While most students go into the ACT test having some idea of what content it will assess, and many have even prepared through some type of studying or prep program, there is really no experience that can fully prepare you for taking your first potentially high-stakes standardized test. Some students are surprised by the format, the pace, or the skills required to be successful. Others experience test anxiety for the first time.

Regardless of your first experience taking the ACT, the good news is that it’s likely that the test will get easier the second time you take it. While the questions, pacing, and format will remain the same, you will go into the test with a better idea of what you can expect. Even your test anxiety is likely to subside slightly each time you walk into the testing facility.

Even better, the majority of students who take a standardized test such as the ACT more than once, find that their scores increase the most between the first and second test administration. Furthermore, the lower your starting score was, the greater the average increase is between test scores. So if you’ve taken the ACT and are less than happy with your score, don’t lose hope. There are many ways to improve your score, and taking the test at all is an important first step.

Here, we’ll outline out top ten tips for improving your ACT score and explain how you can achieve the gains towards which you’re striving.

The preparations for your next ACT start the second your first ACT is over.

The ideal scenario is this: You finish your ACT, the proctor collects your materials, you gather your belongings, and before you talk to anyone else, you get out a notepad and jot down every single thing you remember about the test. You might write down specific questions, you might list content areas that seemed foreign or more difficult than you expected, you may remember sections on which you ran out of time or had extra time. You might even write down parts of the test that seemed way too easy. These notes will become an important part of your study plan for future tests.

But don’t worry if your test is long over and you didn’t write anything down. Odds are, you remember more than you think you do. Set aside a few quiet minutes to really reflect on your testing experience. Actually visualize yourself in the testing room and try to remember as much as you can about the content, format, and general testing experience itself. Any memories, whether they’re parts of the test that seemed easy, features of the testing facility that distracted you, or sections you didn’t have time to finish, will become important. Use this list to guide your studying.

Know how to interpret your score report.

Usually your ACT test results are available two to eight weeks after your testing date. These results will be available online through your ACT web account, and they are also mailed to your high school. Your inclination is probably to view your composite score, have a glance at your section scores, and then either pin them on the fridge for all to see or bury them in the trash, depending on how you did.

Don’t be fooled into glossing over your score report. It actually contains a ton of useful information that can help to guide your studying for future tests. Specifically, you should pay attention to your subscores. This is a simple way to identify weak areas of content knowledge. Look at the Detailed Results section of your score report and find which subscores were lowest. This will give you a good idea of where you need to focus your studying.   

For more about how to interpret your score report, read CollegeVine’s Complete Guide to Your ACT Score Report.

Set a target score.

Before you begin improving on your ACT score, you’ll need to set a target score to focus your study plan. Having a target score will give you a better idea of what you need to do to achieve it.

For example, if you know you want to score a 32, you know that on each section test your score should be no lower than a 30, and if you do think you’ll score a 30 on one section, you’d better be prepared to score a 34 on another section to even it out. You will also know that if you’re aiming for a 34 on the Science ACT, you can’t get more than two or three questions wrong. This might mean guessing on two questions that seem like they will take a lot of time, and devoting the rest of your attention to getting every single other question correct.

There are two factors to consider when setting your target score. First, you’ll need to consider your score on the first test. While it’s true that the lower your score, the more room there is for improvement, it’s also true that you need to set realistic goals. If you score a 22 on your first ACT, it’s pretty unlikely that you’re going to get a 36 the second time around. If you score a 23 or below, it’s probably feasible to aim for a five or even six point improvement if you really put yourself to work. However, if you score a 27 or above, a three or possibly even four point improvement , though possible, will be more difficult to achieve.

The other factor to consider is the score range of admitted students at schools you hope to attend. You can narrow your options by using the search tool at College Simply, which allows you to search by test score for colleges. Try entering your target score and see if the schools that come up are in line with the schools you hope to attend. If not, you’ll need to consider making some adjustments.

Figure out which mistakes you make most frequently. 

After you’ve taken the ACT once, it’s much easier to identify the errors most likely to trip you up again in the future.

If your score on the ACT is much lower than your score was on any of the practice ACTs that you took, it’s very likely that your performance suffered from test anxiety. The good news is that test anxiety generally abates more and more each time you take the test, so having taken the ACT once already, you’re likely to see an improvement the next time you take it. To learn more about coping with test anxiety, read CollegeVine’s Dealing With Test Anxiety

If you find that your mistakes are clustered by content area, as identified on the Detailed Results section of your score report, then your weakness is likely specific content knowledge. This is fixable through further reinforcement of the content commonly found on the test.

If you find that your errors are spread across all content areas fairly equally, yet you had time left at the end of every test section, you may be rushing through your work and making careless mistakes on your way. You can test this theory by taking an untimed practice test and double-checking each answer. You may find that your mistakes almost disappear when the time requirement is gone. If this is the case, you’ll need to learn some time management strategies.

Evaluate your time management.   

The ACT is notoriously quick-paced. If you don’t keep moving through the questions at a rapid pace, you won’t have time to answer them all. Think carefully about your pacing during the test. Did you have tons of time leftover at the end of each section? You might be rushing too much. Did you run out of time during any sections? You aren’t moving through it quickly enough. A delicate balance must be struck in order to be successful on the test.

Be sure to bring an acceptable watch to the test and know exactly how much time you have for each section. Keep in mind that any watch that makes noises or has capabilities outside of timekeeping (e.g. internet connectivity, camera, etc.) is strictly prohibited. One good starting point is to have a general idea of the pacing for each section. For example, the math section has 60 questions that you’ll need to answer in 60 minutes, but because the questions are arranged by ascending difficulty, you should move through the earlier questions at a quicker pace to conserve time for the later, more difficult questions. Aim to complete the first 20 questions in 12 minutes, the second 20 questions in 15 minutes, and the remaining 20 questions in 30 minutes, with three minutes remaining to check your work or review.

Also know that it’s okay to skip difficult questions on any section, and return to them at the end of that section. By not dwelling on questions that eat up your time, you’ll have that time to spend on the questions that you’re more likely to get right. Just make sure that even when you skip a question, you fill in your best guess on the answer sheet. There is no penalty for wrong answers so no questions should ever be left blank.

Learn a strategy to read quickly.

This goes hand in hand with time management. The Reading, English, and Science sections of the ACT are all reading heavy, and like the Math section, there is not a lot of time to complete them. For this reason, you should go into the test with a good idea of how you will tackle the written passages on each section.

For the Reading section, you will most likely need to learn how to skim a passage effectively. Some students like to read the entire first paragraph, the first and last sentence of the body paragraphs, and the entire concluding paragraph. Other students simply read the first and last sentence of every paragraph. Try different strategies on your practice tests to see which works best for you.

On the English and Science sections, questions are more targeted. In fact, some of the science questions can be answered without even reading the passage. Definitely go straight to the questions to see if you can answer them using only the informational graphics provided.

On the English test you can often get by with reading only sentences associated with questions. These will be underlined in the text. You might need to read the sentence before and after to get a better idea of context for some, but overall most questions will rely only on information in that sentence.

Again, practice a few strategies before the test so that you can go into it knowing which works best for you.

Get help.

Many students have the idea that ACT tutors are a privilege reserved only for students who can afford the service, but in actuality there are some options available for much tighter budgets too. Private one-on-one tutors are generally the most expensive option, but they may also be more efficient in terms of time and money. Research private tutors local to you to get a better idea of pricing and expectations. 

Another option is an online tutor, which is generally slightly more affordable and can give you more flexibility. The CollegeVine ACT online tutoring program pairs you with two expert tutors, one who will coach you in the verbal sections and one who will coach you in the STEM sections. All tutoring sessions take place via video chat so you can connect from anywhere in the world with top tutors, whenever it’s convenient for you.

Scholarships are also available at some tutoring companies, both local and online. The CollegeVine scholarship program provides free tutoring, mentoring, and essay help to qualified students. Local tutoring companies also may offer pro bono tutoring services to students who qualify; you can contact local companies directly to inquire about these services.

Alternatively, you might even find a mentor, teacher, or guidance counselor at your school who is familiar with helping students to prepare for the test. While professional tutors generally have more expertise, that doesn’t mean that you can’t find a mentor with the experience necessary to help you as needed.

Use the process of elimination to your advantage.

While it can be disconcerting to read a question and not have any idea about the answer right away, when you’re taking a multiple-choice test, you can take heart in knowing that the answer is always right there in front of you. On the ACT, there are five answer choices for each question. This means that even without reading the question or the answers, you have a 20% chance of guessing correctly.

By using the process of elimination on questions that you can’t solve completely, you increase your chances of guessing correctly. By eliminating just one answer choice, your chances of guessing correctly increase to 25%. By eliminating two answer choices, you have a 33% chance of guessing correctly, and by eliminating three answer choices you have a 50% chance of guessing the correct answer. Those are pretty good odds for getting credit on a question that you couldn’t solve.

Learn the material that requires rote memorization

Preparing for the ACT is a multidimensional affair. You need to learn test format, test strategy, and time management, in addition to the actual content of the test. And many of the skills assessed are soft skills—things like how to infer meaning while reading, or how to evaluate the ways ideas work together in a written text. In this manner, some of the content is harder to sit down and learn and requires a lot of practice, usually within the classroom.

But some content does lend itself well to rote memorization, and you should take advantage of this. For the math and grammar content on the ACT, simple, old-fashioned memorization can give you a big head start. Unlike the SAT, the ACT does not provide any references for use during the Math test, so your knowledge of basic formulas will be important. Make sure to memorize the following math formulas before the test:

• Slope-intercept formula

• Quadratic formula

• Area of triangles

• Pythagorean theorem

• Special types of triangles (30-60-90, isosceles, equilateral, etc.)

• Area of a circle

• Circumference

• Area of a sector

• Area of a rectangle

• Area of a parallelogram

• Area of trapezoid

• Trigonometry functions (sin, cos, tan, SOHCAHTOA)       

Similarly, there are elements of standard English conventions that can also be memorized. For some ideas on where to start, read CollegeVine’s 3 Grammar Rules Every Student Messes Up On the ACT and Four Common Mistakes to Avoid on Your English ACT.

PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE.

If you’re familiar with our blog, we know you’ve heard this one before. But we have to repeat it at every opportunity because it is the most important tool for preparing for any standardized test. Think about it this way—the ACT takes material that all high school students have supposedly learned, and tests it in a way that makes it extremely difficult to get a perfect or even near-perfect score. How do they do that? By creating a test that is intentionally tricky.

The only way to prepare for a tricky test is to take it enough that you know just what to expect. You might start by taking each section of it without time constraints in order to get used to the content and directions. Then, try taking each section with the same time constraints you’ll experience during the actual test. Finally, take a few full-length practice test in simulated testing conditions. When you are comfortable with the test pacing, format, and content, you are better prepared for the test itself.

The thought of improving your ACT score might be intimidating at first. In an ideal world, you envision yourself preparing for the test, taking it once, and achieving the score you’d hoped for. But in reality, most students will go through the process of taking the test more than once and go through measures to improve their scores between tests. You aren’t alone. Use the tips above to improve your ACT score and, by doing so, improve the impression that it leaves on college admissions committees too. 

If you still have questions about ACT Test strategies or you are interested in our full-service, customized ACT Test tutoring, head over to CollegeVine’s ACT Tutoring Program, where you will be matched with the brightest and most qualified tutors, one in math skills and one in verbal skills, both of whom are intimately familiar with the exam and can help you to ace it too, just like they did.

To learn more about the ACT test, check out these CollegeVine posts:

Kate Sundquist

Kate Sundquist

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.
Kate Sundquist