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Now that we are well into the school year, you might be hearing people talk about the ACT and starting to think about preparing for it. In this blog post, we outline both the “how” and the “when” of beginning your ACT prep.

ACT structure and scoring

First, a brief word on the composition of the ACT. The ACT has four sections:

Questions and Timing
English Grammar, style, and some reading comprehension 75 questions, 45 minutes
Math Solving math problems that test fundamental skills, algebra, geometry, algebra II, and statistics 60 questions, 60 minutes
Reading Reading comprehension on long passages 40 questions, 35 minutes
Science Interpreting tables and figures, understanding experimental design, and comparing/contrasting scientific arguments 40 questions, 35 minutes

For each section, the maximum score is 36. The four section scores are then averaged to create a composite score, also out of 36. Most students are stronger with certain sections than with others, which informs the focus of our test prep.

Take a diagnostic

The first step we recommend is to take an in-person diagnostic exam at our office. The results of the diagnostic show your strengths and areas of improvement across the four sections of the ACT, and your composite and section scores help us determine the number of sessions you are likely to need to improve your score meaningfully. Even if you decide to prep on your own, your score will help you figure out what you want to work on, whether that is refreshing grammar or math concepts or working on managing your time throughout the test. (The math and reading sections in particular tend to present timing challenges.)

Plan to test multiple times

If you decide to do test prep with us, we will plan your sessions out through one of the following test dates:

ACT test months

*ACT Test Information Release Dates    **Public schools in Wisconsin only 

However, unless you get a perfect or near-perfect score on your first try, it is beneficial to take multiple tests, for several reasons. 

  1. Every time you take a test, you get more familiar with the testing environment and the feeling of taking a test in a classroom with other people. You might have a bad day – maybe you didn’t sleep well the night before, or a student behind you is coughing or tapping their pencil the whole time. If you wait too long to start your test prep, you miss out on additional testing opportunities.
  2. Many colleges will now “superscore” your exams, taking the highest score from each section and creating a new, more favorable composite score. The ACT even provides superscore information on its score reports. Taking multiple tests will give you the chance to improve on sections that might not have gone as well as others. (For example, if you get a low math score on your first test, you can work more on math in preparation for a future exam in hopes of raising your superscore.) 
  3. The ACT only releases its test items for three tests per year (those indicated in the table with asterisks), which you may want to take into consideration in your planning so you can review the items you miss afterward. Also, the March exam is generally only offered in public schools in Wisconsin, though some private schools also provide the exam in school either in March or at other times of the school year.

Start early

High school students get sick. (Tutors do, too!) Sports and activity schedules get complicated. So while our test prep tutors always do their best to meet with students at least once per week, they sometimes have to postpone and reschedule lessons. Starting early provides flexibility and helps you avoid cramming as your planned test date draws near. Additionally, you might not be available for every single test date offered. Family vacations, sports and extracurriculars, and even homecoming or prom can present conflicts. Or you may want to avoid generally stressful times of the year, such as when you’re taking AP exams or finals. Maybe you don’t improve as much as you hope and want to try the SAT instead, which is fine! But you have to give yourself enough time to do so. If you start your prep too late, you may run out of time to take more tests simply because they don’t fit in your schedule, and thus you may miss out on opportunities for improvement. Typically, the best time to take a diagnostic test is in the spring of your 10th grade year, but we offer them every week, year-round.

In addition, our internal data show that starting prep early leads to better results. More specifically, students who only need to meet about once a week (because they start with time to spare) show more growth on the ACT than do students who have to meet more frequently to fit all of their sessions in. These two groups of students have similar average diagnostic scores, but students who start early exceed our average growth, while students who don’t fall a bit short. 


There are many ways you can prepare for the ACT. We have found that starting early with a diagnostic exam tends to result in the most improvement among our students; it gives us enough time to work on the sections where students need the most help and gives students more opportunities to improve on official exams. But even if you’re a current junior, it’s definitely not too late to sign up; there are several exams in the spring! So please reach out to us if you have any questions about how best to begin ACT prep.

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