How to Conquer ACT Prep (for Parents)

A step-by-step guide to getting great scores.

Whether you’re a student or a parent, and whether the ACT fits squarely into your high school planning or you aren’t sure where to begin, you almost certainly have questions. Maybe you have a lot of questions.

Before Googling yourself into standardized testing oblivion, I have some reassuring, albeit boring advice: getting a great score on the ACT isn’t too complicated. The key to unlocking a great score is doing the work.

The secret? Anyone can do it.

This article breaks down the ACT prep process into manageable components. You’ll find job descriptions for each participant: the parent, the student and the test prep service.

What is the ACT and what does it have to do with getting into college?

“Your grades and SAT [or ACT] scores together remain the most important factor in college admissions.”
– Cal Newport, How to Be a High School Superstar

First off, welcome to the world of standardized testing. Or, if you can recall waking up at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning and taking either the SAT or ACT years ago, welcome back. Here’s a quick overview of what the ACT is and why it matters.

The ACT is a three-hour standardized test widely used in college admissions that tests students based on their high school coursework through freshman and sophomore year. Along with the SAT, the ACT is a big part of the college application: 60% of graduating high school seniors took the ACT in 2017, as well as many juniors.

However, the ACT is just one part of your child’s college application. Other factors include grades, essays, extracurricular activities, interviews and recommendation letters.

College Admissions Factors:

  • Grades/Academic Transcript
  • SAT or ACT Scores
  • Essays
  • Extracurricular Activities
  • Interviews
  • Recommendation Letters

How much does the ACT matter?

The ACT (or SAT) significantly impacts your child’s chances of getting into the college they’re applying to. For some proof, let’s look at Boston University.

The chart below is a scattergram of admissions at Boston University. Blue and green dots represent accepted applicants and yellow and red dots represent waitlisted and rejected applicants.

Boston University Scattergram of Applicants


There is a strong relationship between both GPA and likelihood of admittance, and test score and likelihood of admittance. As you can see in the upper-left corner, students with 4.0 GPAs but low test scores rarely gained admission to BU. Similarly, excellent test scores paired with low grades often led to rejection.

The gist here is that grades and test scores work together to strongly impact students’ chances of getting in. They each matter. However, grades and test scores differ in one important way:

Unlike grades, test scores are the only significant part of the college application that your child can affect in a short period of time. They’ve spent years accumulating their GPA and committing to extracurriculars. To get a great test score, it only takes months.

For the rest of this guide, we’ll talk about how those months should be spent.

Test prep is a team effort

Your student’s success on the ACT depends on a collaboration between you, your student and your test prep service. Each team member has jobs to do in your student’s prep for the ACT. If everyone involved does their part, you’ve got yourself a well-oiled college admissions machine (and great scores to boot!)

Parent Jobs Student Jobs Test Prep Service Jobs
  • Pick a test (SAT or ACT)
  • Schedule test dates
  • Sign up for a test prep service
  • Practice, practice, practice!
  • Make a goal
  • Make a plan
  • Facilitate consistent practice
  • Motivate

The Parent’s Role

Parents play the most important role in the ACT prep process. Without you, test prep just doesn’t happen. Got a pencil and paper handy? These three key actions will set the table for a successful test prep experience: pick a test, schedule test dates, and find a test prep service (a tutor or class).

Parent job #1: Picking between the SAT and ACT

The SAT and ACT are both college admissions tests. Every US college accepts both and they don’t care which one students submit. Naturally, you might be wondering which test your child should take to get the best score.

At the end of the day, the most important thing is just pick one and stick to it. As the SAT and ACT both broadly cover the same content, students are typically not predetermined to score higher on one or the other. However, since the SAT and ACT are formatted differently, practicing for one doesn’t completely transfer to practicing for the other. For that reason, there is a cost to switching from one test to the other.

That said, there is one reason to perhaps pick one test over the other in the first place:

Many US states require that juniors who attend public schools take the SAT or ACT as their statewide accountability exams — exams that students can then use for college admissions. If your child already must commit at least three hours to one of the two tests, they should redouble their efforts and continue prepping for that test. This is especially true if they do any prep work in school ahead of time.

Find out whether your state requires the SAT, ACT or neither.

Stuck on picking a test? Take our quiz to get a recommendation.

Parent job #2: Scheduling and registering for the ACT

The largest hurdle to jump in test prep is simply getting started. By scheduling an ACT test date, you’ll set the wheels in motion for test prep. It might not seem like it, but getting started is a huge accomplishment.

How do you figure out which test date your child will sign up for? Like choosing which test to take, choosing when to take it doesn’t have to be too complicated: just pick a date, following these guidelines:

  • Don’t pick a test date before June of sophomore year. Most high schoolers don’t learn all of the content that appears on the ACT until the end of sophomore year.
  • Don’t wait until the fall of senior year. With most regular college applications due on January 1st, waiting until the fall to take the ACT for the first time leaves students little or no time to take the test a second or third time if needed.
  • Allot two to three months before the first test attempt for test prep. Like lifting weights at the gym, getting stronger on the ACT takes consistent work. And two to three months of ACT practice results in a strong performance on test day.

Plan for your child to take the ACT three times.

Why take the ACT more than once? Your child could get a better score the second time (or an even better one the third.)

When assessing applications, US colleges consider the best ACT score submitted from multiple test attempts. This is called the “Score Choice” policy. Some colleges even combine the best section scores from different test attempts for a “superscore”. The upshot is that students can take the ACT (or SAT) as many times as they’d like to reach the highest score possible. While they might only need to take the ACT once or twice, students should plan for three test attempts to ensure that they don’t leave points on the table.

ACT Test Dates

General This Year (2019)
The second Saturday in February February 9th, 2019
The second Saturday in April April 13th
The second Saturday in June June 8th, 2019
The second Saturday in July July 13th, 2019
The second Saturday in September September 14th, 2019
The fourth Saturday in October October 26th, 2019
The second Saturday in December December 14th, 2019

Want to see what this timeline might look like for you? Take our quiz to find out.

How to register for ACT test dates

Registration is available on the official ACT website. You’ll need a credit card, photograph of your student (for security purposes), details about their classes and reliable internet. The ACT website also lists registration deadlines for each test date. To avoid late fees, make sure to fully register about a month before your student takes the ACT.

Parent job #3. Choose a test prep service

The last important job you have as a parent is to find someone to help your child reach their full potential. Test prep services can take many forms: a local tutor, class, online tutor, online class, instruction from your child’s school, or even a helpful neighbor or sibling. Whomever or whatever you choose to help your child with the ACT, make sure they check all the boxes of the test prep service’s role, outlined below.

The Student’s Role

Practice, practice, practice!

That’s really it. The student’s job is to follow the guidance of their test prep service, and to stay on top of their work. It’s that simple. They’re the ones who have to ultimately do the hard work of sitting down on test day, of course, but before then…it’s practice, practice and…wait for it…practice!

The Test Prep Service’s Role

You’ve registered your child for a test and they’re ready to dig into some practice questions. Now it’s time for a test prep service to instruct your child.

What makes the difference between a tutor or class that helps your child get the most out of themselves, and one that doesn’t quite light the fire? I’m sure you can remember a time you’ve had a teacher, instructor or manager who didn’t bring out your best. Conversely, think back to someone who did.

A successful tutor or class does two things differently from an unsuccessful tutor or class: they ensure that your child does the work, and ensure that they do the right work. To accomplish this, ACT prep instructors should do these four jobs:

Test prep service job #1: Make a goal

Like any pursuit, in order to improve on a standardized test, it’s imperative to set a goal to work towards. A challenging, realistic and clear goal can be a beacon in the most difficult parts of the test prep journey. Like a track and field coach pushing athletes to hit a certain time, SAT and ACT tutors should push students to reach a certain score goal.

Test prep service job #2: Make a plan

To get a great score, students need to practice in the areas that will lead to improvement. Think back to an athlete training for a track meet: their strength and conditioning regimen might consist of core and lower body workouts, which are exercises that specifically address areas that will increase their performance on race day.

In test prep, we identify exercises that impact test day by having students take a full-length practice test, and analyze scores to find areas with the most potential improvement. A successful test prep service knows what those needs are, and then builds a curriculum based on those content areas.

Test prep service job #3: Facilitate consistent practice and review

Successful students practice for three to four months, five days per week, 20 to 30 minutes per day. By putting in the work, and putting in the right work, students will reach their full potential on the ACT.

In addition to practicing problems, students need to review the problems they get incorrect to increase their score in the long run. Learning moments happen when students pause during a practice session to reflect on why they answered incorrectly and determine how to answer a similar question correctly the next time.

Test prep service job #4: Above all else, motivate

Okay, think back to your high school days. Where did test prep fall on your priority list? The reality is that most high school juniors and seniors aren’t exactly chomping at the bit to do ACT practice problems…and who can blame them?

Completing practice problems and reviewing them is important, but not urgent. And for most high schoolers, it isn’t fun. That’s why test prep often doesn’t happen.

The biggest pitfall in any pursuit is simply doing the work. Luckily, we have coaches, personal trainers, financial advisors, etc. to hold us accountable in these parts of our lives that are important, but not urgent. When it comes to ACT prep, most high schoolers need someone to motivate them to push through and complete their assignments.

That’s why at Testive, we focus on the doing. We don’t just deliver a set curriculum to every student. At Testive, students meet with their Coach every week, addressing their weak areas from the previous week and setting their assignments for the next.

Check out some of our awesome Coaches, here.

Test prep can feel complicated. It doesn’t have to.

The ACT, and college admissions as a whole, can seem like a puzzle of a thousand pieces– especially for parents.

But, here’s the thing…

There’s no magic to getting a good test score. No secret tips or tricks lie in any one parent or one tutor’s back pocket. Rather, test prep is about doing the work, plain and simple. And to do the work, and to do the right work, it helps to have support. That’s our goal at Testive: to support you, the parent, so that you can support your child, the star of the show.

Have any questions? Book a call with us. We’re happy to chat.

Free Resources

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By |2019-07-03T03:21:20+00:00November 14th, 2018|ACT|