From over a decade of experience tutoring the ACT, in this video and post, I’m going to go over the top five bad prep habits I see with students prepping for the ACT.

1. Treating the ACT like you would a school test.

Unlike a school test, the ACT is not about memorization, it’s a test of approach and process.  Your job is to process the information given in a short amount of time and use it to come to a correct answer.  With school assignments, however, you’re more often asked to complete a specific type of problem or problem solving technique or memorize facts and details.  Those are very different tasks.

To beat the test, adjust your testing mentality.  Remember the test is “open book” – in other words, you can always look back to verify your answers and you should.  Trying to do the test from reading memory can land you in a bad spot.  Do not approach these questions, particularly reading and science ones, the same way that you would an exam in English or Science class.  Remember you can and should look back to find details.  The nature of this test is different—it’s not testing what you already know, it is testing how you work with information.  Be aware of that adjustment and make sure you don’t fall into test habits that apply to school tests and not to this one.  Study and learn the ACT, and you’ll be able to develop good habits that apply to the test you’re taking rather than tests in general.

2. Taking the test cold (officially) to just “see how you do.”

Generally, I don’t recommend taking the test until you’re ready to take the test.  Getting a low score can be a demoralizing blow to your motivation.  Sure, if you took a national test date sitting, you could delete your score, but taking the test “to see how you do” is often a less ideal situation than simply taking a practice test that isn’t official.  You’re setting yourself up to not do your best, and the official sense of the process is going to make you hope for good enough scores so you never take the thing again. Rarely do I see students satisfied with the outcome of this decision.

There are plenty of ways to take an official practice test– and you’re more likely to learn from the experience because you can immediately review how you did and learn from your mistakes.  With real tests, only a few test dates are released (generally national testing sittings in April, June and December), and you won’t be able to review the test until weeks after you took it.  Going over a diagnostic gives you better real-time feedback– days or hours later. It’s a much more beneficial process in the long run.

You can get our free video explanations to a complete official practice test (pdf link to the test itself on this page, too) here:

If you’re concerned about having “real” testing conditions, look for a tutoring center locally that offers free diagnostic ACT testing– ensure you can get a copy and go over the test before you set up the exam, though.

3. Using mediocre prep materials written by big companies.

Practice with real tests! The best way to do better on the test is to familiarize yourself with it so you’re not caught off guard.  Real tests are the best way to do this because they emulate the character of the test better than most test prep brands do.  Many of the big brand test prep books aren’t fully updated for changes to the exam and don’t emulate the nature of the ACT as well as they could.  Others have bad questions, whose answers are debatable at best.

Our online video series focuses on real materials from the Official ACT Prep Guide, and right now, the course comes with a copy of the book for free – so check that out if you’re starting your prep journey.  It’s a great way to learn from real ACT’s and get to know some awesome strategies that other students have used to get perfect scores on each section of the exam.

The other best source of information is independent tutors – we know this test inside out and aren’t like the big corporations just trying to churn profits as quickly as possible.

4. Not thinking about timing.

You can’t expect to be fully prepared if you never time yourself.  More students have issues with time on the ACT than with any other element of this test.

Watch your time.  Bring a watch to the exam and be aware of time.  Fun tip: If I don’t have a traditional stopwatch style watch, I like to reset my watch to an even time like 8am so that it’s easy for me to see how many minutes have passed and how many are left.

5. Recognizing why right answers are right, but not changing habits

Many only recognize how to do problems they missed, they don’t incorporate the methods for doing the problems into their testing habits.  That means when they see a math problem explained, they nod their heads and say “I understand that” but they don’t go and practice that problem or a similar problems to be sure that they can repeat that process themselves.  Recognition and ability to perform are two different levels of understanding—don’t get stuck on the fact that a problem makes sense to you, dig deeper and challenge yourself to engage in new processes.  Change your habits. 

Don’t just read and listen, engage.