Let's be honest: taking an ACT practice test is not the most fun experience. It's a long exam, but is also fast-paced which adds to the challenge. I've heard other test prep teachers say that if the SAT is a marathon, the ACT is a sprint - but the ACT with Writing is almost 4 hours long!
That sounds like a pretty long sprint to me.
Because your student's ACT scores are so important not only for college admissions but also in helping your family earn cash for college, you should have your child take a practice test before ever taking an official exam on test day.
Here are 8 steps for a stress-free ACT practice test. And, at the end, you'll find a link to two free practice ACTs!
1. Download and print a free ACT practice test.
This step is pretty self-explanatory; however, it's worth pointing out that students should print the test out rather than try to take it online.
The official ACT that students' take on test day will be a paper and pencil test, so make sure that your student takes the practice test in the same way that he or she will be tested on the real exam.
2. Schedule a 4.5-hour window to take your practice ACT.
While the ACT is, at most, a 4 hour exam, giving your student an extra half-hour of buffer at the end of a practice test is a smart move.
Students can't finish the ACT and run off to soccer practice the moment the timer goes off. Plus, the distraction of having an appointment immediately after the exam will negatively impact your student's score.
Done right, taking an ACT is an exhausting journey. Time to decompress afterwards is a must.
3. Treat your practice ACT like it's the real deal.
Think of an ACT practice test like a dress rehearsal. You wouldn't step on stage for opening night without a dry run, right? The same principle is at play here.
When done well, taking a practice ACT helps students settle in and calm their jitters on a real test day. Families should do everything they can to simulate the real experience during the practice test.
Here are a few guidelines...
- Have your student get plenty of sleep the night before.
- Serve up a nutritious breakfast and have a few snacks and water set aside for breaks.
- Have your student gather his or her pencils, calculator, and timer all before getting started - especially if he or she is going to a different location to test. (The library is a great place for students to take a practice exam without being disturbed.)
- Have students use a real timer to track their progress - NOT a cell phone. If students must use their phones as their timer, it should be on airplane mode to ensure there are no distractions during the exam.
4. Break it up.
While students should complete the ACT practice test in 1 sitting for a more accurate score, they should also observe the allowed breaks.
The ACT allows for one 10-minute break between sections 2 and 3 and one 5-minute break after section 4.
While on break, students should walk around to get their blood flowing, eat a snack to fuel their brains, and drink some water to stay hydrated.
5. Complete the "optional" Writing section.
I always advise that students take the "optional" Writing section because it's not really optional for students. It's optional for colleges to require the Writing test. If a college requires it, students don't have a choice. At those colleges, students must submit an ACT score that includes Writing.
Understandably, most juniors don't have their college list finalized. To make sure that every score from every ACT students take will be eligible for submission at every college they apply to, they'll want to cover their bases and take the Writing test every time.
While it is tempting to skip this final, "optional" section in practice, students must practice writing the essay when they are running on empty at the end of the exam. They won't have a big break on test day so don't squander this opportunity to practice a critical ACT skill.
6. Score out your practice test after a break.
This is a step a lot of parents like to do, but I always advise that students grade their own exams. It puts an ownership of the practice test on the student. Also, students can learn a lot about their scores and in-test patterns by grading their exams themselves.
Have your student step away from the exam for 30 minutes or an hour before grading so they can stretch their legs and clear their heads.
Then, following the directions at the end of the practice test, students can determine the score they would be given on test day.
WARNING: Students are rarely pleased with their first efforts on the ACT. Why would they be? It's their very first try!
No matter the outcome, students should take a deep breath and remember that this is exactly why we take a low-stakes exam at the kitchen table first.
This score won't ever be seen by a college.
7. See where you stand.
There is always time to prepare for the ACT but, to make sure you choose the appropriate test prep course for your student, you need to get a sense of where his or her score stands in comparison to the average scores of admitted students at the colleges your student is interested in.
So, before passing judgement on the results of the ACT practice test, take a look at the median score of 3 to 4 colleges your student is interested in.
You can use a tool like College Board's Big Future College Search to help you find these numbers.
8. Decide on your next steps.
Keep in mind that a "good" score is the one that gets your student into college. Your student's ACT score goal should be slightly higher than the average scores at his or her favorite colleges.
- Are your student's ACT scores are within the range of his or her favorite colleges? Excellent! It's time to choose your ACT test date.
- Did your student's ACT scores fall short of his or her goals? A little ACT prep can go a long way!