering questions poorly because you’re rushing is far worse than missing one or two questions because you were being thorough!


Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses when taking tests, and starting with your strengths within each section is a great way to tackle the ACT. Because you have to answer so many questions in the ACT’s strict time limit, it’s important to get your momentum going and work through each section quickly but thoroughly.

Feel free to skip around within a section so that you can start with the passage or topic that you’re most comfortable with. Starting with questions that play to your strengths ensures you won’t miss out on any easy points due to running out of time, and it keeps you from getting overly stressed early in the test.


There’s only so many ways to write an essay prompt. That means students can study past ACT essay prompts to get a good idea of what type of prompts to expect on test day. Students who walk into the writing portion of the test with a good idea of what real world examples they’ll use to support their arguments will be better prepared to handle any essay prompt the test makers throw at them.

The level of preparation a student goes to can vary depending on how comfortable they feel about the ACT’s essay portion. Students can choose to prepare by either writing essays and asking a teacher or counselor to review them, or by simply familiarizing themselves with the prompts.


When you find a hard question that threatens to eat into your time, mark it to return to later, at the end of the section.

Not only does this technique save you time, it helps avoid the excess stress that a difficult question can create. Saving the hardest questions for the end of a section allows you to prioritize answering questions that you feel confident in answering. Of course, you can always guess to save time as a last resort, but we’ll mention that in just a moment.


Waiting until the end of a section to fill in your answer bubbles is a good time saving strategy. This eliminates the need to flip back and forth between your test booklet and your answer sheet. However, make sure you can reliably finish a section with time to spare. The last thing you want to do is run out of time filling in your answer sheet, so only use this trick if you’re confident you’ll have time to spare.


The ACT does not penalize students for wrong answers, so there’s absolutely no harm in guessing when a question has you stumped! If possible, you should never leave a question unanswered on the ACT. If you can do so quickly, try to make an educated guess.

If you’re completely lost, it doesn’t hurt to pick a “letter of the day” to save time when filling in your answer sheet. Using the process of elimination is one of the fastest ways to make an educated guess. If you can quickly rule out answers you know aren’t correct, you can raise your chances of guessing correctly without breaking a sweat or wasting any precious time.


While it would be wonderful to take the ACT once and have your score match your true potential, that rarely happens. Students who are serious about getting into college should plan to take the ACT more than once. With each test, you will become more familiar and comfortable with the ACT overall and become an expert at using the ACT tips and tricks that you benefit the most from.

One of the benefits of the ACT over other standardized exams is that you control which scores get sent to what colleges. While this means you can retake the ACT as many times as you need to reach your target score, students should consider the roughly $50 cost of the ACT when considering how many times they can retake the ACT. Students under financial strain can get up to two fee waivers for the ACT from their school.

Why Preparing For The ACT Pays Off

By taking the time to prepare for the ACT, you ensure that you’re giving yourself the best possible chance to succeed. Because the ACT is so critical to the college admissions process, it’s important that students take the time to seriously prepare for it. While every student will benefit from different test taking strategies, all students should try every strategy they find to give themselves an edge when it comes to taking the ACT.

Fortunately, our WeAdmit counselors excel at helping students prepare for the ACT.

Through our teams of professional college counselors and current high-achieving college students, we offer one on one guidance designed to help students reach their full potential on test day and beyond. Our goal is to help you get into college, and we know just how seriously your ACT scores affect your chances of going to your dream school.

So, Let’s Sharpen Our Pencils And Ace The ACT!



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