-Post by Steve Dulan, Top Tier Admissions Tutor
The ACT is not an IQ test, meaning you can definitely improve your score through study and practice. I’ve helped thousands of students improve their scores significantly. If this were a measure of natural-born ability, I wouldn’t be able to say that.
So what does the ACT measure? Like most standardized exams, it measures a combination of knowledge and specific skills. As you probably already know, you can acquire knowledge and store it away in your brain for later use. In some cases, you can even “cram” the knowledge in right before an exam. But, perfecting skills requires repetition. When you first begin learning a new skill, whether it is learning to tie your shoes as a kid, or mastering a difficult piano sonata, you tend to go slowly and carefully and pick up speed after several repetitions. The ACT is just like that. In fact, managing your time is a huge part of ACT success. So, part of what the ACT measures is how well you take exams.
The test is predictable. There haven’t been any major changes to the exam in many years. (The recent changes to the essay portion are more evolutionary than revolutionary.) So, the ACT test that you take will be very similar to past ACTs. We study the exam and we wrote a book about it: McGraw-Hill’s ACT. So, we know how many of each question type you’ll see, what kinds of reading and science passages they’ll throw at you and what the graders are looking for on the essay portion. So, the best resource out there is “The Real ACT Prep Guide” that contains actual, released past exams.
We start all of our tutoring clients off with taking a released exam under realistic conditions, including strict timing. We use this as a diagnostic tool to identify areas that need work. You should always distinguish between knowledge and skills when you analyze your practice work. Holes in knowledge can be fixed relatively easily. Skills issues require practice to improve.
One of the key skills is maintaining the right mindset. You should be focused on the material rather than thinking about other things while you test. And, you should be working at your optimum “flow” pace. If you go too slowly, your mind can wander to real-world issues and random thoughts. If you go too fast, you can become overwhelmed. Your flow pace can be improved with repetition and knowing what to expect by increasing familiarity with the material. The goal is no surprises on test day. Your practice and review time is spent working out a plan of attack for each section and question type so that you know what to do on test day without hesitation or doubt.
There are 3 different modes for ACT practice:
- Practice Testing: which should be done several times during your prep to help reinforce what you’ve learned and to deepen your understanding of the ACT and how you react to the various sections and question types
- Basic Knowledge Studying: which is learning (or re-learning) the basics such as the Pythagorean Theorem, or how to use a semi-colon correctly
- “Cheating Mode”: where you turn off the clock and work through a set of questions one by one and “cheat” by looking at the explanations as you go. Each has its place in your overall plan.
The released exams that you take throughout your prep as “dress rehearsals” should be used to reprioritize your prep. Always work on your biggest issue. As you tackle challenges, keep moving forward to the next-biggest issue until you are doing as well as you can.
In a perfect world, you would be able to start your prep 3-4 months before your ACT exam date and have at least three “dress rehearsal” released exams completed before the big day.
A good tutor can help you identify your issues, suggest specific strategies, challenge your weaknesses and reinforce your successes. Everyone is a little different and not all strategies work for all. Even the objective difficulty level assigned to each question is not as important as learning what your individual strengths and weaknesses are so that you can take control of the test and not let the test writers control your thinking with their wording and the order of questions they choose.
Ultimately, your ACT prep is not only an opportunity to learn the content and acquire the skills needed to maximize your score; it is also an opportunity to learn more about yourself and how your brain works.