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Kristin Fracchia

How to Study for an ACT Retake

It may be one of the most overused cliches of modern existence (attributed to everyone from Albert Einstein to Benjamin Franklin for a little extra clout), but the old saying, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” is a useful reminder when talking about standardized test do-overs.


You’re taking the test again because something didn’t go quite right and you want different results. But the reality is most students sign up for an ACT retake and do exactly the same thing over again. So let’s stop the insanity, people! It’s time to learn from the experience. Let’s some soul-searching.

What may have gone wrong could be anything from not focusing enough on grammar to believing it was an awesome idea to stay out until 2 AM the night before to the panic attack you had as soon as you picked up your pencil. Maybe it was a combination of all those things, in which case…I see why you are here.

All kidding aside, if you’re preparing to retake the ACT, you need to focus on all aspects of the testing experience. This means evaluating your previous preparation–academically, strategically, mentally, and physically–and knowing which areas you need to improve to get a better score. You may need to focus on one area more than another but by assessing all of the key areas, you’ll have a much better chance of giving the ACT the one-two (three-four) punch on your retake and avoid the frustration of the same old result.


Academic Preparation for an ACT Retake

Brush Up on Your Weaknesses…

As soon as you can, write down everything you remember about the question types you struggled with on the ACT.  Did you want to kick yourself when you couldn’t remember your trig identities? Did you spend too much time reading (and rereading) a passage and then ran out of time to answer the questions? As you continue to practice for your retake, keep a running list of your weak areas so you can practice them more. Writing them down is crucial. It keeps you accountable and ensures you have a game plan for your studying.

If you haven’t done so already, I suggest going through these lists of what to study for the ACT English, Math, Reading, Science, and Writing sections. Don’t fall prey to unfamiliar questions again. It’s ok if you are still weak in certain areas, but knowing your strengths and weaknesses is half the battle: this is how you know when to tackle problems and when to take a guess and move on.

…But Capitalize on Your Strengths

Each question counts exactly the same. So if you are really good at a certain type of question, make sure you practice these too so you can nab as many points on them as possible.  You should be very careful to not brush up ONLY on your weaknesses when you study for a retake. I’ve seen countless students be disappointed by their overall score when they see their weak section scores go up but their strong section scores go down.

The Incredibly Helpful Test Information Release Service

If you took a December, April, or June test, I HIGHLY SUGGEST you order the Test Information Release service if you have the time to wait for the report. This service provides you with a booklet of all the questions and your answers on the ACT, so you can see exactly which questions you missed, providing you with extremely useful data about why you ran into trouble.


Strategy Preparation for an ACT Retake

Define Your Goals for the Retake

Do you want to increase your score by 2 points? 10 points? Do you want to remember to relax and breathe so you can think of a good response on the essay section? Write down a concrete list of your goals for your retake and a timeline and plan of attack for accomplishing them.

If you are targeting certain colleges, make sure you know the ACT score ranges of admitted students, so you know what you are aiming for and make sure you have the time and resources you need to accomplish this gain.

Determine Your Retake Study Method

It’s time to be honest with yourself about how you study best. There are a few main categories of test preparation:

  1. Self study (or guided self study like Magoosh!)
  2. Classes
  3. Tutoring

Everyone learns differently. Evaluate how you studied the first time and ask yourself if it was best suited to your needs. Do you need a class that will hold you accountable for your homework? Would self study fit better with your busy schedule? Do you need a tutor who can help you with stress management? Could you benefit from a combination of all of these methods? Now’s the time to make a change and give yourself a fighting chance on your ACT retake.

Score Choice

Being strategic in your preparation also means keeping in mind the bigger picture. Many colleges allow you to choose which composite score you send, which is great because it puts you in control of what test report you send, taking the risk out of retaking the test. Even better is what is popularly known as superscoring. Although it is more common with the SAT than the ACT, some colleges will allow you to combine your highest section scores across test administrations. That means you can combine your best individual section scores into a super-awesome overall score.  Keep in mind that there are a handful of competitive schools out there that require you to send ALL of your scores. So if you are eyeballing these schools, please don’t go take the ACT five times on a lark.


Mental and Physical Preparation for an ACT Retake

Many students fall victim to test pressure and anxiety on the ACT, particularly the first time because it is a new experience. The second (or third or fourth) time you take the test, you will have a better idea of what to expect. So now is the time to do some really great mental and physical preparation.  If you got tired or hungry or overwhelmed, your most important preparation may not be studying questions, but learning how to be healthy and manage stress. Snacks and sleep can make a world of difference.

And don’t forget that there is such a thing as TOO much ACT prep. Some students are simply burned out on test prep. If this sounds like you, ask yourself if what you really need for your retake is a temporary break.

And whatever you do, don’t just do the same thing you did last time:


About Kristin Fracchia

Kristin makes sure Magoosh's blogs are chock-full of awesome, free resources for students preparing for standardized tests. With a PhD from UC Irvine and degrees in Education and English, she’s been working in education since 2004 and has helped students prepare for standardized tests, as well as college and graduate school admissions, since 2007. She enjoys the agonizing bliss of marathon running, backpacking, hot yoga, and esoteric knowledge.

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