When it comes to standardized tests, there are people who can make it seem like they were born to take them, while others struggle to achieve even an average score. Even if you are a notoriously poor test taker, however, a little bit of quality preparation and adding a handful of ACT strategies to your tool belt can help you.

Whether you’ve already taken it and were disappointed by the outcome, or your results on the practice tests have you worried about not measuring up, following a few simple ACT tips and tricks can do wonders to help raise your ACT score.

Get Acquainted with the Test

The first step to improving your ACT score is to know exactly what you can expect on every section of the test. The more knowledge you have of the content and format of the test, the better prepared you will be to take it. The ACT, which stands for American College Test, is designed to measure what you learned in high school to determine your readiness for college level coursework.

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The subject areas tested include English, math, reading and science. There is also an optional writing test that some colleges require for admission. Each of the four required subject area tests are multiple choice, and the optional writing section is an essay based on one writing prompt. The ACT takes two hours and 55 minutes to complete without the essay, and three hours and 40 minutes with the essay.

The ACT Test Sections

The English section of the Act puts you in the role of a writer and measures your ability to make accurate decisions about revising and editing a given text. There are 75 questions that you’ll have 45 minutes to answer. You’ll encounter a variety of passages from different genres and will need to demonstrate mastery of writing and language skills.

The math section of the ACT, which includes 60 questions to be answered in 60 minutes, covers a variety of mathematical concepts that you studied in high school courses through 11th grade. The material presented in this section assumes that you have working knowledge of basic formulas and have basic computational skills but does not require knowledge of complex formulas. The math section assesses your understanding of the mathematical concepts that are prerequisites for success in entry-level college math courses.

The ACT reading section is designed to measure your skills in close reading, logical reasoning about texts using evidence and integrating information from multiple sources. You’ll have 35 minutes to answer 40 questions. The questions in this section will ask you to determine main ideas, identify and interpret significant details in a text. You’ll also need to make comparisons, draw generalizations, integrate information from multiple sources and analyze a variety of concepts like voice, method, claims and evidence in arguments.

The science component of the ACT tests your ability to interpret, analyze, evaluate, reason and problem-solve. Like the reading section, the science component also gives 35 minutes for 40 questions. Using a variety of authentic scientific scenarios, the science section measures your ability to recognize and understand basic features of the provided information and to critically examine relationships between information given and conclusions of hypotheses. The content of the science section covers material from biology, chemistry, Earth/space science and physics.

Optional ACT Section

The optional ACT writing section, which gives one prompt and 40 minutes, measures the writing skills you should have acquired in high school English classes and determines your readiness for college-level composition classes. The writing prompt describes a complex issue and offers three distinct perspectives on it. Your job is to develop your own perspective on the issue, and analyze the relationship between your perspective and one or more of the perspectives given.

Understand ACT Scoring

The most important thing you need to know about ACT scoring is that wrong answers are not held against you. This is critical because it means that there is no penalty for guessing. Try to answer every single question on the test even if that means guessing on a few of them if you start running out of time.

What most colleges are interested in when it comes to your ACT score is the composite score, which ranges from one to 36 and measures your overall performance on the test. An average of your scores for each of the four main subject areas (English, math, reading and science) is used to determine your composite score. The closer your composite score is to 36, the better your performance.

For a top score that puts you in the top 10 percent of ACT test takers, you need a composite score that falls in the range of 28 to 36. A composite score of 24 to 27 is considered competitive and puts you in the top 25 percent. Composite scores in the 20 to 26 are considered average and are typically good enough for admission to most colleges but will make it challenging to get into more competitive programs. A composite score of 19 is below average.

The writing section of the ACT is scored on a different scale. Graded by two independent readers using a rubric that measures four domains (ideas and analysis, development and support, organization and language use and conventions), each domain is scored on a scale from two to 12.

The overall writing score is determined by averaging the scores on the individual domains and uses a scale of two to 12. A writing score of 10 or higher is considered a top score, and you’ll need to earn at least an eight to remain competitive. Now that you know what score to aim for in each section, it’s time to review some ACT test taking tips that can help you.

General ACT Tips and Tricks

While there are certain strategies that lend themselves best to specific sections of the ACT, there are also some ACT strategies that can apply to the test in general.

Tackle the easiest questions first. It’s okay to answer the questions out of order. Since time is not on your side when it comes to the ACT, your best bet is to whiz through as many simple questions as possible before wasting too much time trying to solve the more challenging ones.

Leave a mark in your test booklet next to each question that you skip so that you can easily identify it when you come back later. Once you have answered all the easy questions, go back and give the harder ones a go. Keep in mind that the ACT is designed to present the easier questions first and then get progressively harder.

Choose the best answer. Even if it might seem like there are two solid possibilities, each question on the ACT has only one correct answer. Choose whatever you think is the best answer to the question and move on.

Don’t be afraid to guess. Remember that there is no penalty for guessing so if a question seems too challenging and is taking up too much of your time, try to eliminate as many obviously incorrect answers as possible and make an educated guess on the answer. You can’t get a point for a question you don’t answer, so do your best to not leave anything unanswered.

Avoid making stray marks on your answer sheet. Since the ACT is scored by a machine, stray marks or careless doodles can be misinterpreted by the machine and result in an incorrect answer. Your test booklet, on the other hand, is not going to be scored, so use it to jot down notes, mark unanswered questions, cross out wrong answers or work out problems.

Timing and Reading Tips

Use your time wisely. Aim for 10 to 20 seconds on answering the easy questions and no more than one to two minutes for the harder ones. Keep track of how you do on time so that you don’t have to rush at the last minute to answer everything.

Read the questions carefully to avoid making careless mistakes. Don’t assume that you know what a question is asking until you have read it in its entirety.

Stick with your original answers. Second guessing yourself is likely to backfire. Since your first answer is usually the correct one, try not to change your answers unless you are certain that you’ve made a mistake.

Take practice tests and time yourself. Practice does indeed make perfect, so make the time to take practice tests in each section at least a few times before you take the actual test. Time yourself when you practice so that you get used to working under pressure and get a good idea of how much time it takes you to respond to each type of question.

Remain calm and take deep breaths. Usually, for people who are notoriously poor test takers, stress and test anxiety play a significant role in hindering performance. If you can manage to get your stress under control and tackle the test with confidence, your performance is likely to improve considerably.

ACT Strategies by Section

On the English section, which is the first one given on the test, you’ll need to work quickly. For questions about punctuation, focus on the entire sentence even if the question is asking only about a subset of it. Make sure your answer is reasonable within the context of the entire sentence and passage.

For grammar questions, pay extra attention to each one and know exactly what is being asked. When it comes to organization questions, look for the answer choice that flows best with the first sentence of the passage. Style questions require you to have a solid understanding of the passage’s meaning and tone so consider that before answering.

Consider the author’s writing style and favor answer choices that best suit the author’s style. Sometimes plugging answer choices into the sentence to see which one fits best can help you find the right answer. Finally, if “no change” is an option, make sure that all the other choices are wrong before choosing to go with keeping it. For best results on the reading section of the ACT, read the questions first. Then, when reading the passages, focus on the main points and avoid getting wrapped up in the details.

Try to identify incorrect elements in the answer choices and eliminate them until you find the correct choice. Since there are many different genres of passages, start with the passage type you are most comfortable with and progress from easiest to hardest. Take notes on each paragraph to keep track of important information and always make sure that the passage supports your answer choices.

Math and Science Tips

One of the best strategies for the math section is to work through the problems before looking at your answer choices and then redoing the problem if the answer options don’t match. Always double check your calculations to avoid careless mistakes and don’t rely too heavily on a calculator, which should only be used to compute figures and not work out problems.

Brush up on number properties, common shapes and math relationships before the test. Finally, read the general math directions before the test, so you don’t waste precious time since you’ll only have about 60 seconds to answer each question.

For science questions, brush up on how to apply the scientific method, collect and analyze data and evaluate and test a hypothesis during your practice time. Take notes in your booklet when reading passages and cross out unnecessary details as you come across them. Technical terms and details rarely have a direct relation to the correct answer, so don’t get too hung up on those.

The conflicting viewpoints passage is the most challenging and should be left for last. Finally, use your reading strategies on the science section since it entails more reading comprehension than it does actual science. If you take the optional writing section, use specific details and examples to support your thesis and stay focused on the main points of your essay. Write as legibly as possible and make sure that your perspective and how it relates to the perspectives provided is crystal clear.

About the Author

Kristina Barroso earned a B.A. in Psychology from Florida International University and works full-time as a classroom teacher in a public school. She teaches middle school English to a wide range of students from struggling readers to advanced and gifted populations. In her spare time, she loves writing articles about education for TheClassroom.com, WorkingMother and other education sites.