Source: Flickr user duncan.

Source: Flickr user duncan.

If you took a practice ACT or sat for the actual test, you may have been unpleasantly surprised by how you scored. If you find yourself in this situation, the good news is that there are steps you can take to achieving a better score.

Practice and evaluate why you’re missing questions

Take a practice test and simulate the testing environment

Taking practice tests is one of the best things you can do to improve your score. Not only can they help you pinpoint what material you need to cover again, they can help you figure out what kind of test taker you are–and what kinds of test-taking mistakes you need to correct.

When you take your practice test, simulate the actual exam. Find a quiet space and set a timer for each section–taking only the breaks you’d get during the real thing. If possible, take the practice test at the same time of day you’ll take the actual ACT.

While you take your test, be sure to mark any answers which are guesses so you remember to review those questions later.

Score your test and evaluate your incorrect answers

After you’ve taken the test, score it. For each question you answered incorrectly, figure out why you got it wrong. Did you think you knew the answer, but didn’t, or did you have to guess? Did you misread the question or rush to answer it? Or did you not answer it at all?

When you’re all done scoring your practice test and have figured out why you answered incorrectly, look for trends.

Personalize your prep based on specific issues you’re running into

If you’re missing questions or having to guess because you don’t know the material:

You’re probably going to have to do some content review. There are a number of ways you can brush up on old skills, including review books, online prep software, and even prep classes. In some cases, school textbooks may even be helpful.

What you choose will depend on your personal preferences and budget. If you’re looking for a low cost option, keep in mind that public and/or school libraries often have test prep material available for check out. You may also be able to ask a teacher for extra clarification on material.

Answering practice questions after you review can also be helpful. They’ll allow you to get a feel for the types of questions the ACT tends to ask, and how you might get tripped up. If they’re available, read explanations for solving practice questions to gain further insight.

If you’re missing questions because you’re rushing or not paying close enough attention:

Take more timed practice tests (or even just practice sections!). This will help you become more comfortable with the amount of time you have to answer each question so you don’t feel the need to rush.

Finishing with more than a few minutes at the end of a section probably means you’re not spending enough time on each question. Make sure you give each one full consideration and answer consciously.

If you feel your attention span is to blame, try practicing for shorter increments of time–say 15 or 20 minutes–and working up to a full-length section.

If you’re missing questions because you’re running out of time:

Make sure you at least look at each question in a section–you don’t want to miss any low-hanging fruit just because you didn’t get to every problem.

If you look at a question and spend more than 30 seconds on it without knowing how to answer it, skip it, and move to the next question. Make sure you flag it so you remember to come back and try it again later.

You won’t be penalized for wrong answers, be sure to give yourself a few seconds at the end of the section to answer any skipped questions, even if you only have time for a random guess.

If you find that you’re having to spend a lot of time on certain questions, you probably need to review the content behind them. Practice questions can also help prepare you to tackle certain types of problems more quickly.

General study tips

Give yourself enough time to prepare before your next exam. How long you’ll need depends on where you’re at and where you’d like to be. It also depends on how much time you have to commit to studying.

Large score improvements take considerable time and practice. You may want 2-3 months of consistent study if you’re looking to make a big leap. Smaller goals may require only a few weeks of studying. Be sure to space your study sessions out, and study based on your needs.

After reviewing material and working on practice questions, try taking another practice test and reassess your study needs from there.