ACT Test Taking Strategies


The ACT is used by many colleges to determine admission. Your ACT is important to colleges for two reasons. First, your ACT score shows that you're academically prepared for college. Second, your ACT score, if you're admitted, will be incorporated into a college's annual ACT statistics. A college's reputation among its piers, and prospective students, is in part based on the published ACT scores of its students. Schools including Harvard, Stanford and other top universities are often associated with excellence because of the high ACT scores of the students they admit.

Taking the time and putting forth the effort to improve your ACT score will go a long way toward getting yourself into the college or university of your choice. Combine a high ACT score with a good GPA and you'll qualify for entry into top colleges and universities. However, the ACT can be particularly important if you didn't get the best grades in high school. A high ACT score can make up for a low GPA. If you were to score a perfect 36 on the ACT, but only graduated high school with a 3.0 GPA, it's quite likely that admission officers would think your high school classes were just too hard and that you're still smart enough for college.

So should you try to improve your ACT score? Most definitely. Can you improve your ACT score? Most definitely. The ACT is made up of four sections. These include science, reading comprehension, math, and English. Below we'll explore proven study strategies and tips that will improve your overall performance on the ACT as well as your performance each individual section of the test.



General ACT Testing Strategies
The following are general strategies for improving your overall performance on the ACT. These tips and strategies can be applied to all sections in the ACT.

  • Don't cram.
    The ACT tests you on knowledge you've accumulated over the course of your high school career, so there's no point in cramming. The day before the test relax, go watch a movie and then get a good nights sleep. Staying up the night before the test and studying will only stress you out and cause you to be tired the next day.

  • Familiarize yourself with the test.
    Become familiar with the structure of ACT before test day. During your test prep, learn and review the directions for each of the sections on the test. When you arrive at the test you'll already know what is going to be required in each section of the ACT. This will save valuable time during the test which can be spent working on questions.

  • Answer easy questions first.
    Answer the questions you're sure you know the correct answer to first. Put a mark in your exam booklet next to each question you skip so you can quickly find them later. After answering all the easy questions, go back and tackle the more challenging questions.

  • Write in your book.
    Your ACT test booklet is yours. After the test it will simply be thrown away. So don't worry about making sure it remains in pristine condition throughout the test. Use it to your advantage. Write in it, cross out wrong answers and use it to do scratch work. Work out problems and jot down key information you'll need to answer certain questions in your test booklet since it is permitted.

  • Don't write on your answer sheet.
    Your ACT answer sheet is scored by a machine that isn't able to distinguish between a correct answer, a stray mark, or a careless doodle in the margin. Make sure that your answer sheet is free from any stray marks. Follow the directions given carefully as you mark correct answers on your answer sheet.

  • There is only one correct answer.
    On the ACT, there is only one correct answer to each question. Even if it appears as if there are two correct answers, you can only choose one answer – so select the best answer to each question.

  • Easy questions precede hard ones.
    Typically, easier questions on the ACT precede harder questions. In this way, the ACT gets progressively more difficult as you work through each section. Keep this in mind as you move through the test answering easy questions first and then return to answer more difficult questions.

  • Guess.
    If you're faced with a challenging question for which you don't know the correct answer, just make an educated guess. Try to eliminate as many incorrect answer choices as you can and then select the answer that makes the most sense. There is no point deduction for wrong answers – so any answer is always better than no answer at all.

  • Budget your time.
    Do not spend too much time on any one question since there is a time limit for completing the test. It is best to limit yourself to 1 to 2 minutes for the harder questions and no more than 10 to 20 seconds on the easier questions. The ACT consists of 4-5 small mini-tests that are timed. Pay close attention to how much time remains in each section, so you will not have to rush at the last minute to complete each test. We recommend bringing your own stop watch to the test to keep track of time.

  • Read each question carefully.
    Never assume you know what a question is asking until you've read it in it's entirety.Sometimes students will provide an answer they recall from a similar question from a practice test. Read the words to each question carefully.

  • Don't change your answers.
    Don't change your answers unless you're sure you made a mistake. More often than not your first answer will be the correct answer.

  • Practice, practice, practice!
    Let us say it one more time. Practice, practice, practice! There is no substitute for practice.

English Section Strategies
The English section of the ACT is a 75-question, 45-minute test. That's an average of just over 35 seconds per question, so you'll need to work pretty fast in order to complete this section. This section of the test is always the first section presented on the ACT so be ready to take it right away.

The English ACT is composed of five passages, each followed by a selection of multiple-choice questions. These questions are designed to test your reading comprehension and may ask about specific content (sentences, phrases, concepts, etc.) covered in each passage. Several questions will test Usage and Mechanics (including grammar, sentence structure, punctuation and usage). Other questions will test Rhetorical Skills (organization, strategy, and style). You'll receive a score for your performance in each of these two categories.

Punctuation (10-15%) will test your understanding of internal and end-of sentence grammatical conventions. Grammar and Usage (15-20%) tests your understanding of basic grammar rules. Sentence Structure (20-25%) tests your understanding of the relationship between clauses in order to link clauses and form sentences. The Strategy section (15-20%) is designed to test your ability choose correct words and phrases within the context of an essay or passage. Organization questions (10-15%) test your ability to organize ideas and choose correct sentence structures within the context of a passage or essay. Style questions (15-20%) will test your ability to select the most appropriate words and sentence structures to maintain or support the style and tone of an essay.

  • For Punctuation questions, read, review and consider the entire sentence, even if the question is asking you to focus on just a subset of the sentence. When answering ACT English questions, never focus on just part of the sentence. You must make sure your answer makes sense within the context of the entire sentence and passage.
  • When answering Grammar questions, read each question CAREFULLY so you don't make mistakes. It's easy to select the wrong answer, even when you understand the concept, if you don't read the question carefully and understand what is being requested.
  • For Organization questions, find the choice that best leads into the first sentence of the passage.
  • For Strategy questions take the entire passage into account and consider whether a suggested revision adds clarity or confuses the message the passage it trying to communicate.
  • When answering Sentence Structure questions, consider the sentence as a whole so you can determine with answer choice offers the most natural and clear relationship between clauses.
  • To answer Style questions correctly you must have a strong grasp of the passage's meaning and tone.
  • Pay close attention to each author's writing style. The correct answer will probably better suit the individual author's style than other choices.
  • Carefully examine each answer option to see how they differ from one another.
  • If "No change" is a possible answer, only choose it if other options are wrong. This can be a dangerous choice if you aren't familiar with obscure grammar rules. Double check all other answers before selecting "no change". (Note: The "no change" answer is the correct answer about 25-30% of the time it's an option.)
  • When given a selection of answers to choose from, try and plug each of the answer choices into the sentence to see which one fits correctly.
  • In questions with underlined text, review surrounding sentences to determine how these sentences relate to the underlined section. Then, compare the answer you've selected with the underlined text.

Reading Section Strategies
The Reading section of the ACT is a 40-question, 35-minute test that covers four 750-words passages. The four passages include (1) Prose Fiction/Literary Narrative, (2) Social Science, (3) Humanities, and (4) Natural Science.

Prose Fiction and Literary Narrative passages contain excerpts from literary and fiction memoirs. This section will ask you questions about the main theme of the passage, the narrator's tone and intent, the message of the passage, and which questions are or are not answered in the passage.

Social Science passages typically offer a straight forward discussion of social science topics, including sociology, education, and psychology, among others. You'll likely be asked questions relating to the main point of the passage, the author's view, and how information presented supports the subject of the passage.

Humanities passages often come from personal essays and memoirs, and address subjects such as literature, art, philosophy, or media. You'll likely be asked questions about the tone of the passage and point of view of the narrator.

Natural Science passages are nonfiction passages about science. They may cover a myriad of subjects, including biology, chemistry, technology, physics, or medicine. Questions often focus on specific statements made or details that are supported with evidence from the passage.

Seem daunting? Don't worry. It isn't, if you're prepared. Follow the strategies and tips below to prepare for the Reading section of the ACT.

  • Read the questions first. This will help you focus on crucial information to answering each question as you read the passage.
  • Read the entire passage carefully. Do not get distracted by details; rather, focus on the main points addressed in the passage.
  • Eliminate incorrect answer choices. THIS IS ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT strategies to answering Reading questions. All incorrect answers have incorrect elements. If you can identify incorrect elements in an answer choice, the answer is definitively incorrect. Every answer must be directly and clearly supported by the passage. If it isn't, it's incorrect. Eliminate the incorrect answer choices and you'll find the correct answer.
  • Start with your strongest passage type. If you're most comfortable with Social Science then start with the Social Science passage.
  • Employ the 3-stage method (previewing, reading and reviewing) to maximize your comprehension and recall of each passage. As you read each passage, focus on the big ideas.
  • Take short notes as you read each paragraph focusing on the purpose of the passage. Keep track of the various people and opinions mentioned.
  • Frequently refer to the passage when determining correct answers. Make sure your answer is supported by the passage.

Mathematics Sections Strategies
The mathematics section of the ACT is a 60-question, 60-minute test designed to test the math skills and knowledge you've acquired over your high school career. There are eight content categories covered bin the ACT mathematics test. These include Number & Quantity (7-10%), Algebra (12-15%), Functions (12-15%), Geometry (12-15%), Statistics & Probability (8-12%), Integrating Essential Skills (40-43%) and Modeling (>25%).

  • Set-up and work through problems before examining the answers. If none of the answer options match yours, redo the problem.
  • Calculators are usually only useful to compute figures. Do not rely too heavily on a calculator during the math section since you will have to work problems out to effectively solve them. If you don't understand how to approach a problem or use formulas a calculator won't be much help.
  • When possible, project what you believe the answer will be. If the final answer is completely different from your projection, redo the problem to ensure it is correct.
  • Once you find the correct answer, mark it and go to the next problem. Remember, you have less than 60 seconds to answer each question.
  • Always double check your calculations. When rushing through a problem, it's not uncommon to mess up a calculation.
  • The general instructions on the math portion of the ACT are fairly long. Read these instructions and become familiar with them the day before the test. Don't waste time reading these instructions the day of the test.
  • Use the same method to approach every ACT math question. (1) Read the question. (2) Review the information provided in the question and the answer options. (3) Solve the question by back solving, picking numbers, using traditional math, or strategically guessing. (4) Make sure you answered the specific question being asked.
  • To save time, back solve when you can. Back solving problems works when you see integers in the answer choices.
  • As you reach each question, translate the words into math so that you can more easily identify and solve the problem. Don't forget that "of" indicates multiplication is required.
  • Review and know number properties (odd, even, prime, and order of operation), triangles (30-60-90 and 45-45-90 rules, pythagorean triplets 3:4:5, 5:12:13 and their multiples), common shapes and math relationships (values, ratios, and percents).
  • Keep your eyes open for "trap" answers. These include oddball answers and answers that are obviously to big or too small. Identifying trap answers will help you narrow your selection of answer options.

Science Section Strategies
The Science section of the ACT is composed of 40 questions that must be completed in 35 minutes. That means you have just over 50 seconds, on average, to complete each question. Students often expect the Science section of the ACT to be like the Math section, but it's actually more like the Reading section.

The Science section includes seven passages that cover various scientific topics. Passages often contain charts, graphs, scientific opinions, or experiment summaries. Each of the seven passages is followed by four to seven questions. The key to doing well on the Science section of the ACT is being able to quickly and accurately read and comprehend scientific findings, postulates and data.

The ACT science section is composed of three types of questions: Data Representation (30-40%), Research Summaries (45-55%), and Conflicting Viewpoints (15-20%). Data representation questions will require you to read and understand data presented in tables, read graphs and interpret scatter plots. Research summaries require you to analyze and interpret the results of experiments. Conflicting viewpoints questions are designed to test your ability to comprehend, analyze, and compare two conflicting viewpoints.

While the Science section of the ACT will test your knowledge, it is designed specifically to test science skills. How do you learn these skills? By taking science classes during high school. At minimum, you should take three years of science in high school, including a least one course in biology, physical science and earth science. By the time you graduate high school you should understand how to apply the scientific method, collect and analyze data, and evaluate and test a hypothesis.

  • Since science problems are usually complicated, write notes in the booklet's margins while reading a passage.
  • Don't get distracted by unnecessary details. In fact, to make it easier, cross out unnecessary details when reading a passage.
  • Students frequently get distracted by technical details and terminology. Even if these details or terms are confusing, you can still figure out the right answer. In most cases, technical terms and details have no relation to the correct answer.
  • Leave the Conflicting Viewpoints passage until the very end. This passage takes the longest because it doesn't typically offer any visual aids and it requires a different strategy than the other passages.
  • The ACT science section is more reading than science. When preparing for this section, you need to focus on your ready strategies and approach for each passage type rather than on science. In our opinion, the best approach for the Data Representation and Research Summary passages is to skip the passage, read the question and attempt to answer the questions using only the graphs, charts, and other visuals presented. Answer as many questions as you can this way before referring to the passage. If this approach doesn't work for you, then we recommend skimming the passage first, focusing on keywords and context, and then trying to answer the questions. Finally, if all else fails, read the entire passage first. But be aware this takes a lot of time – so read fast.
  • The Conflicting Viewpoints passage is unique in that it doesn't usually offer any visuals. Hence, the best strategy for this passage is to read the entire passage. As you do, try to identify and distinguish between the scientist's/student's viewpoints. Attempt to answer these questions: What do they believe? How do their points of view differ? How are their viewpoints similar? Alternatively, you can skim the questions and then read the Conflicting Viewpoints passage.
  • Watch for contradicting details in science passages. Comprehending each contradictory detail can help you locate the correct answer.

Writing Section Strategies
The ACT writing test is a 40-minute essay test. This test is designed to measure your ability to write at a high school and pre-college level. This test requires you to (1) analyze and evaluate several perspectives, (2) develop your own perspective, and (3) compare your perspective with those given.

The score you receive on the ACT writing test is not factored in to your Composite ACT score. Your score on this test is determined by your skill in developing ideas and analysis, development and support, organization, and language use and conventions.

  • Utilize the 5-paragraph essay format (introduction, thesis statement, supporting paragraphs, and conclusion), in the writing section.
  • Prepare an outline before each essay.
  • Never stray from the main points of your essay.
  • To support your thesis, use specific details and examples.
  • Write legible and easy to understand essays. If your essays are unreadable, you could receive lower scores.
  • Make it very clear what YOUR perspective is and how your perspective relates to of the three perspectives provided.
  • Fully explain every point you make. Use concrete example to illustrate your points.
  • Make sure your response is organized in a logical format/sequence. Give each point you make 1-2 paragraphs.
  • Make sure your word choice is skillful, precise and you sentences are clear. This does not mean should use fancy vocabulary or words. Each sentence you include should add clarity to your argument and further your argument (not make it more difficult to understand).
  • Remember, you're scored is based on your writing style and skill not on your knowledge of the facts. In fact, you're facts can be completely erroneous as long long as your write well and still get a high score.
  • Your essay should be at least one page in length. A page and half is a good target length of your essay – but make sure not to repeat yourself, include irrelevant information or digress from your main point.
  • Review your essays for spelling, grammar, and syntax errors if you have time.

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