How to Improve Your ACT Score: 16 Expert Strategies

It’s that time of the year again: the leaves have fallen, a chill is in the air, and another wave of high school juniors is realizing that they have to start thinking about their &%!#@^$ college applications. And unfortunately, preparing college applications often means taking the ACT or SAT. If this scenario applies to you, don’t panic: these tests are intimidating, but with practice and (my) expert advice, you can absolutely conquer them. In this post, I’ll take you through some of my favorite tips and tricks for how to improve your ACT score, all based on my years of work with students. Let’s dive in.

Table of Contents

An Overview of the ACT Exam

First, some context. The ACT is one of two tests—with the other being the SAT—that are used by colleges and universities in the admissions process to assess students’ readiness for college-level coursework.

Many schools implemented a test-optional admissions policy during the COVID pandemic, and most of those schools have indicated that they will remain test-optional for at least the foreseeable future. Test-optional is not the same thing as test-blind, however: schools with a test-optional policy will still consider test scores if you submit them with your application, which means that scoring well on the ACT can be a major boost to your chances of being admitted to one of those schools. There are also test score requirements attached to some scholarships, both athletic and academic.

All of this means that the ACT still occupies an important place in the admissions landscape, which makes preparing for it a part of the high school experience for a large number of students. Before you can start working on how to improve your ACT score, though, it’s important to understand a little bit about the test so that you know what you’re up against.

How The ACT Is Broken Down & Timed

The ACT is composed of four multiple-choice sections, as well as an optional Writing section. The sections always appear in the same order and always have the same structure and timing; see the table below for a detailed layout of the test.

Section NameTime Limit (Standard)Number of QuestionsAvg. Time / QuestionAdditional Details
English45 minutes7536 secondsQuestions are divided evenly between 5 passages; students have an average of 9 minutes per passage
Math60 minutes601 minuteMath is the only section that increases in difficulty as the section progresses; students should expect to spend more time per question at the end of the section and less time per question at the beginning
Reading35 minutes4052.5 secondsQuestions are divided evenly between 4 passages; students have an average of 8 minutes 45 seconds per passage
Science35 minutes4052.5 secondsQuestions are divided approximately evenly between 6 passages; students have an average of roughly 5 minutes 50 seconds per passage
Writing (Optional)40 minutes1 prompt40 minutesThe time limit imposed on students in the Writing section includes every part of the writing process: brainstorming, outlining, writing, proofreading, etc.

The Different Sections of the ACT

  • English: This section can be divided into answer-questions (questions that test grammar mechanics, e.g. punctuation and subject-verb agreement; we call them ‘answer-questions’ because they don’t have any question text, only answer choices that contain potential replacements for an underlined portion of the passage) and question-questions (questions that test rhetorical concepts, e.g. transitions and conclusion sentences; as you probably guessed, we call them this because they, you know, actually contain a specific question).
  • Math: The range of material tested in this section is quite large. Students should expect to see topics ranging from things they learned in 7th grade (or earlier!) and probably haven’t touched since—e.g. GCF and LCM, remainders—to those that they might not learn until near the end of Algebra II, e.g. conic sections.
  • Reading: The four passages in this section include Literary Narrative, Social Science, Humanities, and Natural Science. Questions will require students to summarize the main point of a sizable portion of text, retrieve specific details from the passage, and consider the meaning of vocabulary words in the context of the passage. One passage will be split into two shorter texts, with questions asking about the two texts both separately and together.
  • Science: Questions in this section will require students to retrieve and synthesize information from graphs, charts, and tables under a strict time limit.

The ACT: Scoring

You’ll receive a raw score for each section of the ACT that is equal to the number of questions you answered correctly in that section. Your raw score for each section will then be converted into a scaled score based on how difficult the version of the section you took was compared to those of previous years. Scaled scores range from 1-36, and your four scaled scores are averaged (and then rounded using standard rounding rules) to obtain your composite score for the entire test, which is also on a 1-36 scale.

Below is an example of a scoring table used to convert raw scores to scaled scores on the ACT:

Source: Preparing for the ACT 2023-2024

General Strategies For Improving Your ACT Score

Now let’s move on to the fun stuff: strategies for how to improve your ACT score. We’ll start with some broad tips—both test-taking strategies that apply to all four sections and ways to structure your prep in order to make it more effective—then finish by taking a look at each section individually and offering specific strategies that will help you raise your score in each.

Strategy #1: Give yourself enough time to prepare

This is one of the most basic tips that I can give, but also one of the most important: don’t cram for the ACT. Please, just don’t do it. Yes, I’m sure you have a friend who studied for four days and got a 35, but understand that those weirdos are the exception rather than the rule. For most students, improvement is a slow and steady process that involves consistently doing moderate amounts of practice rather than briefly doing an extreme amount of practice—make sure you allow enough time to account for that.

Another reason to start your prep earlier rather than later is to give yourself the opportunity to take the test more than once. Most students test multiple times, and the majority of those who retest score higher the second or even third time that they take the ACT.

There are a number of likely reasons for this. For one, the pressure of test day is impossible to simulate in a practice setting, so students can only really experience it and learn to deal with it by sitting for the real test. Additionally, more test dates typically means more prep, which tends to correlate with score improvement for obvious reasons. Whatever the overall cause, the data is clear: repeat testing usually leads to higher scores.

I typically recommend that my own students plan for 2-3 test dates and build their prep plans accordingly. You’d always rather allow for test dates you don’t end up needing than leave ACT prep so late that you don’t have time before applications are due to put the requisite time and effort in to achieve your goal score. If you take the ACT the first time and knock it out of the park, that’s fantastic—cancel the remaining dates, move on to more rewarding uses of your time, and enjoy never needing to worry about how to improve your ACT score ever again.

Strategy #2: Focus on strategy, not just content

Contrary to what you might think, the ACT is not a test of your content knowledge—at least, not primarily. Though it does assess your ability level with commas and right triangles, it’s mainly a test of your pattern recognition skills and your ability to process information and apply critical reasoning skills under time pressure.

The upshot of this is that test-taking skills are just as important as, if not more important than, the material that you know. While you’re prepping, don’t just focus on reviewing concepts—make sure you’re also practicing test strategies both universal (e.g. process of elimination) and ACT-specific (e.g. figuring out which order to complete the Reading passages in based on your strengths and weaknesses).

Strategy #3: Practice, practice, practice

Once you’ve begun to implement the specific strategies and review the content that we’ll discuss shortly, it’s imperative that you get as many reps with them as you can. Nothing refines your approach to the Science section like doing a bunch of practice passages, and there’s no better way to learn how to match a subject to a verb than doing it as many times as possible.

To that end, the ACT’s website contains one free official practice test as well as some miscellaneous drills, and it also has The Official ACT Prep Guide for sale. This book/ebook contains eight tests and is probably your single best source for practice sections: because the book is written by the same people who create the actual test, it’s as close as you can get to what you’ll see on test day. Beyond these resources, there are also a number of third-party content providers whose practice tests, while not as good as the real thing, are high enough quality to provide useful reps.

Remember that practice by itself isn’t enough, though—it’s crucial that you try to learn from each section you complete. Build time into your practice for you to review both your mistakes and your timing. For every question you missed, ask yourself why your answer was wrong and why the correct answer was better. If you were unable to finish the section within the time limit, determine where you lost time. Was it a particular passage that slowed you down or a particular question you got stuck on? Did you get fatigued towards the end of the section and slow down because of that? Take this information with you into your next practice section and use it to inform your approach.

Strategy #4: Consider connecting with a tutor

Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way up front: yes, I am an ACT tutor. Yes, that does make me biased. With that being said, though, I’m also not delusional enough to think that 1:1 tutoring is the right answer for every student, and it’s CERTAINLY not the only way to prepare successfully for this exam; I’m not going to insult your intelligence by pretending otherwise. Here, I’ll simply try to lay out the case for and against working with a 1:1 ACT tutor as a tool for how to improve your ACT score.

Let’s start with the pros. For most students, personalized instruction is simply a more effective way to learn. Having someone who can answer your questions on the spot and walk through in detail any concepts you’re struggling with is a huge benefit. Additionally, any tutor worth their salt will tweak their approach as needed to cater to your individual strengths and weaknesses, which typically makes prep more efficient.

The downside to partnering with an ACT tutor is pretty simple: cost. Most tutors charge by the hour as opposed to charging a flat fee, and depending on the hourly rate, you will almost always be on the hook for significantly more of a financial outlay than you would if you opted for a prep course or simply prepared independently. Many tutors will work with families to devise a prep plan that is as efficient as possible in order to optimize the cost-to-results ratio, but there’s no getting around the fact that tutors are expensive.

As a final note, one middle ground that you can investigate is the hybrid course. These prep courses consist mainly of classroom or independent work but include a certain number of 1:1 instructional hours within the initial cost; this creates a more financially feasible option that still provides some amount of personalized instruction.

Let the Pros help you improve your ACT score!

Strategy #5: Retake the test as needed

As we discussed earlier, most students perform better when sitting for the ACT multiple times. Taking the test more than once ensures that you’re familiar with the pressure of the test-day atmosphere, which is impossible to replicate outside of an official test administration. It also gives you the option to tailor your future prep based on your results: since many schools superscore ACT results (i.e. they consider your highest score from each section across all the sets of results that you submit), you can lock down great English and Reading scores on one administration and then focus heavily on Math and Science for the next test.

Additionally, the ACT offers a Test Information Release (TIR) option for certain test dates. Ordering the TIR report if it’s available will provide you with access to the actual questions from your test, as well as detailed information about which problems you missed and their correct answers. This is a fantastic way to review your mistakes from the day of the test and determine what you need to focus on when preparing to retake the ACT.

Though retaking the ACT is a powerful weapon in your prep arsenal, note that for most students there is a point of diminishing returns after three or so tests. You’ll likely start to run out of high-quality material to practice with, which can make improvement harder to come by. If you’re working with a tutor, budgetary constraints are a real factor. And finally, it’s important to remember that test preparation is work; at some point, students are better off focusing on other parts of their applications if they’re hitting a plateau after multiple rounds of testing.

Remember, it is not merely your test scores that determine whether you are granted admission to a given college. The application process is a holistic one: admissions officers also weigh your grades, extracurricular activities, and volunteering experience, and those should not be neglected in favor of a single-minded emphasis on testing.

How To Improve Your Score On Specific Sections

Next up, we’ll narrow our focus and discuss strategies for how to improve your ACT score that are specific for each section of the test. Remember that your ACT composite score is simply the average of your four section scores, which means that by raising your score in any individual section, you’re also improving your ACT score as a whole.

How to Improve Your ACT English Score

Strategy #6: Read the passage

The most prevalent, and easily avoidable, mistake we see students make on the ACT English section is not reading the passage completely and thoroughly. Many students instinctively skip over portions of the passage that aren’t underlined; after all, this isn’t the Reading section, amirite? Unfortunately, that’s a surefire way to set yourself up for failure. Remember:

  • Read the title. This will give you a general sense of the main idea of the passage by telling you what the ACT thinks is its primary focus.
  • Read sentences that have questions associated with them carefully from period to period. When it comes to answer-questions (AQs), this test LOVES to put things at the end of sentences that affect the beginning and vice versa.
  • Skim the portions of the passage that don’t have questions associated with them. You will almost always have at least one question per passage that requires you to have a sense of what the passage has spent the most time talking about. Don’t skip ahead; the passages aren’t that long, so it shouldn’t take you too much time to read them.

Strategy #7: Read the questions

As mentioned in strategy #6, you need to read everything on the page. Though it might sound incredibly obvious, that includes the question part of question-questions (QQs). As hard as it may be to believe, forgetting to read the question is a very common mistake among students. Since so many of the problems in this section contain only answer choices, it’s easy to ignore the question itself, when it exists, and jump straight to the choices.

Reading the question is crucial, as it will tell you what the primary goal of the answer choices should be. For example, a particular question-question may ask you to conclude a sentence by giving a benefit to the approach mentioned in the first part of the sentence. Because QQs very rarely test grammar in addition to rhetoric, all of the answer choices will typically be grammatically correct, and most will therefore sound good to you; however, only one choice will actually accomplish the goal of providing a benefit to whatever approach was mentioned earlier in the sentence.

If you don’t read the question carefully and use the objective it gives you as your filter when evaluating the answer choices, you’ll get these questions wrong way more often than you should.

Strategy #8: Read (and compare) the answers

Always read every single answer choice. This actually applies to every section of the ACT; you can’t catch yourself in a mistake unless you give yourself the chance. Some questions will have multiple answers that may sound good to you or appear to be the correct option initially, so don’t stop right after you see the first one that you like. Read them all and then pick the best of the four.

In the English section specifically, this point is most relevant when you’re dealing with answer-questions. AQs rarely test more than 1-2 grammar concepts, so you’ll almost never need to approach a question through the lens of word choice, comma usage, AND verb tense, for example. The way to determine which concepts a given question is assessing is by comparing the answer choices to see what’s changing between them—that’s what’s being tested. Is it comma usage? Subject-verb agreement? Verb tense? Redundancy? Tone? Once you’ve identified what’s going on, you’ll know what to focus on and which rules to bring to bear in order to pick up the point.

How to Improve Your ACT Math Score

Strategy #9: Quantity over quality

Because the Math section scales in terms of difficulty, with the questions getting harder as you progress, you’ll notice a significant difference between the problems at the end of the section and those at the beginning. Therefore, even though you have an average of one minute to spend on each question, it’s unrealistic to expect the questions to take you a consistent amount of time to solve.

With that in mind, we recommend that students divide this section up into thirds: questions #1-20, #21-40, and #41-60. These three subsections correspond roughly to the easiest, medium-est, and hardest portions of the ACT Math section, and you can time each portion separately with that in mind. I typically have students start with a 15/20/25 split; that is, spending 15 minutes on the first third, 20 minutes on the second, and 25 on the third.

Dividing the section up in this way makes it easier to pace yourself and gives you increased flexibility to refine your approach. Having trouble with careless mistakes in the first 20 questions? Take a couple of minutes from the last third, the questions you’re less likely to get right anyway, and add it to your time for the first third to ensure that you bank those easier points. Consistently cruising through the first 40 questions with excellent accuracy and time to spare? You’re probably ready to shave a minute or two off your time allotted for each of the first two thirds and give yourself more time on the harder problems.

By tracking your accuracy in each subsection, you’ll also gain a clearer picture of exactly where in the section you’re having the most trouble. This ‘Rule of Thirds’ is one of the best section-wide strategies, as it gives you increased control over your prep in the ACT Math section.

Strategy #10: The answer is always plug-ins

Very early in my work with students, I tell most of them, “If I ask you a question when we’re going over a Math section together and you weren’t paying attention, just say ‘plug-ins’ because that’s pretty much always the answer.” While that’s a slight exaggeration, it’s fair to say that if I could only teach a student one thing before they took ACT Math, it would be plug-in strategy.

There are two main flavors of plug-ins. Answer plug-ins represent a strategy that is familiar to almost every student who’s taken a multiple-choice test before: when the answer choices are simply a list of numbers, plug each one back into the question until you find the one that works. This is a fantastically intuitive technique that, while it can sometimes be slightly time-consuming, rarely leads students astray.

The other, and arguably more useful, side of the plug-in coin is the variable plug-ins technique. This approach is designed to allow students to remove the abstraction from questions in the ACT Math section so that they can focus on the core math mechanics.

If you notice that most or all of the answer choices in a given problem are in terms of a variable or variables, then the numerical answer to that question depends on the value of those variables. There’s a pretty good chance that you have the flexibility to come up with your own numbers to stand in for the variables and answer the question using those values.

The best part about variable plug-ins is that the steps in the process are generally very consistent and don’t depend on which topic is being tested:

  1. Recognize the opportunity.
  2. Identify your variables.
  3. Determine the restrictions that the problem has placed on the values of those variables.
  4. Come up with some numbers that satisfy those restrictions.
  5. Solve the problem based on those numbers.
  6. Plug your numbers into the answer choices and see which one spits out that same solution.

Or, if it’s easier, just remember the acronym RIDCSP! (Yeah, we’ll keep workshopping that one.) Bad acronyms aside, plug-ins are a fantastic ‘side door’ method that can compensate for a lack of content knowledge in a number of areas, and you should constantly be on the lookout for opportunities to utilize them.

Strategy #11: You have a calculator, so use it

I’m not going to dive into too much detail in this portion, since we have an entire separate post dedicated to the best ways to use your calculator on the ACT Math section. Check it out here for some of the best ACT Math calculator tips and tricks.

What I will do here is summarize by saying that two of the best things you can do for yourself on the ACT Math section are 1) know how to use your calculator and 2) look for opportunities to save yourself time by letting the calculator do the heavy lifting for you!

How to Improve Your ACT Reading Score

Strategy #12: Use the two-pass method

As a general rule in all sections of the ACT, you should strive to address the section in the way that makes the most sense for you, not necessarily in the way the test lays it out for you. In the Reading section, that concept applies primarily to the order in which students approach the questions.

As a general paradigm, think of the questions in ACT Reading as falling into two categories: broad questions and narrow questions. Broad questions require you to understand a substantial portion of the passage to be able to answer them, while narrow questions can be answered with a relatively small amount of reading, ranging from a sentence to a couple of paragraphs.

The ACT frequently front-loads its passages—putting the broad questions at the beginning and the narrow questions after—in order to make students think that they need to read the entire text before they can start the questions. In reality, though, it pretty much always makes more sense to do the narrow questions first. That allows you to build your understanding of the passage without doing a ton of unnecessary reading; then, when you move to the broader questions, you can use the themes you discovered in the process of answering the narrow questions to make the broad questions quick and easy.

To implement the two-pass method, start each Reading passage by quickly sorting the questions into two buckets: first-pass (narrow) questions and second-pass (broad) questions. Then, answer the first-pass questions in order of what portion of the passage they ask about (so trying to answer those that require information found in the beginning of the passage first) before finishing with the second-pass questions.

Strategy #13: Read like a robot

Relatively early in almost every program, while I’m reviewing a Reading passage with the student, I hear some variation of this statement: “That answer can’t be right, it’s too obvious.” This objection—though totally understandable coming from students who are used to spending English class reading critically, looking for subtext, and analyzing the author’s deeper purpose—couldn’t be farther from the truth. In fact, if an answer is “too obvious to be right”, that typically means that it’s even more likely to be correct.

Here’s what you have to remember about ACT Reading: this section moves fast. You may have already known that, but you probably haven’t thought about the trickle-down effects of that fact. Because the pace of the section is so aggressive, the ACT can’t also make the questions super in-depth and intricate; otherwise, almost nobody would get many right, and that would screw up their scoring curve. So they have to craft questions that are possible to answer correctly in a short amount of time, and that means building in shortcuts.

The most significant of those shortcuts is the superficiality of the questions. Most problems in this section require next to no analysis, or really any thinking of any sort; they’re essentially just ‘scavenger hunts’ that ask you to find a particular piece of information in the passage, bring it back to the question, and match it to the correct answer choice. So to get a good score on the ACT Reading section, don’t think about how you would analyze the text in your English class. Instead, just choose the answer that most closely corresponds to the idea or detail in the text for each question. And if you catch yourself thinking “this answer is too obvious to be right”—that’s probably the right answer!

Strategy #14: Read for context

One of the ways that the ACT introduces some amount of misdirection to their questions is through the use of context. You’ll notice when working through a passage that several of the questions flat-out tell you where in the text to look. For example, the omnipresent vocab-in-context question: “In line 11, the word gaslight most nearly means which of the following?”

The line numbers they give you in these questions and others like them aren’t exactly wrong, but they are… let’s say ‘misleading.’ Typically, the line number in the question refers to the line that contains the exact word or phrase the question is asking about; however, that’s not all that is necessary to get the correct answer. Most of these questions require you to understand how that word or phrase fits into what’s around it so that you can interpret it correctly.

As a rule, you should read a few sentences above and a few sentences below any line number that is given to you in a question. So if we really want to understand how the author is using ‘gaslight’ in our earlier example, we might want to start by reading lines 8-14; if that still doesn’t feel like quite enough information, we can seek out more as needed.

How to Improve Your ACT Science Score

Strategy #15: Don’t read unless you need to…

The dirty secret of this section is that most of the text will simply give you information that you could have gleaned more quickly from the graphs and charts. When you first start a passage, take a quick look at the figures to get the lay of the land, then go straight to the questions. Remember that you can always go back to the passage to read and get more information if questions require it, which they sometimes will; however, you can’t get back the time that you spend reading stuff that isn’t tested.

Strategy #16: …and if you do need to, don’t read the way the test wants you to.

One of the six passages in this section—the Conflicting Viewpoints passage—will have few if any visual aids. There’s no getting around it: you’ll need to actually do some reading in this passage. The best way to approach this passage-type, however, is not to read the whole passage and then answer the questions in order. Instead, read the first portion, then answer any questions (and do any POE) that you can using that information; then, go to the next portion and do the same thing, and rinse and repeat until you’ve completed all of the questions. This allows you to keep less information in your brain at one time, and it also ensures that you’re earning points along the way rather than front-loading all of the time-consuming reading and not answering questions until the end, when you’re likely to be more frazzled and hurried.

Frequently Asked Questions About The ACT

How much can you realistically raise your ACT score?

You’d be surprised! I’ve seen students start in the low 20s and break into the 30s by the time they finished testing, and it’s not at all uncommon for a student to start in the 27-28 range and finish with a 33 or even higher. That’s not to say that those results are achievable for everyone—different students have different score ceilings, and sometimes students do plateau before they hit their goal scores. But it is absolutely possible to see substantial score improvement on the ACT if you put in the time and effort.

What’s the average score increase with ACT tutoring?

This question is a totally reasonable one, particularly if you’re starting the process of figuring out how to improve your ACT score. Unfortunately, it’s also extremely difficult to answer in a way that feels satisfactory, mainly because it’s almost impossible to gather solid data. Some students come into the process totally cold and therefore don’t have a starting score to act as a point of reference; others drop out of contact after taking their last test and never provide their final scores. The way I typically answer this question is by saying that almost everyone improves; the amount of improvement and the pace at which it happens, however, can vary significantly from student to student.

What’s considered a good ACT score?

As you might expect, the answer to this question also varies from student to student. If your heart is set on MIT, for instance, you should be aiming to get approximately a 35 on the ACT in order to be in the 50th percentile of first-year undergraduate applicants. On the other hand, if your dream school is in the University of California system and is therefore test-blind, then congratulations: a good ACT score for you is no ACT score at all! So the easiest way to answer this question in something approaching a universal fashion is simply to say that a good ACT score is one that makes you a competitive applicant to the school(s) you’d be interested in attending.

If you’re interested in more details, take a look at this post for additional information.

Is the ACT easier or is the SAT easier?

Oh come on, you didn’t really think it would be that easy, did you? Neither test is easier—if there were a straightforward answer to this question, the other test wouldn’t exist. In reality, the ACT and SAT are very different, which means that most students are better suited for one or the other; which test you find easier will depend on who you are as a test-taker.

For more details, head over and take a gander at this post, written by a rakishly good-looking tutor who is definitely not me.