The Shortest ACT Prep Book Ever: Improve Your ACT Score In Five Brief Chapters

Plan to take the ACT two or three times. If you achieve your goal on the first or second try, congratulations! But most students score lower on their first test than they had done in practice. Think of your first test as a dry run, and don’t give up.   

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1. Use Your Pencil.

The more you mark up your test booklet, the better you will do. On all subjects, when you use Process of Elimination (POE) and have physically crossed off wrong answers, you will be a better guesser once your eye needs to look at only two or even three choices.

But there are other ways to use your pencil, specific to each test.  

On many English questions, answers can fix one thing only to break another. If you know what’s wrong with the sentence as written and look among the answers for your fix, you can easily miss a new error. When you know the error in the original sentence as written, cross off the answers that don’t fix that error and then compare those that remain. For those questions that involve the purpose of a proposed fix, always underline that purpose to block out any other considerations: choose the correct answer that fulfills the underlined purpose.

On the Math Test, your pencil is just as valuable as your calculator—maybe even more. Before you do anything, always underline the actual question, which is typically the last sentence. Many word problems especially offer lots of information, so you need to separate the question from the various clues and rules. But even those questions you do entirely on your calculator will benefit from a few initial scribbles. On plane geometry questions, you’ll need to write down formulas or draw missing figures. On many coordinate geometry questions, the best approach may be to draw the x and y axes and plot points.

On the Reading test, be careful not to overuse your pencil on the passage. Your pencil is better served on the questions and answers. Star questions with a line or paragraph numbers. Underline lead words in the questions without line references. On the passage, underline key transition words and topic sentences.

Science offers lots of ways to use your pencil. Many passages feature tables with consistent trends. Draw arrows or plus/minus signs to make those trends visual. On graphs, draw lines from one axis to the curve to the other axis to find a value.

2. Use the Answers.

Don’t squander the one advantage of a multiple-choice test: it gives you the answer. On many questions, you may not know what’s right, but you can use POE and identify at least one that’s wrong. But the answers are helpful in other ways, too.

POE isn’t Plan B on the English test—it’s the primary way to work the questions. Always look at the answers first to identify what the question is testing: what changes? what stays the same? For instance, if the words in every answer choice are the same and the only thing that differs is commas . . . then the question is testing commas. Don’t make up in your head what you think the correct answer should say. Whenever you know the error, it’s always better to eliminate wrong answers than to hunt for what you imagine will be correct. (See Chapter 1: Use Your Pencil.)

On the Math test, POE is more likely to be Plan B. Know how to do a question? Then do it. Stuck? Then look at the answers: they can give tons of hints. For example, if you see 2 in some answers, then a 45-45-90 triangle is in play. Or, some values may be clearly too small or big, raising your chances when you guess from the remaining. In some questions, the answers may inspire an alternative way to solve.

Reading answers are particularly helpful with questions that don’t provide line or paragraph references. The words can help you find the location of the answer in the passage. When you do know the location in the passage but can’t make heads or tails of what you’ve read, don’t re-read endlessly. Instead, work backwards with the answers: do they match what you read in the passage?

On Science, pay attention to the variables and units in the answers. If the question doesn’t identify which figure to consult, the variables and units can. The variables in the answers can also help illuminate the question. Are the answers the y-axis units? Then the x-axis value has to be in the question. On questions with wordy answers, two or even three choices will likely offer statements that are contradicted by the figures–these can therefore be eliminated.  

3. Know What You Need (And What You Don’t).

No English question ever asks you to name an error or identify a part of speech by name. So if you don’t already know the difference between a comma splice and a run-on sentence, don’t worry about it. But you do need to know and be able to spot a handful of terms—such as subjects, verbs, pronouns, and conjunctions—as well as the rules of punctuation, agreement, and sentence structure.

The Math test does not provide a formula sheet, so memorize basic area and volume formulas, the Pythagorean Theorem, slope, etc. You can read ACT’s exact description of the content here. Focus on basic skills, such as how to use the plane geometry formulas or set up and solve equations. Unless you are realistically shooting for a perfect score, do not waste time memorizing the more obscure formulas and any unfamiliar concepts that may show up for one question, if at all.

Reading is trickier. You could argue that you don’t need to know anything, since each test uses different passages. But you do need to know how to read critically, which means to think critically. Use topic sentences, transitions, and modifiers to understand what authors mean and why they write what they do.

It’s a myth that you need to know Science content. The handful of true outside knowledge questions test basic knowledge most high school students will know (e.g., that a frog is an amphibian). Some questions test common sense more than outside knowledge (for instance, in a drought there will be less rain). But the bulk of the questions are answered by the figures or passages. Familiarity with a particular topic can help, but the lack of knowledge can’t hurt.

You should take the Writing test each time you take the ACT: many if not most schools require it. But it does not go into your composite, so you should not take time away from studying for the multiple-choice tests. Read the ACT description of the Writing test to be prepared, and do your best. You want a score of 8 or above (out of 12) to avoid raising any red flags in your applications.  

4. Don’t Gaslight Yourself.

The test writers are not going out of their way to trick you. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some sophisticated questions that require you to synthesize figures on Science, tap upper-level Math content, read correctly some unusual syntax on English, or infer a subtle point on Reading. The test isn’t easy, but it’s easier than you think. If you approach every question as a deliberate trick, you will ruin your pacing and get lots of wrong answers.

5. Practice

Practice regularly and on good materials: recent real ACT’s or vetted simulated tests from commercial prep companies. Always do each English, Math, Reading, and Science test timed, even if you take them in separate sittings. But take at least one entire ACT in one sitting, either in a proctored setting or self-proctored at the library. You don’t get to take the actual test in your jammies and fuzzy slippers, so better to practice outside of the comfort zone of home.  

When you correct your tests, don’t just mark the correct answer. Instead, analyze your performance. What questions dragged down your pacing? Which easy questions did you miss because of careless errors? What did you misread in the text and how can you avoid making the same mistake next time? Write down your answers to these—see Chapter 1!—and regularly review your notes on every prior practice test you’ve done before you do another.

Last, plan to take the ACT two or three times. If you achieve your goal on the first or second try, congratulations! But most students score lower on their first test than they had done in practice. Think of your first test as a dry run, and don’t give up.   

Noodle Pro Melissa Hendrix is a premier tutor of the SAT and ACT in Chicagoland. She has been a national leader in SAT and ACT preparation for 20 years, developing curriculum and strategies for national test prep companies.