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Kristin Fracchia

Notes from the September 2015 ACT

Did you take the September 12, 2015 ACT?

Maybe you had a rough go of it:


Maybe you nailed it:


Either way, if it’s any comfort, I was right there with you. At least in spirit, if not in person (shout out to the twenty kids giving me weird looks in my assigned room at a local high school). And here are my thoughts on the test and how it compares to other ACTs.

Disclaimer: If you are hoping for a discussion or explanation of specific questions on the exam, I unfortunately can’t do that. It’s against the ACT rules!


The Environment:

Main Takeway: Where you take the exam can have a big impact on your mental state going into the test.

I took the test at a large testing center with hundreds of students. Everyone gathered in the quad before we were let into the school, and I felt more like we were gathering for a Saturday football game than for a standardized test (high fives and excited shrieks abounded). It was loud, and I would think mildly intimidating for an outsider or for a student who wanted to get in some quiet meditation before the test.  It made me realize just how important it is that you carefully consider where you will take the test. Some students might do better in familiar surroundings or with friends to talk to before the test. Other students might feel better going to a smaller, quieter setting alone. Take this into consideration when you register for the test (and sign up early so you have your choice of test centers).



Main Takeaway: Context is crucial.

The English section seemed relatively typical to me. More difficult questions had to do primarily with transitions and idioms, and they were difficult because they were more reliant on context than on idiomatic usage. So, for example, consider the following two sentences (not an actual test question):

The man planted flowers in the yard.

The man planted flowers around the yard.

Both of these sentences are grammatically correct; the preposition we select depends on whether or not we want to convey the idea that the place the man planted flowers is in the yard (first sentence) or whether he planted flowers in a bunch of places in the yard (second sentence), and this depends on the sentences surrounding it. This is not the same thing as the difference between:

The man was acquainted with a movie star.

The man was acquainted to a movie star.

In this case, sentence 1 is always correct, no matter the context, because the correct idiomatic phrasing is “acquainted with” not “acquainted to.”

On many of the rhetorical questions asking students to add, delete, or improve sentences, the exact choice of words in the question is crucial. (This is always true; but it particularly stood out to me on this test). So if a question asks you “Which choice best reflects the glitz and glamour of the banquet?” The answer is going to be “the sparkling crystal glasses and velvet tablecloths” not “the banquet was well-attended by many wealthy patrons” because the former phrase describes in more vivid detail the “glitz and glamour” of the surroundings.



Main Takeaway: Math was more difficult than other recent tests and reflected changes that we will also see on the Redesigned SAT.

The theme here seemed to be more questions that aimed to make sure students truly understood a concept and know how to sort through information to find the exact details they need to solve a problem. There were word problems with information that was not essential to solving a problem; there were a couple data interpretation sets with multiple questions on each that looked far more intimidating than they actually were due to their length. Problems that could have been stated more simply were presented in a more complex manner. In other words, familiar concepts were presented in a new way. I thought there were some more difficult problems involving geometric sequences, probability, transformations and translations, logarithms, and trig than what is typical on these topics.

Personally, I felt that there were some more challenging questions in the 40s and multiple questions in the 50s that were not particularly hard. A lot of students who plodded through the test from beginning to end have reported that they panicked once they saw how much time was ticking away when they still had 15 or so questions left. This was a good reminder that the questions on ACT Math are not necessarily arranged easy to hard. So make quick decisions to guess and come back to problems if you have time. Try to make sure you at least see all of the questions you plan to get to.



Main Takeway: Find the flaws in incorrect answer choices.

Nothing too out of the ordinary on the Reading test. Once again, there was a dual passage essay with a few questions comparing the passages, and these were very straightforward. I definitely noticed many tempting distractors amongst the answer choices; these answer choices referred to things that were in the passage but were in the wrong place or were almost correct except for one word or two. Make sure to work by process of elimination and carefully read every word in an answer choice so you don’t accidentally pick one with a flaw.



Main Takeway: Prepare for six passages instead of seven.

As students have been reporting on the last few ACTs, the Science test I saw had six passages instead of seven, with 3 Research Summaries passages (with 7 questions each), 2 Data Representation passages (with 6 questions each), and 1 Conflicting Viewpoints passage (with 7 questions). If you are working with a specific pacing strategy, make sure you scan through the test first to see how many passages you have to work with.

There were 5 or 6 questions that brought in outside knowledge in some capacity. Only one of them that I saw, however, blatantly screamed “I’m a science knowledge question!” Others were less obvious and most of them could be done by process of elimination or by using a little bit of common sense based on reading trends in the presented data. Keep this in mind if you see a question that seems to rely on outside knowledge that you don’t know–likely there will be some answer choices you can eliminate so that you can take a better guess.



Main Takeaway: If you wrote about the Civil Rights Movement, you’re not alone.

This was the first test administration featuring the new ACT essay format. It turned out to be exactly as expected based on the sample essay prompts that the ACT has released. This was my first attempt writing an essay cold on the new format, and even I struggled a little bit to tie everything together in a satisfactory manner. It’s a really challenging task and definitely worth the practice time if you are preparing for a future ACT!

I can’t give the topic here, but from what I’ve heard from students, the Civil Rights Movement was the go-to example. This has gotten a lot of students wondering if they are going to be penalized for choosing a too-common topic. The ACT’s answer would be that students aren’t graded on their choice of examples but rather how they use such examples to persuasively support an argument. Granted, I do wonder myself if there isn’t going to be a slight bias towards essays that bring in less well-known or more esoteric historical examples, simply because the topic will seem like a breath of fresh air to the graders.

Did you take the September ACT and have some thoughts to share on it? Let us know in the comments!


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About Kristin Fracchia

Dr. Kristin Fracchia makes sure Magoosh's sites are full of awesome, free resources that can be found by students prepping for standardized tests. With a PhD from UC Irvine and degrees in Education and English, she’s been working in education since 2004 and has helped students prepare for standardized tests, as well as college and graduate school admissions, since 2007. She enjoys the agony and bliss of trail running, backpacking, hot yoga, and esoteric knowledge.

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