You’re on the spot: how much have you learned during all those years in school? That’s what the ACT, an achievement test, is designed to measure. The test assesses what you know in English, math, reading and science. There’s also an optional writing section. Although top scores will depend upon how well you’ve mastered the basic school curricula, certain tricks can help you get your highest possible score.
Get in the Zone
Take it easy the night before the test. Last-minute cramming won't significantly improve your score, but it may stress you out. Long-term preparation will make you feel calm and competent. Eat a solid breakfast; your brain will need the fuel. To get into the right frame of mind, practice some easy test questions. This will start warming you up. However, make sure the questions are ones you’ve been successful with before. If you’re stumped by a problem you’ll become worried and frustrated, and that’s not the mood you want when you begin the test.
Jump Around, Carefully
There’s no rule that says you have to do the questions in order. The ACT has strict time constraints, so concentrating on the ones you can answer easily might be the best use of your time. You'll spend more time on the harder questions anyway. If you save them for last, you’ll likely get a good score on all the easy ones. A word of warning: there’s a danger to this trick. You must be sure to keep track of where you are on the answer sheet. If you skip a problem in the test book but not on the answer sheet, you’ll throw yourself off. When -- and if -- you realize it, you’ll waste time straightening out the problem.
Don’t leave any questions unanswered. If that means using the last 30 seconds of the test to fill in some bubbles randomly, do it. Unlike the SAT, which deducts a quarter-point for each wrong answer, the ACT has no negative consequence if you guess incorrectly. You might get lucky and earn an extra point or two. If you use this strategy, you must do it before the test is over. You’re not allowed to make any marks on the answer sheet once time is up; if you do, the examiners will take your test away and kick you out.
Keep yourself calm and focused during the test. That may sound obvious, but it’s easy to give in to pressure and start worrying during the test. Focus only on the section in front of you. Don’t obsess about a previous test. You’ve done your best, and it’s too late to change anything. Keep yourself from thinking about the upcoming sections. Keep your mind in the present. When it’s break time, actually take a break. Don’t talk about the test with other students; you might start fretting about a mistake. Use the time to stretch, walk a bit or have a snack.
Some sections have specific tricks to help narrow down the answers. For English, you’ll be searching for mistakes. If nothing jumps out at you, look for one of the most common errors: incorrect pronoun, poor sentence structure or lack of agreement between subject and verb. In the reading section, underline main ideas and important thoughts as you go along so you can easily find them again. The math problems are designed to be straightforward. If you’re struggling with an answer, you’ve missed something. Go back and re-read the problem. If you really get stuck on a problem with a variable, use your calculator to test the possible answers. Look at the range of answers, and try the middle one first. If that’s not right, at least you’ll know if the number should be more or less.
Living in upstate New York, Susan Sherwood is a researcher who has been writing within educational settings for more than 10 years. She has co-authored papers for Horizons Research, Inc. and the Capital Region Science Education Partnership. Sherwood has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from the University at Albany.