ACT 101: What Students Need to Know

The following is a guest post written by Brittany Phillips of Varsity Tutors.

Student studying

The ACT covers skills that you started learning when you first began school all the way up to skills you might still be learning now.

That’s a lot of material if you consider all the things you’ve studied! The good news for you, however, is that this isn’t your typical class quiz or test. The ACT does not require memorization. Instead, the ACT tests your reasoning skills and your deeper understanding of topics. Not sure exactly what this means? Read on to find out what you do need to know—and don’t need to know—before you take the ACT.

General Knowledge

Learn: Good time management skills

While all of the questions vary in difficulty on the ACT, none of them are meant to be impossible. What increases the difficulty of the questions, though, is the time limit for each section. You should keep these time limits in mind when you practice and have a solid strategy before you go into the test of how you will manage your time. Some of this comes with practice, but some of it is mastering test-taking skills.

Don’t focus on: Memorization

As you look through the tips for each section, you will realize it’s less about what you know and more about what you can do. You should not spend a ton of time memorizing particular vocab words, dates, facts, or math equations (although you will need to know some basic ones). Instead, you should focus on strategies for solving different types of problems.


Learn: Comprehension skills, Different types of writing

You should practice basic reading strategies, some of which you might have even learned in middle school. Practice finding the main idea of different types of writing pieces and looking at essays to determine the author’s point of view. Sequencing, inference, and comparing and contrasting skills will also be important in these questions.

The passages on the ACT are longer and often more complicated than the stories you read when you first learned the above skills; they cover a variety of topics—some of which you may not be an expert on. You should practice reading different types of writing and be familiar with several types of writing styles.

Don’t focus on: Rote memorization of vocabulary

While having a large vocabulary will certainly not hurt you when taking the ACT, don’t spend time memorizing long, obscure words. If vocab is tested on the reading portion, it will be in the form of a context clue, meaning that hints throughout the sentence or passage will help you understand what the word means. You should instead practice learning these more relevant skills.


Learn: Grammar skills, Writing technique

The English section on the ACT is a section where you will need to polish up your grammar. You should review basic grammar skills, including commas, subject/ verb agreement, and pronoun usage. Other grammar pieces that are bound to show up on the English section include homonyms, sentence fragments, and redundancy.

Word choice and organization are also tested on the English section. This is where it’s important to understand what the author’s purpose is and to know the basic structure of an essay. The ACT will ask you to place a sentence in a paragraph, rearrange the paragraphs, or remove unnecessary information. This requires you to understand the main idea of the essay and to use logic to determine the organization.

Don’t focus on: Memorizing grammar rules

Now, hear us out—instead of simply being able to recite the rules, you should focus on the basics and rationale behind the rules (i.e. how and when to apply them). While you do not need to be able to explain what an independent clause or a conjunctive adverb is, you will need to know how to properly use such items to join sentences together.


Learn: Basic math, Advanced math, Memorizing certain equations

The basic math that is on the ACT can make up some of the hardest questions, even if it is material you learned years ago. Be sure to brush up on your basic operations, such as rules for fractions, decimals, and place value. You will also need to know basic properties and rules for square roots, exponents, and factors.

The advanced math on the ACT includes algebra, coordinate geometry, and trigonometry. Here, you will need to know and understand how to use the quadratic formula, be aware of systems of equations, and be familiar with complex numbers. You should also have an understanding of graphing and the relationships between equations and graphs.

Although you may not need to remember every advanced formula from algebra and statistics, you will need to know some basics. There will not be a reference sheet for equations, so for some problems, you may benefit from remembering certain equations. When you practice, take note of which types of questions you need equations for, and get to work embedding those in your mind. You may wish to know the formulas for things such as finding area, the quadratic formula, slope-intercept form equations, and so on.


Learn: Chart skills

One thing that may surprise you about the ACT Science section is that it is more about reading than science, but a different type of reading than you are tested on in the Reading section of the ACT. The ACT Science section requires you to read and interpret a variety of graphs and studies, so you will need to revisit a range of ways to present scientific information. Some questions will ask you to look at data and interpret it; others will ask you to read passages on studies and answer questions about them. Practice analyzing different opinions and brush up on your scientific method to prepare for this section.

Don’t focus on: Specific facts or topics

It doesn’t matter if you recently bombed your biology test because you didn’t memorize the parts of a plant—these will not be tested on the ACT. Instead, you will be tested on your ability to understand scientific data that is presented to you. If you are familiar with a variety of science content, it will surely help, but it isn’t required.


For the optional Writing section, you will need to have a strong grasp of foundational writing skills, as well as a knack for assessing different perspectives. You should be proficient at organizing your thoughts, supporting your arguments, and selecting professional word choices that prove your point.

Although it may seem like a lot of material to learn for one test, know that most of it, if not all, is something you’ve already learned how to do. The key to succeeding on the ACT is revisiting old skills and understanding how to solve problems, not just memorizing answers.

Need some help with a college application? That’s what we’re here for!

This post was written by Brittany Phillips, a contributing writer for Varsity Tutors, a live learning platform that connects students with personalized instruction to accelerate academic achievement.

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