My Experience Taking the ACT Three Times to Get a High Score

Because I took the SAT instead of the ACT when I was a student, I didn't experiment with the ACT until I started teaching test prep.

To figure out the ACT, I decided to sit for three official administrations of the exam—Dec 2015, Feb 2016, and Apr 2016. As a teacher, I went into the exams with the following agenda in mind:

  • Test out an essay template that was designed to work for any prompt.
  • Test out strategies for the reading and science sections, which are notorious for their time pressure.
  • Get a sense of any updated question types on the ACT English section (The ACT student booklet suggests that there has been a slight shift).
  • Check whether the exam as a whole has gotten tougher (The ACT student booklet suggests that it has).
December 2015:

ACT Test December Score Report

My Thoughts:

The English section has definitely gotten a bit tougher. Expect to see a lot more sentence placement questions. Also, some inside advice: know the rules for dashes inside and out. There were quite a few tricky punctuation questions involving dashes that you typically wouldn't see on the old exam.

The dual reading passage isn't any more difficult than the single passages. Don't be intimidated by it. The math and reading sections are pretty much the same as they always have been so don't be afraid to practice these sections using old exams you find online.

On initial practice tests, I struggled horribly to finish the reading section on time. At one point, I almost thought it was impossible. Fortunately, I was able to train myself to perform under time pressure. If you're having trouble finishing on time, this post details how I practiced my timing with this watch. I attribute my 36 on reading to this way of practicing.

I sort of dropped the ball on the science section. For some reason, my mind hit a brick wall and I struggled to grasp one of the passages. I ended up wasting way too much time trying to chase the answers down. Lesson learned—you can't give any questions more time than they deserve. My goal next time would be to tackle the science section in a more strategic and disciplined way.

Overall I'd say the science section was tougher than usual and the exam overall was also a bit tougher. UPDATE: I finally received the curve for this exam, which pretty much confirms my suspicions that the exam was tougher.

The highlight of this exam was the perfect score I got on the ACT essay. Why? Because I managed to crush it with an essay template that I developed.

Not much has been written about the ACT essay, so my approach was to do an experiment to figure out what worked and what didn't. In this experiment, I used an essay template that I believed would be flexible enough for any prompt. It contained the exact words and sentences I would use as well as prepared examples and a predetermined structure.

As you can see, it worked extremely well.

And because I took the exam in December, I was able to retrieve a copy of my essay from the ACT's Test Information Release Service, which is offered only in December, April, and June.

To see my template and my actual essay from the December 2015 exam, get my ACT essay book. It goes way beyond the simple writing tips that you read in every other test prep book.

Note: When I took this exam in 2015, the ACT Essay was graded out of 36. In 2017 and beyond, it's graded out of 12, but the assignment you're given is pretty much the same.

February 2016:

ACT Test February Score Report

My Thoughts:

As you can see, my tweaks to the essay only hurt me, which is ok since I was able to learn even more about what the ACT graders are looking for. Again, get the ACT Essay book if you'd like to know what tweaks I made so that you can avoid the mistakes.

Moving to the other sections, I was able to tackle the science section in a much better way, hence the higher score, but there was still room to refine my approach. My main goal for the next exam would be to score a 35-36 on the science section.

How did I get my score up on the science section? By doing a ton of practice and writing down some of the common question patterns (e.g. spotting relationships in graphs, experimental design, etc.).

I also now realize how careful and focused you have to be on the English section. Reading one word incorrectly in the question can lead you to an incorrect answer choice. Forgetting to read the surrounding context of a question in the passage can also lead you astray. Yes, it's that tricky.

April 2016:

ACT Test April Score Report

My Thoughts:

This was my best performance on the ACT. Even though my goal wasn't necessarily to get a perfect score, I'm proud that I came close.

As you can see, I got my science strategy down cold and will be writing more about it soon. If I can go from a 30 to a 33 to a 35, so can you.

I tried something new on the essay and it totally didn't work out. I can now state for sure that I nailed the approach the first time around on the December exam and that's the approach everyone should be using.

Having taken the exam twice already, I encountered no surprises on the other sections. The math, reading, and English sections all felt the same.

One of my biggest takeaways from this whole experience is the great potential in retaking the exam. Even though I dreaded all the Saturday mornings I had to spend in an anxiety-filled classroom, I can't tell you how much more relaxed and focused I was during the third exam than I was during the first. While it's true that I was better prepared each time around, I know for a fact that I was mentally tougher on the second and third retakes. On the first exam, I psyched myself out a bit and the pressure got to me on the science section. But by the third exam, I was a seasoned pro and finished with time to spare on nearly every section. My results speak for themselves.

If you've taken the exam just once and you're on the fence about retaking, I highly recommend that you do. You don't have much to lose and you might be surprised at how well you perform the next time around. You're just better prepared mentally once you've gone through it at least once before.

Lastly, if you've been wondering all this time how I consistently got 35's on the ACT English section, get the ACT English book. It contains everything I know about that section and covers all the question types you'll see on the updated exam.

And if you've been wondering how I got perfect scores on the math section three times, check out my ACT Math book.

As always, feel free to ask me any questions through the contact page.