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While the SAT might be more of a household name, the ACT is a highly popular standardized test for college admissions, with over 2 million registered high school test-takers per year.

Of course, test prep has grown into lucrative industry in recent years: countless classes, private tutors, books, and other resources promise to boost scores and get you into the school of your choice. But how do you know which prep service to use? How do you know if you need to use one at all?

Below, we’ve outlined some of the best online ACT prep courses, free online resources, and general study tips to help you determine which method works for you.

But first, the basics.

What’s on the ACT?

The ACT is a 2 hour 55 minute test (with an optional add-on) that consists of the following four sections, in order:

  • English: Tests grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, and rhetoric, with an emphasis on editing skills to improve a sentence’s style and organization
    • 75 multiple–choice questions
    • 45 minutes
  • Math: Covers Algebra I and II, geometry, and some trigonometry
    • 60 multiple–choice questions
    • 60 minutes
  • Reading: Reading comprehension for four passages (about 800 words each) in fiction, social science, humanities, and natural science
    • 40 multiple–choice questions
    • 35 minutes
  • Science: Measures your ability to look up and synthesize information from tables, graphs, illustrations, and passages
    • 40 multiple–choice questions
    • 35 minutes

The test also offers an optional writing section, which consists of one essay that students have 40 minutes to complete. Note that some schools require the writing section, so be sure to check beforehand if you need to register.

What Makes a Good Online ACT Course?

Online prep courses are one of the most popular ways to study for the ACT. You’ll cover relevant subject areas, develop test-taking skills, and get tailored feedback on improvement areas. Below are some specs to consider when you’re choosing which course fits your needs:

Self-Paced or Live: The first decision you’ll need to make is delivery style. Live online classes are the closest simulation of a traditional classroom setting, with a live instructor to offer real-time feedback. If you like this setup, and generally do better in an organized format, live classes are probably the best fit. On the other hand, self-paced courses allow students to study whenever they want, which is especially advantageous if you have a busy schedule. The other benefit is extra practice time: if you’re having trouble with a concept, spend as much practice time as you need (whereas live classes have to keep to a strict curriculum timeline). In short, it’s a question between individualized “traditional” instruction or flexible, self-paced coursework that involves a little more work on the student’s behalf.

Online Resources: For the most part, every course covers the same material: everyone knows what’s on the ACT. What distinguishes the courses are educational tools and resources. Is there an interactive element? How many lessons are there? How many practice questions? By far the most important resource is the practice exam: every good course should include at least one practice ACT and many include several. Not only do practice exams give you an overall progress report, you’ll figure out improvement areas and be able to hone your study plan.

The Right Instructor: Self-paced courses depend on content more than instruction, but if you enroll in a live ACT prep course, be sure to find an instructor that works for you (all the important when you consider that live classes are more expensive than self-paced…sometimes by several hundred dollars). Some instructors list their ACT scores — no doubt, a helpful indicator – but experience is arguably more important. How long has the instructor been teaching ACT courses? What do previous students say? Read the reviews, positive and negative, and leverage past students’ experiences into your decision-making process.

Our Picks for Best Online ACT Courses

  • Kaplan: Kaplan Test Prep offers both live online courses and an affordable self-paced option. Kaplan’s major draw is its practice tests: all students receive 9 practice tests, including 1 from the makers of the ACT, as well as updated online quizzes, 1,000 practice questions, 25+ hrs of on-demand lessons, and ACT prep books.
  • Princeton Review: The other big name on our list, Princeton Review is a good pick for students who want the benefits of one-on-one instruction without the price-tag of a private ACT tutor. In addition to numerous resources, you’ll have direct access to expert instructors, plus adaptive course content and a satisfaction guarantee.
  • ACT Test Prep: Why not go straight to the administrator? ACT offers free practice tools and an exam, plus affordable premium course options. Content is engaging and personalized to give students productive feedback, and ACT pairs with Kaplan Test Prep to deliver live online instruction. Additional resources include a free study guide, practice questions for each section, and six months access to course material.
  • Green Test Prep: One of the lesser-known names in test prep, but highly effective and affordable. Green Test specializes in online test prep, and repeat ACT-takers improve their scores by 4.6 points. Resources include practice tests, a testing schedule, 24/7 access, customized training, and general test-taking tips and strategies. (As a bonus, all ACT content is bundled with SAT content.)

What’s the Best Way to Self-Prep Online for the ACT?

ACT courses are great but certainly not required. Self-prep is part of any ACT study plan, and the 100% self-prep plan includes two major advantages: 1) Complete control over what, when, where, and how you study; 2) If you do it right, it’s free.

At the same time, students studying alone need to be highly motivated and practice the right habits. Below are a few key tips for the self-prep approach:

  • Make a Schedule: Schedules are the only way to force yourself into the daily routine of ACT studying (and yes, it needs to be daily). Not every session needs to be a 4-hour marathon, but schedules should be detailed and organized. If math and science are weak points, your study schedule should reflect that. Create a personalized, tailored study plan that allows you to focus on improvement areas.
  • Keep Practicing: Practice sessions should be integrated into every study period. Test-taking is a skill, and practice is the only way to hone it. Obviously full-length tests are a helpful tool, but short, regular questions and quizzes are just as important. And remember, if and when you get a question wrong, make sure to figure out why. If the material doesn’t include an explanation, go to online discussion boards or related communities.
  • Have a Target Score: Studying for the ACT without a target score is futile: your study plan won’t make sense, and you’ll have a hard time staying motivated. Work toward goal. Research the average ACT score of accepted students at your schools of choice and aim to earn at least that number (better yet, find out average scores for individual sections). Having a target test score will help organize your studies and monitor your progress.
  • Diversify Studies: Don’t obsess over one section to the exclusion of others, even if it’s your obvious weakness. First, you’ll go insane. Second, it’s counterproductive. Diversify your studies, which includes your study sources. Online coursework is great, but keep things fresh with a prep book if you can. If the majority of your prep is online, schedule multiple resources in a session. And, yes, it’s okay to take a break every now and then.

Free Online Resources for ACT Self-Prep

  • PrepFactory: Pitched as “Duolingo Meets Khan Academy,” PrepFactory is one of the fastest-growing test prep services online. All resources are 100% free, and students have unlimited access. Features include video lectures, full-length practice tests, interactive content, gamification elements, and more.
  • Union Test Prep: Resources from practice exams and flash cards to discussion boards and study guides.
  • Varsity Tutors: Offers free test-prep questions and exams, which are automatically scored online (not the case with every prep resource online); also includes test-taking strategy tips and flashcards.
  • Khan Academy: Khan might be more useful for its SAT prep, but plenty of videos on the site are great ACT training, particularly if you need to brush up on math. Check out PrepScholar for a complete guide to using Khan to prepare for the ACT.