How to Improve Your ACT Scores

If You're Note Happy with Your ACT Score, These Strategies Can Help You Improve

Students writing their GCSE exam in classroom
With time and effort, you can improve your ACT score significantly. Caiaimage/Sam Edwards / Getty Images

If you think you need to improve your ACT scores to have a better chance of getting into your top choice colleges, you're going to need to put in some hard work to bring up the numbers. A good ACT score at the country's most selective colleges is typically up in the 30s. If your scores are down in the lower 20s, you're chances of being admitted will be slim.

Even at less selective colleges and universities, the ACT can play an important role in the admissions process. Some schools have minimum score requirements for admission, so if you're below that number you simply can't get in. At other schools, a sub-par score may not disqualify you, but it will significantly lessen the likelihood of being admitted.

Fortunately, if you're willing to put in the effort, there are many ways to improve your ACT scores..

You'll Need to Put in Time and Effort

It's essential to recognize that you'll need to put in time and effort if you want to improve your ACT scores meaningfully. Many students take the ACT multiple times hoping that they'll get lucky and their scores will go up. While it is true that you might do a little better in your senior year than junior year simply because you have learned more in school, you shouldn't expect any kind of meaningful improvement in your ACT score without serious preparation for the exam. You may find, in fact, that on a second testing your scores go down. 

You need to do more than take the exam multiple times. If you aren't happy with your scores, you have to dedicate yourself to building your test-taking skills before retaking the exam.

Identify Your Weaknesses

Since you're retaking the ACT, you have your first scores to show you where your strengths and weaknesses are. Did you do well in math and science but not in English and Reading? Did you write an excellent essay, but do poorly in the math section? Your efforts at improving your ACT composite score will be most efficient if you focus on the subsections that are bringing your score down the most.

You'll want to avoid common ACT English errors such as managing your time poorly or assuming "no change" is never the answer. Time management is even more important with the ACT Reading test, for you can burn up a lot of time reading those long passages.

Strategies for the ACT Science Reasoning exam overlap with ACT Reading, for the science section is more about reading and critical thinking than scientific knowledge. That said, you will want to make sure you are adept at interpreting graphs and tables.

With the ACT Math test, a little preparation can go a long way. You'll want to make sure you know basic formulas (no formula sheet will be provided by ACT), and you'll want to practice managing your time so you can get through those 60 questions in an hour.

Finally, if you're taking the optional essay exam, a few easy ACT Writing strategies can really help boost your score. The people scoring the essays will be using a specific rubric that is probably different from what your teachers use in your high school classes.

Buy a Good ACT Prep Book

There are many good ACT prep books on the market ranging from the official book published by ACT to third-party books by Princeton Review, Barron, and others. For an investment of roughly $20, you'll have a valuable resource for improving your ACT scores.

Buying the book, of course, is the easy part. Using the book to make a meaningful increase in your ACT scores will require effort. Don't simply take a practice test or two and consider yourself ready for the exam.

You'll want to spend significant time looking at the questions you got wrong to figure out why you got them wrong. If there are questions based on a grammar rule or mathematical concept that isn't familiar to you, spend time learning it. View your prep book as a tool for filling in the gaps in your knowledge, not as a simple collection of practice questions.

Consider an ACT Prep Course

One of the ugly and often unspoken realities of college admissions is that money can buy access to top schools. Students from well-off families have the financial resources to afford private admissions coaches, testing tutors, and editors for application essays. ACT prep courses are similar in that they don't fall within the budget of many students. Kaplan courses begin at $899 and Princeton Review classes start at $999.

That said, if a prep course won't cause you financial hardship, it can be a good way to improve your ACT scores. Most reputable companies, in fact, guarantee your score will go up or you'll get a refund. If you're not good at motivating yourself to self-study, an actual class with a teacher tracking your progress can help. Kaplan and Princeton Review offer both online and in-person options for their classes.

If the price of a prep class is daunting, don't worry. If you're motivated to put in the required time and effort, that $20 ACT prep book can produce results that are just as good as that $1,000 prep class.

Use Group Study for Motivation

You probably don't find the idea of spending several hours on a Saturday pouring over ACT questions overly appealing. This is why many students find it difficult to stick with a rigorous self-study plan. You really can raise your ACT score significantly with a good study plan, but the challenge is finding the motivation to stick with that plan.

Working with study partners can help on this front. Cloistering yourself in your bedroom with a prep book can be tedious if not torturous, but how about meeting a couple of your good friends at the local café to study together? If you can identify a couple peers who share your desire to improve their ACT scores, you can work together to make study time more enjoyable and more effective.

If you and a friend or two all purchase the same ACT prep book, you can develop a study plan and motivate each other to stick to that plan. Also, each person in the group will bring different strengths to the table, so you can help each other when someone is struggling with a concept. 

Low ACT Scores Aren't the End of the Road

It can be discouraging that the ACT often plays such a big role in the college admissions process, especially if you struggle to get the scores you're likely to need for your top choice colleges. That said, keep in mind that a good academic record is always more important than ACT scores.

Also, there are many strategies for getting into a good college with low ACT scores. For one, you can look at the hundreds of test-optional colleges. The list includes many top-tier schools such as Pitzer College, College of the Holy Cross, Bowdoin College, and Denison University.

Clearly the higher your ACT scores, the more competitive you will be at elite colleges and universities. Low scores, however, should by no means be the end of your college aspirations. If you're a strong student who has been involved in your school and community, plenty of good colleges will be happy to admit you.