Parent's Guide to the ACT
How to Guide Your Child to a Great ACT Score
The world of standardized testing is often shrouded in mystery. Whether your child is the first to embark upon the path of the common app, or is the youngest of several who have all gone on to wonderful colleges, it’s important to have an up-to-date understanding of all options and strategies available. With this in mind, here are some initial steps to approaching the ACT.
How Important are ACT Scores for College?
Colleges typically use the ACT for admissions decisions, but some may also use ACT scores to place students in courses or to award merit-based scholarships. Standardized tests are important because they give an objective measure of performance to colleges, which provides an opportunity to level the playing field for students. When college admissions counselors look at grades, an A in Algebra at one school is going to be different than an A at another school. It’s like comparing apples to oranges. Conversely, when they look at ACT scores, they are now comparing apples to apples.
Even more importantly, standardized test scores are the only academic measure that a student can change in a short period of time. Grades, on the other hand, are not something that can be changed come application time. They are generally set in stone by the time your child is applying for colleges. This is why, when a family joins Testive, I can be certain that a three to five month-long program will widen a students options for higher education. Standardized test scores don’t generally make or break a student’s college application, but a higher ACT score certainly helps.
Should My Child Take the ACT or SAT?
The ACT is a standardized college entrance test that is widely accepted wherever the SAT is accepted. Colleges take ACT scores just as seriously as SAT scores so, rest assured, students who want to take the ACT should not feel compelled to have to take the SAT, too. In years past, the ACT was the distant cousin of the SAT, but now the ACT is taken by more students than the SAT each year, and the SAT has been redesigned to be more similar in structure to the ACT.
How do I Decide Which Test is A Better Fit?
I often meet with new Testive families who are deciding whether the ACT or the SAT will be a better fit, and I always recommend completing both an ACT and an SAT practice test—truly, the best way to understand which test is naturally a better fit for each individual student is to dive in to a practice test. It also provides me with a lot of information as a Coach, particularly relating to how a student processes the material and at what pace they can move through the sections. I always recommend students do at least one baseline practice test, if not both, before their very first meeting, because it identifies how each student thinks, and pinpoints how their natural aptitude can translate into results.
The ACT’s design moves more quickly through the test material than the SAT, which is why I find the majority of my students who take the ACT do well with fast, literal interpretation. The SAT, on the other hand, gives students a bit more time to go through each individual question, but the SAT is known for its denser language or “twisting words”, particularly on the math and grammar-based questions, a style which requires a slightly different skill set.
In order to have an accurate practice test experience, we recommend the College Board’s The Official SAT Study Guide and the ACT’s The Real ACT practice tests.
After taking both tests, you can ask your child the following questions to figure out which test to go with:
- Which test did you score higher on?
- Which exam felt more intuitive?
- Which exam felt more straightforward?
- Which exam do you feel allows you to most efficiently show off what you are capable of to the colleges you are applying to?
Should My Child Take Both the SAT and ACT?
For those students who still decide they want to take both exams, the road ahead is especially tricky. Keep in mind that both exams are renowned for their repetitiveness and predictability, but also that each takes a very particular approach. Make sure they study for each test separately and space them out—studying for both at the same time leads to frustration and confusion. Ultimately, each student has to make their own decision which test or tests they want to take. But remember, as with anything in life, focus, effort, and preparation are the keys to success.
If your child has completed a practice ACT and a PSAT exam, or a practice ACT and a practice SAT test, and has naturally scored higher and felt more confident on the ACT, then hooray! The ACT is going to be a great test to focus on for your student. We can now move on to some ACT test details…
What’s on the ACT?
The main ACT test is broken down into four sections: English, Math, Science and Reading. There is also an optional Writing section that some schools require, so make sure you take a look at the application guidelines of the schools your child is most interested in to see if they require it. One of the advantages of the ACT is the Science section, which the SAT does not have; oftentimes, more selective schools will offer the choice between taking the ACT with Writing or the SAT with two SAT subject tests. Therefore, students who choose the ACT option will have to take fewer tests, meaning they save both time and money.
The ACT includes 215 multiple-choice questions and takes approximately 3 1⁄2 hours to complete. If your child chooses to do the Writing portion of the test, they can plan on being there for over 4 hours, about the same time as the SAT. To survive this mental marathon, a short break is scheduled after the first two tests. If your child is taking the ACT Plus Writing, a brief break is also scheduled before the Writing portion of the test.
The English Section
- 75 questions, 45 minutes
- This section is meant to measure knowledge of English language conventions as well as standard written English knowledge and skills.
- The section is composed of five essays or passages, each of which contain multiple choice questions to answer regarding the reading.
- In more concrete terms, it tests knowledge of grammar, usage, punctuation, and knowledge related to the production of writing.
The Math Section
- 60 questions, 60 minutes
- This section is meant to test math skills students have been learning in school up to the beginning of senior year. The questions are all multiple-choice (unlike the SAT math section, which has student-produced responses) and calculators are permitted.
- Students are expected to use reasoning skills to solve math problems, and should be familiar with simple identities and formulas that are typically a core part of in-school curriculums. Areas tested include numbers, algebra, geometry, statistics, and probability.
The Reading Section
- 40 questions, 35 minutes
- This section of the test is meant to measure reading comprehension in three general ideas: Key Ideas and Details, Craft and Structure, and Integration of Knowledge and Ideas.
- There are four passages within the Reading section, each with one long or two short prose passages that are meant to be representative of texts found in first year college classes. Passages include topics in social studies, natural sciences, literature, and humanities.
The Science Section
- 40 questions, 35 minutes
- This section measures the interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning, and problem-solving skills required in natural, earth, and space sciences.
- However, students are not tested on specific scientific content knowledge, but rather, on their ability to think and reason in a scientific fashion. This means that students who excel in the reading section of the test can apply that same analytic skill to the science section of the test.
- Students will be given several sets of scientific information, followed by multiple choice questions. Information is given in the form of reading passages as well as graphic representations (graphs, charts, tables, illustrations).
The Writing Section
- One essay in 40 minutes
- The essay measures writing skills, specifically the skills emphasized in high school English classes.
- Adjudicators typically look for an introductory paragraph ending in a clear thesis statement, 2-3 body paragraphs using specific pieces of evidence, and a concluding paragraph which begins with a restatement of the thesis.
- The test describes an issue and provides three different perspectives on the issue. Students must evaluate and analyze the points of view, then state and develop their own perspectives on the issue. They will also have to explain the relationship between their perspective and those presented.
- Should your child take the essay? Though the ACT essay is optional, it’s often wise for students to take it. Many colleges require that applicants take the Essay section. If your child hasn’t nailed down his or her college list yet, it’s best to take the essay just in case.
How is the ACT Scored?
Scoring on the ACT ranges from 1-36 points. Each section results in a score between 1 and 36. Unlike the SAT, where section scores are summed, on the ACT they are averaged. So, the total Composite score will be the average of the four section scores. Students receive points for correct answers, and no points are deducted if they get a question wrong—it’s great to guess!
For those who choose to write the optional essay, they will also have essay scores. Two readers each give the essay a score between 1 and 6 for each of the five domains: Expressing Judgment, Focusing on the Topic, Developing Ideas, Organization, and Language Use. These two numbers are summed up for each domain and can be seen under the “Writing” section. These five numbers are then averaged to find the total Writing score, which will be on a scale of 2 to 12.
Now that we’ve discussed the elements of the test itself, let’s talk about how to prepare your test-taker for the ACT…
When is the ACT?
The ACT is commonly administered six times a year in the U.S.: September, October, December, April, and June, with an added July test date in 2018. Outside of these areas, the test is given five times a year: September, October, December, February, April, and June. Students should register for the test on the ACT website well in advance (at least 6 weeks) to avoid having to pay a late registration fee.
Upcoming ACT Test Dates
- Best time to start prep:
- Registration deadline:
- Late registration deadline:
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- Best time to start prep:
- Registration deadline:
- Late registration deadline:
- Score release:
Okay…But When’s the Best Time to Take the ACT?
When thinking about when will be best for your child to take the test, it is important to consider how seasonal activities may affect energy levels on test day. If your child is on a seasonal sports team, part of an intensive theatrical production, or has a part-time job with increased hours during part of the year, it is best to start before or wait until after said season has passed before diving into test prep.
So when should your child take the ACT so that they’ll will reach their full potential without interfering too much with the rest of high school? I’m going to lay out some guidelines below to help guide you towards an ideal testing timeline. You can also take our interactive quiz for our recommended ACT timeline.
Try following these guidelines…
- Schedule two or three test dates within three to four months of each other.
- This span of three to four months should occur when your child is relatively free so that he or she can commit to consistent prep.
- Most students should wait to take the SAT or ACT until after Sophomore year. Both the SAT and ACT test content that students don’t learn until sophomore year, including Algebra II and Geometry.
- Most students shouldn’t wait to take the SAT or ACT for the first time until the winter of Senior year. Most students should give themselves the leeway to take the SAT or ACT two or three times.
What’s the Best Way to Prep for the ACT?
1Set a Goal
Students who are engaged and have goals do the best on the day of the test. I tend to encourage students to reach for the average score of the school they are most interested in and orient around that as a target.
With Testive, students set their goals in their online practice portal. We find that incremental goal setting helps motivate students to completing practice assignments.
2Make a Plan
At the end of the day, the only way to be successful in test prep is by doing the work. My most successful students consistently complete 80-120 practice questions per week (roughly 30 minutes a day for four to five days a week). They also practice weak areas of the ACT that can most move the needle on total ACT score improvement.
With the help of Testive Coaches, students develop a curriculum designed to focus on weak areas. We figure out where students should focus their practice by uploading an ACT practice test score to our Learning Software, which identifies ACT content areas in which students have the most potential to improve.
Many students need additional support to maintain a steady prep habit, which is why my responsibilities as a Coach include holding students accountable for their work and acting as a cheerleader while they continue to progress. Prepping for the SAT or the ACT is no different than training for a sport: it requires consistency, commitment, and hard work, where coach and student work together to achieve an improved score.
Important Tidbits for Test Day
Sleep is Essential
I like to remind my students to get at least 8 hours of sleep for the 2-3 nights leading up to the test, as a higher average sleep rate during the week leading into an exam has been shown to improve scores, according to studies at Ghent University, Harvard, and the University of Rochester. It’s worth it to get those extra REMs.
Breathe it out. A lot of students find that they have a harder time focusing, sitting still, or even breathing properly on test day due to nerves. For those students that know tests put them on edge, I highly encourage practicing breathing exercises or small moments of mindfulness meditation during the week leading up to the official ACT, or before practice tests—sometimes creating a simple calming ritual can make or break a student’s comfort on test day.
Nutrition Makes a Difference
I always highly recommend students bring snacks and water to enjoy during the breaks, as the combination of brain power and adrenaline that is brought into the testing room requires a whole lot of stamina. Also, if a student does typically consume some type of caffeine in the morning, I highly encourage them not to cut out that cup of joe on test day! Caffeine, if you know that your body does not become jittery because of it, can actually help with memory and concentration when paired with a healthy meal, according to the Journal of Nutrition.
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