Five Tips For Tackling The ACT



Attention Juniors! Now is the time to prepare for the ACT. Perhaps you have been studying for several months. I certainly hope so! If not — if you are now diving into ACT prep — worry not, as you still have time to strategize. Here are some tips on how to get started.

Tip #1: Make sure you’ve selected the right test for YOU

First and foremost, make sure that the ACT is the right test for you. You’ll want to take timed ACT/SAT practice tests to find out which one is the best fit. After this, consider: which test was more comfortable for you? The ACT is a faster-paced test with more questions—yet the material is typically presented straightforwardly. The SAT allows slightly more time per problem, yet it requires more strategy, especially when it comes to math. “Left-brained” students who excel in math/science usually prefer the ACT, whereas more “right-brained” students who excel in the humanities usually prefer the SAT. There are several other differences, including the fact that the ACT has a Science section and the SAT does not.

Tip #2: Don’t let the Science section scare you!

Have no fear, friends—the ACT Science section, though complicated looking, actually requires little to no scientific knowledge. It is mostly a glorified graph and chart reading section that calls on your math, logic and visual skills. It also includes one comparative reading section, which you should approach like any other reading passage. The truth is, the more you overthink the scientific elements of the section—e.g., what a complicated word or phrase means—the more you’ll fall behind. Focus on the charts and graphs, and use logic. If you are thinking too hard about actual scientific justifications, you are likely spending too much time on a given question.

Tip #3: Strategize your pace

Remember that every single question is worth the same amount of points. You don’t get extra credit for nailing that super hard math problem that took you ten minutes to solve. When you obsess and stress over one question, you lose valuable time that you could spend solving five others. It’s in your best interest to move quickly, remembering how much time you have to answer each question:

  • English: 36 seconds per question
  • Math: 1 minute per question (we recommend that you spend 25 minutes on the first 30 questions and 35 minutes on the last 30 problems, as the questions move from easy to hard)
  • Reading: 8 minutes and 45 seconds for each passage and its ten questions.
  • Science: 52 seconds per question
  • Essay: 40 minutes
  • There is no penalty for guessing, so be sure to answer all questions!

Tip #4: Practice the “Two-Thirds Rule”

If you keep running out of time on a particular section, you’ll want to implement the “2⁄3rds Rule.” The 2/3rds Rule means that you will spend all of your time nailing 2⁄3 of the questions—the most straightforward questions—and guessing on the rest. On the English section, for example, you would spend most of your 45 minutes on the 50 easiest problems (e.g., those that focus on punctuation, usage, and grammar, not style, organization or strategy). You would then guess on the remaining 25 questions. The 2/3rds Rule may sound like a crazy approach, but it will improve your score, particularly on sections you are struggling to complete.

Tip #5: Read for the main idea; mine for the details

When you tackle the reading section, make sure that you speed read each passage for the main idea only, and then mine the text for necessary details as you go through each question. If you are having trouble finishing the reading section, try implementing the 2⁄3rds rule and focusing on three out of the four passages. If you do reach the fourth passage with a minute or two to spare, you can answer the vocabulary-in-context questions (i.e., the problems that ask the meaning of a word within the sentence) and guess on the rest.

Pamela Donnelly is a 20-year educator, Ivy League graduate, and founder of the comprehensive Ed-tech platform GATE College System, a program co-developed by 15+ Ivy League educators that is equalizing access to college prep resources for underprivileged students across t