How to Study for the ACT When the ACT is Changing

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With the arrival of the new unscored section at the end of every official ACT test administration, the ACT organization has tacitly announced that it’s experimenting with the ACT and trying out new content and question styles on students. 

Not coincidentally, the Official ACT Prep Guide is now changing almost annually, too–which is a totally new phenomenon. The Official ACT Prep Guide used to be the identical text rebranded for five to ten years at a time. 

The good news is that, as the ACT is changing, the students concurrently taking the test are all in the same boat: every student is facing equal levels of unpredictability. You’re not alone!

The bad news is that the ACT test has been a little bit unpredictable in its content, at least as I write this in early 2020, so you’ll need to be flexible as you figure out how to study for the ACT. 

Acing the ACT: Thinking About Standardized Tests

It’s safe to say that the ACT is probably not like the tests you take in school. Here’s how:

  • The ACT covers far more than a final exam. In fact, it’s like four finals in one: English, Math, Reading, and Science. 
  • The ACT doesn’t test things by grade level. In other words, the ACT covers years of high school material.
  • Sometimes the answer choices on the ACT are presented in ways you’d never be asked to find them in a regular math class, or on regular math tests. 

Every kind of standardized test is a little bit different from other standardized tests. That being said, because the ACT is standardized, you can rely on significant, governing consistencies in what it tests and how it asks the questions about certain topics. 

Moreover, how to study for the ACT is a little bit different than how to study for the SAT or an AP exam–but not that different in basic philosophy

How to Study for the ACT: Creating a Game Plan

I’ve said the following so many times over the course of my career that I wouldn’t even know where to go to cite myself officially: there are only four areas of concern that should interest you when you’re preparing for any standardized test, and that includes when you’re studying for the ACT

  1. Know the material. You need to make sure you know the facts and rules that the ACT tests. Sometimes this means brushing up on those grammar rules, math laws, vocabulary words, or areas of science you can’t recall (or sometimes simply haven’t even studied in school). 
  2. Identify the special angles the test presents (or get a tutor to help you). You need to be so familiar with the ACT itself, that you recognize what sorts of specialty questions are on the tests. What are the things on the ACT that give it its special sauce? Can you articulate how it approaches some topics differently than you’d tackle them in school or on the P/SAT? If so, you’re on the right track.
  3. Admit you’re human. You have to own that you are error-prone, just like every other human walking the earth, and that you’ll need to take extra care to prevent yourself from making costly errors. A question answered 90% correctly the ACT is still 100% wrong.
  4. Deal with the timing last. You’ll need to get the test done in time, and finding the most elegant, accurate, and reliable ways to get to all the questions and their correct answers–and do so quickly–is a paramount part of your prep.

That’s it: know the stuff, identify the special sauce, manage your mistakes, and get the whole thing done in time. 

How to Study for the ACT at a Glance

Plan on Taking Some Full Timed Practice Tests

Once it’s time to study for the ACT, it’s only useful to consider it as one complete test when you’re doing timed drills. In fact, it’s important to remember that, at least on your first go-around, the ACT is one big, long test and you need to be ready to stay awake and alert throughout the whole thing.

The only way to be ready for that is to take some timed practice tests so you know what you’re in for. I don’t believe you need to take these at test centers and pay someone to proctor you; just practice in a quiet place and show the responsibility to do the practice responsibly. If you’re the kind of student who wants to go to a top tier school, you’ll need to show that kind of motivation and responsibility anyway.

Only Use Real Practice Tests To Study for the ACT

You have to use real tests to study for the ACT so you can begin to understand the nuance in ACT questions and recognize the repetition in the ACT’s “tricky” questions. Not every test prep company replicates them properly, and none of them do it as well as the real thing. Real tests are available in the Real ACT Study Guide, as well as in numerous free ACT practice booklets that you find through any internet search (and on my website). 

Don’t Fake Yourself Out

If I had to boil success on the ACT down to one thing that separates top-scoring kids from everyone else, it would have to be that top-scorers have the willingness to leave no stone unturned. This sounds like a noble metaphor, but it what it means is something much more basic: top-scoring kids don’t cop-out. 

Top students always make sure that they get things right for the right reasons.

Top scoring kids don’t ignore questions that they got right because of a lucky guess. Don’t let yourself off the hook because you happened to guess correctly on something you couldn’t actually answer, because there’d be no guarantee you’d get the same question correct next time. 

Chasing down every last detail gets you to the 30s range of scoring on the ACT.

Beyond that, let’s look at how you can treat the ACT subtests as four different activities that demand four different approaches.

Study for the ACT Subtests Differently: They’re Different from Each Other

Below I’ve put together some stepping stones for starting your studying for the ACT.  

How to Study for the ACT English Test

  • Get a grammar book and go through it. For whatever reason, it has become the norm for teachers to ignore grammar instruction in school. You don’t need to be able to identify direct object pronouns, gerunds, and dangling participles by name, but you do need to recognize them in action and know how to approach them in an editing context. There is no workaround for this other than taking the time to learn it.
  • Always read the complete sentence, as well as the complete passages. You’ll notice that the grammar on the ACT is tested in context. Testing sentences in paragraphs isn’t a gimmick: grammar doesn’t just dictate sentence structure. Grammar points to and creates meaning in prose. In other words, it’s possible for a sentence to make perfect grammatical sense on its own, but in context, everything will be incorrect. If you jump from question to question on the ACT English section, you will get a half dozen questions wrong just from that one twist. 

How to Study for the ACT Math Test

  • Memorize everything you need to as early as possible. Most students cram the formulas at the last minute, but this is a terrible mistake: you lose the ability to examine complicated math problems that require creative application of those formulas if you don’t know them in the first place. Commit to memorizing from day one. You can see a complete list of what math is on the ACT here.  
  • Learn material beyond your grade level or the curriculum in your school. The ACT doesn’t change based on what math you have and haven’t taken in high school. Many students start prepping for the ACT early in their junior years, at which point many of them are not versed in trigonometry, matrices, or other statistical concepts, like probability or lines of best fit.
  • Review material far behind your grade level. If you’re like most students, you take for granted how long it’s been since you began learning algebra. So much of the ACT tests first-semester algebra and basic geometry. If you’re an advanced student, you may have found those topics easy when you studied them but, as with anything, when you don’t use it, you lose it. 

How to Study for the ACT Reading Test

  • Read, read, and read some more. Even if you read as much as your parents did in your high school curriculum, there is almost no way you read as much as they did outside of school. In the world of YouTube, Netflix, Snapchat, and TikTok reading just isn’t a priority for many students. If you don’t read, what makes you think you should perform well on a college-level reading test? The easiest thing you can do to start reading daily is to read the paper: read the NY Times, Vanity Fair, or even Rolling Stone every day. 
  • Get in the mind of the test makers. As you might imagine, I could devote ten thousand words to this topic, but the single most important insight I can offer about studying for the ACT reading is that, as you review the Reading test throughout your practice, you must keep in mind that the ACT Reading test is not a test of your ability to read but, rather, a test of your ability to arrive at the same answer as the test maker. Make the Reading test a game in which you learn to identify the ACT’s incorrect and correct answer styles and abandon the urge to defend your own ideas. 

How to Study for the ACT Science Test

  • Understand science reasoning. The ACT Science test is not a science test–it’s a science reasoning test with the occasional piece of basic science knowledge thrown in. Taking the science test is a skill so specific it deserves its own post. I’ve fleshed out more ideas than we have room for here in my post How to Improve Your ACT Science Score.