Even if you think you’re doing everything you can to study for the ACT, if you’re not using practice tests, you still have a long way to go. Taking an ACT practice test can give you insights about your test-taking skills that a mere ACT study guide cannot. By taking a full-length, timed ACT practice test, you can diagnose your strengths and weaknesses, especially those related to pacing.
When you’re looking for practice materials, the best thing you can find is an ACT practice test with answers and explanations. This will help you understand the correct way to solve problems, and it will help you visualize if your methods differ from the preferred answering methods. If you purchase the correct ACT study guide, it should include an ACT practice test with answers and explanations.
You can also find official ACT tests that students took in past years. Besides practice tests with answers and explanations, real tests are the most useful kind of study materials because they can help acclimate you to the look, feel and parameters of the actual test. If you can print one out from a PDF, you can replicate testing conditions to help you prepare.
Where to Find a Free ACT Practice Test Online
Since the ACT has remained largely the same for the last 10 years, tests that are as old as a decade can still be useful for studying. You can download recent tests that have been made available directly through act.org. The tests that are currently available for free online include a practice test from 2005-2006, a practice test from 2008-2009, a practice test from 2011-2012, a practice test from 2014-2015, a practice test from 2015-2016 and a practice test from 2018-2019.
The easiest way to find these tests is to do a web search for "ACT Practice Test" along with the year, and the PDF should be one of the first search results. You can also find another incomplete sample test on the ACT website as well. However, incomplete tests are less useful than full tests because you can’t use them to replicate testing conditions, so therefore you can’t practice pacing, which is one of the most important factors in your ACT score.
Beyond these tests, you may have to pay for other study materials. Before you shell out money, try exhausting your free options first. Check out YouTube for free tutorials and visit your local public library for help finding free tutoring and study groups. You can also check out an ACT study guide instead of having to pay for it.
Which Official Study Guide Should You Choose?
The ACT organization publishes an official study guide called "The Official ACT Prep Guide" that includes four full-length practice tests complete with essay prompts. If you don’t check this book out from the library, it will cost you about $25 at a bookstore. You can also ask around to see if any of your friends have older siblings who took the ACT before and don't need the book anymore.
Keep in mind that three of the tests in this booklet are also available for free online. In other words, if you’re just buying it for the practice tests, don’t waste your money. Older copies of "The Official ACT Prep Guide" offer different practice tests, however, so you might consider looking for a used copy instead.
The ACT organization also offers an online program that contains one full-length practice test and several real practice questions. The program isn’t free—it costs about $40—so weigh that against its benefits when deciding which ACT study guide to choose.
Using Other ACT Study Guides
If you’re looking for study materials that include an ACT practice test with answers and explanations, you have several options besides "The Official ACT Prep Guide" and the ACT’s online program. For low scorers, experts recommend Kaplan’s "ACT Prep 2019" as the best all-in-one study guide. However, it does have its drawbacks.
Kaplan’s "ACT Prep 2019" can be superficial at times. Since it’s designed more for lower-scoring test takers, if you already posted a decent score, you may find "ACT Prep 2019" to be too basic, and you’ll probably already know most of its strategies if you scored higher than a 24.
If your scores are already on the higher end, check out Barron’s "ACT 36: Aiming for the Perfect Score." Just know that sometimes Barron’s materials have the opposite problem of Kaplan’s materials: Their content is sometimes much more complex than what you will find on a real ACT test. If you’re already scoring well, Barron’s books and their wealth of information are worth the effort. Other helpful ACT study guides usually focus on one subject.
How to Use Practice Tests to Improve Your Score
First, set out an appropriate amount of time to take a practice test in its entirety. The real ACT takes about four hours from start to finish, so plan a time and place where you will have absolute peace and quiet in order to take the test. Tell your family members what you’re doing so they won’t bother you, and if that doesn’t work, pack up your stuff and migrate to the library to use a private study room.
Take the whole test in one sitting, and use the standard time limits from the real ACT. During the actual test, you may have to answer each question in less than a minute, so practicing with similar time constraints will help you build up your test-taking stamina. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t finish, but at the same time, resist the urge to give yourself more time. Keeping the practice tests as realistic as possible will help you estimate how well you will do on the actual test without any more studying.
After you’re finished, go over both your correct answers and your incorrect answers. Going over your correct answers will help you understand why you got things right, and going over your incorrect answers will help you figure out the subjects and concepts you need to spend more time studying. Make a list of the types of questions you got wrong and use it to make your own personalized study guide from scratch.
Take Your Studies a Step Further
If you’re not seeing much improvement after following these steps, consider taking an ACT prep program either online or in person. Many schools and libraries offer free test preparation groups, classes or one-on-one tutoring, so talk to your guidance counselor and youth librarian to explore your options.
You can also talk to your teachers, especially in the subjects where you’re struggling, to see what they recommend. Your teachers may already have study materials that they would be happy to loan you. Additionally, they might be able to offer insight on your academic strengths and weaknesses so you don’t have to decipher those yourself.
Beyond all of these free options, there are a plethora of paid ACT preparation programs available online. Do your research first before you choose one or else you may end up wasting your hard-earned cash. Ask your friends what they recommend and look for programs with transparent rating systems or reviews on independently operated websites.
Rebecca Renner is a teacher and college professor from Florida. She loves teaching about literature, and she writes about books for Book Riot, Real Simple, Electric Literature and more.