You did it – you signed up for the ACT. You’ve been studying for months. Maybe you’ve been working through an ACT prep course like The Olive Book, or maybe you’ve tackled the test on your own. Whatever your strategy, it’s now t-minus one week until test day. With so much content to go over, what should you study the week of the ACT?
We’ve broke it down day-by-day to create a comprehensive study strategy for the week before the ACT. Overall, use this week to focus. Don’t go wild with practice questions that may or may not help you – instead, focus on your test-taking strategy, confirm the types of questions you feel confident in, and make a plan for questions that trip you up.
As you study throughout the week, keep a list of things you need to remember and things you don’t want to forget (they sound the same, but they’re not!) so you have a personalized “cheat sheet” on Friday. Some examples of things to remember are your planned ideas – your goals and strategies for each section. Things not to forget are any surprise topics, formulas, content, etcetera that you come across while studying. This personalized cheat sheet will be incredibly valuable at the end of the week!
What to Study Each Day Before the ACT
Monday: Complete an English practice section
On Monday, complete an English practice section. It’s important to spend this day feeling out the content, format, and pacing of the English section. Whether you’ve been studying for months or not, use this time to confirm that you understand the rhythm of the test and that you understand the type of content that is on the test.
Focus on the specific grammar concepts you either haven’t thought about in a while, or haven’t thought about at all. Confirm that you understand how the ACT asks the questions, and decide how long you are going to spend on each question. Some questions can be done in seconds – but others require more time. What questions do you find yourself lingering over, and does this fit into your overall timing for the section?
This is a good spot to mention the two main pacing strategies you encounter when studying for ACT: interval timing and cognitive endurance. We’ve learned from runners that you can gradually increase your speed by training with short interval runs. In the same way, you can increase your overall speed by improving your timing per passage and per question.
For example, you could study one passage at a time and check your answers after every passage. If you find that it takes you longer to answer certain questions in each passage, you can factor that into the timing (interval) for that passage and adjust your speed accordingly, increasing your speed on easier questions to allow yourself more time on questions that take you longer to answer.
But eventually, you have to run the whole race. That is what we mean by cognitive endurance – you need to do longer and longer sections of the test at once so you know you can make it through the whole test on test day. That means you should complete full sections without stopping to look at the answers as part of your studying. However, by the week of the test, hopefully you’ve already practiced your cognitive endurance so that you can use this last week to hone your intervals.
Tuesday: Practice the Math Section
On Tuesday, practice the Math section. As you go through your practice problems, note concepts you’re confident in and mark the points where you need to check for the answer.
If you come across a question that stumps you, the first you should ask yourself is: “Why am I stuck right now?” Are you missing a formula? Have you never seen this type of problem before?
If you have no idea why you’re stumped, go to the explanation to figure out why. When you think through a problem this way, it’s called process recognition. You’re thinking through the process with which you solve a problem. If you can remember the first step, usually you can remember how to do the problem. It’s like when you can’t quite remember a song and someone sings the first three words, and all of a sudden you’re singing along with them with no problem. Many times, you just need to remember the first step to solving the problem. Learn this first steps really well so you can take on any problem that comes your way.
Work through the math sections in intervals as you did with the English section. It would be best to get through about a third of the questions and then check your answers. The questions on the test go from easy to hard, so spend your time accordingly.
Along the way, remember to set realistic expectations. Based on your past performance, are you going to finish every section? How many questions are you planning on getting correct in each section? Maybe you only need to get 30 questions right – so you aim to get 30 correct, and can feel ok with skipping questions you get stuck on. In a perfect world you would be able to do them all, but sometimes you just need to recognize you can’t do one, pick an answer, and move on. You can decide what your strategy is.
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Wednesday: Practice the Reading Section
On Wednesday, focus your studying on the Reading section. We recommend reading the passage, answering the questions, and then checking your answers last. This helps you pace yourself and check your interval timing so you know how long you’re spending on each passage.
But what if you get really stuck on a question? In that case, go ahead and check the answer – but don’t read the explanation! Figure out why the answer is what it is and decide why you think it’s that answer. Then check the explanation.
If you’re struggling with choosing the correct answers, you could use one passage to practice your interval pacing and a second passage to go over each question answer by answer. Focus in on the questions you consistently have difficulty with and why you struggle with them. Note this on your “cheat sheet” so you can remember it later.
Thursday: Go Through the Science Section
The pacing is the hardest part of the Science section for everyone, no matter how great you are at Science. Knowing that, what is your plan?
It’s ok if your plan involves not finishing the last passage. You can get a great score without finishing this section, and when scoring, the test even factors in that some people don’t finish – this section probably has the best curve of all the sections.
So how can you use this knowledge to maximize your score? You have to figure out how to get through some of the Science questions really quickly in order to complete the first six sections, but it’s better to get questions right and not get through them all than it is to rush. We recommend you set a goal to own the first six passages and move quickly through the last passage, if you get to it. If you can leave the test confident in 6/7 of the Science passages, you’re probably on your way to a great score.
Thursday is the last time you should do practice questions.Two nights before the test is not enough time to learn new content, but it is enough time to clarify strategy, to improve timing, and to create a process you answering questions that you’re going to follow on test day. Make sure you get a good night’s sleep and eat well. On test day, your body will actually be fueled by what you ate and how you slept two nights before!
Friday: Review your cheat sheet
Review your personal cheat sheet on Friday. Starting at the beginning of the practice test you’ve been working through, go through your procedures for each section, your pacing, and your timing. Like going through a dance routine in your head before a big performance, you’re not actually doing any more questions: you’re confirming everything you know.
While confirming what you know (and you know a lot!), review your plan for the things you don’t know. Will you attempt questions you don’t know? Will you skip them?
Almost no one will know how to do every single question – so run through your strategy so you can feel confident even in questions you don’t know come test day. By recognizing ahead of time the places that might trip you up, you will stay more relaxed when they occur.
Finally, end the day with something enjoyable or relaxing to you. Give your brain a break and try not to take in any new information. It already has a lot to remember!
Saturday: Test Day
It’s test day! When you get to the testing room, take a deep breath. Clear your mind. Go over your test strategy one more time in your head (run through that “dance routine”!). You need to remind yourself of what is your very best. You know what to do. You have practiced. The test is not changing. So go in there and do this thing!
Remember, use this week to focus. Focus on your test-taking strategy, confirm the types of questions you feel confident in, and make a plan for questions that trip you up. When it comes to studying for the ACT, it’s all about confidence, and you’ve studied enough and effectively that you have every right to be confident.