Five Important Steps to Prepare for the ACT


Last evening, for what seems like the one hundredth time this year  I had a student walk through my door grumbling to his  parent about not needing an ACT prep coach. Ironically, when he walked out  same doors, the tune was different, the demeanor was pleasant and he was even suggesting to his grandmother that he needed more sessions than we originally discussed. Why the change of heart? Here are my thoughts. Students often have a misconception of the ACT and college altogether.  They think of it as just another high school test. Many will take it without preparing for it. I can’t tell you how many times students have said to me “I just took the ACT, but I didn’t really study.”

These days, I have a knowing smile rather than a look of shock on my face when I hear that statement. There is no way I would ever have taken a test without some preparation. But I’m from a different generation.  Today’s kids are very bright and are fully capable of pulling off great feats that took those in my generation some time to accomplish. But the fundamentals of testing is still the same. Tests require preparation. And even more so today because of the many distractions we have.  Now, it happens sometimes, but very rarely will a student say to me I really studied the first time I took my ACT and I just didn’t pass. I think for most the first time is a shocker and then the second and third time there is a little more study time involved.

The truth is the ACT is a formidable beast of a test and should be taken seriously.  The ACT is designed to cover skills that you’ve learned in school  up to the 12th grade, demonstrating your college academic readiness. Every school in the United States accepts the ACT. But what does your ACT score say about you? Should you want to achieve a better score or be happy with the average?  Why does it matter? The need to make a better score is solely based upon the student’s goals and objectives.  To get to the right answer you should ask yourself or your student the following questions.

  • What’s your purpose for taking the ACT?
  • What college would you like to attend?
  • What’s your target ACT score?

In my practice as an academic coach, I encourage students to have a standard of excellence. To shoot for the stars, and never settle for just okay or average. I find myself cringing inside when I ask students what their goals are for the ACT, and they inform me they just want to pass. I just need to get a 19 I hear over and over again. Most students have no idea what’s the highest possible score on the ACT, which is a 36 by the way.  Most have a 19 fixed in their mind, and a 19 is typically what they get unless their parents and academic coaches can partner together to help them understand why just getting a 19 is not always good enough.

To colleges and universities, your ACT represents your college readiness, but it also says something about your character and how much effort you are willing to put into what you say you want.  According to Prep Scholar, while they measure a lot more than your ACT scores, the top 75th percentile ACT scores for IVY League schools like Princeton, Cornell, Harvard, Brown, etc. is around  at 35 or 36. The 25th percentile score is around 30. Anything lower you are unlikely to get into an Ivy League school. Now, those are just top of the line examples. We understand that Ivy League is not everyone’s dream. I’ve always had the mindset that I can do anything that anyone is capable of doing.  So for me its always been let me turn you down, not the other way around.  Regardless of your school choice there will still be an ACT or SAT requirement. If you are college bound the following guide will help you as you prepare for your ACT.


Decide on your top choice schools

Spend some time thinking about and researching colleges. Think of your career goals and which school will be the best school to help you reach those goals. If you are not sure what you want to do, talk to your guidance counselor. You may also contact a career coach to help you find direction.

Find your target score

After deciding your top 3 to 5 schools. Google your schools to find their top 75th percentile ACT scores and their bottom 25th percentile. You should always aim for the top but right in the middle should give you pretty good leverage as far as your ACT scores go. Keep in mind most schools are looking at more than just your ACT or SAT scores. Typically, they are also looking at recommendation letters, community activism as well.  So what’s a good score? According to Prep Scholar, 20 is the average. But who wants to be average? Do you want to barely make it  barely in or do you want to be comfortable, at least in that department as you apply to schools?  The top 25% of ACT takers score about 24 or more, so if your score is above 24, that’s pretty good.

Take a practice test

Once you figure out your target score, now it’s time to start preparing for your test. First, take a practice test. The practice test can help you figure out your weak areas. From this practice test, you can rally put your effort and energy in the most needed areas and make it count. Here are a couple of links to find free ACT practice tests.

ACT practice test                   ACT practice test 


Figure out how many hours you need to put into studying

Now that you have a better understanding of what you need to work on you can now figure out a plan of action. How many hours do you need to put into studying? Often, the first time I ask my student this they give me really funny answers like 10 hours or 5 hours. Again, the knowing smile comes to my face as I share how many hours are recommended to do well really on the ACT and improve your score.

Prep Scholar give this rough estimate for studying for the ACT

0-1 ACT Composite Point Improvement: 10 hours

1-2 ACT Point Improvement: 20 hours

2-4 ACT Point Improvement: 40 hours

4-6 ACT Point Improvement: 80 hours

6-9 ACT Point Improvement: 150 hours+

Keep in mind these are only estimates, but I am find very accurate. In my experience as an academic coach, real study time to improve grades will be much more than 10 to 15 hours.

Plan and prepare to study

Now it’s time to plan and prepare to study. Many of my students look at me incredulously as I explain that you have to prepare to study. Most are used to plopping down wherever to study. This rarely provides the focus, attention and engagement necessary to retain important information.  Use the following as a guide as you prepare to study.

Where you study is just as important and when you study. You should have a designated quiet space for study. It is much better to have a desk and chair set aside for study rather than laying across the  bed. When you are sitting up you are preparing your mind and body for the task ahead. Laying down tells your body you are still in rest mode, and thus your mind will continue in rest mode.

How many hours are set aside to study on a daily basis? Start small with maybe 25 minute increments several times a week. You are building great study habit for now and in the future when you plan and prepare to study.

Making sure your friends know your study time is also very important as well. You should ask them to respect this time and contact when it’s over.

Turn phones, computers, TV and tablets off during study time. Don’t just put the phone on vibrate. Turn it completely off. You will do well to put aside all distractions during your study time.

Get help

Finally, if you can’t do it on your own, get help. There are many private tutors, tutoring centers and academic coaches that can help and support you in your journey to college readiness. Academic coaching and tutoring should be viewed as a proactive measure versus a reactive measure. For centuries Kings, Queens and  Aristocrats hired the best tutors for their children; they understood the importance of having someone there to guide and support their future kings and queens in reaching their desired goals.

Dr. Tonya White Johnson is the founder of Exclusively you Academic Coaching and Tutoring. She is an experienced, effective, passionate, certified advanced level academic coach and tutor. Dr. Johnson’s mission is to empower students from Kindergarten thru College, with the tools and skills to manage themselves effectively. Her goal is to transform lives while building confidence and encouraging independent learning. For your FREE academic coaching or tutoring  consultation please  contact Dr. Tonya White Johnson @ For other great articles that will empower, inspire and impact your life go to

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