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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.

 

 

ACT / SAT Reading Tips: Wrong Answer Traps

Thomas Aquinas College Library

Any college admissions test (SAT or ACT) that tests reading comprehension faces the challenge of writing questions that can fool educated high school students.  These tests have to be creative with their wrong answer traps, but using ACT and SAT reading tips, students can learn to avoid them.

How The Test Is Written

Think about it.  If any student reading on a high school level easily answered every reading question, all test takers would have great scores.  Instead the test has to be written to mislead at least some test takers.

A majority of students approach questions, whether in math, reading, or writing, with an eye for what “sounds right.”  This habit of looking for the response that “sounds right” is a strategy test writers use against students.

Here’s how it works.  The test writer constructing an SAT reading question had to come up with four potential, yet wrong, answers.  The correct answer is easy to write, but try developing four WRONG choices.  An answer choice cannot be used on a test unless some students will select it.  So ridiculous wrong answer choices won’t appear on the SAT or ACT.  All options will have some appeal to the literate, logical test taker.

Common Wrong Answer Traps for ACT / SAT Reading

Here’s a page from the test writer’s playbook.  These are common methods for tricking students into selecting wrong answers on reading passages:

Straight from the passage . . .  the wrong part

In an attempt to save time many students read the entire passage and begin answering questions from memory.  This works on easier questions, but with so many details, it becomes easy to mix things up.  These wrong answers are pulled directly from the reading, but are not the specific information the question seeks.  Students remember the details, but miss the fact that they came from the wrong part of the passage.

ACT / SAT Reading Tip:  Remember this is an open book test!  Go back and check the passage before you answer.  Make sure the information matches the specific selection the questions references.

What vs. Why

Instead of answering WHY an example was provided or topic was discussed, a wrong answer will simply describe WHAT the topic or example was.

ACT / SAT Reading Tip:  Read the question carefully and make sure you answer what was asked.  Read the questions carefully when you begin and re-read it before you select your final answer.

90% Perfect; 10% Wrong

It sounds right.  In fact, this answer choice sounds better than the correct choice.  Unfortunately, it has a little flaw hidden somewhere in the misleading wording.  These wrong answer traps are the baited hook waiting for unsuspecting test takers.  Just like the bass in the lake who sees only the juicy bait, but doesn’t stop long enough to see the hook and line, students eagerly select these choices thinking they have found the right answer.

ACT / SAT Reading Tip:  Read carefully.  Examine every word in an answer choice.  If one little word is “off”, the entire answer choice is wrong.  Additionally, looking for the flaws (or “hooks”) in answer choices will keep you from be distracted by the shiny, “sounds good” bait.

True, but doesn’t answer the question

These are mean.  The answer choice can be a complete and correct paraphrase of the passage, one you can go back and put your finger on, but it is still wrong.  Why?  Because although the answer is true, it technically doesn’t answer the question.

ACT / SAT Reading Tip:  Again, make sure to read the question carefully before you begin.  Also, before bubbling in your choice, ask yourself, “Does this answer the question?”  Is this the reason for the decision?  Was this the primary argument against?

Conclusion 

Understanding common wrong answer traps on the ACT and SAT reading can help students change their test taking habits from looking for what “sounds good” to reading carefully and searching out the distractors.

 

Increase Your ACT Reading Score

Reading is a deceptive section on the ACT.  It looks so simple—no vocabulary laden sentence completions like the SAT, just basic reading passages with questions.  Yet the reading part of the ACT isn’t as simple as it first appears.

In order to be an effective college admissions test, the ACT has to structure questions to fool intelligent high school students.  Think about it.  Would colleges use ACT scores if everyone got all the questions right?  How would Harvard know to let in?  Admissions tests have to be structured so that grades are distributed along the entire grading scale.  As a result ACT reading passages contain easy, medium, and hard questions.

ACT reading is intended to represent college-bound reading situations.  You need to

  • Read for detail and precise meaning
  • Understand main ideas and the sequence of events
  • Make generalizations and draw inferences
  • Compare similar answers to find the “best” response
  • Go beyond what is written and evaluate implied meanings

Just because you’ve been successful on high school reading comprehension tests, don’t assume the ACT reading will be easy.

The first challenge is completing the section in 35 minutes.  ACT reading passages are always divided into four categories:  prose fiction, social studies, natural science, and humanities.  Each passage has ten questions.  You may decide you can only finish two or three and you will “letter of the day” the rest. Don’t feel you need to answer questions in order.  If you don’t like the prose fiction passage, skip it and move on to the rest of the section.

Skim each passage before you begin, but don’t spend more than a couple minutes on the passage before beginning the questions.  ACT reading questions appear in mixed-up order.  Unlike the SAT, the ACT questions do NOT tend to follow the order of the passage. Expect to jump from the beginning of the passage to the end and back to the middle.  As you skim, make note of where to find information, so you can come back to answer detail questions.

Like all the other sections of the ACT, reading success depends on accuracy.  Determine how many questions you need to answer correctly in order to earn the score you want.  If you need 25 questions, you can complete three of the passages and “letter of the day” the fourth passage.  This means you now have 30 instead of 40 questions to complete in 35 minutes.  You have more time per question, so you can go back to the passage, find the answer, jot down your solution, carefully evaluate and compare the answer choices before selecting an answer.

Although the ACT doesn’t have as much vocabulary as the SAT reading section, don’t underestimate the section.  Be ready to read, interpret and analyze on a college-bound level, keeping in mind that accuracy is more important than finishing every question.