McGraw-Hill Education ACT 2017 (2016)
Part III. STRATEGIES AND REVIEW
Chapter 2. STRATEGIES TO GET YOUR BEST SCORE
Now that you have assessed your strengths and weaknesses, it is time to take a look at some general test-taking strategies that should help you approach the ACT with confidence. We will start by discussing the importance of acquiring the skills necessary to maximize your ACT scores and finish with some tips on how to handle stress before, during, and after the tests. Additional chapters in the book include strategies and techniques specific to each of the ACT sections.
Sometimes, when you look back over a practice test that you took, you can tell right away why you got a particular question wrong. We have heard many students call these errors “stupid mistakes.” We suggest that you refer to these errors as “concentration errors.” Everyone makes them from time to time, and you should not get overly upset or concerned when they occur. There is a good chance that your focus will be much better on the real test as long as you train yourself properly using this book. You should note the difference between those concentration errors and any questions that you get wrong because of a lack of understanding or holes in your knowledge base. If you have the time, it is probably worth reading the explanations for any of the questions that were at all difficult for you. Sometimes, students get questions correct but for the wrong reasons, or because they simply guessed correctly. While you are practicing, you should mark any questions that you want to recheck and be sure to read the explanations for those questions.
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF TESTING
Cognitive psychologists, the ones who study learning and thinking, use the letters KSA to refer to the basic components of human performance in any activity, from academics to athletics and music to video games. The letters stand for Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities. The ACT measures certain predictable areas of knowledge, and it measures a specific set of skills. You probably already understand this since you are reading this book. In fact, thousands and thousands of students have successfully raised their ACT scores through study and practice. While this book cannot replace four years of high school learning, it can help you acquire the skills necessary for top performance on the ACT.
There is a difference between the ways that humans learn knowledge and the way we learn skills. Knowledge can be learned fairly quickly and is fairly durable, even under stress. For example, when military trainees are asked to repeat their names and social security numbers while standing in a room filled with tear gas, they can usually do it. However, when asked to perform complicated physical or mental tasks under the same conditions, they often cannot, even when they are highly motivated to do so.
Skills, on the other hand, require repetition in order to perfect. There is an old joke about a tourist in New York City who jumps into the back of a taxicab and asks the driver if he knows how to get to Carnegie Hall. The driver says, “Sure. Practice! Practice! Practice!”
Practice enough to recognize “gaps” in your knowledge and internalize important skills.
The cabbie’s answer was, of course, meant to be humorous. But he was basically correct. Psychologists speak of something called a “perfectly internalized skill,” which means that the skill is executed automatically, without any conscious thought.
In our training classes, we often use the example of tying your shoes. If you tied your shoes this morning, it is highly unlikely that you can remember the exact moment of tying them, unless something significant occurred, like a broken shoelace. The reason that you probably cannot remember actually doing the tying is because, as an adult shoe-tier, you have, by now, perfectly internalized the skill of shoe tying through thousands and thousands of repetitions.
Ideally, you will internalize your response to the stimuli on the ACT so that you do not have to spend time and energy devising plans during the exam. We are hoping that you will just dig right in and be well into your work on each section while some of your less-prepared classmates are still reading the directions and trying to figure out what exactly they are supposed to be doing.
We have included many practice exams in this book for a reason. We want you to do sufficient practice to develop good test-taking skills and, specifically, good ACT-taking skills. As you practice, you should distinguish between practice that is meant to serve as a learning experience and practice that is meant to be a realistic “dress-rehearsal” for your actual ACT.
During practice that is meant to be a learning experience, it is okay to “cheat.” You should feel free to turn off the timer and just think about how the questions are put together, stop to look up information in schoolbooks or on the Internet, and examine the explanations in the back of the book. It is even okay to talk to someone about what you are working on during your “learning practice.” However, you need to do some “dry runs,” or “dress-rehearsal” practice, too. This is the stage where you time yourself strictly and make sure that you control as many variables as possible in your environment. Some research shows that you will have an easier time repeating your acquired skills and retrieving information from the storage part of your brain if the environment in which you are testing is similar to the environment where you learned the information or acquired the skill.
So, you learn factual information by studying, and you acquire skills through practice. Of course, there is some overlap between these activities, and it is hoped, you will do some learning while you practice, and vice-versa. In fact, research shows that repetition is important for both information storage and skills acquisition in human beings.
Nevertheless, there is a huge difference between knowledge and skills: Knowing about a skill, even understanding the skill, is not the same as actually having that skill. For example, you may be told all about a skill such as driving a car with a manual (stick-shift) transmission, or playing the piano, or typing on a computer keyboard. You could have the best teacher in the world, possess spectacular learning tools, and pay attention very carefully so that you take in all of the information that is imparted. You might understand everything perfectly, but the first few times that you actually attempt the skill, you will probably execute that skill less than perfectly. In fact, the odds are that you will experience some frustration at that point because of the lag between your understanding of the skill and your actual ability to perform the skill.
Perfecting skills takes practice. You need to do repetitions to “wear in” the pathways in your brain that control each skill. So don’t be satisfied with merely reading through this book and saying to yourself, “I get it.” You will not reach your full ACT potential unless you put in sufficient time practicing, as well as understanding and learning.
Ideally, you will have several weeks between now and test day. If so, you can use the Training Schedule at the beginning of this book to schedule your preparation. If not, you should use the “ACT Emergency Plan.”
Later in this book, we’ll go into great detail about the facts that make up the “knowledge base” that is essential for ACT success. First, you need to learn about the skills and strategies.
In college, you are likely to experience stress from things such as family expectations, fatigue, fear of failure, a heavy workload, increased competition, and difficult material. The ACT tries to mimic this stress. The psychometricians (specialized psychologists who study the measurement of various aspects of the mind) who help design standardized tests use what they call “artificial stressors” to help determine how you will respond to that test.
The main stressor that the test-makers use is the time limit. The time limits are set up on the ACT so that most students cannot finish all of the questions in the time allowed.
Another stressor is the element of surprise. If you have practiced sufficiently, there will be few surprises on test day. The ACT is a very predictable exam. In fact, the chart in Chapter 1 tells you exactly how many questions of each type there are.
RELAX TO SUCCEED
One of the worst things that can happen to a test-taker is to panic before or during an exam. Research has shown that there are very predictable and specific results when a person panics for any reason. To panic is to have a set of recognizable symptoms. These symptoms include sweating, shortness of breath, muscle tension, increased heart rate, tunnel vision, nausea, light-headedness, and even loss of consciousness.
Do most of your practice under timed conditions so that you can train yourself to relax and learn how to pace yourself.
These symptoms are the result of chemical changes in the brain that are brought on by some stimulus. Interestingly, the stimulus does not have to be external. That means that we can panic ourselves simply by thinking about certain things in certain ways. You could prove this to yourself by closing your eyes and carefully recalling as many details as you can about a past car accident or some other traumatic event. If you were able to re-create a vivid memory, you would probably start to notice the onset of some of the symptoms mentioned above. You would likely feel some mild symptoms when remembering the event—for example, you might feel some tingling and hairs standing up instead of actual sweating.
The stress chemical epinephrine, which is more commonly known as adrenaline, brings about the symptoms. Adrenaline actually shifts the priorities in your brain. It diverts blood and electrical energy away from some parts of the brain in favor of others. Specifically, it moves the center of your brain activity to the areas that control your body, away from the parts of your brain that are involved in complex thinking and fine motor skills.
One theory hypothesizes that this ability to shift the brain’s activities around on a moment’s notice was very beneficial to our remote ancestors, providing a higher likelihood of survival and procreation. The set of physical and emotional responses that result from adrenaline’s impact on the brain is known as the “fight-or-flight response.” It means that you become temporarily more ready to confront physical threats like a wild animal attack or run fast to avoid danger. The side effect of this change is that you also are temporarily less able to think clearly. In fact, true stories are told of people under the influence of adrenaline performing amazing feats of strength and speed, which they would probably not even have attempted otherwise. So, panic makes a person stronger and faster—and also less able to perform the type of thinking that is rewarded on an ACT exam.
Adrenaline can be useful and even pleasurable in some situations. In fact, it is not a bad thing to have a small amount of adrenaline in your bloodstream while testing due to a healthy amount of excitement about the exam. However, it is something that you should control as much as possible before and during an exam.
The worst situation involving adrenaline arises when a person knows that he is suffering from its effects, and that knowledge, itself, causes more panic, and therefore, more adrenaline release. This is often referred to as the “panic spiral.” In extreme cases, the panic spiral can lead to such rapid heartbeat and shallow breathing that the subject is unable to remain conscious. Obviously, an “overdose” of adrenaline can seriously hurt your chances of scoring well on an exam.
Two of the most important stimuli for the release of adrenaline into the bloodstream are suspense and surprise. This fact is well known to those who design haunted houses and horror movies. Suspense involves the stress that is present during the anticipation phase before an event that involves unknowns. Surprise occurs when you actually experience the unknowns. The speculation and wondering “what if?” before a big event can significantly increase stress and its effects on thinking patterns. There is also a sharper rise in adrenaline levels when you experience surprise, such as when someone yells “Boo!” behind you when you thought that you were home alone, or when you find a question on an exam that looks unlike anything that you have ever seen before.
You can control both suspense and surprise by minimizing the unknown factors. The biggest stress-inducing questions involving the ACT are: What do the ACT writers expect of me? Am I prepared? How will I respond to the ACT on test day? If you spend some time and effort answering these questions by studying and practicing under realistic conditions before test day, you’ll have a much better chance of controlling your adrenaline levels and handling the exam with no panic.
The goals of your preparation should be to learn about the test, acquire the knowledge and skills that are being measured by the test, and learn about yourself and how you respond to the different aspects of the exam.
The psychometricians and other experts who work on the design of ACT exams use “artificial stressors.” In other words, they are actually trying to create a certain level of stress in the test-taker. They are doing this because the ACT is supposed to tell college admissions professionals something about how you will respond to the stress of college exams.
The time limit is usually the biggest stressor for test-takers. The first thing to consider is whether you even need to attempt all of the questions within the time allowed. On the ACT, a score of 75% correct is considered significantly above average. In fact, if you can get 75% of the questions correct across the board, you’ll get about a 27 composite score, which would put you in the top 10% of all scores nationwide. Therefore, you should not feel extra stress if the time limit doesn’t allow you to get to all of the questions.
The next thing to consider is which question types you will attempt and on which ones you will guess. You need to be familiar with the subject matter that is tested on each section of your test. At the beginning of your training period, first work on filling any gaps in your knowledge base. If you know for a fact that a certain topic, like trigonometry, is consistently tested with only a few questions (there are four trigonometry questions on every ACT Mathematics Test), you may decide to focus your study and practice elsewhere. As you work through this book, you should make a realistic assessment of the best use of your time and energy so that you are concentrating on the areas that will yield the highest score that you can achieve in the amount of time that you have remaining until the exam. This will result in a feeling of confidence on test day, even when you are facing very challenging questions.
Specific Relaxation Techniques Before the ACT
• Be prepared. The old Scout Motto has been repeated for generations for a good reason: It works. The more prepared you feel, the less likely you are to be stressed on test day. Do your studying and practice consistently during your training period. Be organized. Have your supplies and wardrobe ready in advance. Make a practice trip to the test center before your test day.
• Know yourself. This means knowing your strengths and weaknesses on the ACT as well as the ways that help you to relax. Some test-takers like to have a bit of anxiety that helps them to focus. Others are best off when they are so relaxed that they are almost asleep. You will learn about yourself through practice.
• Get enough rest. In Macbeth, Shakespeare described sleep as the thing that “knits up the ravel’d sleave of care,” meaning that the better rested you are, the better things seem. As you get fatigued, you are more likely to look on the dark side of things and worry more.
• Eat well. Excess sugar is bad for stress and for brain function in general. Pouring tons of refined sugar into your system creates biological stress that has an impact on your brain chemistry. Add in some caffeine, as many soda manufacturers do, and you are only magnifying the problem. If you are actually addicted to caffeine (you get headaches when you skip a day), then get your normal dosage but no extra.
• Listen to music. Some types of music increase measured brain stress and interfere with clear thinking. Specifically, some rock, hip-hop, and dance rhythms, while great for certain occasions, can have detrimental effects on certain types of brain waves that have been measured in labs. Other music seems to help to organize brain waves and create a relaxed state that is conducive to learning and skills acquisition.
• The Mozart effect. There is a great debate raging among scientists and educators about a study that was done some years ago, which seemed to show that listening to Mozart made students temporarily more intelligent. While not everyone agrees that it helps, no one has ever seriously argued that it hurts. So, get yourself a Mozart CD and listen to it before practice and before your real test. It might help. In the worst-case scenario, you will have listened to some good music and maybe broadened your horizons a bit. You cannot listen to music during your ACT exam, so do not listen to it during your practice tests.
During the ACT
• Breathe. When humans get stressed, our breathing tends to get quick and shallow. If you feel yourself tensing up, slow down and take deeper breaths. This will relax you and probably get more oxygen to your brain so that you can think more clearly.
• Take breaks. You cannot stay focused intently on your ACT for the entire time that you are in the testing center. You are bound to have distracting thoughts pop into your head or times when you simply cannot process the information at which you are looking. These occurrences are normal. What you should do is close your eyes, clear your mind, and then dig back into the test. This procedure can be accomplished in less than a minute. You could pray, meditate, or simply picture a place or person that helps you to relax. Try visualizing something fun that you have planned for right after your ACT.
• Stay calm. Taking an important exam can certainly lead to stress. As part of the process of preparing thousands of students for standardized entrance exams, we have seen a variety of stress reactions. These reactions range from a mild form of nervousness to extreme anxiety that has led to vomiting and fainting in a few cases. Most students deal fairly well with the stress of taking a test. Some students could even be said to be too relaxed in that they don’t take the test seriously enough. On very rare occasions, a student may even fall asleep during an ACT exam! (Since you are reading this book, we will assume that you are taking the ACT seriously and that there is no danger of you falling asleep during the exam.)
• Have a plan of attack. The directions printed in this book (both in the chapters and on the Practice Tests) are very similar to the directions that you will find on your ACT. You need to know how you are going to move through each portion of the exam. No time is available to formulate a plan of attack on test day. In fact, you should do enough practice so that you have internalized the skills necessary to do your best on each section without having to stop and think about what to do next.
GETTING READY TO TAKE THE TEST
• Do some recon. Make sure that you know how long it will take to drive to the testing center and where you will park if you are driving yourself. If you are testing in a place that is new to you, try to get into the building between now and test day so that you can get used to the sounds and smells, know where the bathrooms are, and so on.
• Rest. You’ll need to get some sleep the night before the big day. We recommend exercise the day before so that you can get some good, quality sleep. Research has shown that there is really no such thing as getting too much sleep. So, don’t be afraid to go to bed early the night before the test.
• Wake up early. Set an alarm and have someone on wake-up duty—either a family member in your house or someone who can call you on the telephone as a back-up plan in case your alarm doesn’t go off. You have to be at the testing center by 8:00 A.M.
• Dress comfortably. Loose, comfortable, layered clothing is best. That way, you can adjust to the temperature of the room. Don’t forget your watch. The proctor will give you a five-minute warning on each section, but that is all the timing help you can count on. There may not even be a clock in your testing room.
• Eat something. Breakfast may not always be the most important meal of the day, but it is a good idea to eat something without too much sugar on the morning of your test. Get your normal dose of caffeine, if any.
• Bring stuff. You will need your driver’s license (or passport), your admission ticket, number 2 pencils, a good eraser or two, and your calculator. You can check the ACT Web site for up-to-date information about which calculators are acceptable. Bring your glasses or contact lenses if you need them. You can bring a snack for the break, but you won’t be able to eat or drink while the ACT is in progress.
• Read something. “Warm up” your brain by reading a newspaper or something similar so that the ACT isn’t the first thing that you read on test day.
Easy is a relative term! Practice enough so that you can recognize the question types that give you trouble. Skip them the first time around.
TAKING THE TEST
• Do the easy stuff first. You will have to get familiar with the format of each section of the ACT so that you can recognize passages and questions that are likely to give you trouble. We suggest that you bypass “pockets of resistance,” and go around those trouble spots rather than through them. It is a much better use of your time and energy to pick up all of the correct answers that you can early on, and then go back and work on the tougher questions that you actually have a legitimate shot at answering correctly. Remember that you don’t have to get all of the questions right in order to get a great score on the ACT. So, you should learn to recognize the ones that are likely to give you trouble and be sure not to get goaded into a fight with them.
Although all of the questions on an ACT test are weighted exactly equally to one another, some of the questions are harder than others. You don’t have to get all of the questions right to get a great ACT score. Do not get sucked into a battle with a hard question while there are still other, probably less difficult questions waiting for you. We often tell students that they should picture their ACT test booklets sitting in a stack in a locked closet somewhere. Your book is there, waiting patiently for you. Within it are some questions that you are probably going to get wrong on test day. So, when you see them, don’t be surprised. Just recognize them and work on the easier material first. If time permits, you can always come back and work on the challenging problems in the final minutes before the proctor calls, “Time!”
Always circle your answers on your test booklet before you transfer them to your answer sheet. This will help you to keep track of your intended answer as you check your work.
This strategy is both a time management and a stress reduction strategy. The idea is to make three or four passes through the test section, always being sure to work on the easiest of whatever material remains.
• Manage the answer grid. You should be certain to avoid the common mistake of marking the answer to each question on your answer document as you finish the question. In other words, you should not go to your “bubble sheet” after each question. This is dangerous and wastes time. It is dangerous because you run an increased risk of marking your answer grid incorrectly and perhaps not catching your error until much later. It wastes time because you have to find your place on the answer sheet and then find your place back in the test booklet. The amount of time that is spent marking each question is not great, but it adds up over the course of an entire test section and could cost you the opportunity to get a few more questions done correctly.
Instead, you should mark your answers in the test booklet and transfer your answers from the test booklet to the answer sheet in groups. Doing this after each passage on English, Reading, and Science is an obvious idea and has the added benefit of helping you to clear your head between passages. This will make it easier to concentrate on the passage at hand rather than possibly still processing memories of the previous passage. On the Mathematics Test, you should fill in some “bubbles” on your answer sheet every two pages or so. On any of the sections, filling in bubbles can be a good activity to keep you busy when you simply need a break to clear your head.
There is a dangerous and dishonest strategy that we have heard of from some students. Apparently, some so-called ACT prep experts are telling students to put little pencil dots in the answer ovals on the answer sheet and then come back to fill them in completely later. Specifically, some students are taught to do this on the sections that they have trouble finishing on time. Then they are told to come back to the section later and fill in the ovals while they are supposed to be working on another section. The idea is dangerous because of the directions for the ACT, which clearly state that a test-taker is not to work on any other section than the one being timed by the proctor. This rule means that you may not go back to fill in the ovals that you marked with a dot. If you are tempted to cheat in this manner, remember that ACT will not hesitate to report confirmed instances of cheating to colleges and universities.
• Use the test booklet. An ACT test booklet is meant to be used by one test-taker only. Except for the writing test, if you take it, you will not have any scratch paper on test day. You are expected to do all note-taking and figuring on the booklet, itself. Generally, no one ever bothers to look at the test booklet, since you cannot receive credit for anything that is written there. Your score comes only from the answers that you mark on the answer sheet.
• Be aware of time. You really don’t want it to be a surprise when the proctor yells “Time!” on test day. Therefore, you are going to want to time yourself on test day. You should time yourself during at least some of your practice exams so that you get used to the process and your timepiece. We suggest that you use an analog (dial face) watch. They generally are not set up to give off any annoying beeps that could get you in trouble with your fellow test-takers and your proctor on test day. If you want to avoid the subtracting that comes along with checking the board at the front of the testing room for the time that the proctor wrote down as start and stop times (who wants to do more math on ACT day?), you can turn the hands on your watch back from noon (12 o’clock) to allow enough time for the section that you are working on. For instance, if you are working on an ACT Mathematics section, which is 60 minutes long, you can turn your watch back to 11:00 and set it on the desk in front of you. You will be finished when your watch points to 12:00. Similarly, if you are working on a Science section or a Reading section, which is 35 minutes long, set your watch to 11:25 and, again, you will be done at noon. This method has the added benefit of helping you to forget about the outside world while you are testing.
All that matters during the test is your test. All of life’s other issues will have to be dealt with after your test is finished. You might find this mind-set easier to attain if you lose track of what time it is in the “outside world.”
• Don’t second guess yourself. You need to find out whether you are an answer changer or not. In other words, if you change an answer, are you more likely to change it to the correct answer or from the correct answer? You can only learn this fact about yourself by doing practice exams and paying attention to your tendencies.
GUESSING ON THE TEST
Because there is no added scoring penalty for incorrect answers on the ACT, you should never leave a bubble blank on your answer sheet. We counted all of the correct answers on three recent, released ACT exams. We found that the distribution of answers by position on the answer sheet was almost exactly even. This means that there is no position that is more likely to be correct than any other. We use the term “position” when referring to the answer sheet because the letter assigned to the positions change depending on whether you are working on an odd or even question. The odd-numbered questions have answer choices labeled A through D (or A through E on the Mathematics Test), and the even-numbered questions have answer choices that are labeled F through J (or F through K on the Mathematics Test). This system allows you to stay on track on your answer sheet.
Since the answers are distributed fairly evenly across the positions, you should always guess the same position if you are guessing at random. Of course, if you can eliminate a choice or two, or if you have a hunch, then this advice doesn’t apply.
Note: Some students worry if they notice long strings of same-position answers on their answer sheets. This arrangement does not necessarily indicate a problem. In analyzing actual, released ACT exams, we counted strings of up to six questions long, whose correct answers were in the same position on the answer sheet.
AFTER THE TEST
Most students find it easier to concentrate on their ACT preparation and on test day if they have a plan for fun right after the test. You should plan something that you can look forward to as a reward to yourself for all of the hard work and effort that you’ll be putting into the test. Then, when the going gets tough, you can say to yourself, “If I push through and do my work now, I’ll have so much fun right after the exam.”