Test Prep

Oops. Last minute ACT test prep - what to do

Thought you had plenty of time to study for the ACT and now that test date is coming up like a steamroller? Don’t panic. While the test may be soon, we’ll guide you through a fast paced study process so you can turn your situation around and tackle this like a pro. These last minute ACT steps and tips from our test prep experts will set you up to study as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Step 1

Take out a pen and paper as you map out your plan of attack. Start by listing the number of days you have to study until test day. Then, allot a certain amount of hours you will study per day. This may vary between weekdays after school and weekends. Of course, the fewer days you have, the more hours you’ll want to designate to studying. But, be realistic and don’t neglect your normal schoolwork. Knowing exactly how much time you have will guide you through next steps.

Step 2

Get comfortable with the format and basics of each section, maybe write down some quick notes. But don’t spend too much time on this–especially if you are taking the October 27th test in less than two weeks. Here’s what you need to know:

  • The test format is timed multiple choice, aside from the optional writing section. The writing section is also timed, but the test taker responds to a prompt in essay format.  
  • The ACT contains four required sections and one optional section of various subjects, all differ in number of questions and timing and are listed below:
    • English: 45 minutes, 75 questions. Assesses English language and writing skills.
    • Math: 60 minutes, 60 questions. Assesses math skills that are expected to have been acquired by the end of your junior year of high school. Subjects include pre-algebra, elementary algebra, intermediate algebra, coordinate geometry, plane geometry, and trigonometry.
    • Reading: 35 minutes, 40 questions. Assesses reading comprehension expected in first year college courses.
    • Science: 35 minutes, 40 questions. Assesses skills pertaining to biology, chemistry, earth/space sciences and physics. These skills include interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning and problem solving.
    • Writing: 40 minutes, 1 prompt. Assesses writing skills typically acquired in high school English classes.
    • These are quick overviews of each section, but get a more comprehensive explanation in our updated ACT Prep Guide.

If you’re noticing a theme of subject matter you’ve already learned, you’re right on track.

“Remember–the ACT covers information you’ve learned in high school, so don’t panic,” said Chrissy Frye, ACT Prep Guide Editor.

Step 3

Now, assess the work that needs to be done by taking a practice or diagnostic test. Utilize a test prep guide or online diagnostic test that will assess what you need to work on specifically and how much studying you have to do. Find a quiet place, as a full practice test will take about three and a half hours. Try and stimulate the actual test as much as possible.

When you’re done, go over each question you got wrong. Ask a parent, teacher, or older sibling to score your essay if you practiced the writing section. Evaluate what areas you need to work on by section and specific problem type, and note which areas you seem to have down. Review answer explanations if available to better understand the specific questions and concepts. Keep your strengths and weaknesses in mind as you map out your study plan.

“The key to test prep success in practice, practice, practice, but if time is a factor, then the best approach is targeted practice—figure out what you need to focus on and hit it hard,” said Frye.

Step 4

It’s time to pull it all together and get organized. Now that you understand the format, structure, and your strengths and weaknesses, you’re ready to build and tackle your study guide. From here, you have two options. You can (1) divvy up your study time equally among sections, or you can (2) divide the time unequally based on your strengths and weaknesses. If it is clear there are some areas you really need to focus on and others you can manage with a small amount of review, the latter might be your best option. If this isn’t the case for you, equal amounts of time may serve you best. Here are examples of both options:

  1. Say you have 12 days left to study, you plan to study two hours per day on weekdays and four hours per day over the weekend. You will have a total of 18 hours to study. If you are not taking the writing section, you can devote a total of four and a half hours to each section. If you are taking the writing section, we recommend setting aside one of your weekday study days to devote to the writing section, taking away two total hours of your study time.
  2. Using the same 12 day, 18 hour assumption as above, Peterson’s ACT Prep Guide ASAP recommends listing the subjects from your weakest to your strongest and allocating a descending percentage of time. For example, the subject you scored the lowest in on your practice test would go first, and you would allot 30 percent of your time, or about five and a half hours if taking the writing section. If you aren’t taking the writing section, still follow this model, then review what you still aren’t comfortable with for that remaining hour and a half to two hours.

No matter which strategy you choose, be sure to split time between subject review and question practice, as these are both necessary to your study.

Step 5

On to the studying! Follow the study plan you chose by strategy and hours until the day before your test. Be diligent in your studies and stick with the plan. After all, you are on a time crunch.

Try and finish your studying for the day before your test as early as possible to give yourself time to give yourself a mental break, prepare logistically, and get a full nights sleep.

The night before (or sooner if you won’t be driving yourself), find out how long it will take to get to the test center so you can plan accordingly and give yourself plenty of time. Pack your bag or backpack with a printed copy of your ticket, a photo ID, an approved calculator with extra batteries, a watch to time yourself, number two pencils, snacks and water.

On the day of the test, you should feel proud of yourself for sticking to a rigorous study plan despite the shortage of time. Be confident in your ability to succeed, knowing that you’ve done your best to prepare.

See also: Retaking the SAT: A Timeline for Improving your Score

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