10 Tips for Taking the ACT This Saturday

10 ACT Study Tips

Clearly it is too late to do an in-depth study for this weekend’s ACT, but there are things all students can do in the next couple days to help improve their performance (and scores) on Saturday’s ACT. These 10 quick tips for taking the ACT will help students who have been preparing and those who are attempting to cram at the last minute.

1. Plan Your Food

This tip doesn’t top most test prep lists, but I think it is an easy thing every student can do.  Think about it; marathon runners closely monitor and plan the food and drink they will consume. While you are not expending energy through prolonged physical exertion, you are working for four hours in a state of heightened mental exertion.  You don’t need to have your blood sugar plummet for lack of food or spend half the test with the jitters from the double espresso you had that morning.  Think through your breakfast and pack appropriate snacks to eat during breaks.

2. Set a Target Goal for Each Section

Whether you’ve been studying for weeks or just started thinking about the ACT, you should have score goals for each of the four graded sections:  English, math, reading, and science.  If you have previously taken the test, use those scores to guide your expectations.  If you have never taken the ACT or PLAN, you may want to take one of the free full-length practice tests available from your guidance counselor’s office.  Make sure your target goal for each section is realistic based on your abilities.

3. Familiarize Yourself with the Scoring System

Once you have a score goal, you can determine how many questions you need to answer correctly in order to reach that score.  You may only need four of the five English passages or 60% of the math.  Because there is no penalty for guessing on the ACT, you may choose to focus your attention of a portion of the questions and guess on the rest; this gives you more time per question and may help you reach your target goal.

4. Print Admissions Ticket & Verify Test Date and Location

Seems stupidly obvious, but I don’t have enough fingers to count the number of students I’ve worked with who were surprised to find they were registered for a test date or a location other than the one they expected.  Also, when you print your admissions ticket in advance you have time to call tech support if you have trouble accessing your registration online. Avoid surprises on test day; check in advance.

5. Review Basic Math Formulas

Unlike the SAT, which provides basic formulas at the beginning of every math section, the ACT expects students to have this information memorized.  You should know area for triangles, area and circumference for circles, and volume for cubes and cylinders.  A2 + B2 = C2 is essential and can save you from memorizing the distance formula for coordinate geometry problems.  The ACT has a handful of trigonometry questions, most of which are quickly solved with knowledge of sin, cos, tan, and the unit circle.  Students are assumed to know the slope intercept equation for a line (y=mx + b) and occasionally questions will ask for the equation for a circle [ (x-h) 2 + (y-k) 2 = r2 ] or parabola (y=ax2 +bx + c).  Make a formula chart you can review this week and look over before you go into the ACT on Saturday.

6. Work a Few Timed Passages

You don’t need to complete multiple full-length tests before Saturday.  You do need to become familiar with the material tested and the pace you intend to keep in order to reach your goals. If you can complete a full 45-minute English section or a 35-minute reading or science section, great.  If not, do one or two passages.

If you need to complete 80% of English section in order to reach your score goal, then you have 45 minutes for four passages.  Before Saturday, set your timer and see if you can finish a passage in 10-11 minutes.  If so, you know you are on track; if not, you know you either need to speed up or adjust your goal.

7. Verify You Have an Approved Calculator

The ACT limits the calculators students can use.  You MAY NOT use your TI-Nspire or TI-89 and you do not want to be dismissed from the exam for using an unapproved calculator.  Generally TI-83, TI-84, and non-graphing scientific calculators are approved.  You can always get a scientific calculator from your local drugstore for under $20.  For more information see: What Calculators Are Allowed on the ACT: Common Mistakes to Avoid.

8. Brush-up on Grammar Rules

Just as you will want to review common math formulas, it is helpful to brush-up on the commonly tested grammar rules.  Start with punctuation (something not tested on SAT writing).  Make sure you understand how to use a semicolon, colon, and dash.  Review the difference between plural and possessive so you won’t have apostrophe questions.  Spend some time with practice questions looking for the following errors:  subject / verb agreement, passive voice, pronoun-antecedent agreement, pronoun case, parallel structure, modifier placement, adverb / adjective use, verb tense, and idioms. Most students will have studied these rules in school, but it may have been a few years, so a quick review can be helpful.

9. Practice Reading & Analyzing for Specific Details

You have probably figured out that ACT reading and science are more about your ability to ferret out particular details from a passage or data set than your ability to read or recall basic principals of science.  However, if you are in the habit of reading slowly, absorbing information, then drawing conclusions based on the information provided, you will struggle to finish. Work through a couple reading and science sections untimed.  Take note of where you found the answers.  Once you see the pattern and understand how most questions simply want you to find details, you can improve your accuracy on these sections.

10. REST!

Your brain can’t perform at its best if you are exhausted.  Take some extra time to rest.  Start by unplugging from technology each night.  It might be a good idea to turn off your phone, computer, etc. by 9 pm each night and plan to get an extra hour or two of sleep.  Of course, you can’t put off assignments or tests for this week, but you can trade in some free time for extra sleep.

Do what you can to prepare for this weekend’s test.  Remember colleges are looking for a student’s best scores, so if this ACT isn’t your best, you can always retest.



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Answering Your College Admissions Questions

Today I’m answering your college admissions questions.  I’d also like to encourage you to ask questions on my Facebook page or via email.  Starting in January I’m moving to a new once a week email newsletter format and I will be answering one question a week in additional to a full length article.  I’d love to hear from you.


What are the strongest ballet departments?

The answer to this question depends on your goals.  Ballet dancers, especially women, have a fairly short window of time to move from training into a company which is why many serious dancers actually delay college and train in a professional company like School of American Ballet (SAB), Joffrey, or Royal Academy of Dance (RAD).  Following this type of performance training program isn’t exactly a well-rounded education, but there will always be time for that later.  Some students want college programs in a conservatory setting.  Schools such as Juilliard or Boston Conservatory are well recognized, but the curriculum will include a lot of modern dance in addition to ballet.  Finally, you may want a more well-rounded education found in a liberal arts college or traditional university setting.  You will find many well regarded programs; your goal is to match the program to your goals and ability.


Are there things a student should never say during a college interview?

Whether interviewing with a university’s employee or an alumni, remember that they love their school!  Nothing sinks an interview faster than a lack of interest. “I’m applying here as a backup” or “because my dad made me” indicates you are unlikely to attend, even if admitted. Lack of interest also shows if you ask questions that easily would have been answered by looking at the school’s website before your interview. Finally, “Do I really need to study?” and “Yeah, I’ve got an easy senior schedule,” are comments that speak volumes about your lack of interest in higher education overall.


How can a student figure out which standardized tests to take, when, and how many times?

At a minimum, juniors should take the ACT and SAT once, but many students re-test multiple times to achieve their personal best scores. If you want to re-test, focus on whichever standardized test best highlights your academic strengths. You can retake both the SAT and ACT senior year, but pay attention to application deadlines—some fall test dates may be too late. Students applying to highly selective schools also may be required to take SAT Subject Tests, and international students may need additional tests such as the TOEFL. Specific details on which tests you need and when you need to complete them will depend on where you choose to apply.  Check with each college and university to make sure you satisfy all testing requirements.


How can parents help students with the college search and application process?

Parents should emphasize academic achievement and extracurricular involvement starting when their children are in elementary school. Offering encouragement and guidance throughout the school years will help ensure students take challenging classes, earn the best grades possible, seek out extra help in academic problem areas, and participate in meaningful extracurriculars. From freshman year on, parents can encourage students to explore colleges, make college visits, and compare top choices. When the real application process starts, though, it’s important that parents step back, offer advice and encouragement but allow the student to do the work.


Send me your questions.  I’m happy to help.  

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Ace the ACT Science Section


Don’t get too excited, ACT science has little to do with your knowledge of biology, chemistry, natural science, or physics.  In fact, you don’t need any knowledge of science to ace this section.

ACT science should be renamed to “reading with charts and graphs.”  You are given seven passages full of diagrams, data, tables, examples, and figures and you are expected to answer questions based on your evaluation of the information.According to ACT, this section tests your interpretation, analysis, problem solving, and reasoning skills.  It does not test any science.

Honestly, this is the only section on any of the admissions tests that I have trouble finishing.  I’m a great test taker and I have to keep an eye on the clock to finish 40 science questions in 35 minutes.  I don’t want to rush and make careless errors, but there is so much information to process.  Again, accuracy will be key to your success.

The best way to make it through the ACT science section is to think of it as a giant search and find.  You remember these from when you were a kid.  When we go to a restaurant the children’s menu will have a big block of letters and my kids love looking up, down, across, and diagonally for the words.  When you used to do this, I bet you had a similar approach.  To fine the word “spaghetti” you didn’t read every letter on every line; you’d scan through looking for the letters you need, slowing down only when you saw some of the letters from “spaghetti”.  This strategy will help you ace the ACT science.

Do not start by reading and attempting to understand each science passage.  Begin with the questions.  If question one asks about study 2, scan until you find study 2 then look for the information needed to answer the question.

Most questions require interpretation of information and your ability to recognize patterns.  Do the readings increase as temperatures go up?  Is there a correlation between length and pressure?  Do the results in example 1 support or contradict the results in example 2?  Look for connections and patterns, but don’t try to understand all the details.  You don’t need them to answer questions correctly.

When you can limit your focus to read question, find relevant info in the chart, compare answer choices, pick the best match, you will increase your accuracy, answer more questions, and improve your score.  Often you do not need to fully understand the passage to search out the information being tested. Remember whatever you don’t finish get the “letter of the day!”