Hey, college-bound high school student! Congratulations on your decision to further your education!
Your teachers and counselors have probably coached you in preparing for the ACT. Maybe NOW you’re wondering “Are there any shortcuts or tricks that will help me during the actual ‘test? What are some ‘gotcha’s’ I should know about?”
Absolutely! Test strategies and some awareness of the traps will help you approach the test with greater confidence for a higher score. Some tips apply to the test as a whole; some are more specific to the subject being tested. Read on for some of the best ACT tips.
General ACT Tips and Tricks For All Sections
TIP #1: Practice, practice, practice.
Practice is the highest, most unbeatable (yes that’s redundant) strategy for ACT test-taking - found on most every top 10 ACT prep list (and there’s a lot of them!)
But a list of test-taking strategies is useless, if you don’t practice them first.
As in football, basketball, baseball, choir, drama, or cheerleading (or whatever skill you’re in to)—if you don’t intensely practice running the plays or shooting the hoops or rehearsing the scripts or choreography, (unless you are a rare prodigy) you’ll perform way below your potential! Without habits engrained in your psyche, you’ll add stress and waste time and energy during the test trying to recall the strategies.
What Do You Gain From Practice?
- You gain familiarity with the instructions for each section (which ACT recommends that you “Carefully read” prior to each test). So instead of reading instructions, you can jump right into the questions to make the best use of your test time. That’s a no-brainer!
- You gain awareness of your strengths and weaknesses. More practice can help you improve areas of weakness, be that time-management weakness, or a content-area weakness.
- You gain experience with how ACT approaches their test design to form your own unique test-taking tactics to be most efficient and effective.
How To Practice:
- Use ACT practice tests, whether free or paid. Other practice materials are available free online, but they may or may not contain the various types of practice that will benefit you.
- Rehearse tips 2-10 on your practice tests, so that you can execute them well on test day!
TIP #2: Make a solid time management plan BEFORE your test.
Some things to consider in your time management plan are:
- How much time will you spend on each question?
- How will you handle answering harder questions, or remaining questions as time runs short?
- How will you know you’re staying on track time-wise?
- And how will you quickly make the best choice when unsure of an answer?
How Much Time Will You Spend On Each Question By Test?
Each of the subject area tests will be timed, and even the most academically inclined student can run out of time on the ACT. Your personal score goals, which should be based on the admission requirements at your colleges of choice, will help you determine your personal time management plan.
The following table shows the GENERAL time constraints of completing the entire ACT (and as a bonus, the last column shows the most challenging content areas based on the percent of testers scoring at or above minimum college level.)
One great way to have solid time management while studying for the ACT is by using an ACT prep course. Review our favorite ACT prep courses and find the right fit for you.
|Subject||Total # of questions||Total Time allowed||Time Per Question||Percent of Testers Scoring College Level|
|English||75||45 minutes||36 seconds||61%|
|Math||60||60 minutes||1 minute||31%|
|Reading||40||35 minutes||52 seconds||44%|
|Science||40||35 minutes||52 seconds||36%|
|Writing||1||40 minutes||40 minutes to develop a complete essay from a writing prompt||About 40% will score an 8 or above on the 2-12 scale.|
Note: Unless otherwise linked, all data above can be found on ACT.org. Specific page links by subject area are provided throughout this post.
How Will You Know You’re Staying On Track Time-Wise?
(Quick answer: bring a digital watch with a silent timer!)
Each testing center will provide a clock helpful for checking how much time you have left to complete a section of the test. When five minutes remain for the test, you will hear a verbal warning from the test proctor. A non-disruptive digital watch with timer capability can help you see at-a-glance if you are keeping up with the required pace.
How Will You Handle Questions You Can’t Answer?
Part of your time management plan should include how you will handle the hardest questions—the stumpers. And how will you deal with unanswered questions if time is running out?
Since incorrect answers do not count against you, it is very important to answer every question.
One often recommended strategy: Choose a standard answer for those questions you know you can’t answer, or that you are running out of time to answer. For example, when the 5-minute warning is announced, answer all unanswered questions with the same letter (i.e. all C’s, or whatever. Just be consistent). Odds are, some will be correct answers. Also mark a quick symbol in your test booklet on questions you had to guess to move on. Then, if time allows, return to those questions and review the answers.
A final time saving strategy for all sections: Work out questions first in your test booklet, then bubble in answers all at one time when you have 5-10 minutes left. You are then able to remain focused on problem solving, rather than having to switch focus from problem solving to bubbling the bubbles! Just be sure to leave plenty of time to carefully record your answers on the scantron sheet.
TIP #3: Eliminate obviously wrong answers
Make sure you understand the question being asked—read it carefully and underline key reference information. Always make sure you’re using the correct diagram to answer a question. For example, if a Science question says, “Based on graph #2. . .” but you assume incorrectly that your answer should be based on graph #1, you will not answer correctly!
After carefully reading the question and reading any associated passages, scan the answers provided. If any are obviously wrong, cross them out in your test booklet. If you can cross out even one answer, your odds of answering correctly are improved, even if you must guess among the remaining answers.
So, test-taking tips and tricks that apply to the entire ACT test are:
- TIP #1: Practice, practice, practice
- TIP #2: Make (and practice) your time management plan before your test (then stick to your plan during the actual test)*
- TIP #3: Cross out the obviously incorrect answers in your test booklet, then select your answer from those that remain.
*More detailed ACT tips for time for each section will be covered later. But hopefully you recognize the benefits of developing (and rehearsing) your time management plan before your actual test!
Here's a great video with some more general tips!
ACT Tips for English
Per ACT.org, the English portion of the test measures
your understanding of English, production of writing, and knowledge of language skills.”
What Does That Mean?
It means your editorial and rhetorical skills are being assessed. You should be able to . . .
- Recognize incorrect punctuation when you see it (and know how to fix it).
- Recognize problematic grammar/word usage/sentence structure (and know how to fix them).
- Recognize strengths and weaknesses of the essay structure and arguments, and be able to select the strongest option.
You will be asked to review underlined portions in each of five essays, then determine which answer option most effectively answers the question asked.
TIME MANAGEMENT ON THE ENGLISH TEST: You’ve already seen that the English test is 45 minutes for 75 questions.
With 5 essays and 15 questions per passage to consider in 45 minutes, the average time spent per essay should be eight to nine minutes, and 20-30 seconds average per question.
TIP #4: For the English Test, start by ACTIVELY SKIMMING an entire essay
First, take about 1 minute to actively skim a passage.
What Does It Mean To “Actively Skim”?
- As you skim, force your mind to stay engaged with the text. Use your pencil as a guide and a marker.
- Underline main ideas (often in the title!!)
- Circle phrases and sentences that look or sound weird, or that confuse you as the reader.
- Determine the goal of the essay (i.e. to inform, entertain, persuade).
- Watch for redundancy (which signals extra verbiage that could be eliminated).
- If the phrase is already underlined in your test booklet you know you’ll have a question about that phrase.
- If you know in advance a sentence or phrase has issues (i.e. you circled it in your test booklet already), you can likely eliminate one answer “MAKE NO CHANGE.” OR if, to you, the sentence or phrase seems okay and you did not circle it in your reading scan, you know to consider “MAKE NO CHANGE” as a possibility.
So, for the English portion, the best test-taking tip is: TIP #4: ACTIVELY SKIM the whole essay, marking it up as you go, before tackling the questions!
Now, on to math. . .
ACT TIPS FOR MATH
Per ACT.org, the math test is designed to assess the math skills students have learned up through the beginning of their senior year. Knowledge of basic formulas, essential skills applied to practical problems, and the following concepts are covered: number and quantity, algebra, functions, geometry, probabilities, and modeling.
TIME MANAGEMENT ON THE ACT MATH TEST: So, you already know that the math test is 60 questions, and you have 60 minutes to get as much done as you can.
The math test increases in difficulty as you go, which means you should spend less time on early questions, and more time on later questions. For example, allow yourself about 30 seconds per question for questions 1-20, 45 seconds per question on numbers 21-40, leaving about 35 minutes to complete the remaining (and hardest) 20 questions—more than 1 minute each.
TIP #5: For the Math Test, bring a legal, graphing calculator and know how to use it!
ACT allows calculators, but make sure yours is legal by reviewing the official calculator policy (pdf) which states:
Examinees may use any 4-function, scientific, or graphing calculator, as long as it is not on the prohibited list and it is modified, if needed.
Rule Of Thumb: If you can do it in your head, or by sketching a quick graph faster than you can punch it in on your calculator, don’t use your calculator.
Your calculator will be most useful to you during the last third of the test, which consists of geometry and a few trigonometry questions. Know where to find the primary function keys (square root, pi, sin, cosine and tangent), and know how to use them.
When in doubt (and if time allows) you can test answers on your calculator by plugging equations with best guess answers.
TIP #6: On the Math Test, have a method to your madness! (Use a consistent strategy)
- Carefully, actively (there’s that word again) read the question.
- Underline information provided in the question, converting words to math symbols when possible
- What specific problem are you asked to solve?
- If there is more than one diagram, draw an arrow in your test booklet to diagram(s) referred to in the question.
- Study the appropriate diagram(s) (if any). Circle the information on the diagram needed to solve the question.
- Carefully read the answers. Eliminate obviously wrong ones.
- Then solve out-right, test random numbers, or plug possible answers to see which one works.
So, there you have 2 top test-taking tips to use during the ACT math test:
- TIP #5: Bring an ACT-approved calculator and know how to use it!
- Tip #6: Have a method to your madness! (Use a consistent strategy on each problem)
ACT TIPS FOR READING
Per ACT.org, the reading test measures your reading comprehension:
Specifically, questions will ask you to use referring and reasoning skills to determine main ideas; locate and interpret significant details; understand sequences of events; make comparisons; comprehend cause-effect relationships; determine the meaning of context-dependent words, phrases and statements; draw generalizations; and analyze the author’s or narrator’s voice and method.
Whew! So, what does all of that mean?
Well, simple recall of what you read is not the point. The reading test determines your ability to “get it” and to apply it—to understand ideas and concepts, and draw conclusions about them—critical thinking for sure!
TIME MANAGEMENT STRATEGIES FOR THE ACT READING TEST: You know there are 40 questions to answer in 35 minutes, averaging 52 seconds per question.
Sounds like more time, compared to English. But you must also factor in the time you will spend reading the passages—five total passages to read across 4 subject areas: social studies, natural sciences, literary, and humanities. So, budgeting a minute to read each passage will leave 30 minutes to answer 40 questions. So REALLY, about 45 seconds per question.
TIP #6: For the Reading Test, start with passages in your strong subject areas.
Are you a history, government, or psychology buff? You might consider locating the Social Studies passage to complete first. Or maybe you adore biology, geology or physics—then find the Natural Science passage.
You get the point—if you’re artsy, do the Humanities passage; if you’re a bookworm, do the Literary passage. The stronger you are in a subject area, the quicker you will be able to read that passage and choose answers.
TIP #7: For the Reading Test, actively read the entire passage.
But first, preview the questions for that passage (like you’ve probably done with reading assignments in high school—read the questions at the end of the chapter first!) Label key words in the questions (i.e. A, B, C)**.
Stay engaged as you read the passage by underlining portions you recall were mentioned in the questions.
- Underline the thesis statement (somewhere in the first paragraph)
- Circle main ideas/points.
- Draw a box around unfamiliar words
- When you run across the key words you labelled in the questions, label them in the passage using the same letters **(A,B,C). This will give you a quick reference back to the text when you are answering the questions.
TIP #8: For the Reading Test, try to answer a question without looking at the answers provided.
If, with your active reading, you have a good idea what the answer could be, look for it in the answer options. This will save some time.
So, let’s review. Your tips for efficiency on the ACT reading test:
- TIP #6: Start with the passages in your strongest subject areas (Social Studies, Science, Literature, or Humanities).
- TIP #7: Actively read the questions first, then the entire passage, marking key information.
- TIP #8: When answering the questions, try to form your own answer prior to reviewing the available answers to save time and reduce possible confusion.
Now, onto science tips!
ACT TIPS FOR SCIENCE
According to the ACT's description of the science test, prior knowledge of content areas is helpful, but prior knowledge is not the key!
What is important? Reading comprehension, science and complex math skills, and problem-solving skills.
In other words, you need to be able to weed through a lot of information to discover relevant information from texts and diagrams supplied. Then, as necessary, apply science practices and math skills (no calculators allowed) to investigate, interpret, and evaluate. Then, draw conclusions and make predictions.
TIME MANAGEMENT TIPS FOR THE SCIENCE TEST: You already know that you’ll have 35 minutes to complete 40 questions. The number of passages is not specified on the ACT web site, so be sure to preview and try to pace yourself accordingly. Some time-saving tips for the Science portion include:
- Use your pencil or index fingers to “bookmark” the portion of a passage or diagram to which a question refers.
- As you read passages, convert them into pictures on your test booklet.
TIP #9: For the Science Test, read the questions first.
Questions will help you understand the diagrams and descriptions better. In your book, circle the diagrams pertaining to the questions.
TIP #10: For the Science Test, don’t get bogged down in the passage details.
On prepscholar.com, perfect ACT scorer Allen Cheng demonstrates how much of the passage detail might be superfluous to answering the question. And some of the diagrams will be superfluous as well! Cheng (whose post is a worthwhile read) recommends answering 2 questions when approaching a new passage:
- What is the main point of the passage?
- What is the figure showing?
So, let’s review the science tips:
Besides, following your excellent time management plan for the science test:
- TIP #9: On the Science Test, read the questions first.
- TIP #10: On the Science Test, don’t bog down in passage details! Look only for information relevant to the questions being asked.
Okay! That’s 10 tips that will help you during the ACT test (if you practice them in advance).
Maybe you’re thinking, “Ummm, so that was 10 test-taking tips, but nothing about the writing essay!"
ACT Writing Test Tips
As you know, the writing test is optional. But for those of you who will be taking it, here are a few bonus tips for writing testers.
Per the ACT, the writing test evaluates four skills via the essay:
- Ideas and analysis
- Development and Support
- Language Use
BONUS ESSAY WRITING TIP #1: Read the prompt and each perspective actively! Underline key words, ideas, and arguments.
BONUS ESSAY WRITING TIP #2: Use your test booklet (not the essay answer sheet) to form and jot down your ideas, and keep notes organized. For example: you might divide a blank test booklet page into 4 quadrants. Use 3 of them to take notes on each of the 3 perspectives provided in the writing prompt. Use the 4th to develop an outline for your essay.
ONE FINAL TIP: If you plan to re-take the test at least once, take advantage of special ACT test dates that offer the option to pay $20 extra to receive your detailed results (called a Test Information Release). This extra report will show you your main subject areas of struggle, for more focused practice to improve results on your next ACT!
Now, work your plan, and crush it!