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David Recine

How to Prepare for the ACT Compass Exam

As I explained in my last post, the ACT Compass (What is the ACT Compass Test?) is a placement test for students who have already been accepted into colleges and universities. A placement test serves a distinctly different purpose than an admissions test, like the TOEFL, SAT, or ACT. Admissions tests determine whether a student will be accepted into a school at all, while placement tests only determine what courses a student must take after they’ve been accepted.

ACT Compass placement exam

So, for placement exams like the Compass ACT, the stakes are lower—you can’t be rejected from school on the basis of a Compass score. However, the results still matter. ACT Compass scores determine whether or not a student will be placed in any remedial courses. Remedial courses are taught at a level below that of regular first-year college classes and do not count towards a degree. For a typical example of an ACT Compass-based remedial course placement, see this chart from the University of Hawaii.

Placement testing is meant to honestly assess your academic skills under normal conditions. So “cramming” for the ACT Compass is a bad idea. Studying a subject really hard can temporarily and unnaturally inflate your performance in it. This in turn could cause you to be placed in a class that really is too difficult for you, setting you up for academic failure.

In fact, if you really are weak in an academic area such as math, Writing, Reading, etc. it may be best not to study. If you simply show up for the exam well-rested and focused, the results will accurately reflect the level you’re at. From there, you can be placed in a class that gives you the help you need to succeed in more challenging college-level coursework in the future.

There is a time when you definitely should study for the ACT Compass—when you are only a little weak in a college academic skill and may be capable of studying at the regular first-year college level. You certainly don’t want a difference in a point or two to cause you to take a semester of remediation when you probably could succeed in a non-remedial class. If you think you have a shot at avoiding remedial courses (with their extra costs and the delays they cause to graduation) do a reasonable amount of studying and get yourself placed in regular classes.

Because the ACT Compass is a relatively low-stakes class, the official website provides only a few practice questions and doesn’t offer the extensive library of prep materials available for the ACT itself. Since you only need to study for the ACT Compass if you are in striking distance of acceptable scores on the regular ACT, it’s best to use standard ACT prep materials to prepare. The skills in each section of the ACT correlate to the skills on the Compass exams, with the exception of ACT science—science is not assessed on the Compass.

So in Compass prep, aim for 20+ scores in regular ACT English, Reading, Math, and Writing practice. If you can meet typical university minimums on the ACT, you can ace the ACT Compass and start with your regular degree classes right away.


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About David Recine

David is a test prep expert at Magoosh. He has a Bachelor of Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and a Masters in Teaching English to Speakers of other Languages from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He has been teaching K-12, University, and adult education classes since 2007 and has worked with students from every continent. Currently, David lives in a small town in the American Upper Midwest. When he’s not teaching or writing, David studies Korean, plays with his son, and takes road trips to Minneapolis to get a taste of city life. Follow David on Google+ and Twitter!

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