ACTs Less Than a Week Away? 5 Pro Tips to Raise Your Scores REALLY Fast

ACT Cover Dr YoGood time management on the ACT, even more than on the SAT, is crucial for getting high scores. And the cool thing is, relatively speaking, it doesn’t take long to master or to see its impact on your composite score. Is a few days enough time? Yup, if you’re dedicated.
It’s basically a matter of knowing the format of each of the five tests really well. You don’t want to be the kid who, when the proctor says turn the page and begin, blurts out, “Hey! There’s Science on this test?!”


Those who become students of the exam–that is, who break down each of the five tests into a manageable number of tasks per time and who really understand where their score comes from–tend to land consistently at the top of the scale. Knowing you have to answer 75 English grammar questions in 45 minutes, 60 Math questions in 60 minutes, 40 Reading (Concentration) questions in 35 minutes, 40 Science questions in 35 minutes, and, for those who stay for Writing , 30 minutes for the essay is just a start. And unless you’ve spent years in the trenches of professional project management or you’re some kind of idiot savant, those numbers are likely too big and overwhelming to be particularly helpful. The whole thing just sounds long and painful.


Allow me to bust these numbers down for you, test by test:


1) English. 75 questions in 45 min? Right, I got it. Wait. No I don’t. Guess I’ll just go as fast as I can. No guessing penalty, right? These are common thoughts among the uncoached. Too bad, because it becomes a much easier test when you think of it in terms of five, 15-question sub-sections that take nine minutes each. Each 15-question sprint is actually labeled a “Passage,” and 5 of those sprints make up the whole run. Nine minutes is a much easier time frame for most students to mange than 45 minutes. So when you take practice tests, measure your results out of 15, and you’ll begin to see the question types where you spend more time than they’re worth. Maybe you’ll start 8/15 and work your way to 12/15. Overachievers can now get angry with themselves when they fall short of 13/15. Kidding. Not really. When you start getting good at the 15-question sprints, your score on the 75-question English test will take care of itself.

2) Math. There’s no more user-friendly format to time-management than the ACT’s 60 questions in 60 minutes. One minute, one question. Hey, at least we know which one we should be on! Knowing which one you should be on, however, is hardly professional project management and doesn’t do a lot to raise your score. But this does: think of it as three 20-question quizzes that make up a 60-question test. The first quiz, #1-20, is on easy material, stuff you should know from arithmetic, Algebra 1, baby geometry, and rudimentary mathematical thinking. The second quiz, #21-40, is on medium material. Crap, I have to know about parallelograms and trapezoids and factoring? Yup, medium material. The third quiz, #41-60, is on, you guessed it, hard stuff. Trigonometry, logs, complex numbers, equations of circles. Yeah I hate this test. It kills me when students—not just my daughter, lots of students—see the material on the hard quiz and then, based on their experience in school where most of the points on tests come from the hardest marterial—judge the whole test by it and decide they can’t get a good score. Oops. Know what they forgot? 2/3 of the test (that’s more than half, mathphobes) is an easy and a medium quiz. And the fun thing is, and thing uncoached students don’t usually think about very deeply, all three quizzes count the same toward your final test grade. Here’s an astounding and counterintuitive fact that makes the ACT Math test beatable: if you get all the easy ones and all the medium ones right, and you don’t even look at the hard ones (of course we lookat them in case we happened to do a problem just like that in class last week, but to most of them we just quickly wave ba-bye and put time in the bank)—that is we go 20/20 on the first quiz, 20/20 on the second, and 4/20 simply by randomly guessing on the third, we walk away with…wait for it…you’re not gonna believe it…a smooth 26 or 27. Now imagine you don’t randomly guess on every question in the last 20 because you may’ve done a problem just like in class last week or you may actually study a little bit—and here come the high 20s, maybe 30. Those are all significantly above average for college-bound students, and are all impressive scores to many competitive colleges. And we didn’t really even bother with hard ones! Hehe.

3) Reading. 40 questions, 35 minutes. As with the English Test, to best manage your time, you gotta break this test down: four stand-alone passages (meaning none of those questions like, what would the author of passage 2 say to the author of passage 1 if they met in a dark alley?), 10 questions each. Measure your progress in terms of how many questions right per 10. Also, did you know the ACT gives you’re the four topics—or subject areas—of the passages in advance? They do! The first one is always Prose Fiction, the second is always Social Science (i.e., history), the third is always Humanities (i.e., art, culture, literature), and the fourth is always natural science (e.g., dinosaurs, astronomy, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity—kidding about Einstein, just seeing if you paying attention). Pick your best subject and do that first. Why? Because you NEVER run out of time on the first passage, so make it the one you’re most likely to get your highest score out of 10 on. And save the topic you like least for last, when you’re likely to be rushing anyway. Speaking of feeling rushed, the most common challenge students encounter on the Reading test is not finishing. I’m a slow reader. I do well on three of the passages, but then get 2 or 3 out of the last ten because I have to no time left for it. We got you. Lots of people are slow readers, and not all of them are too dumb for college. Some folks like to think about what they’re reading while they’re reading. I think that makes them smart, but alas, bad test takers. Here’s what you do: Instead of taking the time to read the whole passage carefully, read just the first and last paragraphs carefully (i.e., by underlining key words; see Reading Concentration) and just the first sentence of each paragraph in between. In the parlance of English class, read the intro and conclusion carefully, as well as all the topic sentences of the main body paragraphs. This will give you a good sense of the whole thing and you’ll at least know where to look for the answers to specific questions. You’ll do about as well as if you had read the whole thing carefully, only you;ll do it in a fraction of the time and you’ll be able to finish the whole test. ☺ You’re welcome.

4) Science. 40 questions, 35 minutes. On no section is time management more important than on Science, so pay attention. There’s no way most normal people can read and digest all the information given in the SEVEN passages, tables, graphs, and charts and answer 40 questions in only 35 minutes. It’s too much to do and think about. The whole trick is to skip right to the questions and then read the passages retroactively, on a need-to-read basis. A lot of the information is superfluous, meaning it doesn’t come up on any questions, so let’s not waste our time, shall we? The questions often tell you where look for the answers, as in, “According to Scientist #2” or “Based on Figure 1.” If they don’t tell you where to look, then identify the science buzzword in the question, e.g. “efficiency of illumination,” “atmospheric density,” or “mass of NaCl per test tube” and then find where that buzzword appears in the tables, charts, and graphs. That’s where you look for the answer. Going right to the questions and reading the passages only on a need-to-read basis saves a boatload of time; suddenly, you can finish the science test ☺

5) Writing (i.e., the Essay). One hand-written essay in 30 minutes on a topic you’ve never seen and probably don’t care one whit about. Pro time management involves breaking this down, too. Try to conceive a five-paragraph essay: length is really important for high scores, and five paragraphs will do the trick. If you use five of your 30 minutes to plan a proofread your essay, that leaves 25 minutes to write, which breaks down to five minutes per paragraph. I’ve written a lot about this before, and I’m tired. Here’s a link to a previous post: 5 Tips to High Scores on the ACT and SAT Essays,

So there it is. Learn the format of each test at this level of specificity and you’re well on your way to high scores, even if you aren’t the sharpest pencil in the case. Then practice each test once or twice in the manner I suggested above, breaking each one down into smaller, more manageable sub-tests.

If you need help with the actual material—that is, with understanding the actual math and grammar concepts and applications— #heyIknowaguy ☺.

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