Kate Sundquist 11 min read ACT Info and Tips

10 Tips to Improve Your ACT Score

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Regardless of your first experience taking the ACT, the good news is that it’s likely that the test will get easier the second time you take it. While the questions, pacing, and format will remain the same, you will go into the test with a better idea of what to expect. Even your test anxiety is likely to subside slightly each time you walk into the testing facility.

 

Even better, the majority of students who retake a standardized test such as the ACT increase their scores the most between the first and second test administration. Furthermore, the lower your starting score was, the greater the average increase is between test scores. So if you’ve taken the ACT and are less than happy with your score, don’t lose hope. There are many ways to improve your score, and taking the test at all is an important first step.

 

Read on for our top 10 tops for improving your ACT score.

 

ACT Study Guide

 

The preparations for your next ACT start the second your first ACT is over.

 

The ideal scenario is this: You finish your ACT, the proctor collects your materials, you gather your belongings, and before you talk to anyone else, you get out a notepad and jot down every single thing you remember about the test. You might write down specific questions, you might list content areas that seemed foreign or more difficult than you expected, you may remember sections on which you ran out of time or had extra time. You might even write down parts of the test that seemed way too easy. These notes will become an important part of your study plan for future tests.

 

But don’t worry if your test is long over and you didn’t write anything down. Odds are, you remember more than you think you do. Set aside a few quiet minutes to really reflect on your testing experience. Actually visualize yourself in the testing room and try to remember as much as you can about the content, format, and general testing experience itself. Any memories are important, whether they’re parts of the test that seemed easy, features of the testing facility that distracted you, or sections you didn’t have time to finish. Use this list to guide your studying.

 

Know how to interpret your score report.

 

Usually your ACT test results are available two to eight weeks after your testing date. These results will be available online through your ACT web account, and they are also mailed to your high school. Your inclination is probably to view your composite score, have a glance at your section scores, and then either pin them on the fridge for all to see or bury them in the trash, depending on how you did.

 

Don’t be fooled into glossing over your score report. It actually contains a ton of useful information that can help to guide your studying for future tests. Specifically, you should pay attention to your subscores or “reporting categories.” This is a simple way to identify weak areas of content knowledge. Look at the Detailed Results section of your score report and find which subscores were lowest. This will give you a good idea of where you need to focus your studying.  

 

Section Reporting Categories
English Production of Writing (29-32%)

Knowledge of Language (13-19%)

Conventions of Standard English (51-56%)

Math Preparing for higher math (57-60%)

  • Number & Quantity (7–10%)
  • Algebra (12–15%)
  • Functions (12–15%)
  • Geometry (12–15%)
  • Statistics & Probability (8–12%)

Integrating essential skills (40-43%)

Modeling

Reading Interpretation of data (45-55%)

Scientific investigation (20-30%)

Evaluation of Models, inferences, and experimental results (25-35%)

Science Interpretation of data (45-55%)

Scientific investigation (20-30%)

Evaluation of Models, inferences, and experimental results (25-35%)

 

Set a target score.

 

Before you begin improving on your ACT score, you’ll need to set a target score to focus your study plan. Having a target score will give you a better idea of what you need to do to achieve it.

For example, if you know you want to score a 32, you know that on each section test your score should be no lower than a 30, and if you do think you’ll score a 30 on one section, you’d better be prepared to score a 34 on another section to even it out. You will also know that if you’re aiming for a 34 on the Science ACT, you can’t get more than two or three questions wrong. This might mean guessing on two questions that seem like they will take a lot of time, and devoting the rest of your attention to getting every single other question correct.

 

There are two factors to consider when setting your target score. First, you’ll need to consider your score on the first test. While it’s true that the lower your score, the more room there is for improvement, it’s also true that you need to set realistic goals. If you score a 22 on your first ACT, it’s pretty unlikely that you’re going to get a 36 the second time around. If you score a 23 or below, it’s probably feasible to aim for a five or even six point improvement if you really put yourself to work. However, if you score a 27 or above, a three or possibly even four point improvement, though possible, will be more difficult to achieve.

 

The other factor to consider is the score range of admitted students at schools you hope to attend. You can narrow your options by using the search tool at College Simply, which allows you to search by test score for colleges. Try entering your target score and see if the schools that come up are in line with the schools you hope to attend. If not, you’ll need to consider making some adjustments. You can also use our own CollegeVine college discovery tool. By signing up for your free CollegeVine account, you can discover schools in line with your GPA, test scores, preferences, selectivity, cost, and other factors. You can also save these schools to a master list and write notes about each one of them.

 

Figure out which mistakes you make most frequently.

 

After you’ve taken the ACT once, it’s much easier to identify the errors most likely to trip you up again in the future. If your score on the ACT is much lower than your score was on any of the practice ACTs that you took, it’s very likely that your performance suffered from test anxiety. The good news is that test anxiety generally abates each time you take the test. So, having taken the ACT once already, you’re likely to see an improvement the next time. To learn more about coping with test anxiety, read CollegeVine’s Dealing With Test Anxiety

 

If you find that your mistakes are clustered by content area, as identified on the Detailed Results section of your score report, then your weakness is likely specific content knowledge. This is fixable through further reinforcement of the content commonly found on the test.

 

If you find that your errors are spread across all content areas fairly equally, yet you had time left at the end of every test section, you may be rushing through your work and making careless mistakes on your way. You can test this theory by taking an untimed practice test and double-checking each answer. You may find that your mistakes almost disappear when the time requirement is gone. If this is the case, you’ll need to learn some time management strategies.

 

Evaluate your time management.   

 

The ACT is notoriously quick-paced. If you don’t keep moving through the questions at a rapid pace, you won’t have time to answer them all. Think carefully about your pacing during the test. Did you have tons of time leftover at the end of each section? You might be rushing too much. Did you run out of time during any sections? You aren’t moving through it quickly enough. A delicate balance must be struck in order to be successful on the test.

 

Be sure to bring an acceptable watch to the test and know exactly how much time you have for each section. Keep in mind that any watch that makes noises or has capabilities outside of timekeeping (e.g. internet connectivity, camera, etc.) is strictly prohibited. One good starting point is to have a general idea of the pacing for each section. 

 

For example, the math section has 60 questions that you’ll need to answer in 60 minutes, but because the questions are arranged by ascending difficulty, you should move through the earlier questions at a quicker pace to conserve time for the later, more difficult questions. Aim to complete the first 20 questions in 12 minutes, the second 20 questions in 15 minutes, and the remaining 20 questions in 30 minutes, with three minutes remaining to check your work or review.  

 

Here’s a table of how long you have for each section, and how many seconds you have per question.

 

Section Math English Reading Science
Total Number of Questions 60 75 40 40
Total Time Allotted (Minutes) 60 45 35 35
Number of Seconds Per Question 60 36 52.5 52.5

 

Also know that it’s okay to skip difficult questions on any section, and return to them at the end of that section. By not dwelling on questions that eat up your time, you’ll have that time to spend on the questions that you’re more likely to get right. Just make sure that even when you skip a question, you fill in your best guess on the answer sheet. There is no penalty for wrong answers, so no questions should ever be left blank.

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Learn a strategy to read quickly.

 

This goes hand in hand with time management. The Reading, English, and Science sections of the ACT are all reading heavy, and like the Math section, there is not a lot of time to complete them. For this reason, you should go into the test with a good idea of how you will tackle the written passages on each section.

 

For the Reading section, you will most likely need to learn how to skim a passage effectively. Some students like to read the entire first paragraph, the first and last sentence of the body paragraphs, and the entire concluding paragraph. Other students simply read the first and last sentence of every paragraph. Try different strategies on your practice tests to see which works best for you.

 

On the English and Science sections, questions are more targeted. In fact, some of the science questions can be answered without even reading the passage. Definitely go straight to the questions to see if you can answer them using only the informational graphics provided.

On the English test you can often get by with reading only sentences associated with questions. These will be underlined in the text. You might need to read the sentence before and after to get a better idea of context for some, but overall most questions will rely only on information in that sentence.

 

Again, practice a few strategies before the test, so that you can go into it knowing which works best for you.

 

Get help.

 

Many students have the idea that ACT tutors are a privilege reserved only for students who can afford the service. There are, however, some options available for much tighter budgets. Private one-on-one tutors are generally the most expensive option, but they may also be more efficient in terms of time and money. Research private tutors local to you to get a better idea of pricing and expectations. 

 

Local tutoring companies also may offer pro bono tutoring services to students who qualify; you can contact local companies directly to inquire about these services.

 

Alternatively, you might even find a mentor, teacher, or guidance counselor at your school who is familiar with helping students to prepare for the test. While professional tutors generally have more expertise, that doesn’t mean that you can’t find a mentor with the experience necessary to help you as needed.

 

Use the process of elimination to your advantage.

 

While it can be disconcerting to read a question and not have any idea about the answer right away, you can take heart in knowing that the answer is always right there in front of you on a multiple choice test. On the ACT, there are five answer choices for each question. This means that even without reading the question or the answers, you have a 20% chance of guessing correctly.

 

By using the process of elimination on questions that you can’t solve completely, you increase your chances of guessing correctly. By eliminating just one answer choice, your chances of guessing correctly increase to 25%. By eliminating two answer choices, you have a 33% chance of guessing correctly, and by eliminating three answer choices you have a 50% chance of guessing the correct answer. Those are pretty good odds for getting credit on a question that you couldn’t solve.

 

If you have absolutely no idea, and can’t eliminate any answer choices, then try the “letter of the day” strategy. Pick one multiple choice letter to consistently use every time you can’t eliminate any options, such as the letter C. This will give you a 20% chance of getting those questions right (if you were to switch letters each time, your odds would be much lower).

 

Learn the material that requires rote memorization.

 

Preparing for the ACT is a multidimensional affair. You need to learn test format, test strategy, and time management, in addition to the actual content of the test. And many of the skills assessed are soft skills—things like how to infer meaning while reading, or how to evaluate the ways ideas work together in a written text. In this manner, some of the content is harder to sit down and learn and requires a lot of practice, usually within the classroom.

 

But some content does lend itself well to rote memorization, and you should take advantage of this. For the math and grammar content on the ACT, simple, old-fashioned memorization can give you a big head start. Unlike the SAT, the ACT does not provide any references for use during the Math test, so your knowledge of basic formulas will be important. Make sure to memorize the following math formulas before the test:

 

  • Slope-intercept formula
  • Quadratic formula
  • Area of triangles
  • Pythagorean theorem
  • Special types of triangles (30-60-90, isosceles, equilateral, etc.)
  • Area of a circle
  • Circumference
  • Area of a sector
  • Area of a rectangle
  • Area of a parallelogram
  • Area of trapezoid
  • Trigonometry functions (sin, cos, tan, SOHCAHTOA)    

   

Similarly, there are elements of standard English conventions that can also be memorized. For some ideas on where to start, read CollegeVine’s 3 Grammar Rules Every Student Messes Up On the ACTand Four Common Mistakes to Avoid on Your English ACT.

 

PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE.

 

If you’re familiar with our blog, we know you’ve heard this one before. But we have to repeat it at every opportunity because it is the most important tool for preparing for any standardized test. Think about it this way—the ACT takes material that all high school students have supposedly learned, and tests it in a way that makes it extremely difficult to get a perfect or even near-perfect score. How do they do that? By creating a test that is intentionally tricky.

 

The only way to prepare for a tricky test is to take it enough that you know just what to expect, and that means using an ACT study guide and practicing often. You might start by taking each section of it without time constraints in order to get used to the content and directions. Then, try taking each section with the same time constraints you’ll experience during the actual test. Finally, take a few full-length practice test in simulated testing conditions. When you are comfortable with the test pacing, format, and content, you are better prepared for the test itself.

 

ACT Study Resources 

 

For more ACT resources and answers to common questions, check out these CollegeVine posts:

 

 

Looking to practice your ACT testing skills? Check out these free resources designed to help improve your score:

 

Princeton Review in-person test sittings: Many students struggle when trying to take ACT practice tests at home. After all, TV, cell phones, computers, and snacks all make for desirable distractions. Offering local, in-person test sittings, Princeton Review enables students to prep for the ACT in an environment that’s just like the actual test. You’ll sit for a paper-and-pencil exam while test proctors track and announce the time at intervals. Enter your zip code to find a testing location in your region.

 

Varsity Tutors diagnostic tests: Finding actual ACT practice questions online can be challenging, as there are fewer resources available than for the SAT. While Varsity Tutors doesn’t provide real ACT questions, the site does offer exams that enable students to practice key exam concepts. As a bonus, Varsity Tutors provides automatic scoring, so you can identify problem areas fast.

 

Union Test free practice exams: Visit Union Test to access complimentary practice ACT tests. Additionally, you can save time by opting to study only those subjects in which you’re struggling.

 

Want to know how your ACT score impacts your chances of acceptance to your dream schools? Our free Chancing Engine will not only help you predict your odds, but also let you know how you stack up against other applicants, and which aspects of your profile to improve. Sign up for your free CollegeVine account today to gain access to our Chancing Engine and get a jumpstart on your college strategy!

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Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.