How to Prep for the ACT

Professor walking by college students taking test in classroom
Professor walking by college students taking test in classroom

In 2012, the ACT surpassed the SAT for the first time as the most popular college admissions exam. Believed to be more closely aligned to traditional high school curricula and with a markedly lower emphasis on the high-level vocabulary the SAT is renowned for, the ACT is now accepted by all universities and preferred by many students. Like any high-stakes exam, preparing in advance sets you up to perform your best on test day. So what should you know to do well on the ACT?

1. Take a practice test.
This rule of thumb applies to every standardized test for which you may be preparing. Taking a practice test will familiarize you with the format, content and time constraints of the exam. Take the test under regular exam conditions: all in one sitting, in a quiet environment with no distractions, within the time allotted.

2. Grade the practice test and use it as a diagnostic to make a plan.Maybe you performed brilliantly on the English section but tanked the math. Maybe you expected to score in low 30s and pulled a 21. Whatever it is, identify your strengths and weaknesses and plan accordingly as you structure a study plan.

3. Understand the scoring and know the score you need to be competitive for the schools you'd like to attend.
Unlike the SAT, which has a 200-800 format on each section and adds them together for a cumulative score of up to 2400, the ACT has four sections which are each graded on a 1-36 scale. Your composite score is the average of these four sections. If you're wondering what a "good" score is and are more familiar with the SAT's scoring system, there are conversion charts available online. It's also wise to check the average scores of incoming freshmen at any university you may apply to -- information you can quickly locate online.

4. Time is the greatest obstacle to overcome on the ACT.
The ACT is a race against the clock: 60 math problems in 60 minutes, four long reading passages and 40 reading comprehension questions in 35 minutes, 75 grammar questions in 45 minutes, and seven science experiments with 40 accompanying questions in 35 minutes. Your strategies should take this into account. For instance, the math section generally gets progressively difficult. It may be in your best interests to concentrate on being meticulous and getting most of the first 45-50 problems right rather than racing through them, making some sloppy errors, and spending a lot of time on more difficult problems you're more likely to get wrong.

5. The science section is not like a science test you'll see in school. Get familiar with it.
The ACT science section does not test much science knowledge -- certainly not anything you learned past 7th grade earth science. It *does* test science reasoning: your ability to interpret data, detect patterns, manipulate variables and discern the difference between two competing theories. If you try to absorb all the information given, you'll be overwhelmed and you'll run out of time. Go straight to the questions: most of them can be answered simply by interpreting the visual data given (graphs, charts, diagrams). If you do need more information, you can scan the passage for what you're seeking. Strategic reading is much more effective than trying to read and understand everything.

6. Be meticulous.
Many of the questions missed on the ACT are simple mistakes: you solved for x, but the questions asked you for x+2. Paying attention to details like negative signs, fractions, and greater than/less than signs can make a substantial difference in your score. Remember, there's no partial credit; no one is coming behind you to observe that you did all the math right except for that pesky inverted fraction. Be careful and precise.

7. Learn the code words and phrases.
This is critically important on the reading section. Phrases like "according to the passage" or "according to the author" mean you can find an explicit answer in the passage. Phrases like "it can reasonably be inferred" mean you will have to read between the lines. Becoming familiar with the way the test phrases questions can help you identify the strategy you're going to use to answer it.

8. Take a lot of practice tests under timed conditions.
The ACT not only tests what you know but how quickly you can access that knowledge. It's a race against the clock, and successful preparation will take that into account. Practice under normal time restraints so that you can identify problems and incorporate time-saving strategies into your test preparation.