The ACT is a barrier to entry for most students planning to go to any four year college or university that hasn’t yet gone test-optional. In fact, if you are applying to a test-optional college, taking and submitting strong ACT scores can still help your chances of admission.
Not only that, but some states allow students to take the ACT in lieu of state-mandated standardized testing to graduate from high school.
Whether you’re a top student or somewhere in the middle of the pack, it’s not unlikely that you’re going to need to improve your ACT score.
When students ask me how to improve their ACT score, I usually start by talking a lot about improving study habits and finding ways to apply school work to the ACT—and by highlighting the critical thinking skills you can learn from practicing for the ACT. After all, the ACT is part of an application to college, and critical thinking and success in college are what is most important to me as a teacher.
If you’re looking for tips on improving ACT scores for your essay, or what kind of math is on the ACT—especially if you’re aiming for a top score—check out my other posts about those specific topics.
That being said, not everyone wants or needs a top percentage ACT score. In fact, many student athletes focus much more time on athletics—something that they may actually do for their career—than they do on things like testing.
How to Improve an ACT Score if You’re a Recruited NCAA Athlete
If you’re fortunate enough to be a recruited NCAA athlete heading for a major university, you may find that your mid-range ACT score is just shy of what your recruiting coach is asking of you.
Division I athlete minimum score requirements are set on a sliding scale based on your high school GPA. Rather than taking the average of your four subtest scores—like a typical ACT score does—the NCAA allows you to use the sum of your section scores to earn entrance.
In other words, your minimum ACT score might be something like 56 or 68. You can reference that scale here.
- Every question on the ACT is worth the same amount. Just because the question isn’t that difficult for you doesn’t mean it’s not valuable.
- There’s no penalty for guessing, so be sure to fill in an answer for every single question on the test. Simply making time to bubble in your answer sheet can improve your ACT score.
Pure Strategy: Improving Your ACT Score by a Few Points
Some people don’t need a score in the high 30s to get into the college with which they already have a relationship, and that’s just fine. Sometimes it’s as simple as earning a few more correct answers than you’re already getting.
If this is you, and if you don’t have much time to study, there are a handful of strategies you can use to bump up your score by a few points and get the score you need for the college or university of your choice.
If you only need to improve your ACT score by a couple points and you’re scoring around a 17 or 18 on each subsection, here are some things you can do on each section that don’t require studying new material extensively.
Improve Your ACT Score: English Test
1. If you aren’t sure about punctuation, select the answer choice without any commas.
Most students think written English needs far more commas than it actually does, and they tend to use lots of commas and extra punctuation for their school essays because it looks fancier. Meanwhile, there are only a few things in sentences that need commas.
Commas don’t mean “take a breath,” so don’t bring that in either.
If you’re guessing, leave commas out.
2. Pick the shortest answer with the fewest words. We like short, concise writing, and so does the ACT.
Any answer choices that include lots of words and lots of commas really include lots of room for things to go wrong.
If you’re guessing, pick the shortest answer choice.
3. Scan for and use a guessing strategy on semi-colon punctuation questions, which appear on every ACT.
There are three forms of punctuation that are essentially the same “strength”: a period, a semi-colon, and a comma and conjunction (the word and or but).
Here’s what that looks like in action:
I ate steak; Mark ate salad.
I ate steak, and Mark ate salad.
I ate steak. Mark ate salad.
Here’s the strategy: Because these sentences and their punctuation are all totally equivalent—one isn’t more correct than the other—you cannot choose between them.
If you can’t choose between them, none of them can be the correct answer on a standardized test. Eliminate any “equal” answers like these to make it more likely that you’ll guess the right one from the remaining answers.
Improve Your ACT Score: Math Test
1. Do not spend time working on things you do not understand.
That is, until you have seen every single question on the test.
2. Take your time. When you’re competitive, it can be tempting to do more than what you actually have time to do.
The strategy of this test is getting the questions right that you can get right—the most important thing to avoid is an unforced error.
This can also mean avoiding word problems until you’ve done all the plain calculation questions—the ones that look like math problems you’ve seen in school.
Improve Your ACT Score: Reading Test
1. Treat the reading like a game—and slow down.
Every ACT test has the same four kinds of passages: a story, something about social studies, something about culture, and something about natural science (like outer space or wolves), and they always appear in that order.
Most likely you’ll enjoy some of these passages more than others. If you’re someone who likes science, do that last passage first, and take your time.
2. You only need to get 21 or 22 out of the 40 reading questions right in order to get a 19 or 20 scaled ACT reading score.
That means you can work on three of the passages—the ones that seem easiest to you—and then guess the rest of the questions.
Improve Your ACT Score: Science Test
1. Pick and choose which passages you spend time on.
You only need to get about half of the 40 questions right in order to earn a 20 on the ACT Science section.
2. Do not read all the paragraphs that describe the science experiments.
This isn’t really a science reading test—it’s a test of your ability to read charts and graphs.
In fact, a lot of the ACT science is really straightforward. The test writers try to scare you by using Greek letters or strange variables and formulas from physics and chemistry.
Meanwhile, if you can read a chart or a graph, you’re going to be able to answer a few of the questions on every experiment, no matter what the topic is. It doesn’t matter if you get all the questions on any particular passage right. You just need to get half of the test correct.
3. Try to answer questions about an experiment, even if you have never encountered the experiment’s topic.
Here’s a link to the Official ACT Prep Guide. It’s a great place to start your studying. Good luck!