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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.

Top 5 Tips for ACT Math

Albert Einstein said, “Do not worry about your difficulties in mathematics, I assure you that mine are greater.”  While Einstein’s mathematical woes were weighty, the challenge of accurately completing 60 ACT math questions in 60 minutes appears equally serious to most test takers.

The ACT math section covers fundamental skills, algebra, geometry, and basic trigonometry.  The questions begin easier and become progressively harder as you work through the section.  Some students prefer the ACT math because it seems more like problems they see in school and tends to be less tricky that SAT questions.  But don’t be fooled, ACT math isn’t easy.

Here are 5 tips to improve your ACT math scores:

1.  Know your formulasYou will not be given any formulas on the test, so be sure to review area, circumference, triangles, and basic math equations you usually look up on the  SAT or other standardized tests.

2.  Plan for the 4 or 5 trig questions.  Students who are taking pre-calculus or trigonometry in school should be fine.  You need to know sin, cos, tan; the sin & cos curves; and the unit circle.  If you have not studied these topics in school, I’d suggest you “letter of the day” these questions and move onto problems you are more likely to get right.

3.  Remember it is multiple-choice math.  Before you begin long, complex calculations, look at the answer choices.  Could you test these five options by plugging them into the problem?  Can you eliminate some choices using estimation?  The answer is on the paper; you just need to find it.

4.  Bring an approved calculator.  ACT calculator rules are stricter than those for the SAT.  You may NOT use calculators with built-in computer algebra systems, cell phones, computers, or tablets. TI- 89s, TI-92s, HP 48GIIs, HP 40Gs, 49Gs or 50Gs are NOT permitted.  According to ACT, “using the TI-89 is the most common reason students are dismissed fro the ACT for prohibited calculator use.”  Make sure your calculator is permitted.

5.  Write it out.  Do not attempt to do all the math in your head.  I’m a math person by nature.  (Maybe you didn’t know this, but I was captain of my high school math team!) I understand how tempting it is to do all the calculations in your head.  You may be able to answer some of the easier questions at the beginning with no calculations, but by the time you reach the middle of the ACT math section, problems require multiple steps and students who write out at least part of the problem, earn higher scores.  Avoid careless errors, increase your accuracy, and improve your score by working problems in the test booklet.

Remember to apply strategies such as the “letter of the day” because accuracy and educated guessing are key to your ACT success.  As Paul R Halmos said, “”To be a scholar of mathematics you must be born with talent, insight, concentration, taste, luck, drive and the ability to visualize and guess.”

Keys to the ACT English Section

Section one of every ACT is a 45-minute English section with 75 questions testing students’ knowledge of grammar and usage.  This part of the test is divided into five passages of 15 questions each.  The idea is that each passage represents a piece of student writing and the questions help test takers make peer review edits to the grammar, punctuation, style, and organization of the piece.

More than half of the questions test what the ACT writers call “usage and mechanics”, in other words rules of grammar.  These questions often present an underlined portion of the passage and students much pick the best choice.  The first answer choice is always “no error” which is correct about 20 to 25% of the time.

The remaining questions focus on what the ACT labels “rhetorical skills”, organization, style, and overall purpose.  My best tip for these questions if to think of writing the way your seventh grade English teacher taught you.  Each essay has a thesis statement or purpose.  Each paragraph has a topic sentence that supports the overall thesis.  Every example in the paragraph supports the topic sentence.  For most juniors and seniors this is a very simplistic and formulaic way of writing, but if you look at the ACT English questions with this in mind, you will score better.

ACT  English, unlike SAT writing, tests punctuation.  You will need to be familiar with proper uses for commas, apostrophes, and semicolons.  The rest of the grammar errors are similar to those found on the SAT and include:  subject / verb agreement, pronouns, modifiers, adjective and adverb errors, and ambiguity errors.

Here are a few tips to earn your best score on ACT English:

  • Read the entire sentence, not just the underlined portion.  Sometimes the error is in the connection between the two parts.
  • Compare answer choices.  What changes?  If the only difference in the answer choices is the placement of the commas, you know you are dealing with a punctuation question.
  • Keep in mind the passages are intended to represent student writing and will not be perfect.  Be ready to identify information which is out of place or irrelevant.
  • Re-read your answer choice into the entire sentence before you select it.  Does it fix the initial error without adding any new ones?
  • When answering organization or style questions, take time to identify the author’s purpose.  Why did he or she write the passage?  Why is a particular example given?

ACT English passages contain easy, medium, and difficult questions.  The hard questions are mixed in with everything else, so pay attention.  As I mentioned in a previous article, your score depends on the number of questions you answer correctly.   You may choose to answer three or four of the five passages and “letter of the day” the remaining questions.  Accuracy is always key.

 

Next week I’ll give my top 5 tips for ACT math.

 

ACT Scores Explained

Don’t you hate how confusing it is to figure out SAT or ACT scores?  I deal with admissions tests every day and still have to think to convert from the SAT system (200 to 800 points on three sections – reading, math, and writing) to the ACT (a single score of 0-36).  Today I’m going to take the confusion out of ACT scores. 

The ACT is a competitor of the SAT, like Coke is a market challenger to Pepsi.  Some students will prefer the ACT, just as some people prefer Pepsi to Coke.  The ACT is not easier or harder than the SAT; it is just different.

An ACT composite score is the average of a student’s scores on the four parts of the test – English, math, reading, and science.  The written essay receives a separate score, but is not factored into the composite score. Students can score between 0 and 36 on each section and the national average is 21.  Students scoring 28 or above represent the top 10% of test takers.

Some students benefit from the way the ACT averages scores because they can bring up their lowest score with higher numbers in the other sections. For example this student’s scores in English, reading, and science help make up for a math score of 16:

English            21

Math               16                                Composite Score:  20

Reading           23

Science            20

However, averaging scores can diminish exceptional results.  In this example, the composite score does not show this student’s math and science talents:

English            24

Math               32                                Composite Score:  27

Reading           23

Science            30

Some colleges and universities are experimenting with “superscoring” the ACT.  “Superscoring” is common on the SAT and means the school will take a students best reading, math, and writing even if they are from different test dates.  Ask if the schools on your list will superscore the ACT.

Colleges and universities will accept either SAT or ACT scores.  To be on the safe side, go ahead and send all scores.  If you want to see how SAT and ACT scores compare, use this chart: http://www.act.org/aap/concordance/

Finally, I advise all students to take both the SAT and ACT sometime junior year.  You may find you do better on one test than the other.

If you have any ACT questions, feel free to leave them in the comments section.  I will answer them personally.