How to Succeed on the ACT

Few things cause a high school student as much fear as sitting down to a standardized test. That's particularly true if the test can determine the course of your future. But taking the ACT doesn't have to be a scarring experience if you prepare yourself properly.

The ACT stands for American College Test. It is, along with the SAT, one of two standardized tests that students usually take before entering college.

Developed by the University of Iowa and first offered in 1959, the ACT was once required mainly by western colleges. But ACT scores are now accepted by virtually all colleges and universities in the United States, including all Ivy League schools, says ACT spokesperson Kristin Crouse.

"I stress as much as I can the importance of both ACT and SAT," says Jim Eiseman. He is the academic vice-principal of a private high school.

He says the college that many of his graduates go to used to require the ACT and pay for the test at the high school level. Now the college accepts either the ACT or SAT, but Eiseman says administrators still find the ACT useful for predicting a student's progress.

"The reason [the college] liked the ACT is that in addition to the English and math, it also covered social studies and science, thus giving a little larger picture of the student," he says.

What to Expect

The ACT consists of multiple-choice tests in English, mathematics, reading and science. Since February 2005, ACT also offers an optional writing test. Students will need to take that test if the colleges they plan to apply to require it, Crouse says.

Crouse says the ACT organization conducts a national survey of high school teachers and college professors every three years to determine what students should learn in high school to be ready to do college-level work. The test is constructed using this guidance.

Students have about three hours to complete the test. The ACT is offered at more than 2,000 locations throughout the U.S.

In Preparation

There are a number of ways that students can prepare for the ACT. Crouse says the best way to be prepared is by taking the right classes in high school. She said the minimum recommended coursework includes four years of English and at least three years of math, natural sciences and social sciences.

"Taking challenging courses will prepare students for college work," she says. "The ACT measures what a student knows and is ready to learn next. It indicates how prepared a student is to do college-level work."

Other than taking the right classes, most experts agree that practice makes perfect. "The first step is realizing that a student can and should prepare," says Michael Bergin, director of exam preparation for Huntington Learning Center, a chain of programs in the U.S. that help students with learning and study skills.

"Test content and question types are public knowledge, so one can learn exactly what is tested well before test day."

ACT and SAT prep are among the center's areas of expertise. Bergin says instructors often use practice tests when helping students prepare. However, he says there are a variety of resources available, including books, software and ACT preparatory classes.

Eiseman also advises students and parents to take advantage of the wide array of resources out there. "I have booklets on testing, videos on testing, flash cards, etc., all in the school's career center. I try to point out all the materials and resources for test preparation, and try to have as much of these materials available to the students."

But the important thing is to know what's coming, says Gary D. Phye. He is a professor of educational psychology at Iowa State University. He said the more prepared students are on the big day, the more likely they are to do well.

"The improvement comes from knowing what to expect," he says. "It's just a pure and simple practice effect."

Test Time

On test day, there are many ways that students can get themselves in the right frame of mind. Eiseman says his students are advised to get a good rest before the exam, and to limit sugar on the big day.

"Sugar is bad, bad, bad for memory retention," he says.

Perhaps the most important thing is to maintain a relaxed atmosphere, he says. "I tell the students to come to the test as relaxed and rested as possible," Eiseman says. "I try to keep all stress out of the testing room and still maintain the required testing conditions and environment."

Bergin says those who are properly prepared will likely be the most relaxed. But even those who aren't should keep a cool head.

"Even students new to the ACT should remember that no single question is pivotal to the overall score," he says.

"If a question is too tough, close your eyes, take a deep breath and move on. Also, never leave a question unanswered on the ACT. There is no wrong answer penalty, so you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by making a good guess."

What the Results Mean for You

The number of questions a student gets right on each section is the raw score. Raw scores are converted to scale scores for each section. The scale scores range from 1 (low) to 36 (high) for each of the four tests and for the composite. The composite is the average of the four test scores rounded to the nearest whole number. A score of 21 is average, while a 27 or higher puts a student in the 90th percentile.

But even if your score isn't spectacular, Phye points out that ACTs are likely not the only factor that will determine what college or university you will get into. For instance, he says, Iowa State University often takes a number of other criteria -- grades, activities, etc. -- into account when deciding whether to grant admission. "It's only one of several pieces," he says.