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Crushing the ACT: How I added 13 points to my ACT test score

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This post is from a student, parent, or professional contributor. The opinions expressed by the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect the positions, viewpoints, or policies of Niche.

The ACT is a big deal. While many schools remain test optional after their initial movement in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is still a vital part of the academic component in college application for most prestigious colleges.

In high school, testing was one of my biggest weaknesses. I wasn’t naturally gifted at standardized tests and I was far from ready when I first took the test.

The ACT is not a test of intelligence, nor does it predict future success. However, it does have its uses. For example, it can determine eligibility for scholarships and give insight into an academic fit with colleges.

Additionally, I am not a professional test coach or an expert on standardized testing. I am a student who worked a lot to improve my ACT scores since I am not a gifted test taker.

However, through my efforts to improve my scores and my personal experiences, I hope to offer guidance and assistance to other students in achieving their educational goals.

My testing journey

As a seventh grader, I participated in the Duke University Talent Identification Program and took my first ACT. Despite having very little knowledge about college or standardized testing, I was pleased to receive a score of 19 on my first attempt.

However, I knew that this score would not be sufficient for college admissions. In high school, I took the ACT again, scoring a 21 in my freshman year and a 25 in my sophomore year.

During this time in high school, I gained a greater understanding of the four sections of the ACT: English, math, reading, and science. Despite my progress, I was determined to improve my score even further and took the test again, hoping for a 25 or higher.

However, I hit a plateau and realized that simply retaking the test was not going to be enough to improve my score.

To try and raise my score, I began researching and practicing extensively, seeking advice from peers, and taking six practice tests. I also changed my mindset and approached the test with more confidence. As a result of my hard work, my ACT score jumped by six points to a score of 31.

After joining a college prep program for high-achieving, low-income students, Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America, I took a small group ACT prep course with an instructor. I felt more confident and decided to test again, scoring a 30.

It was a punch to the gut, but I knew it wasn’t reflective of the practice and skills I had learned. I tested one last time and scored a 33. Afterward, I used my new score to apply to Stanford University, Princeton University, Emory University, and Vanderbilt University.

I was lucky enough to receive admission to all four schools, ultimately attending Stanford University. Today, I am a second-year student studying Computer Science.

General tips/advice

Testing is noted as one of the most vital components of college admissions, but after experiencing a very brutal admissions process, I see that it is far from the end all be all. There is much more to the holistic admissions process. Nonetheless, the test is an opportunity to show your academic prowess to admission officers.

Here are my best 3 tips when it comes to reaching your best ACT score:

1. Practice, Practice, Practice

As cliche as it sounds, practice makes perfect.

Taking practice tests will be key to learning where your limits are and pushing past them. I personally took practice tests at 8 AM in the morning to simulate the real deal.

This might sound crazy, but the test is proctored that early so as uncomfortable as it sounds, it can make a world of difference once you’re acclimated to the time.

You could even take this test with a friend to hold each other accountable and make the process a little more enjoyable. Whether you share results with each other or not is up to you.

You can find practice tests online; I recommend the official ACT prep guides because they include review sections along with questions. 

Taking practice tests can greatly help you grow in a few simple steps:

  • Simulate real tests: Simulate the real test environment with timers, breaks, snacks, and resources that will only be given on testing day such as the calculator for the math section. I personally did half tests due to time constraints, but I did two sections on a Saturday and two sections on the following Sunday both at 8 AM on paper.
  • Rest after: Simulating the test can be grueling, so take some time off from studying the test after simulating the test to breathe and come back refreshed. This will give you something to look forward to and help you avoid burning out.
  • Come back and review: Go through and score yourself, mark the questions you missed, record your scores, and write them down in your workbook. With the Official ACT prep guide, they offer review sections that dive into the thinking behind each question and each response, noting why incorrect answers are wrong and why the correct response is right. This kind of practice is scientifically proven to be very effective for learning since you’re utilizing active recall.
  • Repeat

This will help you identify and drill down your weaknesses. By learning and practicing the skills covered in the ACT you’ll be making score jumps in no time.

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2. Make a realistic study plan

Your study plan will be vital to avoiding burnout, giving yourself enough time to prep, and helping you prepare for the test. Testing isn’t cheap so it’s worth giving yourself plenty of time as a student. These tips will help you build your best study plan.

  • Consider testing in the summer: By testing in July, you will have plenty of time away from school to hammer down on improving your test taking skills and utilizing your summer so you don’t feel your summer went to waste. It will also help you avoid burnout during the school year, a detrimental experience to many high achieving students.
  • Space out your studying: Cramming will lead you to stress out and be less efficient with time. It’s best to give yourself ample time to spread out your learning, testing, and improvement. Being refreshed will help you get the most out of your studying.
  • Stay accountable: Life happens to everyone. However, procrastination on studying will make it less productive to take tests and will shorten the time you have to study and test before college applications. Schedule days and times to study, but add flexibility in case of an emergency of unforeseen circumstances.
  • Avoid burnout: Burnout will make studying almost impossible, so as important as it is to study, it is not worth sacrificing sleep or health (physical or mental).

3. Use best practices

The actual test has a million methods and small tips for achieving your best score but these are the tips that helped me the most:

  • Recognize your common pitfalls: Do you have a bad habit of reading questions too quickly or skipping the end, leading you to miss the question? Recognize these and practice with them in mind to avoid making careless mistakes on the real test.
  • Avoid studying the day of the test: It is unlikely you’ll gain net benefit from studying hours before your test. On test day you should be primed to do your best since you’ve prepared for weeks leading up to the day. Start with some light reading, maybe the news or a few pages of a book, but avoid trying to learn ACT material the day of.
  • Quality over quantity: When testing, start by learning the content and test material you miss before prioritizing the speed of your testing. Going too fast before learning the material can limit your growth by focusing on timing too early.
  • Don’t get stuck: If you’re unsure about a question, mark it to come back to it later instead of spending 10 minutes on a difficult question while you could be correctly answering two other questions. Nonetheless, by test day you’ll finish with extra time to come back and review some if not all of your answers.
  • Utilize process of elimination: 4 answers is a lot, leaving you with 25% of randomly choosing a correct answer. However, by quickly eliminating one or even two incorrect answers you could double your chances in a matter of seconds.
  • Focus on a single question at a time: You need all the brain power you have on each question so avoid multitasking or stressing about past questions. Focus on each question to avoid making careless mistakes due to distraction.

The ACT is an important factor in the college admissions process, but it is not the only factor. It is possible to improve your ACT score through practice, developing a growth mindset, and seeking out resources and guidance.

By following these tips and putting in the effort, it is possible to significantly improve your score.

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