The ACT is such a comprehensive test; it is difficult to know where to start! To add to the pressure, this test is one of the few things that will affect your life for years to come, should you plan on attending college. The good news is getting a satisfying score on the ACT is completely possible! It really all comes down to how much time you are willing to study.
I spent hours and hours studying for the ACT which means I learned a lot about studying. All that studying helped me achieve a prestigious score that many universities and I were pleased with. I would like to offer five tips that I wish I had known when I first started studying.
1. Know what’s coming! The people who absolutely bomb the test are not usually stupid; they are unprepared. No one has explained to them the significance of the test or what they can do to prepare for it. When you study, learn how many questions are in each section and roughly how much time you will have for each question. You should read the introduction to each section. The test writers have to include an explanation but by no means should you ever waste time on this during the testing period.
Also, I found it very helpful to categorize the questions. For example, in the math section, I knew that there were x amount of questions for geometry and x amount of questions for algebra. And then maybe I found a couple of formulas that I had seen consistently, and I wrote those down.
2. Practice makes perfect. This saying was never more applicable than on the ACT. This test was built to challenge how fast you can do fairly standard problems in a given time frame. It was made to be studied for! Therefore, the most difficult part of the entire test is working under a time constraint.
The most helpful thing I did was to take a timed practice test. Imagine, suddenly the timer goes off, and you are only halfway through the section when you realize that you spent 12 minutes on one question that you are not even sure you got right! Don’t do that! So, invest in a couple of old ACT practice tests. Then invest in a timer. Then invest the time. It is hard to set aside time where you can’t be distracted by anything, but I guarantee that if you don’t learn to focus now, then you won’t be able to focus for the three or four hours of constant questions.
3. You are your best teacher. I tried studying with other students and even tutors. This was definitely the most unhelpful thing I did. You know where you need to work and you know what you need to study! Train yourself to work on the hard spots!
4. Use your time wisely. I know that sounds so cliché. We all know we should remove distractions and plan ahead. These elements are definitely part of using your time wisely, but I am talking more about taking your spare time to help you study. If you need to go to a doctor’s appointment and you know he is always a half hour late then grab whatever study guide you are using and make the most of those minutes. Later, when you come to the time you have set aside for studying you will realize that you have already learned a couple of key concepts and you have given yourself a couple of extra hours. Wahoo!
5. Set a goal, a.k.a. know what test score you want to achieve. If you have something to work towards, then you will know how much studying you have left to do to achieve those goals. You also work better on a positive, goal-oriented mindset!
The ACT is not the SAT, and the sooner you recognize that, the better! When I first set out to study for the ACT, I figured I could do it the same way I had gone about studying for the SAT, but that it wouldn’t take as much time—after all, I’d basically already prepared myself for this exam too, right? Nope!
A major difference I wish I had known going into my test prep is that the timing is very different on the ACT, and in particular, the amount of content covered in each section is different (in my opinion, the ACT sections go by much faster, and the material covered is often denser). Because of this, taking as many practice exams as possible and timing each section is really important. It’s the one way to know how much content you can expect to get through in each section. If you realize that you aren’t covering all the material in a certain timed portion, pay special attention to the questions that take you the longest so that you can hash out a plan for how to work through them faster or strategize to tackle them at the beginning or end of the timed section. Just as importantly, if you realize that even with a significant improvement in speed, you may still not complete every question in the section, start to think about what your approach will be when it comes to guessing, and how to make an educated guess for each type of question.
On that note, another key difference between the SAT and ACT: the ACT does not penalize you for incorrect answers! It is therefore in your best interest to answer every single question on the test, so don’t only consider thinking about how to make an educated guess, but practice guessing. One tip I was given was to take entire practice exam sections only using educated guesses. I did that multiple times, cutting down the time I would allow myself to spend on each question and forcing myself to answer in that time limit as a way of mimicking a situation where time was running short, and I still had those questions to answer. This turned out to be helpful on exam day when I unexpectedly ran very short of time on a math section and had to guess on multiple questions near the end.
A few other differences that are helpful to understand relate to the individual sections themselves. What makes up the SAT verbal section becomes three sections on the ACT: reading comprehension, English, and writing. The writing, in particular, is not assessed in the same way as the SAT and is more focused on arguing a point with the information given. Use of representative examples and clear, rational thought development are key. The math sections also cover slightly different material than SAT math: the toughest sections are often trigonometry problems, but there will be fewer of them, and I found there to be a greater emphasis on geometry when I took the test. And, of course, the science section is entirely a new challenge. As someone not inclined toward the sciences, I was nervous about that section, but it’s helpful to recognize that the scientific concepts themselves are tested less than your ability to understand the parts of an experiment and apply reading comprehension skills to analyze the experimental processes described. For this section, as for the ACT as a whole, the mantra really is practice, practice, practice. Finding as many actual ACT review questions as you can, timing yourself as you go through them, and learning how to guess, even if you don’t think you’ll need to do so, will be a great help in mastering the material.
There are two ways to prepare for the ACT: One is to cram on your worst topic, and the other is to focus on your strengths. The second option might seem odd, but consider this: 1 point on your strongest topic is worth exactly the same as 1 point on your weakest topic. But the higher your score is on a topic, the greater effect each question has on your final score.
For example, on most tests, a 36 is a perfect score. You get a 35 if you miss one question, and a 34 if you miss two. But after that, the gaps between the different numbers become steadily wider, and they also differ between tests. The difference between a 17 and an 18 might be 5 or more questions.
So imagine you took a diagnostic test, and you got a 18 on the Math test, and a 30 on the English. You could cram, and learn as much as you could for the Math test, and thereby get an additional 7 questions right, which would raise your Math score 1-2 points. But if you applied that effort to the English test, and thereby got 7 extra questions right, that would bring you very close to a perfect score, raising your English score by 3-5 points.
Of course, it would be unwise to completely ignore your weaknesses, but if you have limited time to study, that time is better spent on your strengths.
I would also highly recommend taking practice tests. By doing so, you will have a good idea of what is expected of you, and you can “warm-up” for the real test. Also, after you are finished with a test, you can often look over the answer sheet, and see which questions you got wrong. The answer sheets also usually come with an explanation of the question, so that you can learn to do it correctly for the next time.
Taking practice tests will also give you invaluable information on how to pace yourself. This can be tricky; the tests are designed so that the average person will run out of time on them, so taking the practice tests will show you how fast you need to work to answer all the questions.
So that would be my advice: focus on your strengths, and take practice tests. Good luck!
One of the reasons that I’ve always liked the ACT better than the SAT is because I think the ACT is a better representation of your actual skill level in regards to a subject of material. Consequently, it’s really important to the actual review of the material! The first time that I took the ACT, I told myself that I didn’t need to study because either I knew it or I didn’t. While that’s true, if I’d studied more of the actual material that was going to be on the exam, I would have known it come test day. I’d recommend getting a quality ACT test prep book and skimming through the chapters that you might feel rusty on, making sure you understand the basic concepts and brushing up on general knowledge.
Also, one thing about the ACT that’s pretty radically different from the SAT is that the ACT is much faster. If you’re like me, with the SAT, I found myself dawdling at the end of the test with more than half an hour to spare, waiting for time to be called. For the ACT, I found myself rushing to put down answers down to the last 10 minutes. Because of this, in my opinion, it’s crucial for the ACT to take a bunch of practice tests. With each practice test that I took in preparation for my second ACT, I had a better grasp of how much time I could take on each question. You want to be able to have enough time at the end in order to go back through and at least very quickly double check your initial answers.