Tips on Preparing for the ACT
Taking the ACT test has become a rite of passage for high school students preparing to go to college. It can be the cause of much anxiety for many who see success on the test as critical to planning their future. But there are two things to keep in mind before losing any sleep over a pending ACT test date: The test score is just one of a number of factors taken into account for college admission. And, like other challenges in life, there are things you can do to prepare for it.
Here are a few tips to help you succeed:
Get familiar with the test
Make sure you know exactly what to expect from the structure of the ACT and the styles of questions asked.
The test consists of four sections of 36 multiple choice questions each on English, Math, Reading, and Science, plus an optional Writing section. You will receive separate scores on each of the sections, with the results of the four multiple choice sections making up your composite score. The Writing portion does not factor into the composite score.
Each section is timed: 45 minutes for the English, 60 minutes for Math, 35 minutes each for Reading and Science, and 40 minutes for Writing.
Each of the subject areas has a different way of approaching the questions and therefore preparation for each section must be handled differently. You’ll understand the approach better once you take your first practice test.
Also, look up the rules for what you are allowed and not allowed to bring to the test site. Complete information is available on the ACT website.
Take an initial practice test and learn from it
You will want to gauge where you stand before you begin the real rigor of test preparation. Take an initial practice test. There are plenty free practice tests available online, including several offered directly from ACT. Don’t panic if you didn’t do as well as you hoped – it’s only practice. What you are looking for is a baseline from which to build.
The practice test should give you an initial idea of your strengths and weaknesses. And be sure to time yourself on the test. You’ll need to learn to pace yourself on the actual exam and know which subject areas tend to leave you pressed for time to complete. Take note of which types of questions seem to challenge you most. Besides plenty of practice tests, there are also plenty of practice questions of each type available.
Also, note that three of the subject areas have subset scores. In English these are in Usage/Mechanics and Rhetorical Skills; in Math they are Pre-Algebra/Elementary, Intermediate Algebra/Coordinate Geometry, and Plane Geometry/Trigonometry; and the Reading subscores are in Social Studies/Natural Sciences and Arts/Literature. This breakdown is invaluable in showing where to concentrate your improvement efforts.
Once you have an idea of where you stand, set goals for each content area, but be realistic about it. If you are determined to make dramatic improvement, you will have to make a significant commitment to intensive practice time. Be patient. It will take some time to build your skills.
But also consider your overall goals. Everyone wants as high a score as possible, but if your practice test scores show you are already on the upper end of the score range expected at your chosen school, it is not a good use of your time trying to pad the score far beyond what you’ll need. It’s when you appear to be falling short of what you’ll need for your target school that you need to work on improvement.
Make a plan
Determine how many hours you want to dedicate to improving your ACT test-taking skills. A good rule of thumb is 10 hours of study for every point of improvement you’d like to gain from your baseline score. If you’re willing to dedicate 100 hours to test preparation, determine how many hours a week you’ll need to study, based on how many weeks you have before your test date. Set aside regular times each week for test preparation and stick to them as best you can.
Your study time should address three components to preparation: content, strategy and practice. There are some things you will simply need to know to do well on the ACT, like grammar and punctuation rules for English, or how to do certain types of math problems.
Develop a test strategy. Are you better off skipping a question you will have to take some time to figure out, then going back to it later? Avoid getting so hung up on a question that it causes you to guess at a number of others because you ran out of time. Have a strategy worked out ahead of time on how to handle the time-consuming problems and manage your time.
Take lots of practice tests, but also practice certain types of questions, particularly those that give you the most difficulty. The repetition will pay off with better time management.
Get some rest
Finally, don’t plan to cram the night before in a last-minute effort to work through whatever rough spots you still have. The best preparation for test day is a good night’s sleep and a sharp, clear mind when it’s time to pick up that pencil.
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