6 Strategies to Maximize Your Performance on the ACT

6 Strategies to Maximize Your Performance on the ACT

For the vast majority of American colleges and universities, the most important factor in deciding which students to admit is high school grades. Higher educational institutions give high priority to what they see on your transcript for several reasons, including the fact that your grades demonstrate not only what you know, but also what kind of study habits you have and how well you prepare for tests. In addition, because your transcript covers several years of work, they show where you’re making progress, and in which subjects.

Although grades provide the best picture of how well you’re likely to perform in college, most schools also take into account your performance on the ACT or SAT. An increasing number of accredited colleges and universities (950 at the most recent count) have made submission of these standardized test scores optional, but odds are that one or more of the schools you’re considering will want to see how well you perform in a standardized test setting. Fortunately, there are effective ways to prepare for these tests, and strategies you can use to improve your scores.

Should I enroll in an ACT Prep Course?

If you’re ramping up to take the ACT on June 10 (the registration deadline is May 5, by the way) and you haven’t taken an ACT prep course, this question is moot, and you might feel as if you missed the boat. You should know, however, that the research on the extent to which these courses help students is unclear. According to Education Week, for example:

“No federal agency has stepped in to provide industry oversight, so experts suggest that consumers do their homework before shelling out money and make sure the prep service is the right fit for their child. For some students, one-on-one tutoring is the most cost-effective; others do best in a classroom. And for many, a $25 test-prep book or free online tests is all they need.”

Said differently, one of the best ways to prepare for the ACT is knowing what to expect (including the different sections of the test how questions are structured and scored) and honing your skills by working with a free ACT practice test. That said, here are 6 strategies which will help you prepare and achieve stronger scores:

1. Calm Down and Don’t Cram

It’s normal to get last-minute jitters. Most students, convinced that their performance on the ACT could mean the difference between getting into their first-choice college and having to settle, get a case of nerves in the weeks before the test.

You need to remind yourself, however, that the ACT is a test of skills and knowledge you’ve acquired over an extended period of time, and that there’s really no effective way to cram for it. It’s also important to remember that the more relaxed you are during the test, the better you’ll be able to remember what you’ve learned, approach each question strategically, and avoid costly mistakes.

2. The English Section

You’ll have 45 minutes to complete the English section, which consists of 75 multiple-choice questions on grammar, punctuation, sentence structure and rhetorical skills.

You’ll be presented with sentences and paragraphs and asked to identify errors. Read the sentence or paragraph carefully. In some cases, the error will be obvious to you. In others, you won’t find any error. In these instances, look for one of the four most common errors:

  1. Subject-verb errors
  2. Pronoun errors
  3. Sentence structure errors
  4. Awkwardness and verbosity

3. The Mathematics Section

You’ll have 60 minutes to complete 60 multiple-choice questions which test your understanding of:

  • Algebra: including 14 pre-algebra questions, 10 on elementary algebra and 9 on intermediate algebra;
  • Geometry: including 14 on plane geometry and 9 on coordinate geometry; and
  • Trigonometry: including 4 questions based on basic sine, cosine, and tangent functions, trig identities, and graphing.

The ACT does not provide math formulas, so it’s important that you’ve memorized the most important ones. The ACT does allow you to use a calculator, so plan on bringing one the day of the test.

To improve your performance on the Math section of the SAT:

  • increase your confidence by practicing using the free practice test
  • move through easy questions quickly (the Math section presents the easiest questions first)
  • don’t spend too much time on questions which totally confuse you; sometimes it’s better to guess and move on
  • break up word problems into pieces

4. The Reading Section

The reading section is 35 minutes long includes 4 reading passages, each with 10 multiple-choice questions. To improve your score, first “preview” each passage, scanning it to pick up the main ideas. Then read it carefully to fill in details and, finally, review it to be sure you fully comprehend it. Try to identify any connections between the ideas in each passage. Finally, it’s a good idea to underline key sections so you can quickly return to them to answer questions.

5. The Science Reasoning Section

You’ll have 35 minutes to answer 40 multiple-choice questions on science-based passages which include charts, graphs, tables and research summaries. For each passage, use the same preview, read and review strategy you used in the Reading Section. In each chart, graph or table, pay attention to what’s being measured and how variables relate to one another. Don’t be thrown off by highly-technicaljargon that usually has little or nothing to do with the questions you’ll be asked.

6. The Writing Test

The Writing Test is optional. If you’re a strong writer, you should opt to write the required essay—if you’re not, skip it. If you opt to take the Writing Test, organize your ideas into the standard essay format—usually 5 paragraphs including an introduction, in which you present your main ideas, 3 body paragraphs, each supporting 1 of your main ideas, and a conclusion, which reiterates your introductory idea.


Adequately preparing to be admitted to your first-choice college or university is about more than standardized tests. It’s about learning who you are and what most interests you, testing the limits of your knowledge and capabilities and maximizing your academic potential.

In our experience, that means learning in one-to-one classrooms in each of your core subjects, an approach that recognizes individual student learning differences and needs. To learn more about the ways our private, one-to-one approach can help you become the best student possible, contact us today.