Getting an outstanding score on the ACT isn’t just a matter of knowing all of the concepts that are being tested; it’s also important to have a collection of tried-and-true ACT test strategies in your arsenal. The ACT is the second most popular admissions test for applying to college in the United States, so it can feel like there’s a lot riding on the outcome.
Fortunately, there are ways even seasoned test takers can improve upon how they approach the ACT. Learn the following ACT test strategies from Piqosity to minimize test-taking stress and maximize your test-taking efficiency.
If you’ve taken the ACT before and are looking for tips on how to study more effectively, check out our article: How to Improve Your ACT Score.
Before You Begin: ACT Test Strategies for Before You Put Pencil to Paper
Piqosity’s list of ACT test strategies starts with some advice for the day before your exam. Here are some ways to reduce test-day stress with a little preparation.
- Pack everything you will need for the test the night before so you don’t have to worry about forgetting something on test day. Double-check to make sure you have:
- An eraser
- An approved calculator (with fresh batteries)
- A water bottle
- Snacks for your test break(s)
- Seriously, don’t forget snacks. In total, the ACT is a 3-hour exam. Your body will want fuel to help see it through this test-taking marathon.
- Don’t stay up late. Staying up late to cram will hurt you more than help you, as will staying out late with friends. Instead, do something fun and relaxing and get to bed early—a good night’s sleep will help to ensure you head into the ACT with maximum energy and focus.
General ACT Test Strategies
On to test day! Before we cover subject-specific ACT test strategies, we first want to cover a few things you can keep in mind throughout the whole test.
1. Focus on One Section at a Time
First of all, while you’re taking the ACT, it’s important to focus on only one section at a time. Although it will be tempting to spend time reflecting on previous sections, your mental energy will be better spent ensuring your optimal performance on the current section. You will have plenty of time to decompress and reflect after the whole test is finished.
2. Answer Easy Questions First
There is no rule that you have to answer the questions in order they’re presented. In fact, it’s usually a good idea not to! In general, one of the best ACT test strategies out there is to answer the easy questions first before circling back to the harder ones. So, when you are reading through the questions, try to group them into three categories:
- Easy Questions: that you fully understand and/or can answer immediately
- Hard Questions: that will take longer to understand or solve
- Hardest Questions: that you will likely never be able to answer in the time allowed
If you finish easy questions with time to spare, you can turn your attention to the “hardest” questions and make your best guess on the correct answer.
As a general rule of thumb, ACT questions typically start out easy and get progressively harder as you move through a section. In other words, don’t second-guess yourself if it seems like the easier questions are at the beginning.
3. Answer Every Question
There’s no penalty for wrong answers on the ACT, and therefore no benefit to leaving any of the multiple-choice questions unanswered. But don’t just guess randomly—here are a couple of ACT test strategies that maximize your guessing potential.
- Make Educated Guesses: Even if you don’t know which answer is right, you will probably be able to tell that at least one of the answers is wrong. Cross off the obviously wrong answers and choose from those that remain—your odds of getting it right will improve!
- Guess In a Pattern: If you can’t make an educated guess, or eliminate any wrong answers, you should still pick an answer. But even then, you can be strategic: pick the same letter (for instance, “C”) for every question you don’t know. Although it might seem counterintuitive, this method is actually more reliable than guessing “randomly.”
4. Budget Your Time
The ACT is a fast-paced test; you don’t want to lose time due to inefficiency. Here are some ways to help save time as you progress through your test.
- Don’t fill in your answers after each question: One of the ways that many students lose time when taking the ACT is by switching repeatedly between their test booklet and answer sheet. Instead of bubbling in your answer sheet after each question, wait until you have answered a full page of questions before filling in the answer bubbles. The exception to this guideline is when test-taking time is almost up; then you’ll want to fill in each answer as you go.
- Track your time: Consider bringing an analog or silent digital watch so you don’t worry about running out of time. But, be careful that you don’t lose precious time by obsessively checking to see how many minutes you have left; a quick glance at your watch after completing each page of questions is more than sufficient.
- Use your last few minutes to make sure you’ve answered every question: If you’re still working when you reach the final 5-10 minutes of each testing period, stop what you’re working on. Go back to the beginning and make sure that you’ve filled in an answer for every question, even if it’s a guess. You don’t want to have not answered questions just because you lost track of time!
Subject-Specific ACT Test Strategies
The ACT English test is a 75-question, 45-minute test that consists of five passages, each followed by 15 related multiple-choice questions.
The following ACT test strategies will help guide your approach to the ACT English test and maximize your chances of success.
- Look for Guideposts. You don’t want to lose too much time reading, so be strategic. Pay attention to the underlined portions of each passage, since the questions will mostly focus on those. If further context is necessary to answer the question, carefully read the sentences immediately before and after each underlined portion.
- Let the Answers Help You. Often, the answer choices will “telegraph” what kind of error(s) you should be on the lookout for. If the answers all have different punctuation, for instance, you can be sure that if there’s an error in the sentence, it has to do with its punctuation.
- Choose Short and Sweet. If you can’t figure out the right answer and are trying to make an educated guess, remember: often, the most concise answer is the correct one. If you’re struggling to choose between a wordy answer and a succinct one, go for the latter.
- “No Change” Isn’t a Trick. The first answer to many of the questions on the ACT English test is “No Change.” It’s not a trick—sometimes, there is no error in the underlined portion. All things being equal, “No Change” is the correct answer about 25% of the time, so you should expect to choose it for at least some of the answers.
The ACT Math test is a 60-question, 60-minute multiple-choice test on which a calculator is allowed.
You will want to learn all of the concepts and formulas for the ACT Math test in advance. Outside of those formulas, the following ACT tips for math should help you on test day.
- Work Backwards. You already know that the correct answer is one of four choices. If you’re not sure how to solve the problem, see if you can “back solve” by plugging each answer choice into the original problem. (Note: Not every problem can be solved this way—this method works best if the answer choices are all integers.) A related method, when dealing with questions that have a number of variables, is to substitute “easy” numbers for some or all of the variables, and work through the problem. “Easy” numbers are those which are straightforward to manipulate mathematically (like 1, 2, or 10).
- Use the Figures. When there is a graph, chart, or table involved in the problem, start there. If you can clearly understand what the figure is showing, you can use it to help solve any related questions. You can also sometimes use it to eliminate answers (for instance, if one answer choice is incompatible with a provided graph).
- Use Your Calculator Strategically. If you can solve a problem easily on paper, don’t waste time plugging it into your calculator. Instead, save it for harder questions like those testing geometry and trigonometry concepts, which usually appear in the last third of the ACT Math test.
The ACT Reading test is a 40-question, 35-minute test that consists of four sections, each of which presents either one or two prose passages and is accompanied by 10 multiple-choice questions. The four sections are about different topics, and always appear in the following order:
- Prose Fiction
- Social Science
- Natural Science
Although the ACT Reading section has fewer questions than the English and Math sections, it can still feel overwhelming because of the extended prose passages you have to read. Follow these ACT test strategies to make the Reading section manageable!
- Start with Your Strengths. Always begin with the reading passage which relates most closely to your personal interests. If your favorite subject in school is science, for instance, start with the Natural Science selection; if you love reading novels in your spare time, start with Prose Fiction.
- Read the Questions First. Before you start a passage, look over the questions that follow—they will give you a good idea of what’s most important to pay attention to when reading. (Often, the questions will directly reference specific lines in the text—make sure to mark those!) Then, after you have finished reading, try to answer the questions without looking at the answer choices; if your instinctive answer matches one of the choices, you can be confident it’s the right answer.
- Take Notes. As you’re reading, underline the key ideas in each paragraph, or make brief summaries in the margins. Remember, the correct answer to every ACT Reading question will be supported by evidence you can find in the text—having a roadmap to what’s most important will make it easier to find that evidence. Taking notes also helps to ensure your understanding of the passage; if you’re having trouble summarizing, it’s a good sign you need to re-read that paragraph.
The ACT Science test is a 40-question, 35-minute test that consists of several passages presenting scientific information in both text and graphic formats.
The ACT Science section is often the subject test that makes students the most nervous. (It’s also the last multiple-choice section, so students are in greater danger of feeling tired or losing focus.) The following advice should help to demystify this last multiple-choice section and help you develop a winning ACT Science strategy!
- Use the Visual Aids. If the passage includes tables, graphs, etc., look at them first! Often, the accompanying text is just an explanation of the data. If you can get the main point of the passage from analyzing the accompanying figures, you can avoid getting bogged down in the sometimes-confusing scientific language.
- Let the Questions Guide You. In addition to looking at the visual aids, you should also quickly read through the questions—they can help to guide your engagement with the passage by showing you what to be looking for. Then, when you’re reading, you will have a clear idea of which points are important, and which can be skimmed over.
- Save “Conflicting Viewpoints” for Last. The ACT Science test always includes one “Conflicting Viewpoints” passage, which will introduce a topic and then present two or more hypotheses or viewpoints about that topic. (It’s easy to spot because it usually has the most text.) Because the “Conflicting Viewpoints” section requires you to do more close reading—much like the ACT Reading test—it’s usually a good idea to save it for the end.
The ACT Writing test is an optional fifth and final section, in which students are allotted 40 minutes to write an argumentative essay about a controversial topic and 3 different points of view. Optional? Well, only some colleges want to receive ACT Writing scores. For more information on how to write a great ACT essay, be sure to check out our article on ACT Writing tips.
One Final ACT Test Strategy: Practice, Practice, Practice!
All of the ACT test strategies we’ve shared should help you on test day, nothing can replace the test prep you do beforehand. Piqosity offers a full suite of ACT prep materials: 10 full-length ACT practice tests, over 70 distinct concept lessons, personalized practice software, and much more. Right now, all of Piqosity’s ACT prep is absolutely FREE.
In addition, Piqosity’s blog offers free ACT practice tests with answers and explanations. Click through the links below to access the answer explanations to the ACT’s previously published practice tests:
- ACT Practice Test 2018-2019 (Form 74FPRE) Answer Explanations
- English Answer Explanations from 2020 ACT Practice Test
- Math Answer Explanations from 2020 ACT Practice Test
- Reading Answer Explanations from 2020 ACT Practice Test
- Science Answer Explanations from 2020 ACT Practice Test
- Writing Test Sample Essays from 2020 ACT Practice Test
- ACT Practice Test 2015-18 (Form 72CPRE) Answer Explanations
- English Answer Explanations from 2015-2018 ACT Practice Test
- Math Answer Explanations from 2015-2018 ACT Practice Test
- Reading Answer Explanations from 2015-2018 ACT Practice Test
- Science Answer Explanations from 2015-2018 ACT Practice Test
- Writing Answer Explanations from 2015-2018 ACT Practice Test
Curious about the effectiveness of ACT prep? Read Piqosity’s deep-dive article: Does ACT Prep Work?
Practice Your ACT Test Strategies with Piqosity
Piqosity provides personalized practice test questions that help you address and improve upon your weaker test subject areas. Our software is engineered to help students study smarter, not harder. Complete practice problems, test your understanding, and get help with comprehensive answer explanations, all in one place.
Piqosity is available for students trying to improve their ACT scores through solo-study, as well as for educators and tutoring companies looking for a quality, affordable LMS. Students can track their long-term progress, compete with their peers using our leaderboard, and see how they measure up to their goals using our prediction tool.
While our tools are perfect for online learning, you can always download ACT practice test PDFs for analog practice.
The best part? Piqosity for the ACT is entirely free during the pandemic (and is also typically available to try for free with our 7-day trial). Learn more and sign up today!
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