ACT Test-Taking Strategies

General Issues in ACT Prep and Testing

Optimal testing performance results from a confluence of many factors. Obviously, it is vital for students to have strong verbal and quantitative abilities, but these alone are not enough for the highest possible scores a test-taker can achieve. Students who achieve elite scores are capable of withstanding the pressure of a high-stakes testing environment, and they also have strong time management skills. Frequent practice testing is eminently helpful in both areas. By undergoing practice exercises, practice sections, and full-length practice tests at regular points during the preparation process, students learn how to maintain a disciplined timeline for each question avoid spending too much time on any individual exercise. Guessing answers will sometimes be necessary, and this is also a skill that can be practiced and developed. Test-takers who are highly familiar with all sections of the ACT assessment and the entire ACT skillset will feel confident that they are fully prepared, and this confidence will improve their performance even more.

ACT English Strategies

For all ACT sections, the first issue to consider is timing. On the ACT English section, students have just 45 minutes to answer 75 multiple-choice questions. When the time necessary to read test passages is factored in, this leaves a functional maximum of 30 seconds per question at most. Test-takers must read each ACT English answer option carefully, because many choices are remarkably similar. For questions about a single sentence, read each option to yourself and pick the one that is most sensible. For questions that concern an entire passage, pay special attention to exactly what is asked and choose answers accordingly. Incorrect interpretations of the questions are extremely likely to generate incorrect answers. Some ACT English questions have two parts, or there may be multiple questions related to each other. Quick recognition of these question types will help test-takers eliminate irrelevant answer choices.

ACT Reading Strategies

The ACT Reading section lasts for 35 minutes, and it includes 10 questions each on four reading passages (40 questions total). We advise students to plan on spending three minutes reading each passage and 30 seconds on each question. By this formula, the section can be completed in 32 minutes, leaving three minutes for reviewing work and/or reconsidering answers to difficult questions. While reading the passages, it can be helpful to think "journalistically," that is, in terms of the "who," "what," "why," "where," and "when" of the texts. Many ACT Reading questions will ask about one or more of these things. Some students find it advantageous to answer the easiest questions for each passage first, and then go back and address those that require more thought. Others find it less stressful to answer the questions chronologically, but either way, don't spend too much time on any one exercise. As always, read each question and answer choice carefully.

ACT Math Strategies

The division of question timing for the ACT Math section is not difficult: 60 questions in 60 minutes leaves exactly one minute for each exercise. Some of these problems will be easy to solve in less than one minute, giving students extra time for the more challenging problems, but make sure to keep track of your progress (e.g. you should be through at least 20 questions when you are 20 minutes in). Familiarize yourself with the calculator you plan to use well in advance of the test, and while taking the exam, use the calculator only when it will legitimately save you time (all ACT Math problems can be solved in a timely fashion without calculators). Pay special attention to all illustrations and graphics. One minute per question should be plenty of time to check your work and verify your answer choices. Read all problems and answer options carefully before solving.

ACT Science Strategies

The ACT Science section includes 6 passages and a total of 40 questions over 35 minutes. Students should strive for a timeline that allows 30 seconds to answer each question, which allows them to spend two minutes reading each passage and considering all accompanying graphics and three extra minutes at the end to check answers, reconsider problematic exercises, or insert guesses into any unfilled answer spaces. Some test-takers have found it advantageous to skim the questions and answers before reading the passages, so they'll have a better idea which information to prioritize. Students are allowed to take notes during this portion of the ACT, and they should do so before, during, and after reading the passages. Although the ACT Science section is not intended to be an assessment of scientific knowledge per se, advance familiarity with scientific procedures and the basics of the major scientific disciplines can be helpful.

ACT Writing Strategies

With a single essay task to complete in 40 minutes, using your time properly during the ACT Writing section is even more important. The first step is to organize your thoughts on each of the three viewpoints presented and use them to arrive at your own opinion (which does not have to be the same as any of those provided). Next, outline your essay into a coherent series of paragraphs of roughly equal length. One successful structure is to begin with analysis of each viewpoint, proceed to explain and support your own opinion, and conclude by connecting that opinion to the other perspectives. If you devote 10 minutes to the pre-writing phase (analysis and outline), you'll have 30 minutes to finish the essay. Although there are many specific evaluation criteria for essays, your writing will largely be judged by how well you complete the assigned task rather than how many words you write or how many obscure words you use.