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A streamlined prep guide for the ACT featuring concise lessons that will boost scores dramatically by teaching students how the questions are asked and the best strategies for getting to the right answer quickly.
In Acing the ACT, internationally renowned tutor Elizabeth King delivers a decade’s worth of secret insights for unlocking solutions to the trickiest questions on the ACT. She offers her closely guarded personal tips in stress-free, down-to-earth language that’s easy to understand and remember. No matter how you read this pocket guide-—cover to cover, or skipping around—these strategies will make your score pop, even if you’re already a top scorer. Whether you’re studying months ahead, or prepping last-minute, Acing the ACT delivers higher scores, fast.
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The purpose of each subsection of the ACT isn’t clear to most test takers.
The ACT includes four test sections: English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science, plus an optional Writing section (an essay that, incidentally, many colleges require). It could be argued that the purpose of every section is different than the purpose of the others—and this goes far beyond topic.
The English and the Math sections largely test what you know. You might even say that 75 percent of these sections are testing facts and skills: grammar rules, math formulas, rules of writing mechanics, translating English into algebra, and so on. The other 25 percent may be questions about how and why we use these rules.
Meanwhile, the Reading and Science sections are an inversion of that: They’re all about application. They investigate how students think and process information, and include far fewer questions about information students might know ahead of time. In fact, it is incredibly rare for these sections to ask students to know a fact like a definition or a specific scientific term that would have been learned in school. This means that the best way to see scores increase quickly is to focus on three things.
First, learn the facts and skills tested in the English and Math sections.
Second, understand strategy and how the Reading and Science sections apply reasoning in standardized ways.
Third (and this is what brings home those top scores), students should develop connoisseurship of ACT-style tricky questions. We have fit as many of these insights as we could into Acing the ACT and have developed codes for their styles so you can understand them even more easily; you’ll find out more in the section about note-taking below.
Students are superstitious and follow the pattern of answers, thereby psyching themselves out and sometimes even changing their (correct) answers.
The pattern of answer choices on the ACT is computer generated. Honestly, it’s completely randomized, and yet so often students say, “Oh, I saw too many Es in a row, and that freaked me out, so I changed my answer to C.”
Paying attention to the pattern in the answer choices is the death knell for your confidence and sanity, but changing your answer because of the pattern on the answer sheet is off-the-charts nuts. I don’t want to waste time on this but I’m deadly serious.
You know you’ve thought about whether the answer choice pattern matters. The pattern doesn’t matter. Period.
Nobody knows how to take useful, strategic notes.
The scope of the ACT is very broad, particularly the English and Math sections. It tests dozens upon dozens of topics. Not realizing this, students often don’t take notes about their patterns, habits, and mistakes while they’re studying; they use the “Oh, I’ll just remember that” plan, particularly for little details. Let’s face it: fifty tedious questions later, you won’t remember what you had trouble with earlier.
Let’s discuss how to take notes that will actually help you score higher.
First, you absolutely have to take notes on any practice tests you take. Don’t rely on your memory. Get a notebook and a pencil (no, not a pen) and plan to take notes from the very beginning of your studies. The earlier in the process you do this, the easier it’ll be to sort through stuff and start to recognize patterns in the types of errors you make; you need time to see the particular questions that make you stumble.
The path to your top score is buried under your personal patterns and habits.
Now, you want to go into your ACT prep knowing that there’s actually a finite number of skills on which they’re going to test you and a handful of different ways they test that material. It’s up to you to track your experience.
Instead of approaching each practice question as a stand-alone problem, remember that you’ll never see exactly the same problem ever again; you’ll see only similar problems that address the same skills or that use the same question styles to test your knowledge of particular topics. That means that your notes need to do two very important things.
Your notes need to help yousee the mistake you made on that particular question.
remember the correct approach to that particular question style when you encounter it later.
If they don’t do those two things, your notes will do little to help you remember and apply that concept or note on test day, when it really matters.
Let me give you an example of a useless note. They can look pretty legit, so you have to know what we’re looking for. Recently, I had a student who wrote in his notebook about one particular problem the words don’t use decimals. His note to himself literally looked just like that in his notebook:
12. Don’t use decimals.
That was it!
It’s true that on that particular question it was better to use fractions than decimals, but that isn’t always the case, so “don’t use decimals” wasn’t good general advice. Not only did he not explain to himself why fractions were better on this individual problem, but he also had not written anything to help him on any question he’d see again.
A better note, the kind of note I teach top scorers to take, would say something like this:
12. Look for fraction problems that could involve canceling, especially when is involved. Don’t switch to decimals. Keep fractions and cancel when possible on an estimation problem.
My students use an effective and easy categorization method for note-taking. It’s useful for all note-taking at the high school and college level, but it’s especially good for ACT prep. It’s based on the understanding that whenever you incorrectly answer an ACT question, there are only three possible reasons that happened.
Let’s take a look.
Memorization: You need to learn something new or refresh an old skill.
The memorization category will be the first category of notes you take, and you’re going to mark them in your notes with a code so that it stands out to you. In Acing the ACT I’ll note these things with the symbol M. Put the same symbol in your own notes for anything you need to memorize.
You’ll probably get some questions wrong because you legitimately didn’t know the fact or skill being tested. Maybe you were missing a comma rule or you forgot your special triangles in geometry. Some questions on the ACT refer to things you probably haven’t seen in years. Most kids never have a grammar course in school, so you may have never even learned the rules in the first place.
You’ll want to write down every single thing you uncover that you need to understand and/or have memorized: formulas, methods, and rules. Believe me when I tell you this test has some serious scope, so start writing down everything that needs memorization ASAP.
Write it all down. Highlight it all with your code. Actually create a plan to memorize all of it.
Memorizing and reviewing what you’ve memorized should take up 10 to 15 minutes of your day, max, if you start prepping early enough.
Waiting until the last minute not only makes the memorization more difficult, but also gives you fewer opportunities to apply those formulas in real-time practice. Don’t slack!
Tricky Questions: The special ACT setup or question phrasing confused you. These are the ones with the bad rap, the “trick” questions, the ones that make students mad, confusing them and burning up their precious time.
I’m not down with the “trick” question ethos; I like to call these guys the tricky questions because they’re just creative, not necessarily super difficult or super mean. The ACT is very predictable in the ways it makes easy tasks challenging. Since this is the book of secrets, most of what we cover in Acing the ACT addresses tricky questions.
Notes about tricky questions are meant to illustrate how you got something wrong even though you knew all of the technical rules needed for the question. You were somehow confused or misled by the way the ACT question was asked; the way the game is played got the best of you. For all of the memorization you need to do, it’s even more important to write things down like
Q 27. I knew I needed the radius but I didn’t see that I had to use the circumference formula to find it.
So much of Acing the ACT is dedicated to these particular questions because they embody what makes the ACT the ACT. You’ll want to look at these tricky questions even if you’re coming into this test with a solid score.
E: Human Error: You make mistakes just like everyone else.
The biggest mistake students make is not tracking their “careless errors.” Personally, I don’t believe these errors are actually careless; they’re habitual—and it’s possible to stop making them if you keep track of them.
Some parts of human error you can’t control, and that’s fine; that’s the main reason I never let my students set perfection as their goal on the ACT. Perfection is a worthless pursuit, and not even a perfect score will guarantee your acceptance at top schools.
That said, some people make the same mistakes over and over. Errors that qualify as “careless” might include constantly overlooking negative signs on the Math section or misreading the same sorts of graphs on the Science section. A surprisingly reliable way to stop making these types of mistakes is to notice and log when you make them.
Seriously, if you make a mistake like not answering the question or incorrectly copying the problem, write down the exact mistake you made every time it happens and put a big next to it. Believe me, once you see that you constantly screw up, say, semicolon questions, you’re going to start caring, noticing, and not making that mistake anymore.
Remember, there are only three kinds of mistakes: ,, and . Everything you’ll see will fall into one of those categories; take advantage of that organization system early on. Logging every kind of error you make gives you a nuanced understanding of your personal experience with the test, of why your score might be below your goal, and of what you personally need to do to fix that.
Let’s dig into each test.
Table of ContentsA Note from Elizabeth
The English Test
The Math Test
The Reading Test
The Science Test
The Most Important Secret
M Card: What to Memoriz
About the Author