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Rachel Kapelke-Dale

ACT Tips and Tricks

Is there a magic set of ACT tips and tricks that will bring your score up to a perfect 36 overnight?
Unfortunately…no. (But you probably already knew that.) On the other hand: Is there a set of ACT tips and tricks that you can use to significantly boost your score—possibly as high as a 36?

Absolutely.

The ACT is a standardized test. This is awesome news for us, because it means that the test has a standard format. It’s literally created to give the same opportunity to each and every student, no matter when they take the test, to succeed.

And you can use this format to your advantage.

ACT tips and tricks come in all shapes and sizes. In this post, we’ll start out by taking a look at a trick you can start practicing right now to significantly raise your score by the time you take the official exam.

Next, we’ll look at tips and tricks you can use in different ACT sections, before going on to explain techniques you can use on the whole test.

Finally, we’ll go over a few tricks for test day (nothing sneaky!) and one final ACT trick that pulls everything together.

Ready? Let’s do it!

Table of Contents


 

ACT Tips and Tricks: Before Test Day

Think the only tips that matter are the ones you’ll be able to use on the exam itself?

Nope! In fact, one of the most important things you can do to ace the ACT is something you should start well before you even reach the testing center…

Under Pressure

Before we get started, let me clear something up. Pressure and stress, though related, aren’t the same thing. Pressure is something beyond our control, and on test day, will be the same for everyone in the room with you. Stress, the way we react to pressure, is something we can deal with.

With that in mind, let’s go over two strategies you can use to really minimize stress on test day—and maximize your ability to cope with the pressure, rendering it utterly powerless against you!

Timed Practice Tests

Okay. You’ve come here looking for some quick and simple ACT tricks, and here I am telling you to set aside not just one three-hour block of time, but several. I know! Stay with me.

This can be the hardest ACT tip to follow, but it’s also the most important one by far (why do you think I put it first?).

I get it: setting aside a chunk of time for timed practice tests can be a hassle. But if you’re one of the many students who suffers from test anxiety, exposure to the real deal really does lessen stress.

If you struggle with completing ACT practice test sections within the allotted time frame, here’s an advanced ACT trick.

As you work on practice problems, divide them into sets of ten. It doesn’t matter which section you’re working on, as this technique adapts to your abilities and timing. First, do a set of ten problems. Time yourself, but don’t make yourself stick to any given period of time. Grade your problem set and mark down your time. That’s your baseline.

As you continue your practice over the coming weeks, work on shaving just a few seconds—15-20 a week is a good place to start—from your problem sets. When you get high accuracy scores in that time frame, shave off even more time. Lather, rinse, repeat.

You can also apply this on the macro- level. If you’re comfortable taking timed practice tests, try shaving off a few minutes from the timer during your next practice session. If you can successfully finish (and do well) on a test in less time, the actual thing will seem all the easier.

Your Testing Environment

So where exactly are you taking these practice tests? In your crowded bedroom? At a kitchen table inhabited by countless other family members and pets? If you feel that you’re on the verge of screaming “Save me!” we need to find you a new testing location.

So where do you go? If you have your own transportation, I’d recommend the local library. It’s quiet, calm, and in most cases the only sound is a ticking clock. If that’s not available, you wouldn’t be the first person in the world to lock themselves in their closet with a lamp and his/her test materials.

The most important thing is that you take the tests in timed conditions as close to those you’ll see on test day as possible. Remember, the point of this exercise (in addition to providing you with practice and valuable information) is to prepare yourself for the pressure you’ll face on the official exam—so be strict with yourself about time!

 

ACT Tips and Tricks by Section

There are many strategies you can use when approaching the ACT. Time pressure and mental preparation are two of the first hurdles to overcome when maximizing your score.

But, with that said, the ACT is set up in such a way that there are also strategies you can use within each section to help push your scores up on the different ACT tests, as well. Whether you’re looking for all-around improvement or just need to focus in on boosting one sectional score that’s dragging you down, these tips can help you get there!

ACT Tips and Tricks: English

In theory, solid knowledge of English grammar, style and usage should get you through this section. In practice, even if you’re a grammar maven, you may still come across problems that you’re not sure how to approach. Zero in on the following strategies to help you eliminate tricky answer choices on test day.

Concision, Concision, Concision

You ever heard the saying, “keep it short and sweet?” Well, the test makers know that students gravitate towards wordier answers. And believe me, they use this to create distracters in the ACT English Test’s answer choices!

What do I mean, “students gravitate towards wordier answers?” They’re often tempted to plug in the longest answer choice into the question stem. That’s the trap.

The best advice is to go from shortest to longest when considering your answer choices. Though the shortest answer choice may not be the right choice, you will avoid the temptation to immediately go for the wordy option.

Adding Errors

While taking the ACT, you’ll face both time pressure and mental pressure. We’ve already talked a little about how to deal with the time pressure. But mental pressure can also trip you up—and this is especially true on ACT English.

Let’s say you’re rushing through a question, you immediately see the problem, and then, naturally, you pick the first possible answer that fixes that problem.

You may have fixed the first problem, but the answer choice messes up the sentence in another way. GOTCHA!

How can you overcome these traps? Besides working on time management and techniques to lower stress, take a millisecond or two to READ THE ENTIRE ANSWER CHOICE before you make your final decision.

And don’t worry if it takes a little while to make progress here. The more practice you do in this area, the faster you’ll get—and the faster you get, the more time you’ll have to be thorough.

The Biggest Time Waster on ACT English

Like the ACT Reading Test, the ACT English Test has passages.

Do you need to read them for complete and total understanding?

No. Nope. Not a chance.

Focus on the grammar, punctuation, and subject/verb agreement each passage throws at you, sentence by sentence. You may need to read a little before and after the question to check if you answer choice truly works, so be careful to do this, but don’t worry about understanding the passage from start to finish; just answer questions as you go.

Now, there will be some main idea questions, but there are relatively few and you can skim back over the passage as needed for these. Good note-taking skills can also give you a leg up on these problem types, as we’ll see in a bit…

ACT Tips and Tricks: Math

Think that ACT English and ACT Math have little (if anything) in common? Think again. The biggest trap on ACT Math can best be described as an ACT time management black hole.

Sure, the first dozen or so problems are a breeze. Then they get a little harder, and then a little harder. By the end of it you have ten questions left but only six minutes remain on the clock.

Fall into this trap and you’ll be rushing through the last handful of questions, or worse, simply guessing as the seconds tick down to zero.

To avoid this trap, practice being aware of your time throughout the Math test. You don’t have to look up at the clock (or wristwatch. Seriously, if you haven’t already, invest in a $10 Timex for test day) every ten seconds.

My recommendation: Every five questions, check to see if you’ve used more or less than five minutes. This trick should help you keep on track.

Wasting Time on ACT Math

Usually you have to pay attention to EVERY LITTLE DETAIL when you’re solving a math problem. But there is one question type that can be a big, unnecessary time drain on ACT Math.

Word Problems

Though the problems themselves are important, it’s all those useless words that you don’t need. It’s time to break out the No. 2 and circle those numbers. Skim over that needless story about a dog, ice cream (or whatever) and figure out what equation you’ll need to create to solve the problem.

Backsolving

Let’s transition from time management to content. Here’s an important ACT tool you can use to boost your score significantly: backsolving.

You may know backsolving by another name. No matter what you call it, performing this ACT math trick is crucial to getting your math scores up.

Here’s a look at this short, simple, and valuable technique:

What is Backsolving on the ACT?

In short? Backsolving involves plugging possible answer choices into a given equation to find the correct answer.

You may already be doing this. If so, you are probably now wondering why I’m devoting so much time to explaining it. BUT. There’s actually a certain amount of skill to backsolving.

Think of backsolving like chess. You can learn how to play it in five minutes, but it can take a really long time to play well.

 

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Backsolving on the ACT Math is actually a lot easier than chess.

 

How Do I Backsolve on the ACT?

Here’s where the trick comes in. On ACT Math, you will have five possible answer choices. Select the middle number. Plug that number into the equation given in the question stem.

If that’s the answer (meaning that the number makes the equation come out correctly), great. Next question!

But if not, you’ve automatically eliminated three of five possible answer choices.

Why two, and not just one? Here’s a simple example:

If 6x = 60, what is the value of x?

A. 4
B. 6
C. 8
D. 10
E. 12

Try a little backsolving here. If we plug in 8 (the middle answer choice, C), we get 48, which is lower than sixty. This doesn’t make the equation balance, so C is out.

AND! It also means that answer choices A and B are incorrect, as they will also result in answers less than sixty.

Now, we only have to backsolve D or E to realize that the correct answer is D, 10. Once you’ve found an answer that works with backsolving, you can stop. You’re done!

Though the problems you will encounter on the ACT Math test will be significantly more difficult than the problem above, the same trick applies to all questions in which you can backsolve.

When Can I Backsolve on the ACT?

Good question. You can backsolve when you’re given an equation (or, on harder questions, when you can create an equation from the question stem) that has only one variable, and you have numbers in your answer choices.

So the short answer is that you can use backsolving on some algebra questions on the ACT Math Test. Pre-Algebra and Elementary Algebra comprise up to 45% of the test questions. In a lot of these cases, you can backsolve, because backsolving works on any question where there is only a single variable.

When Can’t I Backsolve?

If there is more than one variable in the question (like algebraic equations with both X and Y), I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s not impossible to do, but you should rely on other skill sets to solve more complex algebraic equations. Other techniques will not only minimize the potential for errors, but they’ll also save you time, while the opposite is true when backsolving for just one variable.

Now that you know the right way to backsolve, apply it to some ACT practice tests. You’ll quickly discover when backsolving is and isn’t the best way to solve a problem. With practice, it should become second nature.

ACT Tips and Tricks: Reading

The Reading Test has only one big trap: the passages.

“But,” you might ask, “aren’t the passages the whole point of the Reading Test?”

Well, yes and no. You’ve been taught your entire life that reading closely is an important skill. It is—but if you apply it to the ACT Reading Test, you’ll never make it through all the questions in the time allotted.

The Reading passages aren’t there for your enjoyment. (You might have noticed this already, but just in case you haven’t). Think of these passages as gold mines: 80% of everything that comes out of them is useless dirt. That other 20%, that precious gold, is what you’re after.

My recommendation: Read the questions before you read the passage associated with them. Mark any references to specific lines and the main information that each question needs you to recover from the article.

After that, it’s treasure hunt time as you return to the passage! With practice, you’ll only have to read one-third to one-half of any passage to answer all the questions.

ACT Tips and Tricks: Science

On the Science Test, the trap is YOU!

That’s right, the trap that most students fall into with the Science Test is a trap that has little to do with the content of the test questions. Instead, students scoring low on the Science tests are most likely suffering from fatigue.

It’s the same feeling you have during the last period on a Friday afternoon. You’ve powered through the week—now you just want it to end. That’s totally understandable, but it’s also an issue you’ll have to address if you really want to get your score up in this section.

My recommendation: It all boils down to two things: sleep and food. Get enough sleep the night before the test, eat breakfast, have a snack during the break, and test fatigue shouldn’t hit you like a brick.

Taking a series of practice tests on Saturday mornings, under test-like conditions, will also help you learn to combat this score drain. Don’t get me wrong; powering through that last section is still going to be a little tough, if only because of the anticipation of sweet, sweet freedom. But if you’ve practiced enough, you won’t let fatigue steal any points from you on the Science test!

Gaining Time on ACT Science

We’ve already seen how ACT Reading can waste your time with useless passage information. In Science, you should also be prepared for and graphs and tables, too! That’s not to say an entire graph or table will be useless, but I guarantee you that at least 50% of the information in the graph will not be necessary to answer any of the questions correctly. As long as you’re following the same rules as the Reading Test (going on a treasure hunt in the graphs/tables), you’ll be golden.

 

ACT Tips and Tricks for the Whole Test

With all of those by-section strategies in mind, let’s turn now to take a look at some ACT tips and tricks that you can use throughout the exam. We’ll also go over how you can adapt these tips and tricks to get the most out of them in each subject area.

Ignore It!

Just because it’s printed in the test booklet doesn’t mean it’s important.

You heard me. There’s lot of stuff in your test booklet meant to trip you up, trick you, or just waste your precious time. First, an all-around good ACT trick:

After your first practice test, never read the directions. It’s not like they ever change.

act tricks -Magoosh

‘Bye directions. We hardly knew ye.

Boil it Down

Let’s say you’ve read a question. You know the topic you’ll be skimming for in the passage/table/chart.

Now, summarize the question in a word or two. When you first find that topic in the passage, mark it like you normally would. Then, write your one-to-two-word question summary.

I know that using your time to write can be scary. There is so much else to do, after all. But it’s so easy to forget important details on the ACT, and as you hone your timing skills, it’s crucial not to sacrifice accuracy to the clock (in fact, let’s get more accurate).

 

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Writing down essential information is sooooo important for test success. In some ways, it’ll actually help you with timing. Why?

Nothing wastes more time than having to go back to reread something because you forgot it. A simple visual cue will keep you focused as you skim the passage for information.

Boiling it Down on the ACT Math Test

I bet you were already planning to do a little scratch work on the ACT Math Test. There are a lot of equations that will require it. But why use scratch paper when you can write in the test booklet? In addition to saving trees, your eyes won’t have to dark back and forth between scratch paper and the question. And not only will this save time, but it will also reduce the likelihood that you’ll make a careless mistake.

Go With Your Gut

A lot of second-guessing actually stems from a single source that we can sum up in a word: stress. Stress makes us uneasy. Stress creates doubt. Stress makes us second-guess what we know to be true.

However, as we’ve already seen, you can prepare yourself so that the stress is minimized as you test. But be careful, because being a master in ACT time management can be a double-edged sword!

How, you ask? Well, if you have finish all the questions with time left over, the second-guessing alarms in your brain will start to go off. Think about it: hardly any students who are answering questions up to the last few seconds of a section go back to change their answers to previous questions. They just don’t have the time!

I want to make it clear that all second-guessing isn’t all bad. For example, for questions where you really had no idea how to answer and picked your favorite letter, listen to that little voice that says, “uhhh…this probably isn’t right.” If there’s time, go back and give those questions a once-over.

But for the answers that you initially felt good about, ignore the temptation to change answer choices, especially during the last seconds of any test on the ACT. Those seconds are for making sure that all those bubbles are filled in.

Mix It Up

The order in which you answer ACT questions can also help you raise your score. Knowing how to get the most out of the limited timeframe by strategizing your approach to ACT question order can bring your score up significantly.

On a lot of other projects, it makes sense to do things from beginning to end. For example, you have to build a foundation before you go ahead and build a house. Yet when it comes to answering questions on the ACT, going “1, 2, 3, 4, 5…” may not be the best strategy. Let’s take a look at each of the four tests and how changing things up can improve your testing experience.

English

The English Test covers many topics, and there’s no specific order to where certain topics will appear. Take a little time (no more than a minute or two) to skim through the section and ID the question types that you’re most comfortable with, right at the start of the section. This will have the advantage of boosting your confidence—and, if you consistently run out of time on practice tests on which you answer questions in the given order, it can also boost your score.

Math

The sixty questions on the Math test are officially arranged from easiest to hardest. Though you have a minute per question, you might find yourself needing less time on the first twenty questions and more time on the last twenty. This doesn’t mean wasting time on the hard problems, though. If you don’t see how to do them, skip them and come back—and if you’ve spent more than a minute on the problem, no matter how tough it is, make your best guess and move on.

Reading

Knowing where you’ll start on the ACT Reading Test can a big impact on your score. The test has four passages: Prose, Natural Sciences, Humanities, and Social Sciences. Though you have to read (or better yet, skim) them all for information, start with the passage with which you feel most comfortable. For most of you, this will be the prose passage After all, most of the reading you’ve ever done has probably been fiction, so why not start where you’re most comfortable?

After finishing the prose passage questions, move on to the next passage that appeals to you. You’ll have to get into whatever subject you find dreariest eventually—but not before filling up on confidence-building, comfortable points.

Science

For the ACT Science Test, do the comparing viewpoints section EITHER first or last. These questions surrounding this passage are fundamentally different than the other ACT Science questions. Getting it out of the way immediately or leaving it for the end will force your mind to switch gears only once during the test.


 

ACT Tips and Tricks: On Test Day

Even if test day is tomorrow, we still have some tips and tricks you can use to maximize your chances of success. Don’t dive in with all of the by-section strategies above, for one: most of them work best if you have time to practice them repeatedly! On the other hand, getting into the right mindset and the right physical state can help you immensely on test day.

Go in Strong

You probably know that being healthy—eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep—is generally a good idea. Well, it’s indispensable on test day! You think the space below your brain doesn’t count during the official exam? Wrong! Being tired, hungry, sore, annoyed, or anxious can trip you up in lots of ways.

Now, your diet and sleep schedule may not necessarily be ideal. It’s going to take a little practice, but starting a week before the test (if you can), give yourself a full night’s sleep every night. As far as food goes, avoid anything that has not agreed with you in the past. Cutting down on added sugar (juices, sodas, anything from a high school vending machine) will go a long way to promote a better state of mind for test day. Also, eat a high protein breakfast the morning of the test. Why? It’ll keep your energy up throughout the exam, without leading to the mood swings that you’ll get with a sugar crash.

An important caveat here: if you are genuinely sick on ACT test day, don’t go. I know it seems like a waste of money and study time, but trying to take a 3+ hour test will only make you sicker. Also, you might give your cold/flu/whatever to everyone else the test room.

Be Your Own Cheerleader

Just like interviewing for a job or going on a first date, confidence plays a large role in success on ACT test day. The belief you will succeed turns off those little voices of doubt that vie for your energy and attention, two things you definitely need on ACT test day.

How do you build confidence? First, in preparing for the ACT, create and complete an ACT Study Schedule. A study schedule will not only make you more prepared, but you will feel prepared.

Second, know that you can take the ACT again. In fact, most students will get their best scores by taking the ACT twice. So cheer up—do your best, but know that this experience is just helping you familiarize yourself with the test day experience. Don’t judge yourself throughout the test. Instead, try to witness yourself as an impartial experience. What’s happening? How could you use that to your advantage next time?

Use Last-Minute Visualization

Finally, give yourself a mental boost as you go into the test room. Think about all the time and effort you’ve put into preparation. Next, visualize yourself looking up your score report and seeing your dream score appear. It’s a little cheesy, but visualization can help you achieve your goals by putting you in a positive mental space.

 

One Final ACT Tip

The most obvious, but the hardest to follow: Don’t forget to breathe!

Before we finish, a disclaimer. As with any ACT tips and tricks, make sure to practice them first. Some strategies may work better than others for you, so see if these ACT Tricks work well with your test-taking strategies before you use them on test day!

Good luck, test takers! Keep your minds sharp and your bodies healthy, and the scores will follow.

Thank you to Magoosh ACT Blogger Thomas Broderick for contributing content and expertise to this guide to ACT tips and tricks!

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About Rachel Kapelke-Dale

Rachel is a High School and Graduate Exams blogger at Magoosh. She has a Bachelor of Arts from Brown University, an MA from the Université de Paris VII, and a PhD from University College London. She has taught test preparation and consulted on admissions practices for over eight years. Currently, Rachel divides her time between the US and London. Follow Rachel on Twitter, or learn more about her writing here!


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