The ABCs of the ACT

March 23, 2017

When you’re starting your ACT prep, sifting through test materials can be overwhelming. There’s a lot of information, both helpful and unhelpful, about the exam out there. So how do you know where to begin? 

In this post, we’ll take a look at ACT basics: from how to start your studies to what to do when you finish a section on test day. By getting a solid background on the A, B, Cs of the ACT, you’ll set yourself up for even greater success on the official exam!

A: Address your weaknesses

More specifically, figure out what your weaknesses are and then address them. How? Start out by taking a practice test. Make sure you take it under test-like conditions: all in one go, with scheduled breaks, in a quiet environment (and no flipping back and forth between sections once time is up). After scoring the exam, spend a couple hours—that’s right, a couple hours!—going over your results. Don’t just look at your overall (composite) score or even your in-section scores, though those are helpful. Instead, start keeping an “error log,” in which you write down the questions you got wrong, classifying the question types, then writing out the correct answer and how to get there. Most practice tests will have explanations to help you with this last part. Keep updating this error log throughout your ACT prep—you’ll be amazed at how far you come.

B: Be prepared

Even if you’re taking the exam tomorrow, there are a few things you can still do to help your score, and they all come down to preparation. Confronting the unknown on the official exam can not only increase any test anxiety, but it can also have a huge (and hugely negative) impact on your score. Here’s a quick rundown of ACT basics.

Test Format: The ACT is a multiple-choice test, with an optional essay.

Test Sections: The ACT is broken down into four or five sections (known as “tests”—I know, it’s confusing), depending on whether you’re taking the Writing test. In order, these are:

Test Timing: How long is the ACT? Again, it all depends on that essay. Without it, the ACT takes 2 hours and 55 minutes; with it, the exam takes 3 hours and 35 minutes.

  • English

  • Math

  • Reading

  • Science

  • Writing (optional)

C: Constantly evaluate your work

That goes for both your ACT prep and the work you do on the official exam. During your prep, the error log is a great place to start. Which question types do you consistently miss? Do you often make avoidable mistakes like dropping a negative sign when you shouldn’t have? Then, in the week leading up to test day, go over that error log and identify which patterns you can see in your most recent 2-3 tests. During the actual exam, make sure that you leave around five minutes at the end of each section to go back and double-check your work on those question types.

Applying to college?
View the app files and essays of accepted students.

At the end of the day, a little information goes a long way. On the other hand, a lot of information goes a lot farther! If your test date is fast approaching, this might mean retaking the ACT, but it’ll be worth it in the study time you’ll gain. The more time you have to prepare, practice, and evaluate your work, the better chance you’ll have of hitting that dream score—and getting into your dream school.

About The Author

Rachel Kapelke-Dale
Rachel Kapelke-Dale

Rachel Kapelke-Dale is a test prep expert at Magoosh. She has a Bachelor of Arts from Brown University, an MA from the Université de Paris VII, and a PhD from University College London. She has taught test preparation and consulted on admissions practices for over eight years.

Browse Successful Application Files

Stanford ‘20

Accepted to Stanford, UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC Irvine

Technophile and Starbucks lover majoring in CS with a passion for STEM and the arts.
Cornell ‘19

Accepted to Cornell, CMU, Northwestern, Johns Hopkins, UCSD, UCSB, UC Irvine

Cornell Engineering '19
Georgetown ‘20

Accepted to Georgetown, UT Austin, Texas Christian, Texas A&M, Richmond, Pepperdine

A hard worker that is living the dream.
USC ‘19

Accepted to USC, NYU, UMich, UCSD, Rochester, BC, BU, Miami OH, Loyola U Chicago, Miami, U of Minnesota, Drexel, Illinois

Typical Student from Chicago who has had the best of the American/Hispanic Culture. As well, I applied to 25 schools

New Posts

7 Types of Second Semester Seniors
7 Types of Second Semester Seniors
April 23, 2018

If you’re a high school senior right now, you’ll know all about Senioritis. (Unless you’re #7.)Standardized tests, college application essays, FAFSA forms… senior fall is no fun. Thankfully, you’re (almost) finally...

10 Things You'll Probably Need in College
10 Things You’ll Probably Need in College
April 19, 2018

Not sure what you need in college? We got your back. We hope you love the products listed here! Just FYI, AdmitSee may collect a share of sales from the links on this page.1. Bedside...

The College Application Experience: What I'd Change
The College Application Experience: What I’d Change
April 16, 2018

Experiencing the college application process firsthand gives someone a lot of valuable insight that future applicants could really benefit from. The incoming college class of 2022 students shared some advice with us on how they would...

Load More Posts