Test Prep: 6 Tips for ACT Success

Do you find the SAT daunting? Learn some valuable tips to help master the ACT, a viable alternative.


The time limit can be a significant obstacle in the science section as well. Those who have had success on the test advise students not to spend too much time dissecting the scientific data or graphs. "There's not enough time to read all of the articles and graphs in the science section of the ACT," says Anna Lawrence, a high school junior from Illinois who scored a 35 out of 36 in April. "Go to the questions first and refer to the information as needed."

4. Take practice tests. After taking those initial tests that help you decide whether the ACT is right for you, it's important to test frequently. Schools sometimes don't provide their students with ACT prep questions as part of classwork like they do with SAT questions, so familiarizing yourself with the subtle differences in question style and format by practicing is beneficial. And don't simply sit down with a book and try to knock out a few problems when you have a spare 10 minutes. People that have had success on the test claim that they would block out time to complete a whole practice section, or an entire practice version of the test, to prepare them for the actual testing experience. Ryan Pope, now a Harvard University graduate, took the ACT during his junior year of high school in 2003, scoring a 34. The biggest key to his success? He took five practice tests on his own. "Going through previous tests did a lot for me," he says. "In my opinion, there's no substitute for sitting down with a book of old exams and just going through them."

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5. Don't skip questions. Another key difference between the SAT and ACT is that there is no penalty for getting a question incorrect on the ACT. The SAT's penalty is in place in order to keep students from guessing, but ACT test takers can guess freely if they're stumped or out of time. Experts say it's best to work through each section in its entirety, skipping questions that prove to be problematic. Return to those questions when you've finished the entire section, but if you run out of time and are still clueless, pick a letter and bubble in any questions you have skipped. "No answer should be left blank," says Carroll. "Even if you run out of time, you should just pick the letter of the day."

6. Know your directions. Through practice, you should get to know the directions for each section before you take the actual test. Because there are only four sections, learning what to expect from each type of problem should come easily with enough repetition. If you know the directions, experts say, there's no need to waste precious minutes reading the descriptions at the beginning of each section. This will buy you added time to solve tougher questions at the end of a section. This can be a risky strategy, but it could pay off if you practice enough before the test. It's particularly beneficial to slow test takers. "You want to know what the directions are for each section," says Kristen Campbell, director of college prep programs at Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions. "It's about time saving. You're going to need every second you can get to answer the questions. The last thing you want to do is spend a couple of minutes up front reading directions."

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