A common question that almost every high school student will have at some point is “Should I take the SAT or the ACT?”

Most of you will have some familiarity with the SAT and its younger sibling, the PSAT, through school administered tests. Because of this, a majority of you will choose to take the SAT, simply because you have never taken the ACT before. But in reality, the ACT is not much different from the SAT, and with a few simple tips, you can learn how to adequately prepare and ace for the ACT.

General Tips

  1. If necessary, guess! 
  • Similarly to the SAT, there is no penalty for incorrect answers, so there is no harm in guessing!
  1. Understand the timing of each section of the ACT
  • When you are taking the test, it helps to understand roughly how much time you should be spending on each question, so you can pace yourself
  • If necessary, guess on harder questions in the interest of time
  1. Note the differences in answer choices
  • Typically incorrect answer options will all be based around the correct answer, so if you can find the commonalities between options, you have a better chance at finding the answer. 

English

The English section of the ACT is analogous to the Writing section on the SAT – you will be tested on grammar & usage, punctuation, sentence structure, strategy, organization, and style. Each question will reference a specific written passage, and will ask for the best way to improve a certain portion of the passage, or if no change should be made at all. The English section consists of 75 questions, to be answered in 45 minutes.

Here are some tips for taking the English section:

  1. Examine the underlined portions of the passage
  • Most questions will reference an underlined portion of the passage
  • Consider the specific elements of writing included in the underlined portion, and compare those elements across answer options
  • Some questions will ask you to base your decision on a particular element of writing (eg. tone), and others will ask you to choose the least acceptable answer
  1. Be aware of questions with no underlined portions
  • Some questions reference an entire portion of a passage, or the passage as a whole
  • Consider the logical development of ideas within the passage/paragraph
  1. Be aware of the writing style used in each passage
  • Depending on the writing style and tone of a passage (eg. formal vs informal, narrative vs essay, first person vs third person etc.), different changes to the passage will be more appropriate
  1. Reread using your selected answer
  • The simplest and most effective way to check if your answer makes sense is to reread the surrounding text with your answer in the passage
  • Read not just the sentence that the question is asking about, but the surrounding 1-3 before and after it so that you understand the context of a given sentence

Mathematics

The Mathematics section of the ACT is analogous to the Calculator Allowed Math section on the SAT, consisting of 60 questions and 60 minutes long. You will be tested on pre-algebra, elementary algebra, intermediate algebra, coordinate geometry, plane geometry, and trigonometry. ACT Math is generally viewed as slightly harder than SAT Math, but do not worry! As long as you have learned math skills up to precalculus, you will be fine!

Here are some tips for taking the Math section:

  1. Understand when and how to use your calculator.
  • Every ACT math question can be solved without a calculator, however whether or not it will actually help you is up to your ability. Understand when you answer faster using a calculator, and when you are faster solving by hand.
  • Your calculator may have many functions that you are unaware of. Knowing how to use the full capabilities of one’s calculator can help save a lot of time on the Math section.
  1. Make sure your answer is reasonable.
  • After you answer a question, try to reason to yourself if your answer makes logical sense. For example, if a question asks to solve for the age of a person and you got 1000 years old, then you should be very cautious of an error in your working out.
  1. Write down your working.
  • Do not write out every step as you would on a math quiz or test at school, but write down the necessary steps that would help you if you revisit the question at a later time.
  1. Double check your answers.
  • Plug your answers into formulas/equations to check if everything works out
  • If you have time, once you have answered all the questions to the best of your ability, go back and rework the problems you are uncertain on

Reading

The Reading section of the ACT is (as you may be able to guess) analogous to the Reading section of the SAT, and consists of 40 questions in 35 minutes. You will be tested on your ability to read closely, reason logically about texts using evidence, and integrate information from multiple sources.

Here are some tips for taking the Reading section:

  1. Read each passage carefully
  1. Refer to the passages when answering each question
  • Answers to some of the questions will be found by referring to what is explicitly stated in the text of the passages, whereas other questions will require you to determine implicit meanings and to draw conclusions, comparisons, and generalizations
  • Find evidence to your answer you answer any question
  1. If it helps you, annotate the passage as you read
  • Circle key words and ideas and label paragraphs
  • The amount you annotate is up to you – annotations help your understanding of the passage but hurt your speed
  1. Understand exactly how you like to approach passages and questions
  • Some like to read through the entire passage and then answer its corresponding questions, others prefer to read through a set of questions first and then read the passage, and others like to read through the passage and questions simultaneously

Science

The Science section of the ACT is unique to the ACT, and consists of 40 questions in 35 minutes. This is the section that many are understandably most wary of, as it is quite unfamiliar, but do not fret! You will be tested on interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning, and problem solving skills. Note that this means that you will not be tested on anything to do with scientific facts – although scientific knowledge can help for some questions, you could theoretically ace this section without knowing a single scientific fact! 

Here are some tips for the Science section of the ACT:

  1. Read the passage carefully
  1. If it helps you, annotate the passage as you read
  1. Note the different viewpoints in the passage
  • Some material will present conflicting viewpoints, and the questions will ask you to distinguish among them
  • It may be helpful for you to take notes summarizing each viewpoint about specific portions of the section
  1. Understand common scientific terms and the scientific method
  • Eg. independent, dependent and control variable, direct and inverse relationship
  1. Do not be afraid of or get distracted by big scientific terms
  • ACT Science will often ask you about straightforward science concepts in confusing ways, so try your best get to the roots of what the question is asking

Writing

The Writing portion of the ACT is analogous to the Essay portion of the SAT (which was recently removed) – an optional 40 minute essay. You will be given one prompt that describes a complex issue and provides three different perspectives on the issue, and are tasked with writing an essay in which you develop your perspective on the issue. Your essay must analyze the relationship between your own perspective and one or more other perspectives. Each essay is scored out of 12, based on competency in four “domains”: Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions.

Here are some tips for the writing section of the ACT:

  1. Plan out your writing
  • Before writing, carefully read and consider all prompt material
  • Be sure you understand the issue and the different perspectives on the issue
  1. Pace yourself
  • You will most likely only have enough time for an introduction, 2-3 body paragraphs, and a conclusion
  • Based off of your own previous experiences writing timed essays, budget your time accordingly
  1. Don’t be afraid to take perspectives you disagree with
  • Take the perspective that you believe you can produce the best possible essay, not necessarily the perspective that you personally agree with
  1. Review your essay
  • If you have time, read through your essay once you have finished
  • Ensure your logic is clear and that you are supporting your claims

Studying for the ACT

Put simply, the most effective way to study for the ACT is to take practice tests. You can find some free tests here: blog.prepscholar.com/complete-official-act-practice-tests-free-links. While there are many online ACT resources, the best resources will be official practice tests, as they will be most indicative of how you will actually fare on the ACT. 

Each year the ACT releases its own “Official ACT Prep Guide”, which contains real ACT questions. If you need additional study material, we highly recommend you to borrow it from a friend or a library, or if you are willing to, buy it. Other than the official prep guide, the two most popular ACT Prep books are those of Barron’s and Princeton Review, however it is widely agreed that the practice material in both of those books are more difficult than the actual ACT. This can be both a good thing and a bad thing: being over-prepared is certainly a good thing, however it can also be discouraging and an ineffective use of time.

Try to simulate an actual testing environment when studying – no distractions, and keep yourself to the same time restrictions as you would experience on an official ACT. It is usually better to work through full-length practice tests, however if you choose to work through one passage at a time make sure you keep the same time per passage (eg. one of the 4 passages on ACT Reading should take up a little under 12 minutes). 

After doing practice questions/a practice test, check your answers and review each question that you answered incorrectly. Make sure you understand both why your answer is incorrect and why the correct answer is correct. If there were questions that you just guessed correctly, go through the same process. ACT Writing is a bit harder to study for since you cannot grade it yourself. In this case, your only option is to ask a friend, parent, or teacher to read through your writing for you, and then have them tell you their thoughts.

For those of you who are dedicated, make a spreadsheet keeping track of your scores for each section and types of mistakes made over time. This way, you can pinpoint the exact areas where you are struggling, and work specifically to improve them. 

And that concludes Robin’s Nest Tutoring’s guide to success on the ACT. Keep in mind that what we say is entirely subjective, and by no means the definitive or the only way to succeed on the ACT! Instead, consider what we are saying as a foundation for you to discover your own methods for success.

Good luck!

If you are interested, here is a link to our similar article on how to study for the SAT. 

This article was written by Jeffrey Zhou. Jeff is a freshman at Cornell University, studying Engineering Physics. He does not participate in any other significant extracurriculars outside of Robin’s Nest, although he is currently in the process of introducing the organization to the local Cornell area.

This article was edited by Helen Xie. Helen is currently a sophomore at Lubbock High School and is involved in many extracurriculars in addition to volunteer work, including Model UN and Robotics.

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