A few tips from someone who scored a 35

Jun 13, 2001

The Bottom Line Not to brag or anything; it's just that I might be able to help you, because I'm so much smarter than you, you know?

And how did I win that almost-perfect score on the ACT? Well, for one thing, Iím somewhat intelligent. Exactly how intelligent I am depends on who you ask; strangers, teachers, or friends who have witnessed my frequent blonde moments will give differing opinions. But as anyone teaching a course or writing a book about the ACT would tell you, intelligence doesnít really matter anyway. A much more important factor in high scores is determination to do well, in the form of studying and taking the test seriously.

A few myths cleared up:

Your score on the ACT will not determine the difference between a brain surgeon and a bum living on moldy potato salad behind the neighborhood Safeway. It could make or break your acceptance to a marginally better college. And that is all it will do. Except give bragging rights to insecure people who happen to be good test-takers, of course.

Before the Test

To earn a score high enough to really be proud of, you must start early. How early? Around 2-3 years is a good age. No, Iím not asking you to have your toddler take practice tests before he or she has learned to drink from a straw properly. Iím talking about reading to your children. A common thread that I have noticed among my friends who have scored highly is that they all love to read, and read widely and often. If the last time you opened a book was to copy the inside cover of Where the Red Fern Grows for your fourth grade book report, itís still not too late to start. Proceed directly to the library and check out two books: one that looks challenging and one that looks easy and interesting. Read for thirty minutes before you go to bed each night until they are finished. Repeat. Do this for a long enough period of time, and I can almost guarantee youíll get at least a 27--enough to get into just about any college in the country.

That will probably take care of the English and Reading sections. (I read more than anyone I know, and I scored a perfect 36 in both.) Mathematics is just as simple. Take the most challenging math courses offered by your high school, study and make the best grades you can, and donít forget what you know. Math is different from most other subjects in that it builds on itself. A concept your class reviewed in eighth grade pre-Algebra that seemed pointless at the time will make perfect sense three years later in math analysis. The practice test included with the ACT registration materials will tell you what you should know. If your score on this part of the test is below your expectations, pick up a book designed to boost your math skills for standardized tests and study it.

Non-science fanatics, donít let the Science section scare you. There are very few science concepts youíll need to understand to do well on this portion of the test. The science section is less a review of how well you did in Chemistry than an analysis of how well you interpret various charts and graphs. My advice for a high score in science is to take as many practice tests as possible. The questions on this part of the test are perhaps the most predictable, so once you learn the formula well, you wonít have much of a problem. Also, this is the last section, so unless you have superhuman powers of concentration, youíll be extremely tired and probably having trouble thinking or even caring. Hang in there, though; itís almost over.

If all this seems like way too much work because youíre adverse to such dramatic lifestyle changes and are only looking for an easy way to boost your score a few points:

May I suggest investing in one or two of the excellent books on the market designed to improve your scores? You should do this anyway, whether you take my earlier advice or not, because the ACT is formulaic. Year after year, the questions are almost exactly the same. Learn one set of questions and you can easily answer another. Practice, practice, practice practice tests until you can tell me what the 13th question in the English section will likely be over and how difficult it will be. Familiarity breeds contempt for the test makersí predictablilty breeds mastery of that predictablity.

The Day of the Test

Youíve probably heard everything here before, but Iíll repeat it in case you werenít listening the first seventeen times. Get lots of sleep, eat a good breakfast, get to the test center early, have your admission ticket, i.d., pencils, and acceptable calculator (trust me; I know the test booklet says you donít need a calculator, but you will need a calculator), bring a watch, donít be nervous, donít make the test-givers nervous, and donít even begin to think of giving anyone the slightest impression that you are cheating, because I have heard of several cases of people getting kicked out and losing their $22 -- some who deserved it and some who didnít.

Bring a snack and a caffeine-laced soda to ingest during the break. And be sure to go to the bathroom.

While taking the test, try to forget everything around you and concentrate, calmly, on the words in front of you. Eliminate answers (donít be afraid to write in your test booklet; thatís what all that blank space is for) and guess if you need to. Unlike the SAT, the ACT doesnít penalize you for guessing. Write down the starting and finishing times so you can fill in random answers in case you run out of time. If you have extra time in a section, go back over it. Make sure you filled in the right ovals on the answer sheet and take your time to deliberate over the more difficult questions. Stretch between sections. Most of all:

Donít Panic!

Tell yourself that, even if you donít get a wonderful score this time, you can always take it again (and again, and again, and again...) Think of the test as a challenging crossword puzzle or brain teaser, not as something that will affect you the rest of your life. Itís not that important anyway, and is becoming less and less important every year, as many colleges donít even require standardized test scores anymore. If you do well on the ACT, wonderful, your choice of colleges will be that much wider. But if you donít, donít let it get you down... Youíre still probably smarter than the president.

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