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How to Get a High Score on the ACT

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Now that you have decided to take the ACT and set your target score, all that’s left is studying and practice. While the ACT tests skills and knowledge that you should have learned in high school, the test still requires you to learn its unique format and to repeatedly practice working within this format.

In other words, just like how you have to use a language or you lose it, you have to keep practicing and studying the ACT or you will lose your understanding of the test.

But first...

What is the General Strategy for Getting a High Score on the ACT?

The ACT has a reputation among students that it is the “easier” test when compared to the SAT. Since colleges accept either ACT or SAT scores in applications, the notion of one test being easier than another seems questionable at best. The tests are different, and one of the major differences is that the ACT challenges students with time.

Time. Some sections are more manageable than others when it comes to pacing yourself, but this is one of the key villains when it comes to mastering the ACT. In some cases, especially for Reading and Science, you will have to work faster on problems than what most students consider comfortable. You have to plan for the quickness of each section, and instead of losing your cool, you have to know how to play into your strengths.

Concepts. Pacing yourself is only half the battle. You have to understand math formulas and grammar rules and vocabulary and essay structure and data representation. The concrete subject matter of the test is something that you can learn and improve without even worrying for a single second about timing.

So How Do You Approach Studying the ACT?

Stage 1: The “Diagnosis” Stage

Take one practice test untimed and one practice test timed. For each practice test, complete the entire test in a single sitting and in the best testing conditions possible; the only difference should be that one is timed and the other is not.

Compare the two tests, noting which problems/concepts you miss when you are timed vs. untimed. If you don’t miss a lot of questions, or you cannot determine a pattern in the questions that you are missing, then continue to assess yourself by taking additional practice tests paired as timed vs. untimed.

Stage 2: The “Improvement” Stage

If you get questions wrong on the untimed test, study more of the rules/concepts and practice with individual sections. Build up your knowledge and skills before throwing in the stress of time.

If you get questions correct on the untimed test but wrong on the timed test, then work more directly with practice tests, but also study the concepts more to tighten up your thinking and solving processes.

Stage 3: The “Assessment” Stage

Once you have been completing individual practice with English, Math, Reading, Science, and the essay, return to taking full tests as practice, again splitting them between untimed and timed. Note any differences if you had to work on building up your subject knowledge or if you had to work on solving problems faster.

In other words, always keep your process focused to the following:

  1. Diagnosis

  2. Improvement

  3. Assessment

You can do this for each section or the entire test. You can do this one time or 10 times. The execution depends on how much time and energy you can commit, but no matter what you do, have a specific goal and process for reaching the goal. Otherwise you will be frustrated and lose sight of your progress.

How Do You Get a High Score on the ACT English?

The English section includes two main subject areas:

  1. Grammar and punctuation rules - e.g., run-ons, pronouns, verbs, and commas

  2. Paragraph structure and content - e.g., adding/remove info, reorganizing info, and transitions

The strategy:

  1. Learn the grammar and punctuation rules tested and master those FIRST.

  2. Study the paragraph/content questions.

  3. Read passages fully and solve as questions appear. Do not jump from one question to the next without reading the text between questions.

Common mistakes:

  • You don’t really know the grammar. Just because you get grammar/punctuation questions correct does not mean that you know the rules. You cannot rely on “what sounds good” as a method to get a correct answer. If you cannot articulate a rule or an exact reason for the correctness of an answer, then consider the concept tested a weakness.

  • You don’t have a method to simplify paragraph questions. Paragraph questions/content questions are more like reading questions. Link the question, the passage content, and the correct answer through wording. The same goes for transitions and reordering passages. Find word links.

  • You don’t know the quick tricks. Many correct answers for grammar problems are the shortest ones; be concise. If you have the option to clarify a pronoun’s meaning, typically you should. If you are asked to delete a word or phrase (not a whole sentence), then you most likely should.

How Do You Get a High Score on the ACT Math?

The Math section has three main subject areas:

  1. Pre-Algebra, Elementary Algebra, Intermediate Algebra (~33 questions)

  2. Coordinate Geometry, Plane Geometry (~23 questions)

  3. Trigonometry (~4 questions)

The strategy:

  1. Know the relevant formulas (they are not provided to you on the test); you could also program your calculator to keep notes of the formulas.

  2. Practice solving problems as much as possible without the aid of the calculator. The questions are designed so that you don’t need a calculator.

  3. Learn the way that the ACT presents math problems and how they are not straightforward equations that must be solved--you have to work slightly harder to deconstruct what you are solving.

Common mistakes:

  • You spend too much time plugging in answers to find the correct one. Algebra is usually pretty straightforward, but doing the work is still better than plugging in variables.

  • You are getting correct answers, but you spend too much time because your method is not precise and you still don’t completely understand the math concepts. Learn how to cut away “the fat” from your problem-solving.

  • You assume that what you learned in school will be exactly how the ACT tests your math knowledge. As with all the other subjects, ACT offers unique hurdles that you have to learn.

How Do You Get a High Score on the ACT Reading?

The Reading section has two main subject areas:

  1. Passage content - i.e., literature, social studies, humanities, and natural science

  2. Question types -- e.g., main idea, tone, detail, inference, and vocabulary

The strategy:

  1. Know what each of the question types wants and how to generally find the information from the passage (think context clues and also passage structure).

  2. Identify which passage content is easier and harder for you. Focus on building up your skill at reading the harder content. Many students struggle with social studies and humanities. Read many of those passages and related non-fiction texts.

  3. Practice a lot with pacing yourself on individual passages and then entire sections. Read and solve individual passages in 8 minutes and 45 seconds.

Common mistakes:

  • You skim the passages first and rush to the questions. For most students, reading the passage carefully first for 3-4 minutes and then going to the questions yields better results. Your goal should be to read so that you don’t have to look back at the passage.

  • You are not confident, so even for questions you will get correct, you spend too much time reading back to justify the answer. Build your confidence by answering questions without looking back whenever you practice. Sure, you will miss the question at times, but you will be surprised how much you know after a careful read.

  • You do not strategically return to the passage when answering questions. Don’t skim the whole passage again to find the answer. Predict the answer’s justification/location based on your understanding of passage structure.

How Do You Get a Good Score on the ACT Science?

The Science section has three main subject areas:

  1. Data representation -- reading graphics, interpreting data

  2. Research summaries -- reviewing experiments and results

  3. Conflicting viewpoints -- comparing alternate views on an experiment or concept

The strategy:

  1. Graphics: focus on whatever makes the graphics different; don’t get lost in the details.

  2. Summaries: skim the summaries to get the general idea of the experiment and results; again, don’t get lost in the details. Save that for the questions.

  3. Conflicting views: identify pro/con, positive/negative, etc., and then move on to questions.

Common mistakes:

  • You spend too much time reading the texts. Time is a major factor on the Science section, so you need to cut away the unnecessary actions as much as possible. Reading carefully is not needed for this section. In fact, you can safely skip a lot of the reading.

  • You get too focused on how complicated the graphs are. The graphs are going to look strange and possibly even scare you. That’s okay, as long as you recognize the overwhelming data doesn’t really matter as long as you can separate differences in data and trends in data.

  • You don’t practice timing. ACT Science and ACT Reading require that you practice timing each section and/or passage to get a feel for how you pace yourself. You must practice timing early on for ACT Science so that you can learn how to skip/skim information and get to the heart of the questions.

How Do You Get a High Score on the ACT Writing (Essay)?

Writing has one type of prompt:

  1. Write an argumentative essay based on the provided topic and perspectives

The strategy--pre-writing:

  1. Read sample essays.

  2. Practice brainstorming for different topics. You should come up with “categories” of examples that can be used for different topics--like how each topic probably relates to “money,” “health,” and “personal responsibility.”

The strategy--writing:

  1. Write a five-paragraph essay: introduction, counterpoint, support point 1, support point 2, and conclusion.

  2. Briefly address the perspectives by saying something like “Perspective 1 agrees with this idea.”

Common mistakes:

  • You don’t know how to come up with support points or a counterpoint for your thesis. Practice brainstorming with at least five different prompts/topics.

  • You do not write enough analysis. Providing examples is great, but you have to write at least 2-3 sentences of analysis to explain how the examples support your point. If you feel like you’ve made your point in one sentence, still push yourself to add more.

  • You do not have good/different examples. Examples need to be concrete and specific to each paragraph. You are allowed to use hypothetical situations and also make up information, just don’t make it very obvious.

Final thoughts

Just like when learning a new language, it is best to practice the ACT a little bit every day. If you take tests on the weekend and don’t practice during the week or over a sustained period of time, then you are doing yourself a disservice and essentially wasting time. Since test scores are one of the key criteria for determining merit-based scholarships and college admissions, it is worth carving out some time so that you have an advantage.

There is a way for anyone to get a high score on the ACT, but you have to put in the time. There are shortcuts, no doubt, but part of getting a high score is simply practicing...a lot.

Planning on taking the upcoming ACT? Need helping determining your weaknesses and which score you should target? Set up a FREE 1-1 consultation with one of our directors. Already know what you need to work on and just want some more help? Check out our ACT tutoring and classes.


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