Tips to Help Your Teen Prepare for the In-School ACT

Tips to Help Your Teen Prepare for the In-School ACT

Note: This article was first published on the Go Ask Mom page of WRAL.com.

It’s not just paying for college that’s expensive. Applying to college--including taking the ACT and SAT--adds up, too.

But every winter, parents of college-bound public school students get a break. North Carolina administers the ACT free to all juniors as a way to make college more accessible to low-wealth students. This year, Wake County Public Schools will offer the three-hour exam on Wednesday Feb. 20, as part of the regular school day. (The sticker price for the ACT is $50.50.)

Even if your 11th grader has already taken the test, it makes sense to take advantage of this free opportunity. Plus, the ACT the state gives includes the essay, which is optional and, if students were to sign up for it when registering for a “regular” ACT, would cost $17 more. Although most colleges/universities neither require nor recommend the essay portion, it’s still a good idea for college-bound students to take one ACT with the essay to cover all their bases.

If you’re new to the testing process and want to help your child prepare for the ACT later this month, here are some tips:

The ACT is a multiple choice test covering math, science, reading comprehension and English--which is actually a test on grammar and composition--in four separate sections. The essay is a separate, optional exercise at the end. The essay is not included in the student’s composite score, which is the average of the four section scores. Total test time: Three hours and 35 minutes including the essay.

Most juniors should already be prepared for the content of the ACT, including math. Most of the math problems are on geometry and algebra; only 20 percent of the questions are on harder topics such as trigonometry.


The science section is more a reading test than a test of students’ ability to “do” science. The section features short texts about experiments and scientific theory along with tables, graphs  and charts.

The reading comprehension section contains four texts excerpts on the following subjects, in order: fiction, social sciences, humanities and natural science. While the questions can be tricky, the main challenge is the clock: Students are given only 35 minutes to read the four 600-word texts and answer 40 questions.

Students should feel free to do the reading passages “out of order” if they aren’t fast readers or have wide disparities in their academic strengths. This strategy enables students to get points on the board quickly, saving the weaker topics--the one or two that they would have trouble getting six out of 10 correct on even with ample time--for last. For example, someone who gets high As in science but Cs in English might do better by doing science first and fiction last.

Because many students will run out of time, especially on the reading and science sections, it’s better to guess than to leave questions blank. There’s no guessing penalty, whereas there’s a 20 percent chance of guesses being correct on questions that have five answer choices, and a 25 percent chance on questions featuring four answer choices.

The English section tests students ability to correct punctuation and grammar problems in five short texts. It also asks them questions about how to improve the texts by making them more concise, adding in more detail, or staying on topic. Most students find this section a little easier than the Reading section.

The essay asks students to write a persuasive essay. They're given a topic that is supposedly teen-relevant as well as somewhat controversial, along with three perspectives, i.e., opinions, that people could hold on the issue. Students must choose one of the perspectives and argue for it while also rebutting the other two perspectives. Graders will overlook minor grammar and punctuation errors and limited vocabulary, but will expect well-supported arguments. The consensus: The longer the essay, the higher the score. 

For students who want to practice, the book we recommend is the Official ACT Study Guide, which is published by the ACT organization itself. Their practice tests presumably more closely approximate the actual tests than do practice tests made by other publishers. The ACT also offers online help at https://onlineprep.act.org/

Good luck, everyone!