Finding the right way to prepare for the ACT can be a major undertaking.
To make sure their student earns the highest score possible, many families hire an ACT tutor or sign up for a test prep service. The first step is to research the options for standardized test prep and tutoring – whether it’s a top-of-the-line program that includes personalized tutoring or a free, self-directed option.
As college entrance exams have been delayed or canceled as a result of the coronavirus, some colleges and universities are no longer requiring scores from this year’s batch of applicants. But scores may still have an effect on many admissions and scholarship decisions. This guide will help you determine the best test prep choice for you and your student.
There are several types of ACT test preparation options.
ACT, the organization that administers the test, offers many free test prep resources, including a study guide, webinars, online practice for each subject and ACT Academy, an online learning tool and test practice program. You can also download free ACT practice tests, which include an overview of the test, practice questions and test-taking tips.
With a six-month subscription, students can use ACT Online Prep, which includes an online-only package or a combination online/book set. It also comes with an app.
While the free or low-cost offerings from ACT and others might be enough for some students, an ACT course or personal tutoring might be a better choice for those who need more intense preparation.
General ACT courses are offered online through test prep companies and in-person at local colleges, high schools and other facilities, which might be run by a company or a local educator. While the cost for larger-group study is often less expensive than private tutoring, and sometimes might be free, students won’t get personalized instruction based on their needs.
Self-directed online ACT prep is another option, either on its own or in combination with another method. Test prep programs usually include a self-directed requirement, such as taking practice tests and answering questions, but if students are preparing entirely on their own, they might not get the personalized guidance they need.
Private tutors are available through many sources, from nationally recognized test prep companies to local tutoring firms that are run by current or former educators.
Although private ACT tutor packages are likely the more expensive option, some provide a guarantee that a student’s score will improve by three or more points.
Students who have a lot riding on their ACT scores – where a certain score could determine whether they get admitted to the school of their choice or receive a top scholarship – might consider an ACT tutor. Parents might choose a personalized tutor because they want to know they’ve done all they can to help their children achieve the best score possible.
Other reasons an ACT tutor might be a good idea:
Manage test anxiety. Some students have difficulty with any standardized test, so the added pressure of the ACT could cause them to panic and underperform. Personalized test prep can help these students understand how the test is set up, what types of questions they might face and how to manage their time so they complete each section.
Shore up weaknesses. If a student has a high score in one subject area, such as English, but struggles in another, general test prep likely won’t help as much as a private tutor. A tutor can provide specialized instruction to improve the student’s score in one or more subject areas.
Improve on follow-up tests. Sometimes students have tried other test prep methods – or not used any at all – and struggled to get the score they want. A private tutor could help them learn the skills and get the confidence they need.
|Self-Guided Test Prep||Yes||Yes||Maybe||No|
Test prep companies and the ACT itself believe test preparation can improve students’ scores.
The amount of improvement depends on several factors, including the type of preparation and how long the student engages with it.
A working paper from July 2018 by the ACT suggests that private tutors can help students improve their scores. Another ACT study from May 2019 points to statistics that show score improvements for students who use the ACT Online Prep program, compared with those who purchased the program but didn’t use it.
Students can see a three- to five-point improvement in their ACT score if they work with a tutor for 12 to 16 hours, according to data published in 2017 by Sexton Test Prep & Tutoring, a Massachusetts-based test preparation company. Most of those gains took place within the first 10 to 12 hours of tutoring, with score improvements tougher to achieve after that point, based on the company’s analysis of its own services.
Some companies guarantee a score improvement if students purchase designated programs. Kaplan offers a refund or a free test prep extension if a student’s score doesn’t improve through one of its specific programs. The Princeton Review provides a refund if a student in a particular program doesn’t improve by at least three points and also offers a program that guarantees improvement from at least a 26 to a 31 or more. Varsity Tutors also offers a refund if a student’s score doesn’t improve after using the service.
The ACT’s scoring range is from 1 to 36 and is based on four multiple choice tests in English, math, science and reading. There is also an optional writing test. The ACT provides a score for each section based on how many questions were answered correctly. For example, a 28 score for science requires correct answers for 35 out of 40 questions, while you can get a 28 in reading by correctly answering 30 out of 40 questions. The final ACT score is based on the student’s average in all four sections.
Students should start ACT test prep, no matter the type, at least a few months before the test date.
Often, preparation begins in the sophomore year of high school, with a PreACT test administered by the high school. The results of that test can help determine strengths and weaknesses and what kind of test preparation might be needed.
A common time to take the ACT is during the spring of junior year, which allows students to complete as many classes in the ACT topic areas as possible while also leaving enough time to retake the test, possibly multiple times, before applying to college. Though, that is changing this year as many ACT tests have been canceled or postponed due to the coronavirus.
Test prep could take several weeks or months, depending on the student’s situation.
First-time test-takers likely need the most time for preparation, as they have less familiarity with the test format, types of questions and timing. If a student scored well on the PreACT and is strong in all of the subject areas, doing a self-directed review of the test format and taking a few practice tests might be enough. Many students might welcome a bit more preparation, either in a group setting or one-on-one with a tutor.
Personalized tutoring sessions usually take place over several weeks, either once or twice a week.
Keep in mind that college-bound students often have a heavy high school course load their junior year and first semester of senior year, which makes it difficult to fit in more than a few hours of ACT studying per week. Just taking and reviewing one test could take several hours.
Test preparation companies offer group instruction and/or private tutors in packages that range from about 10 to 40 hours, with classes or one-on-one meetings taking place once or twice a week. Online access to materials is offered in periods such as six months to a year.
A full program with a private tutor and several practice tests as homework, which is most likely geared toward first-time test-takers, could take place over several weeks or months.
Students who want to focus their preparation on a particular subject or test-taking skill might opt for a shorter time period. For example, a student who took the test but who had an unsatisfactory score in math or science might benefit from 10 hours of personalized tutoring just on those topics.
Since studies show more than half of students who take the SAT and ACT a second time get a higher score, students who are retaking the test might decide a self-directed review is enough preparation. They could take a few practice tests and do a quick overview in a few weeks.
ACT test prep costs vary by program, length of time and location. Although there might be more private companies to choose from in higher population areas, students anywhere still have many online-only choices, which might be preferable if shelter-in-place orders due to the coronavirus are in effect.
See sample program costs below. Note that test prep companies may offer sales.
Kaplan: A self-directed program that offers six months of online access starts at around $300. Unlimited classes through December of senior year that cover SAT and ACT prep cost $1,600 and up. Personal online tutoring starts at $2,000.
The Princeton Review: Online ACT prep classes start at around $900, while more personalized and local classes such as the 31+ program are about $1,600.
PrepScholar ACT: Packages range from $400 for a yearlong online prep program to about $1,000 for a program that includes personalized tutoring.
Varsity Tutors: Live online group classes are offered for $499. One-on-one tutoring can be added at a price customized to each family.
Also, ACT offers several free prep resources, plus a test prep pack that includes a book and six months of access to ACT Online Prep for $60.
|Applerouth||National||$599-$999, depending on class size|
|Benthall Test Prep||Charlotte, North Carolina||$995|
|Exclusive Private Tutoring||National||$5,000-$7,000|
|Pittsburgh Prep||Pittsburgh||$499 or $1,899, depending on the course|
|PowerScore||National||Live online accelerated course $350; live online course $495|
|Testmasters||National; Chicago-area prices||$749|
|The Princeton Review||National||$899|
|Varsity Tutors||National||Free online course; $499 personalized online course|
|ACT||ACT Online Prep six-month subscription; Prep Pack, which includes the Official ACT Prep Guide and a subscription to ACT Online Prep||$39.95; $59.95|
|Green Test Prep||Lifetime access (if you enroll during the pandemic)||$497|
|Higher Scores Test Prep||Six months of access for ACT Quick Prep course; 18 months of access for ACT Complete Package course||$187; $647|
|Kaplan||Six months of access||$299|
|Method Test Prep||Unlimited access, until your student graduates from high school||$199|
|Peterson’s||Six months of access||$234|
|PrepScholar||One year of access||$397|
|Testmasters||Four months of access||$699|
|The Princeton Review||One year of access||$199|
|Winward Academy||One year of access on two self-paced test prep options||$249.99; $499.99|
|Applerouth||National||20-hour tutoring package; price depends on tutoring tier||$2,700 to $3,700 for online; in-person tutoring rate varies based on location|
|ArborBridge||Los Angeles-based, online||20-hour tutoring package||$4,040|
|Artful Tutoring||Herndon, Virginia||24 hours of tutoring over 12 sessions||$2,500|
|Benthall Test Prep||Charlotte, North Carolina; online and in-person||Tutoring offered by the hour||$3,000 for 20 hours of tutoring|
|Breakaway Test Prep||Minneapolis metro area||Tutoring offered by the hour, plus one-time materials fee||$2,600 for 20 hours of tutoring, plus materials fee|
|BWS Education Consulting||Columbus, Ohio; in-person and/or online||Tutoring offered by the hour||$1,800-$3,600 for 20 hours of tutoring|
|ClearPath Advantage||National||24 hours of one-on-one instruction||$2,875|
|Denver Test Prep||Denver metro area||Tutoring offered by the hour||$2,600 for 20 hours of tutoring|
|Edison Prep||Atlanta metro area, in-person||18-hour package||$2,730|
|Educere Tutoring||Houston||Tutoring offered by the hour||$1,100 for 20 hours|
|Equitas Prep||Louisville, Kentucky||Tutoring offered by the hour||Starting at $1,980 for 20 sessions, 55 minutes each|
|Huntington Learning Center||National||14 hours of instruction in one subject||$1,050|
|Kaplan||National||20-hour tutoring package||$2,899|
|McElroy Tutoring||National||20-hour tutoring package||$7,900|
|Pittsburgh Prep||Pittsburgh||20-hour tutoring package||$3,280|
|PowerScore||National||20-hour tutoring package||$2,200|
|PrepNow||National||30-hour one-on-one program||$2,400-$7,800, hourly price varies by instructor tier|
|PrepScholar||National||20-hour tutoring package||$2,995|
|Sandweiss Test Prep||Seattle metro area||Tutoring offered by the hour||$1,800 for 20 hours|
|Sexton Test Prep & Tutoring||Boston area||Tutoring offered by the hour||$3,200 for 20 hours of tutoring|
|StudyPoint||National||Tutoring offered by the hour; price depends on the tutor you hire||$1,600-$5,200 for 20 hours of tutoring online; $2,400-$5,200 for 20 hours of in-person tutoring|
|Testmasters||Chicago-area prices, online||Tutoring offered by the hour||$1,380 for 20 hours, if need help in a particular area beyond the online options|
|The Princeton Review||National||18-hour tutoring package||$2,700|
|Varsity Tutors||National||Tutoring offered by the hourly packages||Pricing is customized to each family|
To determine whether ACT test prep is worth the time and money, set a reasonable goal before the program begins, such as a desired score improvement range.
Programs that cost the most at major test prep companies often come with a guarantee, promising improvement from one to as many as five points, which may make you more confident in your investment.
Parents might try to save money by signing up students for a classroom ACT prep course or a subscription for online resources, including practice tests. In this case, the responsibility falls on the students to make any score improvements.
Ultimately, ACT test prep investments are usually judged on whether students get into the colleges of their choice or receive the best scholarship possible. Since college scholarships can be worth several thousand dollars per year, what might seem like a lot of money for personalized test prep could pay off in years to come.
Review test prep options far in advance of choosing the test date so you can compare programs as well as find discounts. For example, high schools might offer discounts for tutoring companies, and you might even find a Groupon deal for a local service.
Check with high school counselors, friends and other local academic resources for recommendations, as well as with students who recently took the test. It’s possible a current or retired educator near you could be an ideal choice for your student, or a local college or high school could offer low-cost or free test prep classes.
You could also conduct an online search for “ACT tutors near me” or “(location) ACT online test prep.”
Companies that offer ACT test prep often provide SAT and academic tutoring as well, so you’ll need to review the website to see what they offer specific to ACT prep. Some describe the tutoring or prep packages on the website along with prices. You might also be asked to fill out a form so you can get a quote and be matched to local services and tutors.
Questions to ask a prospective test prep company or individual tutor:
- What are your credentials? A test prep company should provide these for its tutors right away; you’ll want to look at the tutor’s level of education, experience with the test, subject expertise and ability to teach.
- What is your teaching style? It’s important to make sure the tutor’s style matches the student’s.
- Do you have expertise in the necessary subjects? If a student needs extra help in the science section of the test, the teacher should be an expert in that area.
- Do students’ scores usually increase after they work with you and by how much? Whether a student improves is not entirely in the tutor’s control, but the tutor should have some examples of student improvement.
- What materials do you use with students? It’s important to note whether the tutor uses ACT-approved practice tests and whether the tests are a key part of the preparation.
- When are you available? You’ll want to make sure the tutor’s schedule matches your student’s. Also investigate whether the online-access tutors rotate. If that’s the case, you might not get the same tutor every time your student needs help.
Some companies provide both ACT and SAT tutoring and test prep, which is ideal for students who plan to take both or haven’t decided which to pursue.
Kaplan: Its Unlimited Prep course includes online access to ACT, SAT and PSAT preparation materials, including practice tests. There is an option for personalized tutoring.
The Princeton Review: This company has a combined ACT and SAT self-paced program, with classroom options and practice material.
Varsity Tutors: Live online group classes are offered for both the ACT and SAT.
Since the ACT and SAT test students on their comprehension of high school English, math and science, you can effectively study some topics for both tests at the same time. Also, learning better test-taking skills, such as time management for each section, would be helpful for both tests.
ACT tutoring and ACT test prep can cover a variety of topics, which is especially helpful for first-time test-takers.
If a student has a particular weakness in one or more subject areas and/or needs improvement in study skills, it’s best if the student focuses on those issues, possibly in conjunction with a tutor.
See below for some of the subjects covered on the ACT and how students can prepare.
An ACT math tutor prepares students for the two main categories in the 60-question test. Preparing for higher mathematics includes questions related to algebra, geometry, functions, statistics and probability, and numbers and quantities. Integrating essential skills has students using math skills to solve more complex problems. Students also learn how and when they can use a calculator.
Preparation for the 40-question multiple choice test would likely focus on how best to provide a big-picture summary from the four sections of prose passages on the test, drawing inferences from a story, accurately identifying the meaning of vocabulary words, remembering details and understanding the context of the written pieces.
Grammar, sentence structure and word use are primary focus areas for the 75-question English section, which consists of five essays, or passages. A tutor prepares you to review the text like an editor, effectively examining vocabulary, rhetorical rules, sentence transitions and more.
A tutor who helps a student prepare for the ACT science section covers biology, chemistry, earth/space sciences and physics. The 40-question test includes several authentic scientific scenarios and examines a student’s ability to recognize trends in data; determine the validity of scientific information; and understand graphs, tables and diagrams.
Reading well-written pieces in the weeks and months before the optional essay for the ACT can help students prepare. A tutor can help students use strong reasoning to explain ideas in written work. It’s also important for students to learn how to quickly and effectively read the preparation information for the essay and to be able to self-edit.
A study plan could be self-guided or organized with assistance from the tutor or test preparation service. A plan would consider the student’s test date, goals and how many study hours it might take to achieve the desired score. Then, the plan could include how many hours to study per week, how many practice tests the student must complete and what other self-study homework might be needed.
Any ACT prep program, whether online or in-person, provides test-taking strategies to help students manage the dozens of multiple choice questions for each time-limited section. Students learn problem-solving skills that could help them make quicker decisions, such as finding the wrong answers in multiple choice questions before they try to determine the right one.
One of the cornerstones of any test prep program is practice tests. ACT practice tests help students identify strengths, weaknesses and whether they’re improving. With a practice test, students can find ways to improve their timing and put some of the test-taking tips they’ve learned into action. Students can practice with full-length tests or focus on particular subject tests.
A test prep program provides tips on how to be prepared and confident for test day. Simple suggestions such as bringing the right pencils, a calculator and snacks are likely paired with a stern warning to not use any prohibited electronic devices, including a cellphone.