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Do You Know These 9 Best Tips for Acing the ACT?

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high school girl wearing striped shirt worrying over a test.

Preparing for a big exam is always a daunting proposition. And that goes double for college admissions tests like the ACT.

The ACT, as you probably know, is one of the two major tests colleges accept with applications. The other is the SAT.

The ACT is divided into four multiple-choice sections plus an optional essay. The English section tests grammar, punctuation and syntax. The math section tests math, of course, with the most advanced questions hitting precalculus concepts like trigonometry and imaginary numbers. The Reading section is a pretty basic reading comprehension test. The Science section assesses your ability to think scientifically, read graphs, and understand trends in numbers – there is very little factual science knowledge required.

The most important thing to remember is this: There are a lot of myths about standardized tests floating around out there, including those that offer strategies for when you should guess and when you should leave a question blank. The ACT, however, never deducts extra points for wrong answers and that makes your choice simple: Leave nothing blank.

With that in mind, here are our nine best ACT test tips, one step at a time.

  1. Get the right prep materials: There are dozens of books, apps and videos that promise high scores on the ACT or SAT. Ignore most of them, and stick to the basics. The books and online resources offered by the ACT itself use real tests and problems, so they are the most true-to-life practice you can get.
  2. Do the right diagnostic: Before you start prepping, set aside a few hours to take an entire practice ACT test all in one sitting. But don’t stop there: Review every question you answered incorrectly and look for patterns. Were commas your downfall in the English section? Did you just get sloppy in math? To practice most effectively you need to know both your ACT scores and how they got that way.
  3. Eliminate stupid answers: Obviously, there will be only one right answer to a question. But there are often some incredibly wrong answers that the test offers you as well – eliminate these and you will have fewer to seriously choose between. In the English section, get rid of any answer so convoluted you have to read it twice to fathom what it means. In Reading and Science, any answer too absolute or extreme is out: Avoid answers with words like “loathing,” “prove,” “always,” and “truth.” In Math, apply some common sense: If the question is asking about the angle of a ramp, could it really be 85 degrees?
  4. Don’t fear "NO CHANGE": Almost every question in the English section has as its first answer choice “NO CHANGE,” meaning the underlined portion of the passage is correct as written. Many students shy away from this choice, figuring it just can’t be that simple, that there must be some trick they’re missing. The truth is “NO CHANGE” will be correct roughly 25 percent of the time, so you needn’t fear choosing it.
  5. Triage the math problems: The math section asks you to answer 60 questions in 60 minutes. That’s not tons of time. To make the most of it, do the section in three passes. On your first run through, work with ruthless efficiency, skipping any question that puzzles you even a bit or which would require significant time. Next round, answer all the questions you are pretty sure you can solve with a little thinking and effort. Finally, tackle all the problems that seem really, really hard. The goal is to make sure you don’t miss the chance to answer questions you could solve just because you run out of time before even getting to them.
  6. Use line references in the reading section: To work most efficiently on the reading section, start not with the passages, but with the questions. Find the questions that include line references, and then mark those lines in the passage with the number of the relevant question. Then, when you are reading and hit one of your numbered spots, stop and answer that question then and there.
  7. Don’t read the science passages: OK, this one might seem very counterintuitive, but bear with me. Each science passage revolves around a narrow concept that is probably new to you. If you try to read and really understand each passage, you will only waste time and frustrate yourself. Instead, go right to the questions, and use keywords and references to specific tables or figures to target the information you need.

    Important exception: There will be one science passage that asks you to read about conflicting viewpoints on a scientific question. Definitely read these paragraphs before tackling the questions, though feel free to save that passage for last.
  8. Practice the essay, but not too much: Honestly, a whole lot of schools – including major names like Harvard, Columbia and Georgetown – don’t even require the essay. And from what admissions officers say, those that do require it don’t put a lot of emphasis on the score. That said, you should make sure you are familiar with the essay section format and can achieve a score consistent with your scores on the other sections.
  9. Don’t cram: When you study at the last minute, you increase your stress. And when your stress goes up, your ability for focused and rational thinking goes down. So spend the night before the test in a yoga class or reading a good book to clear your mind for the big day.
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