Monday, January 21, 2019

Preparing for the ACT test

There are many resources and strategies available online and in bookstores, and a lot of advice out there, devoted to the subject of ACT test preparation. In this post, I weigh in by offering my own advice and ideas for preparing for this test.

First, let's cover some real basics about the ACT test. The test is broken up into five sections: English, Math, Reading, Science, and Writing. The test is scored from 1 to 36.

English - 75 questions, 45 minutes
Math - 60 questions, 60 minutes
Reading - 40 questions, 35 minutes
Science - 40 questions, 35 minutes
Writing - Five paragraph essay on a given prompt, 40 minutes

Here's some general advice I've heard from teachers and those who've taken the test in recent years: If you're doing test prep, focus more on the English and Math sections, and you'll do well. For the Reading portion, don't spend too much time on any one question (a good general rule for all sections, actually). You'll need to skim quickly. Reading is arguably the easiest section, but you have to move through it fairly quick due to time constraints. For the Science part, you probably never learned or will remember half this stuff, if not more. But that's certainly okay. We already expect that. Check out this post specifically devoted to preparing for the science test on ACT for some great advice and strategies.

Now, while there are many resources, strategies, and opinions out there on how best to study and prepare for the ACT, I respectfully submit that you should focus more on building your long-term memory retention and learning strategies over an extended period of time, rather than searching for a quick fix to the test, so to speak.  Here's what I propose:

For starters, as I point out in a previous post on how to properly prepare for tests and exams, cramming for any test is a useless strategy. Any benefit that may derive from cramming is far too small to be worth the hassle.

Take all of your classes seriously. If you do, you're already naturally learning, expanding your mind, and preparing for the test. You're learning math; you're practicing and sharpening your reading, writing, and vocabulary skills; you're learning science; you're learning how to think critically and connect the dots to a bigger picture; etc. Commit to taking all of your classes seriously, and seek additional help where needed. There is never any shame in asking for help.

Get in the habit of studying and reviewing regularly. If you do that, you can study for shorter amounts of time at a time, and you can avoid the pains and stress that come with trying to cram. Plus, you're naturally building up your long-term memory.

Supplement your learning in the classroom by learning outside of the classroom. This can be very fun and tailored to your own interests and curiosities. Museums and historical sites, documentaries, insightful conversations with others, participation in clubs and activities at school, reading for enjoyment, and lessons through Khan Academy are just a few examples. Read this previous post for more ideas.

Practice and build on your writing and vocabulary skills with writing prompts.

Consider making use of flash cards when studying and reviewing. You can buy them or create your own for a more tailored studying experience. Making your own will also naturally help with the long-term memory retention because you're actively building your own study aids and learning while you create.

Sure, invest in a good ACT prep guide or two. Attend a practice workshop. Take a couple ACT practice tests. But don't buy/read/attend/take them the week or even several weeks before the actual test and think you're going to instantly master it. Buy these materials far, far in advance, and build them into a regular study and review routine that includes the work you're already doing for your classes. Again, if you can get into the habit of studying and reviewing regularly, you can actually study for shorter amounts of time at a time, while simultaneously strengthening your long-term memory and avoiding the unnecessary pains and lack of results that come with cramming.

Finally, remember that you can retake the test, and know that the test does not define you. Take it from me - I was a total slacker in high school, and I'm now a Ph.D. student.

Best of luck!

"ACT test tips" search on YouTube

"ACT test prep 2019-2020" search on Amazon

"ACT Tips and Tricks to Reach Your Target Score" (from

Letter of the day method for guessing on tests (from

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