My top tip for improving performance on the ACT

ACT test prep

The ACT can be a tough experience. There are tons of questions and little time to complete them. They often seem confusing and misleading, and it’s even easier to become confused when you’re rushing to finish on time. But like all other standardized tests, the ACT relies on a formula. To succeed, you just need to crack that formula. 

The ACT formats its questions and answer choices in a very specific—and tricky—way. The test purposefully asks questions that are easy for students to misinterpret when they’re rushing through the exam. Students frequently scan the first few words and assume the content of the question without reading it fully, then choose an answer to a question they were not actually being asked. And, since the ACT expects students to make this mistake, it conveniently offers that wrong answer as a choice. Students feel reassured when they see their exact answer and select it, not realizing they’ve answered a question that doesn’t exist.

When I was preparing for the ACT, I found overwhelmingly that most of my errors were the result of this type of rushing (more than 90 percent!). Allow me to repeat for emphasis. More than 90% of my errors were because I was rushing. If there’s one piece of advice I can offer that will immediately and significantly improve your performance on this exam (and, truthfully, most others), it is to read each question thoroughly. I know that this is common advice, but it’s for good reason. 

Consider this example ACT math question:

There is a regular deck of 52 cards. What is the probability that Joy will draw a card that is a red 5 OR a card that is a black 8?

A) 4/52 = 1/13
B) 5/52
C) 8/52 = 2/13
D) 13/52 = 1/4

The answer is A. There are two red 5s in a deck of cards (5 of hearts and 5 of diamonds) and two black 8s (8 of spades and 8 of clubs). 4 * (1/52) = 4/52 = 1/13.

But someone reading the question quickly may easily choose C instead. If they’re scanning, they might assume the question reads, “What is the probability that Joy will draw a card that is a 5 OR a card that is an 8?”, completely missing the color. They would calculate that there are four 5s and four 8s in a deck of cards and select C (8 * 1/52 = 8/52 = 2/13). If that was actually the question they were supposed to answer, the student would be correct. But it wasn’t, and so they’re wrong.

Here's another example, this time from the reading section:

Of all invertebrates, octopuses and squids (cephalopods) have the most complex eyes. Like vertebrates, they have camera eyes, so-named because the eyeball is structured along the lines of a camera. Its interior is a darkened chamber. Light enters through a pupil, an opening in a ring of contractile tissue called the iris (equivalent to a camera diaphragm). Behind the pupil a lens focuses light onto a retina, a tissue packed with photoreceptors (in a camera, onto light-sensitive film). Cephalopods and vertebrates are only remotely related, so similarities in their eyes might be a result of convergent evolution.

The passage compares the retina in the most complex invertebrate eye to the:

A) darkened chamber of a camera
B) diaphragm of a camera
C) light-sensitive film in a camera
D) lens of a camera
E) iris of a camera

The passage explains that “[behind] the pupil a lens focuses light onto a retina, a tissue packed with photoreceptors (in a camera, onto light-sensitive film).” Thus, the correct answer is C. But a quick reader can easily choose the wrong answer. They might select D because this sentence also mentions a lens, which is coincidentally both a part of an eye and a camera. They may also choose A because they looked only for the key term “most complex invertebrate eye” and chose the first description they saw: “a darkened chamber.” A thorough reader can answer this question easily, but a scanner can just as easily select the wrong answer.

I know the ACT is timed, and you need to move quickly to finish on time, but this is the one area where speed is most often not helpful. So, read the questions fully and thoroughly. Underline important information and cross out distractors and obviously wrong answers. Answer the question the exam is actually asking you, not the question you assume it is. Do this, and you will see marked improvement almost immediately.

Alexa graduated cum laude from Harvard College with a Bachelor of Arts in Social Studies and a secondary degree in Psychology. She earned high departmental honors in Social Studies, and her thesis on political myths, critical theory, and female social mobility received magna distinction.


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