How to score high on the ACT and impress college admissions

How to score high on the ACT and impress college admissions

With rare exception, every college-bound high school student must take one of the two assessments most colleges and universities require to be considered for admission: the SAT or the ACT.

  • The SAT is a 3-part test that measures your critical reasoning, mathematical abilities, and verbal skills (through a mandatory written test), while taking off points for questions you answer incorrectly.
  • The ACT is a 5-part test that measures what you have learned during your time in school in Mathematics, Science, Reading, English, and an optional Writing test, while never taking off points for incorrect answers.

For many students, the ACT is a better fit than the SAT. Most colleges and universities accept both, yet often require only one of the two tests from applicants. (Just be sure to double check what your desired college requires.) However, this isn’t to say that taking the ACT is a walk in the park—it just tests students differently than the SAT. The ACT is just as rigidly timed, it takes over three long hours to complete, and the test measures a broader range of material than the SAT.

As a soon-to-be ACT test-taker, there are a number of helpful hints that can greatly aid you in both making the ACT bearable, and improving your chances of scoring high on the test. Of course, starting your preparation long before your test date is the best case scenario, made even better with the help of a tutor who can create a customized test-taking plan. With that said, the following advice still works for everyone. Consider this help to be universal—for every skill level, for every test taker, and for every time the test is taken. 


Do

Do take a practice test

Do take a practice test before you take the real one. These practice exams are offered at most public and private high schools in the spring of your sophomore year. This is the only way for you to see exactly how the the test is designed. When it is time for you to take the test as a junior, you don’t need the added stress from unpleasant surprises.

Do take the test more than once

Do take the ACT at least twice. In fact, two times is good and three times may be even better. Unless you are one of those wizards who scores a 33 or higher on your first attempt (and if you did, you should be writing this article) you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by re-taking it. But do not get back in line without doing something to improve your prior score. At the minimum, use one of the many available study guides.

Do keep track of your time

Do keep careful track of your time. In fact, be obsessive about it. When you are in the throes of the ACT, the hands on the clock seem to spin like a windmill. This does not mean that you should race through the questions without completely reading them. What it does mean is that you must check the time at regular intervals to allow yourself enough time to finish each test with a couple of minutes to spare. The worst situation—the absolute worst—is realizing that you have only two minutes left with an entire reading passage remaining.

Do take it one step at a time

The ACT is one long test. It is only natural to feel overwhelmed, but try not to anyway. A good part of your success is going to spring from your ability to keep calm. When you are reading one passage, fully concentrate on it without taking a sneak peek at the passage that follows. You may dread the trig questions, but thinking about them may cause you to fumble the algebraic equations you know like the back of your hand.

Do consider preparing for the test with a tutor

If you aren't happy with your ACT performance, consider working with a tutor who specializes in ACT preparation. Being a do-it-yourselfer is awesome, but if you are unhappy with your practice test score, it may be time to call in an expert. A good tutor can figure out what you need to focus on most, and no, it doesn't have to cost two arms and a leg. Your tutor should be able to customize a plan to help you gain the most points possible—and if they are really good at what they do—you will be able to do this a whole lot faster than if you go it alone.


Don't

Do not think the science test actually tests science

Don’t assume that this test is what it says it is. The science portion of the ACT actually has much more to do with your ability to comprehend science-specific text and interpret graphs and charts. This means that feverish attempts to memorize the periodic table of elements can be classified as a big waste of time. What is not a waste of time is polishing your reading skills. For this test—and two of the others the ACT covers—you are going to really use them.

Do not send your scores to schools automatically

Don’t send your test scores to any school without reviewing them first. Do. Not. Automatically. Send. Your. Scores. Got that? On the ACT registration materials, there are spaces for you to place the codes for the schools that you want to receive your results. Go ahead and give this information so that the ACT people will know where to send your scores when you decide it is okay to send them. Once you see your results, you can request that the ACT folks forward them on to your designated institutions. It will cost just a bit extra, but in the event that your score is a disappointment, you don’t really want your dream college to see it do you?

Do not second guess your answers

Don’t waste precious minutes second guessing your answers. If you manage your time well, you will have the time to return to any problems you are uncertain of. Whatever you do, get all the answers down before you move on to another section of the particular sub-test you are working on. Weighing the merits of one answer over another as the minutes tick away will do you more harm than good.

Do not leave any question unanswered

Yes, this has already been covered, but this is so important that it had to be said twice. Even if you throw up your hands and make the most uneducated, throw-a dart-while-blindfolded kind of guess, you still have a twenty-five percent chance of getting a problem you have no clue about correct. This is pretty cool when you think about it.


Summary
Jumping cartoon

No one knows more than you how much you want to get into the college or university of your dreams. The ACT is one of the tallest hurdles that you have to scale to get there. But, you know, clearing this obstacle does not have to cause you a ton of stress. It really doesn’t. Yes, indeed, early preparation is best. However, some of the most important actions you can take to improve your chances of earning a high score happen during the test itself. By prioritizing, carefully managing your time, and keeping a level head during the thick of the battle, you can achieve more than you may think you can. Maybe not without breaking a sweat, but you can—and probably will—do this. Consider it a little preview of all of the hard work you will put into the college career that your stellar ACT score will give you a shot at.

You can do this! 


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Jennifer NevinsPresident

Jennifer has over fifteen years of teaching experience at the secondary level and is designated by the State of Illinois as highly qualified to teach English and History. She and her team of tutors work as part of My College Planning Team, a fin...

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