Cracking the test code: A parent's role in ACT preparation

Cracking the test code: A parent's role in ACT preparation

Students taking a test in the classroom


The American College Testing exam — better known as the ACT — is one of the most well-recognized standardized tests used for college admissions in the U.S. ACT scores can often play an important role in determining where your student will be admitted and what scholarships they qualify for. As a parent, you have an important role to play in your child’s ACT preparation. Here are some tips on how you can help them get ready for test day.

Know the basics

The ACT is composed of four different tests along with an optional writing section. Each section has a different number of questions and a different time limit. Luckily, all the questions are multiple-choice (with the exception of the writing section).

Number of questions75 questions60 questions40 questions40 questions1 essay
Time limit45 minutes60 minutes35 minutes35 minutes40 minutes

Because it’s optional, it’s important to talk to your teen about whether they should take the writing test. Some colleges will require you to submit a writing test score. If your teen is an exceptional writer, a strong score on the writing test may help their college application stand out.

Each mandatory section of the test is scored from 1 to 36, with an overall composite score coming from the average of their test results. There's no penalty for getting the answer wrong, so it's best to guess, even when unsure. The writing test is scored by two readers who assign the essay a score on a scale of 1 to 6. These two scores are added together to get a final score between 2 and 12. 

Start with an ACT practice test

It’s recommended that your student start ACT preparation the spring or summer before junior year. Not only does this give them more time to sharpen their test-taking skills, but it also gives them time to retake the test multiple times. It’s common to take the ACT two or three times.

What’s the best way to start the studying process? A practice test. There are a few different places you can find reputable ACT practice tests:

A practice test will shed light on what subject areas your student should spend a little more time on when studying. Check in with your teen regularly to hold them accountable as they study but try not to nag them. You also shouldn’t score their practice tests or observe them studying unless you’re invited.

Set reasonable goals

It’s smart to talk through realistic ACT goals with your student, using their first ACT practice test as your guide. If a certain ACT score is needed for admission to the schools your child is interested in, that’s a good goal to set. If your teen has already met this goal with their initial practice test, aim for a few points higher to maximize their opportunities. 

Keep ACT preparation in perspective

Although ACT scores are important, remember that schools are looking at more than just ACT scores. In fact, some schools, like the University of Northern Iowa are test optional, meaning your teen can choose to apply with or without their test scores. It’s important to note that students who apply as test-optional will be automatically considered for UNI’s admissions-based merit scholarships, based on a review of all other information provided with their application. You can find out more about test optional admission on our admissions webpage.

Make sure you’re helping your student build up all aspects of their college application such as their GPA, extracurricular activities and application essays. Colleges evaluate these items (and ACT scores) to predict if a student will succeed at their schools. As a bonus, by taking some of the pressure off of their ACT performance, your child may actually do a better job on the ACT if they deal with test anxiety.

Prepare for sending scores to colleges

There are a couple ways your student is able to share their test scores with the colleges they are interested in. The easiest method is simply selecting the schools on the ACT registration form. Students can add schools at any time to this form, within their established ACT account.  The testing agency will automatically route those scores to the colleges.

The second method, available at some schools like UNI, is self-reporting the scores on the application for admission. The students choosing this method will need to request their official test scores be sent through the testing agency to UNI before enrollment for verification. 

Help them on the big day

Encourage your teen to follow good test-taking habits leading up to the day of the ACT. This includes getting a good night’s sleep and eating a healthy breakfast on the day of the test. Make sure they have all the necessary test materials ready to go, including their ID, calculator, snacks and some sharp #2 pencils. Get the full list of what you should and shouldn’t bring on

Provide emotional support during and after ACT preparation

ACT exam preparation and actually taking the ACT can take a toll on any student. Be their biggest cheerleader throughout the process to calm their nerves. This can help calm some of their nerves. When your teen has finished taking the test, continue to provide emotional support, especially as they wait for and receive their test scores. 

You can find out more about signing up for the ACT on the official ACT website.

As Iowa's only regional comprehensive university, we are designed to provide critical coursework with real, practical fieldwork. 

Real, relevant academic excellence for a world that expects future-ready graduates.

  • 94% of UNI grads find success within six months of graduation.
  • UNI graduates more teachers than any other university in Iowa.
  • UNI graduates more CPAs than anywhere in Iowa.
  • UNI is ranked a top regional public university by U.S. News & World Report.
Program of Interest:*
Currently we do not offer any on-campus doctoral degrees. Please see our online options.

Google Analytics