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Rachel Kapelke-Dale

How to Take an ACT Practice Test

ACT practice tests are some of the most valuable tools in your test-prep toolbox. Why? They give you great experience with the test, familiarizing you not only with content but also with instructions and question types. Most students can make each and every practice test contribute to a lot more points on the official exam by following a few ACT practice test tips. If there’s a practice test in your future (or in the recent past), read on and learn how to take an ACT practice test!

tips for taking an act practice test

Table of Contents

How to Take an ACT Practice Test

how to take an act practice test

If you’re going to devote 3+ hours to taking an ACT practice test, you should do it in the most efficient way possible—right?

But if you’re just starting out (or if you’ve fallen into bad study habits), how do you know the best way to take a practice test? Look no further! Here’s all you need to know about taking an ACT practice test.

Which Practice Test Should I Take?

The first test you take should absolutely be the Magoosh (Free!) Full-length ACT Practice Test.

ACT practice test pdf

Why? Not only has it been carefully crafted by our Magoosh experts to mirror a bona-fide ACT, but it also has thoughtful answers and explanations—many in video format! This will be really important during the review stage of your test-taking experience, which we’ll talk about in a minute.

Of course, after you take the Magoosh test, you’ll need to find other resources. Not to worry—we have you covered there, too! Check out the Practice Test PDF post for our advice on where to find free practice tests.

For even more practice tests from the official testmaker, you can also take a look at The Real Guide to the ACT (the “Red Book”), which offers three tests with answers and explanations, as well as a fair amount of other helpful prep materials.

How Many Practice Tests Should I Take?

I know that, based on what you just read, it sounds like I’m suggesting that you take a mountain of practice tests! Not the case. Those resources are there, in the first place, to give you options, and in the second, to help those of you who are starting prep super early.

The best number of practice tests to take depends on how long you’re studying; one a week is ideal. In fact, if you follow our One Month ACT Study Guide, you’ll see that we recommend you take a full-length practice test each Saturday that you’re following the guide.

If you’re really gung-ho about this whole practice test thing, you may wonder why I suggest only one a week. Just wait…you’ll understand when we talk about the ways in which you’re going to review your tests.

Where to Take Your Test

Here are some places not to take your practice test:

  • While babysitting (unless the kids are asleep and you have three uninterrupted hours…and maybe not even then).
  • In a shared bedroom, or anywhere at home where you might be interrupted.
  • Any place where you won’t have a chance to finish the exam in one sitting (on the go, in the doctor’s office, in Calc, even in study hall!)
  • Loud places!

That should give you a good idea of where you should take your ACT practice tests: in a quiet area, where you can be alone and uninterrupted for at least three hours.

Public libraries are good (if you get there at last three hours before closing!), as are university libraries. You may find your school library too distracting if lots of your classmates are around. And your school library may not even be open if you take our suggestions for…

When to Take Your ACT Practice Test

When to take your test will depend to some extent on how far in advance you start preparing (take a look at our study schedules to help guide your practice), but we suggest taking the test on a Saturday morning.

Why? Because all the official ACT exams are given on Saturday mornings.

Performing well that early on a weekend can be difficult, but practicing will help you build up stamina for the long haul. Sunday mornings will also work, though we suggest leaving Sundays for test review in order to get the most out of your analysis of your exam.

How to Take Your Test

The most important aspects of your practice test environment are the two we’ve already looked at: silence and continuity. But there’s a lot more you can do to emulate test day conditions:

  • Don’t allow yourself to eat, drink, or leave the test for any reason except for ten minutes between the Math and Reading tests (and for 5 minutes before the Writing test, if you are taking the essay). It’s tough, but getting used to the conditions now will help you succeed later.
  • Don’t let yourself skip ahead to the next section if you finish before the time is up (with the exception of the Writing test, because it’s the last). Just as on test day, make the most of the remaining time by double-checking your work.
  • Don’t let yourself go back to a previous section at any point during the exam!
  • Do use an authorized calculator, number two pencils, and bubble sheets for your answers.

When you’ve finished with the exam, add to your ongoing list of all the things you’ve noticed about your responses to the testing conditions. Did you wish you’d had some water during the first break? Were your legs cramping and begging for a stretch that you should have done before the exam started? You can turn this into your test-day survival guide once you’ve done a few practice tests—just another benefit of those exam-like conditions.

Scoring an ACT Practice Test

how to score an act practice test

If you’re like most students, you’ll have one of two responses to scoring your exam:

  1. You want your results as soon as possible.
  2. You want to forget you ever took the test and go take a nap.

You may even be feeling both simultaneously. That’s cool.

You should grade your test the day you take it (if not the second you take it!) or the next day. The best way to review your results is to have the questions still fresh in your mind. And they don’t get any fresher than right after the test!

How do you grade your test? Use our ACT Test Grader, of course!

how to score your act test

Score Your ACT Practice Test

 

If you prefer to grade your test by hand, though, here’s the plan:

  1. Count the number of questions you answered right in each section. This is your “raw score.”
  2. Convert your raw score to a scaled score using the info in our Raw to Scaled Score Conversion post. (Don’t worry, the post explains what these are!)
  3. Find out what that scaled score means by checking out ACT Score Range: What’s a Good ACT Score? This is also a great place to start setting your ultimate score goals, if you haven’t already.

Scoring Your Writing Test (Essay)

how to score the act writing test

Now that you have your multiple-choice ACT scores in hand, what are you going to do about that essay?

First check out our post on what ACT writing scores actually look like. (Hint: they’re not as straightforward as you might think, but simpler than they were!).

Next, take a look at the ACT’s official scoring rubric for the writing test.

Notice that you’ll be graded in four categories:

  1. Ideas and Analysis
  2. Development and Support
  3. Organization
  4. Language Use

It can be hard to evaluate our own writing, so you may want to let the essay sit for a few days and then come back to it with fresh eyes. This is the one exception to the “grade it soon” rule!

In each of the four categories, assign yourself to one of the following “scorepoints”:

  • Score 6: Responses at this scorepoint demonstrate effective skill in writing an argumentative essay.
  • Score 5: Responses at this scorepoint demonstrate well-developed skill in writing an argumentative essay.
  • Score 4: Responses at this scorepoint demonstrate adequate skill in writing an argumentative essay.
  • Score 3: Responses at this scorepoint demonstrate some developing skill in writing an argumentative essay.
  • Score 2: Responses at this scorepoint demonstrate weak or inconsistent skill in writing an argumentative essay.
  • Score 1: responses at this scorepoint demonstrate little or no skill in writing an argumentative essay.

If you’re not sure where you fall in those categories, take another look at the official rubric for more guidance.

Average your four writing scores (add and divide by four).

Next, because you’ll have two graders on your actual essay, find a trusted friend, a parent, or a teacher, and ask them if they would grade your essay. Give them the rubric to help them accurately score your essay (and a reciprocal favor, like grading your friend’s essays, probably wouldn’t go unappreciated, either). Either they or you can average the scores at the end, though it will be helpful for you to know how they scored you in each of the four categories.

Add your second grader’s score to the score you gave yourself, then divide by two.

On the other hand, you can always use Magoosh’s ACT Essay Grader to help you determine (and then calculate) your overall score! You’ll find the Essay Grader Tool in this post.

(If you ended up giving yourself a perfect score—and let’s face it, a lot of us would!—be sure to check out Kristin’s post on how she got a perfect score on the essay and what it entailed and compare your own essay to what she describes.)

Reviewing Your Practice Test Results

how to review an act practice test

Now you have your scores! Most students stop here. But going over your practice test in detail will provide you with a treasure trove of information you can’t get from practice sets and problems alone. So, where do you go from here?

The first step is to go back to the test itself with your (scored) answer sheet, any notes you took during the test, and a blank notebook. You’ll need to find your wrong answers and start your “error log.”

Making an Error Log

What’s an error log? It’s a list of all the problems you answered incorrectly, what the correct answer is, and an explanation of how you can get there in the future. (This is one reason that good explanations on practice tests are so essential!) Make sure you date your entries, or you may get confused later when trying to measure your progress.

Once you’ve finished noting the problems you missed and their solutions, do some analysis in the margins. What question types did you miss more than others? Where did you get your best score? Your worst score?

If this isn’t your first practice test, look back over your error log, or add your previous exams to the error log and then review it. On which question types were you hoping to improve? Did you reach your goals? If not, what kinds of mistakes are you making: content mistakes, math errors, even errors bubbling in the correct answer? Take note of these, as well.

After you’ve reviewed your wrong answers, go ahead and review your right answers, as well. (This is where a lot of people balk, but trust me on this one!) You shouldn’t make a log of these, but go through and evaluate how you got the right answer. Were you guessing? Did you get the right answer by accident? Was this a concept you recently mastered?

All of this analysis is super important for the next step, which is making a game plan for next time and continuing to up those scores.

Final ACT Practice Test Tips: Where to Go From Here?

act practice test

No matter how much time you have left before your official exam, visit one of our study schedules (one week, one month, two month, three month—we’ve got ’em all!) that works for your timeframe.

When you look at the study schedule, you’ll notice that, while there are certain standard assignments, a lot of what we recommend doing is based entirely on where you are—the types of math problems that are giving you the most trouble, the English concepts you still need to perfect. That’s where that error log comes in handy!

It’ll continue to come in handy in the weeks and (maybe) months to come, too. Keep filling it out, keep practicing, keep evaluating. That’s how you’ll get your big score increase.

And no matter what, congratulate yourself, take a deep breath, and go do something fun. You’ve taken a hugely important step in the college application process just by spending these 3(+) hours practicing, so be proud!

Ready to get your highest ACT score? Start here.
About Rachel Kapelke-Dale

Rachel is a High School and Graduate Exams blogger at Magoosh. She has a Bachelor of Arts from Brown University, an MA from the Université de Paris VII, and a PhD from University College London. She has taught test preparation and consulted on admissions practices for over eight years. Currently, Rachel divides her time between the US and London. Follow Rachel on Twitter, or learn more about her writing here!


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