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.

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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.




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tannar2020
Stanford ‘20


Accepted to Stanford, UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UCLA

Born in small town, interested in math, science, and literature. Attending Stanford University starting fall of 2016, planning on studying engineering or computer science, with a minor in a foreign language.
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Columbia ‘20


Accepted to Columbia, Brown, UPenn, Rice, UC Berkeley, UCLA, UVA, UC Davis, UCSD, UCSC, USC

Hey! I'm a John Jay Scholar at Columbia, and I'm from Los Angeles. I'm planning to major in Art History and do ballet and theater. Hope I can help!
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Georgetown ‘20


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

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Duke ‘18


Accepted to UGA

I am a current junior at Duke studying biology, marine science, and markets and management studies

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