ACT Tips and Advice Post

ACT Action Plan

Posted by Brian R. McElroy at 2017-04-25 11:27:18

ACT Action Plan

Step 1
: Take a diagnostic test.  Download a free ACT practice test here (make sure to print it out).  The ACT takes around 3.5 hours total and should be taken all at once, if possible, or split into a maximum of two parts.  You can also download a few more free PDFs of real practice ACTs here, herehere and here.  If possible, you should also buy one print copy, preferably two--the second copy should be left blank--of the Real ACT Prep Guide.  This book contains 3 tests in the new format.  You can even read my detailed customer review of the book, which is currently the #1 ranked review on Amazon.

To learn more about the new Essay/Writing section on the updated ACT, please read this article.

Need more practice tests?  Then try the 3rd edition of the book, which has 5 older tests (but be warned that the Essay (Writing) section is now completely outdated, and that some of the questions/passages/sections, especially on the Math and Science sections, are identical to questions from the newest version of the book).  Professional tutors like me will often have a collection of real ACTs, compiled from past exams that were publicly released but neither available for purchase nor offered online. For practice, try to stick to real ACTs whenever possible.  For strategy, look elsewhere: a book, a class, or a private tutor who can point you in the right direction.

Step 2:  Set a score goal.  Most ACT score improvements are somewhere around 5 points, or 25%, from the first score, given time for sufficient preparation and depending on the student's starting score.    The lower the starting score, the more potential for improvement.

Step 3:  Start working on the content of the test.  That content includes:

English - The Complete Guide to ACT English / Complete ACT Grammar and Punctuation Rules

Math - Cliff’s Notes Math Review for Standardized TestsUltimate Guide to the Math ACT / ACT Quantum Free Math Videos

Reading - The Complete Guide to ACT Reading

Science - For the Love of ACT Science

Writing (Essay) - Mighty Oak Guide to Mastering the 2016 ACT Essay / Free Practice ACT Essays in the New Format / The New ACT Essay / Writing Section (includes a sample ACT essay written by me)

General ACT Strategy Guides / Non-Official Practice Tests -  Barron's (3 tests) / Princeton Review (6 tests)

Additional (non-official) ACT Practice Tests -  McGraw-Hill

In addition, keep reading challenging material, such as the Top 100 Fiction and Top 100 Non-Fiction titles on Amazon.   Also check out literary websites such as The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The Economist, and even Grantland for the sports fans out there.

Step 4: (only recommended for lower-scoring students): take an ACT classroom course such as the ones at UCSD, where I am currently on the teaching staff.   These types of classes can be helpful for low scorers who need all the time, practice and repetition they can get.   But don't overpay for an "elite" class: these types of classes are all very similar and focus mostly on test content and basic strategies for the average student. Instead, save your money for a qualified private tutor later on in the process.

Step 5:  If you haven't done so already, buy 2 copies of the Real ACT Prep Guide
(I recommend keeping a second, blank copy for the purpose of reviewing questions without bias), and get a good graphing calculator

Step 6: Once you begin studying, consider scheduling some time with me or another private tutor.   You may meet with your tutor for anywhere from 1 hour to 100 hours, but most students need at least 15-25 hours for a full preparation.   If you are willing to go with the Skype tutoring option, then you are free to choose from any tutor nationwide.   I recommend scheduling a 15-minute phone consultation with me or your tutor before the first lesson, to discuss timelines, scheduling, and the unique needs of the student(s).

Working with a private tutor is the very best way to maximize your score, for a variety of reasons:

1) You are given personalized attention, lessons tailored to fit your schedule, and the opportunity to discuss each question in-depth until you are fully satisfied. 
2) Private tutors are usually the best instructors. 
3) A skilled private tutor will serve as a friend and confidant, hold you accountable, give you specific assignments and work on any problem areas so that all you have to do is put in the effort. Simply talking about the questions with your tutor helps aid your understanding of each question and your test-taking strategies. 


As a general rule, students should spend at least one hour on homework for every hour they spend with their tutor.  The usual homework assignment is 2-3 sections from the book (approximately 1.5 hours), working from the front to the back.   Students should time themselves, and mark the question where they run out of time, but continue working past the time limit if necessary. 

Full practice tests should also be taken periodically, at the discretion of the tutor. 

The goal is to eventually complete all 5 tests in the book, and possibly more.  Many of my students have taken upwards of 25 official practice tests in total (I'm a test collector and have compiled many more ACTs than that) before they took the real thing. 

How to grade tests and homework

Either don't grade your homework and just let your tutor grade it for you, or grade it yourself (the answers are in the back), but please do not indicate the correct answers anywhere on the test.

Remember, when you take the ACT, you do not know the answer to the questions in advance.  As tutors, we must preserve this unsure feeling on behalf of our students, or much of the value of the question is lost.

In the same vein, when a question is tried again, it is best not to know the correct answer, or one's previous answer.  This is where the second, blank copy of the book comes in. 

Step 7: If you haven't done so already, then
register for the ACT

The ACT is administered six times a year, on varying days:  September, October, December, February, April and June.

Three times a year, the ACT offers what's called the Test Information Release (TIR), which--unlike the other test dates--allows you to order an actual (paper) copy of the questions, along with your answers.  Sign up for the Test Information Release in advance if you can--it costs extra, and takes about six weeks from the time you receive your scores online, but it's still worth it.  (You can also order a copy of your essay afterward, which requres an additional form and fee.) 

Currently the TIR is offered in December, April and June.  Thus, these are the best three months to take the test for the first time, because otherwise there will no way to review your incorrectly answered questions with your tutor.

Step 8:  Take at least 2-3 full practice tests in the weeks leading up to the real thing to make sure your score is where you need it to be. 

Step 9:  On the morning of the test, read my
ACT test-day tips for a final time. 

Step 10:  Repeat if necessary.  Most students score highest the second or third time they take the ACT. 

You may also find helpful information in our Grades 9-12 document.

Good luck!


copyright 2015 Brian R. McElroy
Founder and President, McElroy Tutoring Inc.
Toll-Free: 1-866-584-TUTOR (8886), x 4
Direct (Call or Text): 619-889-2935


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Reader Comments


Posted on 2016

I wouldn\'t exactly call Amazon\'s Top 100 Fiction titles \"challenging material.\" Currently you can find \"Her Dad\'s Friend (A Romance Novella)\" and Amy Schumer\'s \"The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo\" among the top 20. Somehow I don\'t think that those writings exemplify the kinds of passages that students are likely to find on the ACT.

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