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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.

 

 

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.

 

 

The Single Best Strategy To Improve Your ACT Score

 

Your ACT score is based on how many questions you answer correctly in each of the four graded sections.  Unlike the SAT, the ACT does not deduct any points for wrong answers, so it benefits you to answer as many questions as possible.

Here’s the key to improving your ACT score:  answering everything doesn’t mean you have to attempt every question.  Accuracy is essential.

Some students make the mistake of attempting every question.  This only makes sense if you are already an exceptional test taker scoring in the top 90%.  If you are trying to earn a 28 or higher on any section, go ahead and work every question; you’ve already proven your ability to dominate the test.

Most students who attempt all questions end up rushing to finish and making careless mistakes along the way.  In their hurry to complete every question, their overall accuracy is diminished. You will do better to focus on accuracy which means you will probably have a number of questions that you either don’t know how to do or do not have time to finish.

I’m suggesting you slow down and focus on your target.  Take time to spot each question, line up your sights, and attack.  You become the sniper picking off ACT questions for points.  Most students use a buckshot method.  They hurry through the test shooting at every question in desperation to hit points.  They get some, but miss more because they never take the extra few seconds to line up a shot.

Slow down and strive to get all the questions you answer right.  You may be able to complete four of the five English passages (60 of 75 questions), 45 of 60 math questions, three of the four reading passages (30 of 40 questions), or six of seven science passages (35 of 40 questions) with this type of focused accuracy.  Now you are earning more points than you ever did before.

But what about the questions you don’t complete?  Aren’t these wasted points?  (Here’s where this strategy is exceptional.)  For any question you don’t do, fill in your “letter of the day.”  Pick a letter A, B, C, or D that you will use for every question for the entire test. (Only math has five answer choices, so E isn’t a good choice.) If you pick one letter and stick with it for the entire test, you will get some of your guesses right, statistically, 1 in every 4.

There is no better letter.  Pick your favorite and bubble straight down the line for every question you don’t know how to solve or don’t have time to work.  If you used different letters for each guess, you could get them all wrong.  You won’t get all of your “Letter of the Day” guesses right, but with four answers to choose from, you are bound to get some additional points.

Before you take the actual test, get a free, full-length practice test from your school counselor. Take the practice test timed and evaluate your results.

So now you are earning more points by targeting the questions you can focus on and solve correctly and for every hard question you don’t have time to attempt, you have a 1 in 4 chance of getting it right by guessing.  This is the single best strategy to improve your ACT score no matter what subject you are attempting.