The Essential ACT Prep Guide

Welcome to Signet’s essential ACT prep guide! 


Our goal is to give students all the tools necessary for an effective standardized test prep process. Information is power, and the more students know what to expect from the SAT or ACT, the better positioned they will be to succeed. 


In this guide, we’ll provide important information about the ACT, including how to go about studying and preparing for this test. Let’s get started! 


What Is the ACT? 

The ACT is a college entrance exam that helps schools compare students in a

standardized fashion.


Established in 1959, the ACT was designed to measure whether students had acquired the basic knowledge a high schooler was expected to have rather than measuring a student’s potential intellectual ability. (The latter was the original goal of the SAT.)


Compared to the SAT, questions on the ACT tend to more closely resemble material students have covered in class and are presented more straightforwardly.


ACT Structure and Format

Here is a brief overview of the test structure for the ACT: 


English: 45 minutes, 75 questions 

English always comes first. This portion of the ACT tests grammar, rhetoric, and punctuation in the context of several passages.


Math: 60 minutes, 60 questions 

Math always comes second. This portion of the ACT tests number theory, arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and basic trigonometry.


Reading: 35 minutes, 40 questions 

Reading always comes third. This portion of the ACT includes basic reading comprehension and literary technique questions on four types of long passages.


Science: 35 minutes, 40 questions 

Science always comes fourth. This portion of the ACT tests students’ ability to read, interpret, and synthesize technical information presented in passages, charts, diagrams, and tables. 


Essay (Optional) 

The essay is optional and always comes last. It tests students’ ability to construct an argument in response to a prompt deemed “relevant” to high school students.


How the ACT Is Scored 

Each section of the ACT (English, Math, Reading, Science) is scored individually, with scores ranging from 1 (lowest) to 36 (highest). The four scores are then averaged together to produce a composite score, which is rounded to the nearest whole number. (If the fraction is less than one-half, it’s rounded down; if it’s one-half or more, it’s rounded up). 


Like the SAT, the ACT uses rights-only scoring, meaning students are not penalized for guessing incorrectly. 


What Is a “Good” ACT Score?

As for what constitutes a “good” ACT score, the answer isn’t as simple as you might think. In fact, we encourage students to remove the words “good” and “bad” from their vocabulary entirely. 


Instead, students should consider how their ACT results align with their personal goals, which begins with setting a target score.


While it’s not a perfect formula, the best way to determine a target score is to start with your student’s college list. Nearly all colleges publish the average test scores for admitted students each year. 


Students can average together the test scores from the top schools on their list to set a baseline target score for themselves.


Why Choose the ACT over the SAT?

Colleges do not prefer one test over the other, so students have the freedom to choose which test to focus their attention on. 


We advise students to take diagnostic tests for both the SAT and ACT to get a hands-on feel for the test format and structure that works best for them. 


Relative to the ACT, the SAT has: 

  • A higher average reading level (generally harder passages)
  • More reading throughout the test, including in math and writing
  • More switching between types of problems (for example, there are charts and graphs in the writing section) 


Relative to the SAT, the ACT has: 

  • A lower average reading level
  • More demanding timing (more questions in less time) 
  • A separate science section (although it’s primarily reading comprehension of charts and graphs, not actual science) 


Students who tend to perform well on the ACT are generally: 

  • Better at skimming information than understanding complicated reading
  • Not always the quickest to pick things up but work hard to get good grades
  • Good at memorizing things or recognizing familiar question types
  • More likely to be frustrated by solving problem types they’ve never seen before 
  • Best at cranking out straightforward problems as opposed to using abstract reasoning 
  • More likely to devour popular, entertaining books than chug through dense books or articles 


Creating a Test Prep Plan 

Once a student has decided on taking the ACT and knows their target score, it’s time to sit down and start studying! We highly recommend planning out the entire test prep schedule in advance, all the way up to the first exam date. 


This approach ensures students have enough time to cover all of the necessary material and avoids last-minute cramming sessions, which are much less effective for learning and retaining knowledge.


ACT Test Prep Plan: What to Include

  • 2-5 hours per week of dedicated test prep. 30-45 minutes per day is ideal for most students, but more intensive studying three days a week or on weekends works better for some.
  • A structured curriculum that assigns specific times for working on each test section.
  • Clear goals for each week, as well as for each study session. A clear goal looks like this: “This week, I’ll focus on memorizing geometry formulas and spend 2-3 hours practicing flashcards. Next week I’ll move on to writing practice, and I’ll spend 4-5 hours on that.” Write these goals down and stick to them.
  • 1-3 full-length timed practice tests taken under realistic conditions. 


ACT Prep Guide: Principles of Good ACT Preparation 

In addition to creating a study plan, students should also follow these principles of good preparation:


Put in consistent effort over time

Ideally, students should spend time on standardized testing daily or every other day over the course of several months, not a few weeks. 


A useful comparison is to consider how they might prepare for a musical performance or athletic competition. Cramming at the end won’t do much to improve their skills, but daily practice will take them far.


Emphasize skills as well as knowledge

Learning new material is part of standardized testing, but a student’s performance during the test itself is also critically important. They need to be able to deploy their knowledge in challenging and unpredictable circumstances (i.e., not knowing exactly what the questions will be) and develop the vital skill of pattern recognition. 


Consistent practice will help build these test-taking skills, and periodically taking full-length exams will improve students’ endurance and focus.


Use quality materials

While third-party materials can be beneficial, students will get the best results from their preparation by using materials sourced directly from the ACT site: 


  • The Official ACT Prep Guide includes certified strategies and numerous practice exercises and tests.
  • The ACT also has an interactive online prep portal, ACT Test Prep, which provides review materials and practice drills/tests for a 6-month subscription.
  • For a more robust online prep, the ACT has partnered with Kaplan to create ACT and Kaplan Test Prep to provide interactive support with topic-based content review videos, practice drills and tests, feedback from live instructors, and access to online classes. This resource has paid subscription plans ranging from six weeks to six months, but students who qualify can get free or discounted access.


Third-party resources (we like Barron’s) may be useful if a student needs additional information but should never stand in for actual test material.


Analyze results

Even the most dedicated students rarely spend enough time reviewing the practice problems they complete. 


Generally, students should allocate 50-100% of the time spent doing practice questions to reviewing their work. In other words, if they take a 60-minute practice section, they should plan to spend 30-60 minutes analyzing their results and noting areas that need improvement. 


Working through incorrect responses and shoring up weak areas of knowledge should be the central focus of test prep. 


Work on the hard stuff

After a decade of preparing students for standardized exams, we still don’t know any students who markedly increased their scores by practicing what they were already good at! 


Once challenging areas have been identified, carve out specific study times to focus on these kinds of problems and seek help if needed. Targeted, focused effort can go a long way toward improving a student’s score.


ACT Tutoring Services at Signet

While not all students need test prep tutoring to prepare for the ACT, many do benefit from these services. At Signet, our ACT tutoring services are designed to address the unique needs of each student. 

Learn more about ACT prep at Signet or reach out to schedule a free call

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