By Jillian Schleiden
When you picture studying for the ACT, you might imagine yourself surrounded by piles of books with dark circles under your eyes from the long hours of work. But it doesn’t have to be this way! You can prepare for the ACT bit by bit, everyday. It just requires a little planning and a dash of strategy.
Here’s how you do it:
1. Choose Your Resources
There’s a positive sea of prep material for the ACT. Walk into a bookstore and you’ll see a dozen manuals, tomes of practice questions, and even more “quick and easy” guides to getting a great score. The good news is, you only need a few specific resources:
- A book of practice questions
- A guide to the material covered in the test
- 2-3 practice tests
You can usually find these combined in one book, but feel free to mix and match. Make sure your practice tests address specific content areas within each section. For instance, the English section should show you how you did with grammar, as well as main ideas and vocabulary. (For a comprehensive review of parts of speech, check out our pages on conjunctions, nouns, adverbs, and more.)
The ACT website also offers some free resources for studying, including recommendations for printed materials.
In addition to a book, you’ll likely find it helpful to have:
- Sticky-note style tab markers for your books
- A notebook and pen
- Index cards
2. Pinpoint Your Weak Areas
The next step is to complete a practice test. Give yourself the same testing set-up as you’ll have on the real test. This means:
- Basic calculator only
- No resource materials outside of what the test provides
- No phone or other devices
- Time limit per section
Make sure you take the test somewhere you won’t be disturbed so the setting is as realistic as possible. If you really want to be on the ball, take it in the morning. This will be especially enlightening for you if you’re not a morning person!
Grade your test and then analyze the areas where you need the most work. Self-grading the essay portion can be a challenge, but you can ask a friend or parent to grade yours against the ACT rubric, as well as run it through our grammar checker to spot writing mistakes.
Rank the test areas from “Help, I have no clue what I’m doing” to “I can do this in my sleep.”
3. Create Your Guide
Get out those fancy colored tabs you purchased and the study guide you chose. Color code the areas you just ranked. Your weakest areas could be red, your strongest areas could be green, and so on. Choose up to five colors.
Now, create your schedule for the week. Plan a day each week to review the areas where you already do well. Then, give two to three days to the areas where you really struggle, and the last day or two days to the middle areas. You won’t need to spend much time each day studying if you’re being this strategic.
From here, the way you attack the material at hand is up to you. You can:
- Work from the beginning to the back of the material by color code
- Work by subject area each week (if certain areas are a big struggle for you)
- Start with the familiar material and work your way into the unfamiliar
Stick with your schedule every day! This daily routine is what saves you from long study sessions.
4. Study smart
Research has shown that trying to answer questions, even when you’re really not sure, and then checking your work is one of the most successful ways to learn. This is why there are so many books of practice questions! Add at least five practice questions to your studies each day.
As you create your study schedule, remember to review any test-taking vocabulary you need to know. Formal test taking language may vary from what you learn in high school. Flashcards are an easy way to master these words. If you have someone in your life willing to help, use one of your study days to have them check you card by card.
5. Re-check and Repeat
About halfway through your summer break, take another practice test in the same setting. Keeping the variables the same gives you more honest results.
You’ll see that you have new areas of need because you’ve started to master the old areas. Go back through your guide book and practice questions and reassign your colors and days of work. Now keep at it until the end of the summer!
By carefully structuring what material you study by day, you’ll master new material without forgetting the old. Long hours of cram sessions are not needed to master the ACT!
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