How to ace the ACT in 5 steps

Doing well on standardized tests helps with two big things:

  • Colleges will be more willing to allow you.
  • Scholarship groups will be more likely to give you their bacon.

Sometimes scholarship groups will also award you money if you do well on standardized tests.

In Oregon, one of the big standardized tests is the ACT, which can be right at the beginning of this school year depending on your school; every high school junior in the state is made to take it.

Nicholas Wang, Michael Ling, and Eric Holmes, left to right. Take it easy when you're taking the ACT. (Pic from The Oregonian)

Last year, about 15,000 students in the state took the ACT, and 15 got a perfect score of 36. That’s about right, since the ACT likes to have about .1%  of its test takers get a perfect score. The anomaly is that three of them came from the same school:  Westview High School, in the Portland area.

This OregonLive article (From The Oregonian) about it does a brief interview of the students at Westview. One did a few practice tests, one did just one practice test, and the third guy didn’t study for it at all. What they did do was relax and get into a confident frame of mine.

One mentioned that he had a lot of experience taking standardized tests. That implies one thing: being comfortable with the format. Meaning not to get tense or nervous because it’s in a big, quiet room full of people you don’t know, with a strange adult (proctor) watching to make sure you don’t cheat.

It’s easy to get nervous in a place like that, but the trick to keeping cool is to remember that you’re all in it together.

They seem pretty chill about it. Being prepared is obviously important,
but it seems that being relaxed is key.

In all seriousness, there are a few ways to make sure you’ll do well on the ACT (or any standardized test)

  1. The first is to make sure you know the material. Take a few practice tests in a relaxed environment. Do this at least a month before you’re scheduled to take the ACT. Or if you can’t do that, as early as possible (2 weeks would be safe too). Take the practice test on a day when your mind is fresh (a Monday if you’re in school when you start studying, or any day you’re not busy). Don’t take the practice test if you feel fried! After checking how you did on the practice test, if you know all the material then you’re set; skip to step 3.
  2. If you don’t, search for a video tutorial of the topic at Khan Academy, or check out their SAT review series (since the content covered is basically the same). Use these resources to study systematically until you know you understand the stuff. Then, take another practice test (after a few days so you know your ability to do it is coming from long-term memory, and not because you just reviewed it). Rinse and repeat for all the stuff you don’t get, until you’ve got it done.
  3. Take it easy. Olympic runners train hard for years before they compete, but they all relax the week before. Marathon runners will tell you to not run at all for a week or two before the event. Because taking it easy is important before the big day. It lets your body get itself optimized, and kind of functions as a physiological preparation. Also, marathon runners don’t want to risk spraining their ankle, and you don’t want to risk stressing yourself out or getting an aneurysm.
  4. The night before your test, get plenty of sleep and eat well. It’s not that this is going to magically give you a great score, but that eating and sleeping horribly risk making you do worse. Best to eliminate as many threats as possible. Why allow more chinks in your armor than are necessary?
  5. The day of, try to get yourself relaxed however possible. Some people are best served by going for a walk before they go to take the test, others might want to play videogames (something that gets the neurons firing, like Starcraft 2, or a puzzle game). Still others might want to just sleep in as late as possible, or read while they’re waiting to get started. Figure out what keeps you calm and do that.

Extra tip: try to invoke your sense of humor for maximum success. (Every time the answer is E, you will think of this strudel.)


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