What I Wish I Knew About the ACT

Act Test, Girl studying

Standardized tests can be stressful to say the least. So much anxiety and preparation for one day, a few hours, one chance to pass. The idea that every student takes the ACT (or SAT), and is graded on the same scale to get into thousands of different schools, is something we all anticipate as seniors in high school. Will I pass? Will I get a high enough score? Will I get into my top school? This anxiety alone can cause someone to feel unprepared for the ACT no matter how many hours they’ve spent studying and doing practice problems.

I recently took the ACT as a 25-year-old educator. I didn’t quite have the intense motivation I had when I was 17 and needed more than anything to get into Boston University, but the fear of being unprepared, getting distracted, and not doing my best still crept in during this experience. I felt like I was in high school again, surrounded by students who are probably faster than me, smarter than me, and definitely getting into better schools than I will. But, I stayed focused, decided to make this my only priority at the moment, and let myself feel like a high schooler again.

Despite there being hundreds of resources out there for ACT test preparation, I’d like to offer an account of my personal experience taking this test through examples of obstacles I ran into, things no one told me, and tips to remember.

One of the most apparent obstacles I encountered during the ACT was feeling like there was never enough time to finish, or at least finish thoroughly. There are four sections on this test: English, Math, Reading, and Science (in that order for mine), and not one of them had enough time for me to go back and check my work. The English section was straightforward enough, asking where grammar mistakes were and replacing correct words or phrases, but the passages were long and I didn’t have enough time to read and answer every question. On the next three sections, I knew when they announced 5 minutes left, it was time to start filling in my Letter of the Day!

Tips for Time Management on the ACT:

    • Wear a watch. This may cause unnecessary stress-driven glances at your wrist, but will help a lot with staying focused knowing that if you are maybe halfway through and have more than half the questions left, you will have to pick up the pace. This is better than hearing them say you have 5 minutes left while you were taking your time on a problem somewhere in the middle of the test because you thought the topic was interesting. Also, knowing which types of questions take you a long time to complete and which ones are quick answers will help you determine which ones you have time to answer and which ones you will need to fill in a Letter of the Day.
    • Practice timed reading comprehension while studying. Start early and time yourself when reading; see how much you pick up on when you read through something quickly. Work on trying to comprehend as much as possible on the first read-through, and stay focused so the second time is just skimming for specific answers.
    • Practice underlining key facts and details on first read-throughs. One thing you can do is actually read the first few questions before reading the passage. There are about 7-10 questions on each passage (this goes for all the sections) and usually 2-3 of them are about the writer’s style, tone, or main idea. Reading these types of questions first allows you to know exactly what you’re looking for when reading the passage as a whole. The other 5-8 questions usually refer to specific sentences or paragraphs so they are more quickly found with a quick glance back at the passage.

My second biggest obstacle on this test was very specifically, the Science section. The ACT is unique because this is a section the SAT does not have. This can serve as an advantage to someone who is great at science tests and can definitely feel like a disadvantage to someone who might not be as comfortable with science reading. That’s what it felt like to me – mostly just a lot more reading. The difference is that this reading involves understanding an experiment or data that was collected and then using that information to answer about 7 questions. Reading English passages about a story or random topic can feel natural and quick, but if you don’t know what to expect, science information can be difficult to process.

Tips for the Science Section:

Preview the whole page. This means glance at the whole page of data and questions to see what you’re working with. Are there graphs/charts/other images? Are there large paragraphs without images? Are the questions long/short? Are there big science words you can replace in your head with easier words to help you understand the basic idea? These are quick questions you can ask yourself as you preview the page and then start reading for key details.

Estimate and look for trends. There will be lots of charts and graphs and helpful images with potentially small, complicated numbers and words detailing and labeling them. To save time and make things easier on yourself, you can look at the trends and general direction the graph is going to understand the change over time during this experiment. They also will ask you general questions about the numbers without any exact calculations, so you want to be able to estimate when something has “doubled over time” or “decreased dramatically in one year” rather than knowing exactly what numbers are being used.

Practice, practice, practice. Finding practice problems that are on the ACT and working through them, timing yourself, and finding key facts/details in your first read-through is going to be the most important study tactic here. You don’t need to have much prior science knowledge to understand the data they use, but you are going to need the skills to underline the important details and make sure you understand the experiment before trying to answer questions on it. The more types of experiments you practice and study, the less likely it is that there will be a type of problem you haven’t seen before when you get to the actual test.

These are just a few tips that I know I would’ve wanted most if I were studying for the ACT to get into my top choice colleges. This, along with practice problems, more study strategies, one-on-one instruction and support, and personalized study plans all come with our test prep package when working towards taking the ACT, SAT or other tests you or your child might need to take. Check out our test prep programs and we’ll work with you to create the perfect personalized learning plan to help you ace the ACT or SAT.

Olivia Demers is an educational coach at La Jolla LearningWorks. She received her MS in Applied Mathematics from the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. During college she was a Resident Advisor working students to improve their academic, job, and social skills for success in post-graduation life. After graduating, she taught English, math, and science to second-language third graders in Thailand. Olivia loves working one-on-one at La Jolla LearningWorks, getting to know her students’ individual strengths and needs and guiding them to love learning as much as she does.

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