Adam Groden By: Adam Groden
ACT Tips

You have decided that you will be taking the ACT. Now it is time to prepare. Use the ACT tips listed below to achieve a top score on the exam.

The ACT strategies listed below will help you avoid some of the traps on the ACT and approach the test with greater confidence.

Some of the tips below apply to the whole test in general, while others are subject specific.

Summary: Review our ACT tips and tricks to help you do well on your upcoming exam. Consider using ACT online prep to help you get a top score.

Use the following 3 act study tips for all sections of the exam.

Tip #1: Practice, Practice, Practice

Practice has many benefits. Taking practice exams will help you become more familiar with the exam, help you recognize what you know or do not know, and will allow you to feel more confident heading into the actual exam.

Just like playing a sport, if you do not routinely practice, you will perform way below your potential. The same is true for the ACT - you need to routinely practice leading up to the actual exam to perform at your full potential.

What Do You Gain From Practice?

  • You gain familiarity with the instructions for each section. Instead of reading instructions, you can jump right into the questions to make the best use of your test time.
  • You gain awareness of your strengths and weaknesses. More practice can help you improve areas of weakness.
  • You gain experience with how ACT approaches their test design, allowing you to form your own unique test-taking tactics.

How To Practice:

  • Use ACT-style practice tests to get a better understanding of the questions and format of the exam.
  • Determine how much study time you will have by scheduling your ACT test date.
  • Use tips 2-10 and implement them when taking practice exams.

Tip #2: Make a Solid Time Management Plan Before Your Test

Some things to consider in your time management plan are:

  • How much time will you spend on each question?
  • How will you handle answering harder questions, or remaining questions as time runs short?
  • How will you know you’re staying on track timewise?
  • How will you quickly make the best choice when unsure of an answer?

How Much Time Will You Spend On Each Question By Test?

Each of the subject area tests will be timed. You will most likely be pressed for time on one (or multiple) sections.

The following table shows the general time constraints for each section.

Subject Total # of questions Total Time allowed Time Per Question Percent of Testers Scoring College Level
English 75 45 minutes 36 seconds 61%
Math 60 60 minutes 1 minute 31%
Reading 40 35 minutes 52 seconds 44%
Science 40 35 minutes 52 seconds 36%
Writing 1 40 minutes 40 minutes to develop a complete essay from a writing prompt About 40% will score an 8 or above on the 2-12 scale.

One great way to have solid time management while studying for the ACT is by using an ACT prep course.

How Will You Know You’re Staying On Track Time-Wise?

Each testing center will have a clock for checking how much time you have left to complete a section of the test.

When five minutes remain for the test, you will hear a verbal warning from the test proctor.

A non-disruptive digital watch with timer capability can help you see at a glance if you are keeping up with the required pace.

How Will You Handle Questions You Can’t Answer?

Part of your time management plan should include how you will handle the hardest questions. And how will you deal with unanswered questions if time is running out?

Since incorrect answers do not count against you, it is very important to answer every question.

One often recommended strategy: Choose a standard answer for those questions you know you can’t answer, or that you are running out of time to answer.

A final time saving strategy for all sections: Work out questions first in your test booklet, then bubble in answers all at one time when you have 5-10 minutes left. Just be sure to leave plenty of time to carefully record your answers on the scantron sheet.

Tip #3: Eliminate Obviously Wrong Answers

After carefully reading the question and reading any associated passages, scan the answers provided.

If any are obviously wrong, cross them out in your test booklet. If you can cross out even one answer, your odds of answering correctly are improved, even if you must guess among the remaining answers.

ACT Tips for English

Review the following ACT strategies for the English section below. If you want to focus specifically on this section, use our ACT English practice test.

Time Management on the English Section: You’ve already seen that the English section is 45 minutes for 75 questions.

With 5 passages and 15 questions per passage to consider in 45 minutes, the average time spent per essay should be eight to nine minutes, and 20-30 seconds average per question.

Tip #4: Actively Skim the Passage First

Take about 1 minute to actively skim a passage.

What Does It Mean To “Actively Skim”?

  • As you skim, force your mind to stay engaged with the text. Use your pencil as a guide and a marker.
  • Underline main ideas.
  • Circle phrases and sentences that look or sound weird.
  • Determine the goal of the essay (to inform, entertain, persuade).
  • Watch for redundancy.
  • If the phrase is already underlined in your test booklet you know you’ll have a question about that phrase.
  • If you know in advance a sentence or phrase has issues, you can likely eliminate the answer of “make no change.”

If you do one thing on this section, make sure you are actively skimming passages for about 1 minute before jumping into the questions.

The next 2 ACT test tips will help you excel on the math section of the ACT. For more practice on this section, use our ACT math practice test.

Time Management on the Math Section: So, you already know that the math test is 60 questions, and you have 60 minutes to get as much done as you can.

The math test increases in difficulty as you go, which means you should spend less time on early questions, and more time on later questions.

For example, allow yourself about 30 seconds per question for questions 1-20, 45 seconds per question on numbers 21-40, leaving about 35 minutes to complete the remaining (and hardest) 20 questions—more than 1 minute each.

Tip #5: Bring a Legal Calculator and Know How to Use It

The ACT does allow calculators, but make sure yours is legal. Review the calculator policy beforehand and ensure you can use you calculator on the exam.

In general, you can use any 4-function, scientific, or graphing calculator, as long as it is not on the prohibited list or modified.

Rule Of Thumb: If you can do it in your head, or by sketching a quick graph faster than you can punch it in on your calculator, don’t use your calculator.

You should know where to find the primary function keys (square root, pi, sin, cosine and tangent), and know how to use them.

Remember, it is sometimes possible to plug answer choices into the problem to test the choice, which eliminates the need for a calculator.

Tip #6: Use a Consistent Strategy

It is important to try and implement a consistent strategy when taking the math portion of the exam. Some of the following ACT strategies can be implemented:

  • Carefully read the question.
  • Underline information provided in the question – convert words to math symbols when possible.
  • Determine what the question is asking you to solve.
  • Study the appropriate diagram. Circle the information on the diagram needed to solve the question.
  • Carefully read the answers. Eliminate obviously wrong ones.
  • If you are stuck, move on and come back to the question at the end. Time is not your friend on the ACT.

Use the following 3 tips for the ACT to succeed on the reading portion of the exam. For specific practice on this section, use our ACT reading practice test.

Time Management on the Reading Section: You know there are 40 questions to answer in 35 minutes, averaging 52 seconds per question.

Sounds like more time, compared to English. But you must also factor in the time you will spend reading the passages—five total passages to read across 4 subject areas: social studies, natural sciences, literary, and humanities.

So, budgeting a minute to read each passage will leave 30 minutes to answer 40 questions. So really, about 45 seconds per question.

Tip #7: Start With Passages in Your Strong Subject Areas

Are you a history, government, or psychology buff? You might consider locating the social studies passage to complete first.

Or maybe you adore biology, geology or physics—then find the natural science passage.

The stronger you are in a subject area, the quicker you will be able to read that passage and choose answers.

Tip #8: Actively Read the Entire Passage

But first, preview the questions for that passage. Label key words in the questions.

Stay engaged as you read the passage by underlining portions you recall were mentioned in the questions.

  • Underline the thesis statement (somewhere in the first paragraph).
  • Circle main ideas/points.
  • Draw a box around unfamiliar words.
  • When you run across the key words you labelled in the questions, label them in the passage This will give you a quick reference back to the text when you are answering the questions.

Tip #9: Try to Answer a Question Without Looking at the Answers Provided

After active reading the passage, you have a good idea what the answer could be, look for it in the answer options. This will save some time.

You can use the next 2 tips for the ACT science portion of the exam. To practice for this section, use our ACT science practice test.

According to the ACT's description of the science test, prior knowledge of content areas is helpful, but prior knowledge is not the key!

What is important? Reading comprehension, graph comprehension, and problem-solving skills.

In other words, you need to be able to weed through a lot of information to discover relevant information from texts and diagrams supplied.

Time Management on the Science Section: You already know that you’ll have 35 minutes to complete 40 questions. There are 6 passages on this section of the exam. Some time-saving tips for the Science portion include:

  • Use your pencil or index fingers to “bookmark” the portion of a passage or diagram to which a question refers.

Tip #10: Read the Questions First

Questions will help you understand the diagrams and descriptions better.

Reading the questions first will help you have a better idea of what you should be looking for when reading the passage.

Tip #11: Don’t Get Bogged Down in the Passage Details

Sometimes it is easy to get distracted by the details in the science passages. You can combat this by trying to answer the following 2 questions when reading the passage:

  1. What is the main point?
  2. What is the figure showing?

As you know, the writing test is optional. But for those of you who will be taking it, here are a few bonus tips for writing testers.

Bonus Essay Writing Tip #1: Read the prompt and each perspective actively! Underline key words, ideas, and arguments.

Bonus Essay Writing Tip #2: Use your test booklet (not the essay answer sheet) to form and jot down your ideas, and keep notes organized.

For example: you might divide a blank test booklet page into 4 quadrants. Use 3 of them to take notes on each of the 3 perspectives provided in the writing prompt. Use the 4th to develop an outline for your essay.

What are the biggest tricks to the ACT?

We reviewed 11 different ACT test tips above. Some of the most important tips include having a time management strategy in mind, eliminate wrong answers where you can, skim passages and actively read, and have a consistent strategy in place (especially for math).

Is it good to guess on the ACT?

All questions should be answered when taking the ACT. There is no penalty for wrong answers. If you find yourself running out of time, you should fill in all the questions you left blank.

We recommend using the same letter when filling in empty questions.

Where can I practice for the ACT?

You can use ACT practice tests to prepare for your exam. Practice exams are a great way to study and help learn which subjects you need the most help with.