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How to Improve Your ACT Score

Posted Tuesday, September 30, 2014
It's that time of year again when ambitious high school students start obsessing about doing well on the ACT or SAT. Obviously you need to know the material well, but knowing some general strategies can also help your score.

Here are some general tips, courtesy of my younger son, who is currently a junior at Brown. He got a perfect 36.0 composite score on the ACT twice as well as a 240 on the PSAT. The second ACT sitting was due to a bureaucratic graduation requirement because his first effort was taken as a sophomore, which didn't "officially" count — a rant for another day!

• Know your grammar rules cold; both the ACT and the SAT delight in offering you trick answers which "sound right" to the native ear and might even be acceptable in casual conversation, but don't actually follow the formal rules.

• In the reading section, you must consider all the answers. The "correct" answer is often the least worst. Any answer that has the tiniest factual detail wrong should be eliminated, even if it sounds like the best answer. Pick the last man standing.

• In math, pause for a couple of seconds to reflect before grabbing your calculator — that calculator can often become more of a crutch and a distraction than a useful tool because it encourages you to attempt to use brute force rather than to analyze the problem to see if there is a shortcut. The math section is designed to be fully answerable in the time allotted even without the use of a calculator. My son didn't even bother to bring a calculator for his PSAT and his second ACT and still got all the answers correct.

• In ACT science, there often isn't enough time to carefully read all of the presented body text and still answer all the questions. Begin by looking at the questions presented and the charts and graphs; quickly scan the body copy for any unanswered questions. If the answer to a given question isn't immediately apparent, move on and finish the rest of the test first and then come back to review the handful of missed items. Remember the objective is to finish answering the most questions possible, regardless of sequence!

• In general, you should consider each problem holistically: the answer choices presented often offer clues. There is often a back-door shortcut, especially in the math section: keep that in mind as you take the test. And if the problem seems too difficult, take a deep breadth and try looking at it from a slightly different perspective.

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Tags: education, test prep, college

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