While I don’t necessarily encourage students to wait until the last minute if they want to prepare, I definitely understand that it happens. Life gets in the way. People get sick. Schoolwork piles up.  Stressful things happen. Let’s not let the ACT be one of them.

One thing I will say is how incredibly frustrating it can be to watch student after student come into my office and beat themselves up over test scores or become so stressed they can hardly focus or call on any strategies they may have learned.  So often, I watch as students shut down beforehand or hear of them shutting down during because they don’t even want to try or feel they are just going to fail anyhow. Then, there’s the never ending talk about scores – whether it be self talk, student chatter or reminders about how important this test is from parents.

Due to the frustration of watching students struggle and stress (and the joy of watching as they find more confidence and success), I am sharing below a few quick and simple strategies my clients have found to be efficient and effective over the years.

Students, please, if you remember anything of what you read here, please remember this:


I have worked with hundreds of students over the past fourteen years, and can say that hands down many of the most intelligent, witty, engaging, creative, communicative, intellectual, and interesting ones have truly struggled with standardized testing.  The scores are NOT a reflection of how intelligent you are, but few are able to shake the feeling that they aren’t smart when those numbers do not come out as high as they had hoped.  I have also worked with many a student who had a difficult time in school or managing tasks or with grades, but scored in the 30s on the ACT.  I have seen students rock the ACT but come home from college or receive failing grades because they had not developed the necessary skills to truly find success, manage stress and accomplish what they had set out to do.

So, I ask of you the following. Do your best, but remain calm. The test results do NOT predict your future. If you choose to go to college, you WILL find a school that is a good fit for you regardless of your score.  Try not to compare yourself to others- we all have our strengths and areas of opportunity. Get some sleep, take a few deep breaths, don’t put too much pressure on yourself, use your strategies and check out the tips below – then, go and knock it out!

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Our top few favorite tips:


  • Go straight to the questions.
  • Treat the “NO CHANGE” option equally, and as if it were simply the underlined portion of text from the paragraph in its place.
  • Try marking the beginning and end of sentences off with parentheses to help guide you – this saves you time and mental energy in going back and forth, skimming to find the start of each question every time you replace and test an option – not to mention, spacing between lines within a paragraph are often spread out, making it difficult to keep sentences together.
  • Choose the SHORTEST/ most concise option first and try that one (for Qs with no intro question). If it works, pick it and move on
  • For each question, quickly skim the answer choices and ask yourself what’s different between these (commas? word choice? transition words? length of phrase?). This helps you think of which rules or strategies you’ll need for this question.
  • For comprehension related questions, try to do a quick skim of the topic sentences or paragraphs for the main idea (ex: history of potatoes, John Doe’s background info, how bubbles are formed, other inventions) and make a QUICK note in the margin.  This helps see the focus and big picture – plus, it helps with the questions about paragraph location and author’s purpose.


  • Go to the END of the question first. This one is a fan favorite. By reading WHAT the question is asking before you go back and read the details and numbers, it helps you focus on what type of problem it is or what you are looking for in the end AS you are reading.
  • Draw and write on the test. Circle key words. Translate information (ex:  a=3.2, L=8cm ) as you read.
  • Remember, many problems look more complicated than they really are.
  • Ignore extra language. Sometimes “for all real numbers, such that the domain is… find _____” REALLY just means “solve”.
  • If pacing is an issue or you are running short on time, try using the Easy-Medium-Hard approach – if the problem is easier or can be done quickly, DO IT RIGHT AWAY.  If it is one that you feel you can do, but need more time, mark with an “M” and come back later.  If you truly have no idea or can’t imagine figuring it out, either guess or mark with an “H”.  After you finish the easy Qs, come back and do ALL mediums.  THEN, if you have time, go back and complete the hard questions. If you do run out of time, at least you are guessing on the questions you may not have figured out anyhow.


  • Choose your strategy.  You can read the passage first IF you are able to read and comprehend quickly, then move on to questions. Many students, however, find they run short on time and prefer to either preview the questions then read or skim OR only read the introduction, topic sentences and conclusion.
  • Regardless of strategy, it is also helpful to make quick notes in the margin – just a couple of key words to remind you of the topic of the paragraph. This helps with comprehension questions
  • Be sure to check ALL parts of the answer choices. Often, there are two components to each answer option.  Sometimes one is true, but the other is not.  Don’t be fooled by a partially correct answer.
  • Remember to keep an eye on the time.


  • It is usually not necessary to read all of the background information. It’s best to not overthink the science section.
  • Go straight to the questions.
  • Underline and circle or make notes as you go.  Look for patterns and trends (as ___ goes up, ____ goes down).
  • When looking at data, tables, graphs, etc., pay close attention to the axes, titles, labels and units.  These are a great indicator as to where to look for the info that you need.  Sometimes, the trend on the axis itself is what they are asking about!
  • Draw and mark on the charts – this helps you to see where the data fits.
  • Be sure if the numbers aren’t in order on a table, that you arrange them in order to look for trends.


  • IF taking the writing section, be sure to focus on organization, structure and clear evidence and support.
  • Use examples, and show that you know how to integrate support and relate to your topic sentence.
  • Stay on topic within your paragraphs and use transitions – this is KEY so the paper flows.
  • Personal or real world examples are key in illustrating your understanding of the concepts – do not just repeat the prompts and ideas they have shared.
  • Be sure your thesis is clear, you stay on topic and you leave them with food for thought.  (If ____ does not occur… ____ could be how this turns out….  or some such).
  • Address the counter argument – acknowledge the opposing view and counter that argument with your own points.
  • Remember, this is scored as a draft.  It’s more important to pay attention to the above than to make it absolutely perfect.

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