ACT Math_Everything You Need to Know_PrepMaven

ACT Math: Everything You Need to Know

ACT Math: Everything You Need to Know

Bonus Material: PrepMaven's ACT Guidebook

ACT Math is the second section of the ACT. It comes right after ACT English, and it's a long one -- students have 60 minutes to answer 60 questions.

Timing can definitely be a challenge on this section for that reason. What's more, ACT Math is 100% content-based, which mean that test-takers do have to know things like the Pythagorean Theorem, trigonometry, probability, and other foundational math topics.

What do you need to know about Math on the ACT? What math concepts in particular does this section test? And what can you do to improve your score?

As the test prep experts, we've got the answers to these questions -- and much more!

Plus, we give readers access to our ACT Guidebook, a comprehensive guide for students navigating the test for the first time. It's free and you can grab it below!

Bonus Material: PrepMaven's ACT Guidebook

  • Details about ACT scoring, content, testing options, and more
  • An introduction to PrepMaven’s ACT strategies
  • Information about ACT prep resources
  • Application essentials for the top U.S. colleges

Click here to download a copy of our digital guide!

Here's what we cover:

  1. ACT Math in a Nutshell
    1. Format
    2. Scoring
    3. The Math You Need to Know
  2. How to Improve Your ACT Math Score
  3. Bonus: PrepMaven's ACT Guidebook

1) ACT Math in a Nutshell

ACT Math Section

Here's what ACT, the organization that produces the test, says about the math section:

The ACT mathematics test is designed to assess the mathematical skills students have typically acquired in courses taken up to the beginning of grade 12. The test presents multiple-choice questions that require you to use reasoning skills to solve practical problems in mathematics. The material covered on the test emphasizes the major content areas that are prerequisites to successful performance in entry-level courses in college mathematics.

What does this actually mean?

In simpler language, ACT Math tests the math subjects most students will have learned through their senior year in high school. That includes pre-algebra, Algebra 1 and 2, geometry, trigonometry, and advanced math.

In fact, the test heavily emphasizes subjects from Algebra 1 and 2, which is why we encourage students to take the test only after they've completed Algebra 2.

Of course, ACT Math is not like your typical high school math test. We like to say that it tests familiar math concepts in unfamiliar ways. That's what ACT is getting at when it says the questions "require you to use reasoning skills to solve practical problems."

For example, here's a typical ACT word problem from an official practice test:

This might look intimidating at first glance, because there are a lot of words and numbers! But hiding behind all those words and numbers is a single concept: representing linear equations.

Let's take a look at the format of ACT math next.

Format

ACT Math is the second section of the test, appearing right after ACT English and before ACT Reading.

There are 60 questions on this section, to be completed in 60 minutes. These questions are arranged generally in order of increasing difficulty, which means that questions 1-20 are approximately low-difficulty, 21-40 are medium-difficulty, and 41-60 are high-difficulty.

Of course, "difficult" is a relative term on the ACT! It's not uncommon for a student to find question #10 difficult, for example, and question #55 easy.

That's why it's so important to establish your own strengths on ACT Math, which you can do by taking a practice test. (Find 6 official ACT practice tests right here.)

While the questions on ACT Math generally get harder as they progress, the concepts typically tested can appear in any order. For example, #18 might be a trigonometry question, while #40 might test pre-algebra.

Take a look at question #1 here from an official practice test, which is a word problem about proportions:

Question #39 from the same test is also about proportions, but it's a lot more complicated!

Students are allowed to use a calculator on ACT Math, which is important. Using a calculator can be very helpful for preventing careless errors, checking your work, and tackling harder questions! Find ACT's calculator policy here.

Scoring

How is ACT Math scored? Every section on the ACT is scored on a scale of 1-36. So, 1 is the lowest score you can earn on this section and 36 is the highest score. 

The test graders calculate this based on section-specific algorithms that boil down to converting your raw score (the number of questions you get right) to a number between 1 and 36.

All ACT section scores are averaged to generate a composite score on a scale of 1-36. You can find out more about how this works in our ACT scoring guide.

There is no wrong answer penalty on the ACT. This means that you don’t lose points for getting a question wrong on Math -- you simply do not get any points. Students can use this to their advantage by never leaving a question blank on this section!

How many questions do you have to get right in order to achieve a high score? The answer: it depends.

Even though the ACT is a standardized test, no two Math sections are the same in terms of difficulty and content. A 30 on one Math section likely doesn’t equate to a 30 on another. 

The key to improving your ACT Math score thus lies in maximizing your raw score -- the more questions you ace on this section, the higher your odds are of earning a competitive score.

We’ll talk more about how to improve your Math score later on in this post. If you want more insight into what counts as a “good” ACT score overall, check out our other post on the subject.

If you're enjoying this post, you'll love our ACT guidebook, which contains all of this information about ACT Reading and so much more. It's a great, free resource for first-time test-takers, and you can grab it below right now!

The Math You Need to Know for the ACT

So what math do you actually need to know for the ACT?

ACT outlines three broad categories of math content areas tested on this section:

  • Preparing for Higher Math (~60% of all questions)
  • Integrating Essential Skills (~40% of all questions)
  • Modeling (~25% of all questions)
ACT Math Category Concepts Tested
Preparing for Higher Math Geometry
Statistics & Probability
Functions
Algebra 1 and 2
Number and Quantity
Integrating Essential Skills Pre-Algebra
Rates and Percentages
Ratios and Proportions
Volume, Surface Area, Area
Average and Median
Modeling "Producing, interpreting, understanding,
evaluating, and improving models"

However, because these concepts are pretty broad (especially that Modeling category!), we've broken them down even further below based on our analysis of official ACT practice tests.

Concept Topics Tested
Geometry Triangles
Pythagorean Theorem
Special Right Triangles (30-60-90 and 45-45-90)
Area
Trigonometry
Rule of 180 (interior angles)
Isosceles triangle properties
Similar Triangles
Equilateral triangle properties
Right triangle properties
Circles
Area & Circumference
Sectors, Interior Angles, and Arcs
Tangent Lines
Chords
Radius and diameter
4-Sided Shapes
Rectangle area and perimeter
Diagonals
Area of a trapezoid
Area of a parallelogram
Internal angles of a parallelogram
Polygons
Interior angle of a polygon formula
Area of embedded shapes
Ellipses
Statistics & Probability Probability formula
Percent change
Patterns and sequences
Functions Solving functions
Graphing functions
Composition of functions
Algebra 1 & 2 Slope
Slope intercept form
Linear equations (solving, graphing)
Parallel lines
Perpendicular lines
Midpoint formula
Distance formula
Exponential decay and growth
Systems of equations
Range and domain
Matrices
Unit circle
Logarithms
Imaginary numbers and complex numbers
Combinations and permutations
Polynomials
Factorial
Radicals
Vectors
Number and Quantity Adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing fractions
Number properties
Absolute value
Scientific notation
Pre-Algebra Mean, Median, Mode
Volume of 3-D shapes (cones, prisms, spheres, etc.)
Surface area of 3-D shapes (cones, prisms, spheres, etc.)
Area of shapes (triangles, rectangles, circles, etc.)
Perimeter of shapes (rectangles, triangles, etc.)
Solving equations and expressions
Ratios
Inequalities
Types of numbers (rational, real, integers, etc.)
Percentages
Decimals
Modeling Linear equations
Exponential equations
Analyzing graphs, charts, figures, and other data

How to Improve Your ACT Math Score

What can you do to improve your ACT Math score? Start with these five strategies, and then check out these 10 ACT Math Strategies to Get a High Score.

Strategy #1: Prioritize easier questions.

On each section of the ACT, every question is worth the same number of points. This means that an "easy" question is worth just as much as a "hard" question.

This can be counterintuitive, because many students are used to hard math questions being worth more on exams! They race through the easy questions on standard high school tests so they can spend most of their time on the more difficult problems.

However, this approach will not serve you on ACT Math.

Prioritize easier questions first and make sure you feel 100% confident on those before proceeding to difficult questions. This typically means spending most of your time on questions 1-40 on ACT Math.

If you find yourself spending more than a minute working a problem, skip it and come back. Save any remaining time at the end of the test for double-checking your work on those early questions.

Strategy #2: Make the answers work for you.

Take a look at this sample ACT Math word problem:

Do you see how all of the answers are in number form? This is a good sign that you can make those answers work for you instead of diving into complicated algebra!

You can "plug in" the answers to the problem and see which one fits the stipulations of the question. This is a much easier and faster way of solving this word problem.

Remember: on ACT Math, it doesn't matter how you arrive at the right answer, because no one's grading you on your work. For that reason, choose the most efficient and easiest way of getting to that correct answer.

Strategy #3: Replace abstract values with concrete ones.

ACT Math loves to ask questions that contain variables or unknown values, like this question here:

It is always a lot harder to work with abstract values as opposed to concrete ones. So replace those abstract values with actual numbers!

In the example question above, that would mean replacing 'negative real value of x' with something like -4. Then, plug your chosen value of x into the answer choices to see which ones are true and which ones aren't.

When picking numbers in this way, be sure to choose ones that are relatively small and easy to work with, but avoid using 1, -1, or 0.

Strategy #4: Cut through the fluff on word problems.

ACT Math contains a lot of word problems! These can be tricky to navigate, because they're often very wordy and do a great job of hiding the actual math involved -- and the question itself.

When approaching these word problems, try to separate the "fluff" -- stuff you don't need -- from the actual problem. Identify what the question is truly asking and focus on that.

This word problem is a great example of this. There are a lot of words here, but what is the question really asking?

If you realized that this is really asking which number(s) in the answer choices are divisible by 2, 3, 4, and 5, and which of these is the smallest -- you're right! This really has nothing to do with cash prizes, talent shows, or groups of students.

The actual math involved in this word problem is pretty basic, but ACT Math loves to mask that in complicated wording.

Strategy #5: Build a solid foundation of content knowledge.

ACT Math and ACT English are the two sections of the test that rely most heavily on outside content knowledge. (Reading and Science are basically 100% strategy-based.)

For this reason, a solid foundation of content knowledge can only serve you on ACT Math!

Because a lot of this content covers algebra and geometry, topics many test-takers study earlier on in high school, it's important to review any topics you're rusty on.

You can pinpoint what you need to review by taking a practice ACT.

Keep in mind that the ACT does not include a reference page with relevant math formulas before the Math section. You'll have to go into the test with those memorized, so make sure to use flashcards or other study tools to lock those formulas in place!

These are only a handful of our expert ACT Math strategies. Find even more in this post here.


3) Download PrepMaven's ACT Guidebook

We've covered everything you need to know to jumpstart your ACT Math prep in this post.

But you'll find even more helpful information about navigating the ins and outs of ACT test-taking in our free ACT Guidebook, which you can download below!

Bonus Material: PrepMaven's ACT Guidebook

  • Details about ACT scoring, content, testing options, and more
  • An introduction to PrepMaven’s ACT strategies
  • Information about ACT prep resources
  • Application essentials for the top U.S. colleges

Click here to download a copy of our digital guide!



ACT English Strategies_PrepMaven

10 ACT English Strategies from the Experts

10 ACT English Strategies from the Experts

Bonus Material: PrepMaven's Grammar Workbook

ACT English can be a tough section for students. It's the first section of the ACT, and it contains 75 questions to be completed in 45 minutes.

Timing can thus be a challenge on English! Plus, this section requires outside content knowledge -- students must be familiar with 13 grammar rules and various principles of effective writing.

How can you improve your ACT English score? You'll need a firm grasp of those grammar rules and some strategies in your back pocket.

It’s extremely important to establish a strategic approach for all sections of the ACT, precisely because it is a standardized (and thus predictable) test. 

In this post, you'll find our very best ACT English strategies to help you get closer to your target score.

We also give readers access to our grammar workbook, which gives students guided practice of the grammar rules tested on English. It's free, and you can grab it below!

Bonus Material: PrepMaven's Grammar Workbook

  • All 13 grammar rules tested on ACT English
  • Additional guided examples for each question type
  • Practice 10+ questions per grammar concept
  • Check your performance with detailed answers and explanations

Click here to download a copy of our workbook!

  1. The ACT English Section in a Nutshell
  2. 10 ACT English Strategies from the Experts
  3. Bonus: PrepMaven's Grammar Workbook

1) ACT English in a Nutshell

ACT English Strategies from the Experts

ACT English tests your knowledge of foundational English grammar rules and principles of effective writing.

Here's what you need to know:

  • ACT English is the first section of the ACT
  • It's scored on a scale of 1-36, like every other ACT section
  • There are 75 questions on ACT English, to be completed in 45 minutes, and 5 passages
  • Approximately 50% of the questions concern straight-up English grammar rules
  • The other 50% have to do with language and principles of effective writing
  • Questions appear throughout a passage, as opposed to at the end
  • Subjects of passages vary, but generally passages are less dense than Reading passages

Let's look at the strategies you can use on ACT English to succeed!

For an even deeper dive into ACT English, check out our post Everything You Need to Know About ACT English.


2) 10 ACT English Strategies from the Experts

Strategy #1: Read the full text.

Unlike the ACT Reading test, students do not need to have an in-depth understanding of the passages in order to be successful on the English test. 

That being said, Production of Writing and Knowledge of Language questions will often require students to consider context and main ideas of sentences, paragraphs, or the passage as a whole. 

Check out this Production of Writing question, for example. To answer it successfully, test-takers have to have a general sense of the passage's main idea and purpose!

For this reason, skimming can be detrimental to test-takers. Read all of the words of the passage, even if they do not contain any underlined portions.

It is also a good idea to keep the big picture in mind as you work through paragraphs and passages. Save questions that ask about the passage as a whole for the end.

Strategy #2: Identify the concept the question is actually testing. 

According to ACT, the organization that writes the test, there are three types of questions on ACT English:

  • Production of Writing
  • Knowledge of Language
  • Conventions of Standard English

These categories may seem pretty broad, which is why we've broken these question types into the following concrete concepts they test:

Familiarizing yourself with these question types and the concept they test is a vital part of learning the "language" of this section. Identifying question types and the concepts they're testing can also be important in terms of eliminating answers strategically.

We've mentioned that one key difference between Production of Writing and Conventions of English questions often has to do with whether or not there's a question in front of the answer choices.

But what else can you do to identify question types?

Take a look at the answers. Compare them to one another – how do they differ? What's changing between them?

Do some answer choices include a plural subject, while others make the subject possessive? If so, this could be a question about apostrophes. Do some answer choices seem much longer than others? This could be a question about concise writing.

Once students have identified the guiding principle of a given question, it becomes much easier to identify the error and correct it. 

In this example, we see answer choices including different iterations of "there," "their," "passed," and "past." This is an idioms question!

Strategy #3: Prove answer choices wrong.

Remember that for every English Conventions question, there will only be one answer that is grammatically correct. In addition to finding the right answer, it’s important to check every other answer and identify why that answer choice is grammatically incorrect.

If you ever feel that there are two or more grammatically correct answers, look closer!

The ACT loves to include “nearly correct” choices that appear solid at first glance, which is why it’s important to check every answer carefully. You should be able to definitively rule out all but one choice. 

The Production of Writing and Knowledge of Language questions can be a little trickier because more than one answer may be grammatically correct, but only one will communicate the author’s intention most clearly.

Strategy #4: Shorter is often better.

In general, if more than one answer is grammatically correct, the shortest answer will be the right one. The ACT loves to test wordiness and how to avoid it – in general, shorter is always better.

In this example, J is by far the shortest answer choice. That doesn't guarantee it's correct, but a quick scan of the other answer choices shows that it is definitely the most concise!

By extension, if there’s ever an answer choice that says “DELETE the underlined portion,” students should check this one first. It is not always correct, but it has a high likelihood of being the right answer.

Remember that process of elimination is your best friend.

If you’re ever stuck on the Production of Writing questions, compare the answer choices to one another to see how they differ. If every piece of information included in an answer choice isn’t absolutely necessary, then you’re probably better off cutting it out. 

Strategy #5: Know your grammar rules.

Yes, you will have to know how to use a semicolon on ACT English -- and other standard grammar rules. Hit the ground running for your ACT English prep by getting comfortable with the 13 grammar rules tested on this section.

With these rules, keep in mind that the ACT will test them in predictable ways. As you prep, you'll start to notice, for example, that it will test apostrophe usage in mostly the same way from test to test. The same goes for all of the other grammar rules!

You can find all of these rules and free guided practice in our Grammar Workbook -- make sure to grab your copy below!

Strategy #6: Don't let "No Change" trip you up.

Almost every ACT English question includes an answer choice that reads “No Change.”

Students are often wary of choosing this option, but in reality, it should be treated like every other answer choice.

The layout of the Writing and Language section necessitates a “No Change” option so that the passages can be read in their entirety without gaping holes. Yet the underlined information is no more or less likely to be correct than any other answer choice. 

When you’re selecting your answer, read the full underlined portion included in the text and treat it just like any other answer choice!

How does it differ from the other answers? What rule is the question testing on, and how does the original phrase match up to that rule? 

Remembering to check the original text is especially important for the Production of Writing and Knowledge of Language questions: what was originally in the passage may very well have been the shortest answer, and so don’t disregard it when you’re trying to play the “shorter is always better” card! 

Strategy #7: Prioritize easier questions.

There is no wrong answer penalty on the ACT, so as a rule, don't leave any questions blank on the test! Make a strategic guess on difficult questions and move on.

Questions will vary in difficulty, though, and an easy question on ACT English is worth the same number of points as a difficult question! This means that you should prioritize easy questions first within individual passages.

What does an "easy" question look like on English?

It depends. Every test-taker is likely to have different strengths. In general, however, Conventions of English questions tend to be "easier" for students because they often boil down to a specific grammar rule. They also tend to take less time to answer.

If you have a knack for memorizing and applying grammar rules, these ones are for you!

One of the best ways to find out where your personal strengths lie on ACT English is to take a practice test. Find 6 free official ACT practice tests right here.

Strategy #8: Plug answer choices back in to the sentence.

Once you've made your selection, read it back into the original sentence to ensure it fits the context.

This might seem like a superfluous step, but we like to mention it because ACT English loves leaving out crucial words or sneaking in an unsuspecting comma in answers that otherwise appear correct.

This strategy also ensures that you are double-checking your work and reading for valuable context.

Strategy #9: Specific is often better.

Many Production of Writing questions ask about an author's intent, especially in terms of conveying certain details or ideas.

These questions can be challenging to answer, but a good rule of thumb is to zero in on the answers that are more specific. Why? Strong writing -- at least from ACT's perspective -- is clear, specific, and concise.

Take a look at this question, for example:

Context is very key for answering this question correctly. The prior paragraph is all about ants traveling long distances in search of food. The question asks for a clear introduction to the research question, which is a hint that we want to search for something specific, not general.

That rules out (D) and (A), which don't even mention "ants" or "long distances." (B) might sound nice, but it references "animals," too broad of a category. (C) is the best answer because it encapsulates the research question and contains references to "ants" and "navigation."

Strategy #10: Don't overthink Production of Writing questions.

That being said, it's very easy to overthink Production of Writing questions, especially those that ask about the passage as a whole.

Remember that ACT English -- like ACT Reading -- is a very literal test, so do your best to take questions at face-value and answer them literally!

In fact, if you find yourself analyzing a Production of Writing question on ACT English from multiple angles, and going back and forth on a couple of answers, it's a good sign that you're overthinking. Come back to that question or guess and move on.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the correct answer on a Production of Writing question is often backed up by evidence in the text. Prove your answer right on these questions, and be careful of making assumptions.


3) Download PrepMaven's Grammar Workbook

There you have it -- 10 of the very best ACT English Strategies to help you succeed on this section.

You can also find all 13 grammar rules tested on the ACT, as well as guided practice, in our free Grammar Workbook -- a great place to begin your prep!

Bonus Material: PrepMaven's Grammar Workbook

  • All 13 grammar rules tested on ACT English
  • Additional guided examples for each question type
  • Practice 10+ questions per grammar concept
  • Check your performance with detailed answers and explanations

Click here to download a copy of our workbook!


ACT English_Everything You Need to Know_PrepMaven

ACT English: Everything You Need to Know

ACT English: Everything You Need to Know

Bonus Material: PrepMaven's Grammar Workbook

ACT English is the first section of the ACT. It comes right before ACT Math, and it's a long one -- it contains 75 questions to be completed in 45 minutes.

Timing can definitely be a challenge for students on this section. ACT English also requires students to have a solid knowledge of 13 core grammar rules and writing strategy.

What do you need to know about English on the ACT? And what can you do to improve your English score? We've got the answers!

Plus, we give readers access to our free grammar workbook, a fantastic resource for test-takers navigating this section for the first time. Grab it below.

Bonus Material: PrepMaven's Grammar Workbook

  • All 13 grammar rules tested on ACT English
  • Additional guided examples for each question type
  • Practice 10+ questions per grammar concept
  • Check your performance with detailed answers and explanations

Click here to download a copy of our workbook!

Here's what we cover:

  1. The ACT English Section in a Nutshell
    1. Format
    2. Passage and Question Types
    3. Scoring
  2. How to Improve Your ACT English Score
  3. Bonus: PrepMaven's Grammar Workbook

1) The ACT English Section in a Nutshell

ACT English: Everything You Need to Know

Here's what ACT, the organization that writes the test, says about ACT English:

The English test measures your understanding of the conventions of standard English (punctuation, usage, and sentence structure), production of writing (topic development, organization, unity, and cohesion), and knowledge of language (word choice, style, and tone).

What does this actually mean?

In simpler language, the English section tests your knowledge of English language and grammar rules and how to express ideas in a clear, organized way when writing.

ACT English spends about half of its time asking questions about straight-up grammar rules. The other half concerns how you write. Let's take a look at the format of the test to see this in action!

Format

ACT English is the first section of the test, appearing right before ACT Math (which comes before ACT Reading).

There are 75 questions on this section, to be completed in 45 minutes. These questions are attached to five passages of 15 questions each, all roughly the same length. The questions are embedded throughout the passages (unlike Reading, where the questions appear at the end of each passage).

The premise for each question is the same, regardless of whether or not it's testing grammar rules or production of writing. You'll analyze and/or change an underlined portion of a sentence, entire paragraph, or passage.

In this example, test-takers must pay attention only to the phrase "winter months:"

For questions that ask test-takers to pay attention to an underlined portion of a sentence, keep in mind that you must only focus on that portion -- you can't change any text that isn't underlined!

Passage and Question Types

The genres of English passages vary widely. Each passage will have a title, but it won't contain any other contextual information (as passages do on ACT Reading). You'll find subjects ranging from ancient history to personal narrative on this section!

These passages won't be super dense, the way they can be on the Reading section. For example, this passage is about Hindi cinema.

ACT categories English questions into three types:

  • Production of Writing
  • Knowledge of Language
  • Conventions of Standard English

These categories may seem pretty broad, which is why we've broken these question types into the following concrete concepts they test:

As you can see from this chart, Conventions of Standard English (i.e., grammar) questions will test your knowledge of standard written English grammar, punctuation, and other rules -- basically these 13 grammar rules.

Production of Writing and Knowledge of Language questions will ask you to improve the effectiveness of communication in a piece of writing. These questions will often have a question in front of them, as you can see in this example:

Most Conventions of Standard English questions won't have a question in front of them:

In general, this often means that Production of Writing and Knowledge of Language questions take more time to complete than English Conventions questions. They often require a firm understanding of context, rather than rote grammar rules, main ideas, and how topics are developed in a passage.

Scoring

How is ACT English scored? Every section on the ACT is scored on a scale of 1-36. So, 1 is the lowest score you can earn on this section and 36 is the highest score. 

The test graders calculate this based on section-specific algorithms that boil down to converting your raw score (the number of questions you get right) to a number between 1 and 36.

All ACT section scores are averaged to generate a composite score on a scale of 1-36. You can find out more about how this works in our ACT scoring guide.

There is no wrong answer penalty on the ACT. This means that you don’t lose points for getting a question wrong on English -- you simply do not get any points. Students can use this to their advantage by never leaving a question blank on this section!

How many questions do you have to get right in order to achieve a high score? The answer: it depends.

Even though the ACT is a standardized test, no two English sections are the same in terms of difficulty and content. A 30 on one English section likely doesn’t equate to a 30 on another. 

The key to improving your ACT English score thus lies in maximizing your raw score -- the more questions you ace on this section, the higher your odds are of earning a competitive score.

We’ll talk more about how to improve your English score later on in this post. If you want more insight into what counts as a “good” ACT score overall, check out our other post on the subject.

If you're enjoying this post, you'll love our grammar workbook, which contains fantastic practice for the 13 grammar rules tested on ACT English. It's free and you can grab it below right now!


2) How to Improve Your ACT English Score

The English section on the ACT can be challenging! Students face 75 questions on this section, the highest number of questions per section on the entire test, and they only have 45 minutes to work through them.

English is also a content-based section, meaning that it does require outside content knowledge.

So what can you do to improve your English score?

There are many ways to boost your ACT English score, which we explore more fully in another post. For now, however, the secret to doing well on English lies in both strategy and content knowledge.

It’s extremely important to establish a strategic approach for all sections of the ACT, precisely because it is a standardized (and thus predictable) test. 

Here are five of our best strategies for succeeding on this difficult section, no matter where your strengths lie. Find even more strategies in our 10 ACT English Strategies to Get a High Score post.

Strategy #1: Read the full text.

Unlike the ACT Reading test, students do not need to have an in-depth understanding of the passages in order to be successful on the English test. 

That being said, Production of Writing and Knowledge of Language questions will often require students to consider context and main ideas of sentences, paragraphs, or the passage as a whole. 

Check out this Production of Writing question, for example. To answer it successfully, test-takers have to have a general sense of the passage's main idea and purpose!

For this reason, skimming can be detrimental to test-takers. Read all of the words of the passage, even if they do not contain any underlined portions.

It is also a good idea to keep the big picture in mind as you work through paragraphs and passages.

Strategy #2: Identify the concept the question is actually testing. 

Identifying question types and the concepts they're testing can be important in terms of eliminating answers strategically.

We've mentioned that one key difference between Production of Writing and Conventions of English questions often has to do with whether or not there's a question in front of the answer choices.

But what else can you do to identify question types?

Take a look at the answers. Compare them to one another – how do they differ? What's changing between them?

Do some answer choices include a plural subject, while others make the subject possessive? If so, this could be a question about apostrophes. Do some answer choices seem much longer than others? This could be a question about concise writing.

Once students have identified the guiding principle of a given question, it becomes much easier to identify the error and correct it. 

In this example, we see answer choices including different iterations of "there," "their," "passed," and "past." This is an idioms question!

Strategy #3: Prove answer choices wrong.

Remember that for every English Conventions question, there will only be one answer that is grammatically correct. In addition to finding the right answer, it’s important to check every other answer and identify why that answer choice is grammatically incorrect.

If students ever feel that there are two or more grammatically correct answers, they need to look closer because they are probably missing something.

The ACT loves to include “nearly correct” choices that appear solid at first glance, which is why it’s important to check every answer carefully. Students should be able to definitively rule out all but one choice. 

The Production of Writing and Knowledge of Language questions can be a little trickier because more than one answer may be grammatically correct, but only one will communicate the author’s intention most clearly.

Strategy #4: Shorter is often better.

In general, if more than one answer is grammatically correct, the shortest answer will be the right one. The ACT loves to test wordiness and how to avoid it – in general, shorter is always better.

In this example, J is by far the shortest answer choice. That doesn't guarantee it's correct, but a quick scan of the other answer choices shows that it is definitely the most concise!

By extension, if there’s ever an answer choice that says “DELETE the underlined portion,” students should check this one first. It is not always correct, but it has a high likelihood of being the right answer.

Remember that process of elimination is your best friend. If you’re ever stuck on the Production of Writing questions, compare the answer choices to one another to see how they differ. If every piece of information included in an answer choice isn’t absolutely necessary, then you’re probably better off cutting it out. 

Strategy #5: Know your grammar rules.

Yes, you will have to know how to use a semicolon on ACT English -- and other standard grammar rules. Hit the ground running for your ACT English prep by getting comfortable with the 13 grammar rules tested on this section.

With these rules, keep in mind that the ACT will test them in predictable ways. As you prep, you'll start to notice, for example, that it will test apostrophe usage in mostly the same way from test to test. The same goes for all of the other grammar rules!

A Word About “No Change”

Almost every ACT English question includes an answer choice that reads “No Change.”

Students are often wary of choosing this option, but in reality, it should be treated like every other answer choice.

The layout of the Writing and Language section necessitates a “No Change” option so that the passages can be read in their entirety without gaping holes. Yet the underlined information is no more or less likely to be correct than any other answer choice. 

When you’re selecting your answer, read the full underlined portion included in the text and treat it just like any other answer choice!

How does it differ from the other answers? What rule is the question testing on, and how does the original phrase match up to that rule? 

Remembering to check the original text is especially important for the Production of Writing and Knowledge of Language questions: what was originally in the passage may very well have been the shortest answer, and so don’t disregard it when you’re trying to play the “shorter is always better” card! 


3) Download PrepMaven's Grammar Workbook

We've covered everything you need to know to jumpstart your ACT English prep in this post.

Now it's time to start tackling those English Conventions you'll see on this section. You can do that right now with our grammar workbook, a free resource for ACT test-takers needing some extra grammar practice!

Bonus Material: PrepMaven's Grammar Workbook

  • All 13 grammar rules tested on ACT English
  • Additional guided examples for each question type
  • Practice 10+ questions per grammar concept
  • Check your performance with detailed answers and explanations

Click here to download a copy of our workbook!



11 College Essays That Worked

College Essay Examples: 11 That Worked

Bonus Material: 30 College Essay Examples

In this regularly updated post, we share the college essays that helped students get into their dream schools -- including Ivy League colleges like Princeton, Harvard, Yale, and others.

But this isn't simply a collection of college essay examples.

We also provide a link to in-depth profiles of the authors who wrote the essays, providing you with the most comprehensive picture available of the nation's most successful applicants.

While you should always craft the best essay you are capable of, please remember that the essay is one component of the application process! The essays you'll read below are all of varying quality, but each one of these students gained admission to the most selective schools in the country.

You can also find 19 more college essay examples below.

Here's what we cover in this post:

  1. What is the College Essay? Our Expert Definition
  2. College Essay Example #1 - "It takes more than wishing upon a star"
  3. College Essay Example #2 - "I am an aspiring hot sauce sommelier"
  4. College Essay Example #3 - "You know nothing, Jon Snow"
  5. College Essay Example #4 - "I'm still questioning"
  6. College Essay Example #5 - "My place of inner peace"
  7. College Essay Example #6 - "So this is what compassion is all about"
  8. College Essay Example #7 - "I believe that every person is molded by their experiences"
  9. College Essay Example #8 - The California Cadet Corps
  10. College Essay Example #9 - "I never want to lose what we had in that corner"
  11. College Essay Example #10 - "It is the effort that counts, not the result"
  12. College Essay Example #11 - "The problem of social integration"
  13. What These College Essay Examples Have in Common
  14. How to Write an Essay Like These Examples
  15. Bonus: 30 College Essay Examples

What is the College Essay? Our Expert Definition

Most students will use the Common App to apply to U.S. colleges and universities. A smaller number of colleges require students to submit applications through Coalition.

Regardless, both platforms require students to submit a personal statement or essay response as part of their application. Students choose to respond to one of the following prompts in 650 words or fewer.

College Essay Prompts 2021-2022

The Common App

Coalition

Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.
Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? Has there been a time when you’ve had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?
Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you? What is the hardest part of being a student now? What’s the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?
Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. Submit an essay on the topic of your choice.
Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

What do these questions all have in common? They all require answers that are introspective, reflective, and personal.

Take a look at some of these buzzwords from these prompts to see what we mean:

  • Story
  • Growth
  • Understanding
  • Learning
  • Motivation
  • Challenge
  • Belief / Idea
  • Contribution
  • Identity
  • Experience

These are big words attached to big, personal concepts. That’s the point!

But because that’s the case, that means the college essay is not an academic essay. It’s not something you write in five paragraphs for English class. Nor is it a formal statement, an outline of a resume, or a list of accomplishments.

It’s something else entirely.

The college essay is a personal essay that tells an engaging story in 650 words or fewer. It is comparable to memoir or creative nonfiction writing, which relate the author’s personal experiences.

The college essay is fundamentally personal and creative. It is rich with introspection, reflection, and statements of self-awareness. It can have elements of academic writing in it, such as logical organization, thesis statements, and transition words. But it is not an academic essay that fits comfortably into five paragraphs.

Your task with the college essay is to become a storyteller--and, in the process, provide admissions officers with a valuable glimpse into your world, perspective, and/or experiences.

One of the easiest ways to understand what the personal statement is all about is to read through some college essay examples -- essays that exemplify the 7 qualities of a successful college essay.

The 11 college essay examples below do just that!


COLLEGE ESSAY EXAMPLE #1 - It Takes More Than Wishing Upon a Star

Author: Erica
Class Year: Princeton University 2020
Type of Essay: Common Application Personal Statement
School Acceptances: Princeton University, Harvard University, Williams College, Duke University, College of William & Mary, Davidson College, Boston College, Johns Hopkins University, Texas Christian University

At eleven years old, I wrote the New York Times best-selling novel, The Chosen, the first installation in a trilogy that would become the newest sensation of the fantasy genre, and grow to be even more popular than the Harry Potter series. At least, that what I originally imagined as I feverishly typed the opening words of my manuscript. I had just received a call from my parents, who were on a business trip in London. While touring the city, they heard about an amateur novel writing contest open to all ages, and thought that I, as an amateur writer, would be interested. All I had to do was compose an original manuscript of merely 80,000 words and submit it to an office in London, and I could win $20,000 in addition to a publishing deal.

I hung up the phone with a smile plastered on my face. Never mind that I was barely eleven, that my portfolio consisted of a few half-page poems from elementary school, or that the contest was taking place on another continent, I was determined to write the most extraordinary fantasy novel ever created. For months afterward the sight of me was accompanied by the tap, tap, tap of my fingers flying across the keyboard, and the sharp glint of obsession in my eyes. The contest in London closed, a winner was chosen. I didn’t care. I kept writing. After a year I had stretched my writing project into a three hundred page novel. I scraped together a few dollars of allowance money, slapped it in my mom’s hand, and asked her to have Staples print a bound copy of the manuscript.

She handed me my magnum opus when I got home from school that day. I ran my fingers across the shiny laminate over the cover page, caressed the paper as if it were some sacred tome. After more than fourteen months fleshing out characters and cultivating mythologies, I was ready to publish. With the copy in hand I ran to my dad. “Read it and tell me what you think!” I said, imagining the line of publishing companies that would soon be knocking down my door.

Within two weeks my father handed it back to me, the pages now scrawled over in bright red ink. “You’ve got a lot of work to do,” he told me, with his typical soul-wrenching brusque.

I stared at him for a moment, jaw locked tight, eyes nearly brimming with tears. He proceeded to list for me all the things I needed to revise for my next draft. Less colloquial dialogue, vivid descriptions, more complex subplots, the list went on and on.

“A serious author doesn’t get offended by constructive criticism,” he said, “whether you take my advice or not will prove whether or not you are one.”

My dreams fell like the Berlin wall. What was the point of slaving over a novel if I had to start from scratch again? My father’s advice would force me to rewrite the entire novel. What sort of writer was I, that my work warranted such substantial alteration?

As I soon learned—a normal one.

Today, six years, 10 drafts, and 450 pages later, I am finally close to finishing. Sometimes, when I’m feeling insecure about my ability as a novelist I open up my first draft again, turn to a random chapter, and read it aloud. Publishing that first draft would have been a horrible embarrassment that would have haunted me for the rest of my life. Over the past half-decade, I’ve been able to explore my own literary voice, and develop a truly original work that I will be proud to display. This experience taught me that “following your dreams” requires more than just wishing upon a star. It takes sacrifice, persistence, and grueling work to turn fantasy into reality.

[Want to learn more about the author of this essay? Check out Erica's story here]


COLLEGE ESSAY EXAMPLE #2 - I am an aspiring hot sauce sommelier

Author: Emma
Class Year: Princeton University 2021
Type of Essay: Common Application Personal Statement
School Acceptances: Princeton University, Duke University, Northwestern University, Cornell University, University of Virginia, University of North Carolina, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, University of California Berkeley, University of Michigan

I am an aspiring hot sauce sommelier. Ever since I was a child, I have been in search for all that is spicy. I began by dabbling in peppers of the jarred variety. Pepperoncini, giardiniera, sports peppers, and jalapeños became not only toppings, but appetizers, complete entrées, and desserts. As my palate matured, I delved into a more aggressive assortment of spicy fare. I'm not referring to Flamin' Hot Cheetos, the crunchy snack devoured by dilettantes. No, it was bottles of infernal magma that came next in my tasting curriculum.

Despite the current lack of certification offered for the profession which I am seeking, I am unquestionably qualified. I can tell you that a cayenne pepper sauce infused with hints of lime and passion fruit is the perfect pairing to bring out the subtle earthy undertones of your microwave ramen. I can also tell you that a drizzle of full-bodied Louisiana habanero on my homemade vanilla bean ice cream serves as an appetizing complement. For the truly brave connoisseur, I suggest sprinkling a few generous drops of Bhut Jolokia sauce atop a bowl of chili. Be warned, though; one drop too many and you might find yourself like I did, crying over a heaping bowl of kidney beans at the dining room table.

Although I consistently attempt to cultivate the rarest and most expertly crafted bottles of molten spice, like an oenophile who occasionally sips on five dollar bottles of wine, I am neither fussy nor finicky. I have no qualms about dousing my omelets with Cholula, dipping my tofu in pools of Sriracha, or soaking my vegetarian chicken nuggets in the Frank's Red Hot that my mom bought from the dollar store. No matter the quality or cost, when gently swirled, wafted, and swished; the sauces excite my senses. Each initial taste, both surprising yet subtly familiar, has taught me the joy of the unknown and the possibility contained within the unexpected.

My ceaseless quest for piquancy has inspired many journeys, both gustatory and otherwise. It has dragged me into the depths of the souks of Marrakech, where I purchased tin cans filled with Harissa. Although the chili sauce certainly augmented the robust aroma of my tagine, my food was not the only thing enriched by this excursion. My conquest has also brought me south, to the valleys of Chile, where I dined among the Mapuche and flavored my empanadas with a smoky seasoning of Merkén. Perhaps the ultimate test of my sensory strength occurred in Kolkata, India. After making the fatal mistake of revealing my penchant for spicy food to my friend's grandmother, I spent the night with a raw tongue and cold sweats. I have learned that spice isn't always easy to digest. It is the distilled essence of a culture, burning with rich history. It is a universal language that communicates passion, pain, and renewal. Like an artfully concocted hot sauce, my being contains alternating layers of sweetness and daring which surround a core that is constantly being molded by my experiences and adventures.

I'm not sure what it is about spiciness that intrigues me. Maybe my fungiform papillae are mapped out in a geography uniquely designed to appreciate bold seasonings. Maybe these taste buds are especially receptive to the intricacies of the savors and zests that they observe. Or maybe it's simply my burning sense of curiosity. My desire to challenge myself, to stimulate my mind, to experience the fullness of life in all of its varieties and flavors.

[Want to learn more about the author of this essay? Check out Emma's story here]

You can read 19 additional college essay examples that earned students acceptance into top-tier colleges. Grab these for free below!


COLLEGE ESSAY EXAMPLE #3 - "You know nothing, Jon Snow"

Author: Shanaz
Class Year: Princeton University 2021
Type of Essay: Common Application Personal Statement
School Acceptances: Princeton University, Duke University, Williams College, Boston College, Brandeis University, SUNY Binghamton, SUNY Stony Brook

"You know nothing, Jon Snow”

Being an avid Game of Thrones fanatic, I fancy every character, scene, and line. However,Ygritte’s famous line proves to be just slightly more relatable than the incest, corruption, and sorcery that characterizes Westeros.

Numerous theories explore the true meaning of these five words, but I prefer to think they criticize seventeen-year-old Jon’s lack of life experience. Growing up in a lord’s castle, he has seen little about the real world; thus, he struggles to see the bigger picture until he evaluates all angles.

Being in a relatively privileged community myself, I can affirm the lack of diverse perspectives —and even more, the scarcity of real-world problems. Instead, my life has been horrifically plagued by first world problems. I’ve written a eulogy and held a funeral for my phone charger.

I’ve thrown tantrums when my knitted sweaters shrunk in the dryer. And yes, I actually have cried over spilled (organic) milk.

Well, shouldn’t I be happy with the trivial “problems” I’ve faced? Shouldn’t I appreciate the opportunities and the people around me?

Past the “feminism v. menimism” and “memes” of the internet, are heartbreaking stories and photos of life outside my metaphorical “Bethpage Bubble.” How can I be content when I am utterly oblivious to the perspectives of others? Like Jon Snow, I’ve never lived a day in another person’s shoes.

Fewer than three meals a day. No extra blanket during record-breaking winter cold. No clean water. I may be parched after an intense practice, but I know nothing of poverty.

Losing a loved one overseas. Being forced to leave your home. Coups d'état and dictatorial governments. I battle with my peers during class discussions, but I know nothing of war.

Denial of education. Denial of religion. Denial of speech. I have an endless list of freedoms, and I know nothing of oppression.

Malaria. Cholera. Cancer. I watch how Alzheimer’s progresses in my grandmother, but I know nothing of disease.

Living under a strict caste system. Being stereotyped because of one’s race. Unwarranted prejudice. I may be in a minority group, yet I know nothing of discrimination.

Flappers, speakeasies, and jazz. Two world wars. Pagers, hippies, and disco. I’m barely a 90’s kid who relishes SpongeBob episodes, and I know nothing of prior generations.

Royal weddings, tribal ceremonies, and Chinese New Years. I fast during Ramadan, but I know nothing of other cultures.

Hostile political parties. Progressive versus retrospective. Right and wrong. I am seventeen, and I know nothing of politics.

Is ignorance really bliss?

Beyond my community and lifetime exists myriad events I'll never witness, people I'll never meet, and beliefs I'll never understand. Being unexposed to the culture and perspectives that comprise this world, I know I can never fully understand anyone or anything. Yet, irony is beautiful.

Embarking on any career requires making decisions on behalf of a community, whether that be a group of students, or a patient, or the solar system.

I am pleased to admit like Jon Snow, I know nothing, but that will change in college.

[Want to learn more about the author of this essay? Check out Shanaz's story here]


COLLEGE ESSAY EXAMPLE #4 - "I'm still questioning"

Author: Aja
Class Year: Princeton University 2020
Type of Essay: Common Application Personal Statement - Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
School Acceptances: Princeton University, MIT, University of Maryland, Stern College for Women, Queens College and City College

I walked down the pale pink stone pathway, up a ramp, past the library building, and towards the Student Activities Center of the college campus, carrying a large brown cardboard box. People might’ve taken note of the load I was carrying, and particularly the other high school students with whom I ate my dinner. Out of the box I grabbed my meal, which was wrapped in two separate plastic airplane meal style trays; one container for the side and one for the main. I tried not to call attention to myself as I unwrapped the tight double wrapping of plastic around both trays.

My actions and practices were the same, but for the first time I stood out. While I was eating my meals, in the lab, or during the lectures, I began to ask myself some questions.

Was it worth continuing to strictly observe my customs in such an environment? I thought.

Could I afford to take time away from the lab to walk to the kosher restaurant to pick up lunch? Was continuing to dress in a long skirt, on hot summer days and with additional lab dress codes, worth the discomfort? Was it worth standing out from most other people?

The science experiment that I performed that summer in a way mirrored the experiment that I “performed” to test my practices. My lab partner and I researched the current issue of antibiotic resistant bacteria strains, which left certain bacterial infections without an effective cure; this was our observation. We then hypothesized that an alternative mechanism of destruction, by physically slicing the bacterial membrane, would be more efficient. Similarly, I hypothesized that an alternative life path without my religious practices might be an “effective” life path for me, as it had been for the students that I met, with the added social benefits of fitting in. I hypothesized that perhaps my own life would be “effective” or fulfilling without these practices, as it was for the students whom I had met. Wearing our purple nitrite gloves, our safety goggles pressing against our faces, my partner and I began to prepare our tiny metal chips, containing a thin coating of polymer blends, which would prick the membranes of the bacteria cells.

In my personal experiment, the “testing” stage became tricky. I didn’t put on my lab coat, and start spin casting my solutions or pipetting liquids onto surfaces. I didn’t even try eating some food that was not kosher, or actively violate my practices. My experiment eventually went beyond the scientific approach, as I questioned in my thoughts. I had to determine what my beliefs meant to me, to find my own answer. I could not simply interpret results of an experiment, but needed to find my own interpretations.

I found from my experiment and questioning within my mind that my practices distinguished me from others, thereby allowing me to form relationships on the basis of common interest or personality, rather than cultural similarities, that summer. I valued the relationships more, and formed a deep connection with my lab partner, whom I had found was similar to me in many ways. We talked about our very different lives, genuinely interested in one another’s.

I’m still questioning, and I think the process does not end, which is part of what makes my religious practice important to me – it urges me to constantly reflect on my values and the moral quality of my actions. I’m not sure if I’ll ever finish that “experiment,” but by experiencing and valuing the practices and lifestyles of other people, I also got to reflect on my own. That summer showed me that the questions themselves proved my practices were valuable to me, and left me with a stronger commitment to my religious faith than I had before.

[Want to learn more about the author of this essay? Check out Aja's story here]

You can read 19 additional college essay examples that earned students acceptance into top-tier colleges. Grab these for free below!


COLLEGE ESSAY EXAMPLE #5 - My place of inner peace

Author: James
Class Year: Princeton University 2019
Type of Essay: Common Application Personal Statement
School Acceptances: Princeton University

Simply put, my place of inner peace is the seat of that 50 foot sliver of carbon and kevlar called a rowing shell, cutting through the water in the middle of a race. This is the one situation in which I find myself to be completely comfortable; the one environment in which I feel most empowered, at home, and content, despite it being quite at odds with the conventional definition of the word "comfortable". There is something special about a rowing race; that 6 minute, 2000 meter tour de force that many who have truly experienced one (and all who have emerged victorious) will describe as the most painful, and yet the most thrilling activity they have ever been a part of.

The pain of rowing 2000 meters is like nothing else I have ever experienced. It is a short enough distance so that there is no pacing (it's all out, everything you've got, from start to finish), but at the same time it's long enough to require every ounce of strength and will power to reach the finish. By the end, the lungs scream out for oxygen, and the legs, chest, and arms all burn as if boiling water has been injected into every pore. The mental toughness required to drag oneself through this ordeal, from the moment it starts to hurt 30 seconds in to the moment you cross the finish line, is immense. The psychological state that is entered into during a race is one of unparalleled focus, drive, and will to win.

The race begins with six boats lined up side by side, tensed and ready to pounce. The umpire then makes the call, “Attention. Row” in a tone that seems entirely too casual for the occasion, and the bows spring forward. What was moments before an atmosphere of complete silence is transformed into a world of noise. Here is a short list of things one hears at the start of a rowing race: the authoritative yell of the coxswains, the rhythmic click of the oars, the fluid swish of the water under the boat, the roar of the officials’ launches falling in behind the boats. I always find it funny though, that while the tense silence of the pre-race moments dissolves so quickly into noise from every direction, a rower can only actually hear any of it for a surprisingly short period of time. This is because at about two minutes into a race, a rower begins to lose his senses. Scent disappears completely, touch is negligible, hearing dissolves into nothing but the calls of the cox, and sight reduces itself to a portrait of the back of the rower in front of you. It is in this bizzare state of mind and body that I am truly in my "comfort zone".

The pain is intense, yes, but I have felt it before. I feel it quite regularly, actually. The training a rower goes through to prepare for a race begins months in advance and consists of pushing oneself to the limit; repeatedly putting oneself in positions of pain and discomfort so that when crunch time comes, a rower is truly without fear of what lies ahead of him. This is how I feel when the going gets tough at around two minutes in: fearless. In these moments I feel invincible; I feel like I was born to do exactly what I am doing right then and there. In these moments I am completely and totally content.

[Want to learn more about the author of this essay? Check out James' story here]


COLLEGE ESSAY EXAMPLE #6 - So this is what compassion is all about

Author: Amanda
Class Year: Princeton University 2019
Type of Essay: Common Application Personal Statement
School Acceptances: Princeton University, Rutgers University

So this is what compassion is all about? Piece of cake.

Joey was a sweet, ten-year-old boy who could derive pleasure even in the most prosaic of activities: catching a balloon, listening to music, watching other children run, jump, and play. But Joey himself was confined to a wheelchair – he would never be able to participate in the same way that his friends without physical disabilities could.

Joey was the first child assigned to me when I began volunteering for the Friendship Circle, an organization that pairs teenage volunteers with special-needs children. Right from the start, I was grateful for being matched up with this sweet, easy-going child; I felt immense relief at how effortless my volunteering commitment with Joey could be. Simply by wheeling my friend through tiled halls and breezy gardens, I simultaneously entertained him and inspired others with my acts of kindness.

Piece of cake.

Truthfully, though, during my time with Joey, I felt more than a little virtuous and pleased with myself. There I was, able to impress everyone with my dedication to Joey, with only minimal effort on my part. My experience with Joey led me to mistakenly believe that I had, by the age of thirteen, attained a complete understanding of what a word like “empathy” really meant. I was complacent in my comfort zone, confident that I understood what compassion was all about.

Then I met Robyn, and I realized how wrong I was.

Prone to anger, aggressive, sometimes violent (I have the scar to prove it). Every Sunday with Robyn was a challenge. Yoga, dancing, cooking, art, tennis – none of these activities held her interest for long before she would inevitably throw a tantrum or stalk over to a corner to sulk or fight with the other children. She alternated between wrapping her arms around my neck, declaring to anyone who passed by that she loved me, and clawing at my arms, screaming at me to leave her alone.

One day, after an unsuccessful attempt to break up a brawl between Robyn and another girl, I found myself taking dazed steps towards the administrator’s office. I was near my breaking point, ready to quit. In that moment, though, I vividly recall looking up and seeing Robyn’s parents walking down the hall coming to pick her up. Tired eyes. Weary, but appreciative smiles. A realization then struck me: I was only with Robyn for one day a week. During the rest of the week, Robyn was the sole responsibility of her parents. The same parents who once confided in me that Robyn behaved no differently at home than she did at the Friendship Circle with me.

Robyn’s parents undeniably loved her. There were even moments when Robyn transformed into one of the sweetest children I had ever met. But she was no Joey. Sweet, easygoing Joey. Joey who I thought had taught me true empathy. If I was such a saint, how could I give back to Joey’s parents, but not to Robyn’s? How could I not provide them a brief respite every week, from the labors of caring for her? Was I sincerely an empathetic person if I could only be so when it was easy? Was I truly compassionate because others thought I was? Complacency does not equate with compassion; true empathy is not an ephemeral trait that one possesses only when it suits him or her – when it doesn’t require him or her to try.

Progress exists in steps. The first steps were the ones I took with Joey, my earliest experience in volunteering. But the steps I took away from the administrator’s office, the steps I took back toward Robyn, were the steps of a different person, I like to think.

[Want to learn more about the author of this essay? Check out Amanda's story here]

You can read 19 additional college essay examples that earned students acceptance into top-tier colleges. Grab these essays below.


COLLEGE ESSAY EXAMPLE #7 - I believe that every person is molded by their experiences

Author: Martin
Class Year: Princeton University 2021
Type of Essay: Common Application Personal Statement
School Acceptances: Princeton University, University of California Berkeley, University of California Davis, University of California Santa Cruz, CSU Sonoma, CSU Long Beach, CSU San Jose, CSU Chico, New York University

I believe every person is molded by their experiences whether they be positive or negative. I have been impacted by many events and challenges, both personally and socially, that have made me who I am today.

I was born in Concepcion de Buenos Aires in Jalisco, Mexico. My dad did not always live with us and worked doing manual labor in the United States every three months to provide income for us transitioning between the United States and Mexico when he could. When I was six, my Spanish-speaking family immigrated to the United States. Once here in the United States, I found English difficult to learn at school since it was brand new to me. English-speaking students always had to translate for me which motivated me to become fluently proficient by third grade.

In addition to the language barrier at school, my family would constantly move due to apartment rent increase, so I never grew accustomed to a group of friends.  Because of this, I had social difficulties in elementary school.  I remember hardly speaking in class and not playing any recess games unless invited. I recall playing tetherball mostly by myself and observing the children with longing eyes. In the sixth grade, my social life began to change; I met my best friend, Luz. We fostered a tight-knit bond immediately, and my confidence developed little by little each day. As each year passed, I acquired more confidence to become more sociable, but my awkwardness did not completely go away.

My earlier language barrier, my soft-hearted and quiet personality, and my social self-consciousness found me drawn to playing with girls and not sports with the other boys. I soon began to feel excluded by boys asking me why I played with girls; it made me feel small and different from the rest. Looking back, I have never been the “masculine boy” as society says my role to be. I have always thought I do not fit the social definition of a male as one who is “manly” and “sporty” and this alienating feeling of being different still persists today at times. However, I also have become more comfortable with myself, and I see my growth firsthand throughout high school.

In my freshman year I began to come out of my shell and develop self-confidence, largely due to my participation in choir and drama class. In these classes I could be myself and found my real voice. Here I felt a connection to a family not connected by blood but by a unifying passion in the creative arts.  That connection allowed me to confide in my friend Luz my struggle with my personal identity. One day I messaged her: “I have something to tell you… I think I might be bisexual.” My heart pounded as I waited anxiously for her reply. She responded: “How long have you been thinking of this?”  In her response I felt reassured that the she would not reject me.  From that moment my best friend thanked me and said our friendship was now stronger as a result. I felt so relieved to get that secret off my chest; it was a cathartic moment in my life and a significant turning point!

Throughout high school, I have become more open about who I am, and my confidence and acceptance in myself has grown tremendously. Although I still have not told my parents about my sexuality, I will when I am ready.  I am who I am today as a result of these experiences and personal challenges. In my short life so far, I have developed my soft-hearted and quiet personality to become more open, creative, and self-assured while preserving my identity. I know more challenges lie ahead, but I am open to those opportunities.

[Want to learn more about the author of this essay? Check out Martin's story here]


COLLEGE ESSAY EXAMPLE #8 - The California Cadet Corps

Author: Justin
Class Year: Princeton University 2021
Type of Essay: Common Application Personal Statement
School Acceptances: Princeton University, Harvard University, Stanford University, UCLA, UCSD

During my freshman year at Cajon High School, I enlisted in the California Cadet Corps (CACC). The CACC is essentially a JROTC program based on a state level. Every summer, the CACC holds a summer encampment at Camp San Luis Obispo. A myriad of leadership schools are offered: Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) School, Officer-Candidate School (OCS), etc. I participated in OCS my freshman year, Survival my sophomore year, and Marksmanship last summer. Of those three, Survival was definitely my biggest challenge and marked my transition from childhood to adulthood.

Within the CACC, there’s an honor so admirable that those who receive it are inducted into an order of elites: the Red Beret. It signifies completion of survival training, the most rigorous and difficult training course within the CACC. With a heart mixed with excitement and fear, I stepped onto the bus headed for Camp San Luis Obispo in June of 2015.

After basic instruction, we were transported to arid Camp Roberts to begin field training. Upon arrival, we were separated into groups of four with one leader each (I was designated as team leader). We then emptied our canteens, received minimal tools, and set off. Our immediate priority was finding areas to build our shelter and latrine. Then, we needed to locate a clean source of water. After, we had to find food. It was truly a situation that required making everything from scratch. As the day drew to a close and night advanced, I felt seclusion and apprehension envelop me.

As the days drew on, constant stress and heat along with lack of food took a toll on my sanity and drove me almost to my breaking-point. At one moment, I remembered a handwritten phrase that had been on my desk: “Your biggest enemy is yourself.” At this moment, it hit me: I wasn’t going to quit. I was going to overcome this challenge and show myself that I have what it takes to survive for five days using nothing but my wits.

On the morning of the sixth day, my team and I reported to headquarters to complete training. With pride, I received the honor of wearing that glorious Red Beret on my head.

Through Survival, I learned many things about myself and the way I approach the world. I realized that I take for granted innumerable small privileges and conveniences and that I undervalue what I do have. Now that I had experienced true and sustained hunger, I felt regret for times when I threw away food and behaved with unconscious waste. Additionally, being isolated from mass civilization and relying heavily on my companions gave me an appreciation for my friends and for the absolute necessity of teamwork. Being the leader of my team meant that they all looked to me for motivation, inspiration, and a will to survive; I got first-hand experience on how important a leader can be in a situation of literal life and death. Most importantly, however, I gained priceless insight into the amount of effort and work my parents put in for me every day.

As demonstrated, survival training taught me essential lessons to survive successfully as an adult. Looking back, it’s absolutely unbelievable how one week affected me so profoundly. Even today, I remember the phrase that motivated me that day: “Your biggest enemy is yourself.” Thinking of that, I go to school and say to myself, “Justin, you truly are an amazing young man!”

[Want to learn more about the author of this essay? Check out Justin's story here]

You can read 19 additional college essay examples that earned students acceptance into top-tier colleges. Grab these essays for free below!


COLLEGE ESSAY EXAMPLE #9 - I never want to lose what we had in that corner

Author: Jonah
Class Year: Princeton University 2019
Type of Essay: Common Application Personal Statement - Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
School Acceptances: Princeton University, Swarthmore College

The squeaks of whiteboard markers have now replaced the scritch-scratch of chalk, but the hubbub of voices is always the same. For millennia, the great thinkers of their day would gather and discuss. In ancient Greece, it was Socrates debating about philosophy; centuries later it was Newton lecturing at Cambridge on fluxions and physics. This summer Paul Steinhardt and his eminent colleagues sat down for a panel about inflationary theory at the World Science festival- though there was neither chalk nor markers there. Though we make no claim to be the greatest thinkers of our day and our school in no way resembles the hallowed edifices of science, my friends and I have staked out a corner of our AP Calculus room where we can have our own discussions. We even have a whiteboard.

It started small: just myself, Avery, and Sam and a problem set that didn’t take us long enough. Appropriately enough, we were working on one of Newton’s problems: differential equations describing cooling curves. His solution is fairly simple, perhaps overly simple, which prompted me to ask Avery what he thought. We had both taken Chemistry the year before, and Newton’s equation didn’t take into account thermal equilibrium; (to be fair to Newton, adding thermal equilibrium doesn’t appreciably change the solution at normal conditions). Since we were slightly bored and faced with an empty hour ahead of us, we started to modify the equation. We had learned in Chemistry that both the surroundings and the actual cooling object both change temperature, which Newton had ignored. We wrote up a first attempt on the infamous whiteboard, paused a second, and then started laughing as we realized that our inchoate equation meant a hot cup of coffee could plummet Earth into another Ice Age. This disturbance in an otherwise fairly quiet classroom drew the attention of Sam. He too was amused with our attempt and together we began to fix the poor thing. Huddled around the back of the classroom, we all pondered. It wasn’t an important problem, it wasn’t due the next day, it wasn’t even particularly interesting. But we loved it.

The three of us had been friends since middle school, which in many ways seems astounding. Avery, a track runner, Sam, a Morris dancer, and myself, a fencer. Our interests could not be more diverse. Avery was an avid programmer while Sam was fascinated by the evolution of language. I always had a soft spot for physics. Luckily for us, we had found each other early on in middle school and our discussions started soon after. As we learned more math, read more books, and culled more esoteric facts from our varied experiences, the quality of our rebuttals has dramatically improved. The laughter is immutable.

In the back of algebra class in eighth grade, Avery taught me how to program calculators in TIBasic while I traded theories with him about the Big Bang. From Sam I learned the phonetic alphabet and more recently the physics of bell ringing. Since then our dynamic has always stayed playful no matter how heated the discussion; only our arguments have changed. I may have learned as much in the back of classes with my friends as I learned from my teachers. Joseph Joubert wrote, “To teach is to learn twice,” and I could not agree more. In the myriad hours Avery, Sam, and I spent together, the neuron-firing was palpable, the exuberance impossible to miss.

But not only did I learn linguistics, Python, and philosophy with Avery and Sam, I learned a little more about myself. I never want to lose what we had in that corner. Our interplay of guessing and discovering and laughing seemed like paradise to me. I looked for other opportunities in my life to meet brilliant and vivacious people, to learn from them, and to teach them what I loved. I co-founded a tutoring program, participated in original research, and taught lessons in Physics and Chemistry as a substitute.

I expected to be nervous, I expected to embarrass myself. Yet on every occasion, whether I’m facing the board or with my back to it, whether I’m in the ranks of my peers or addressing my teachers, I feel the same elation. In my friends I see Socrates, Newton, and Steinhardt. There’s no place I would rather be than in their company.

[Want to learn more about the author of this essay? Check out Jonah's story here]


COLLEGE ESSAY EXAMPLE #10 - It is the effort that counts, not the result

Author: John
Class Year: Princeton University 2021
Type of Essay: Common Application Personal Statement - The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
School Acceptances: Princeton University

For as long as I can remember, wrestling has been an important part of my life. I can recall playing dodgeball after wrestling practice, summer wrestling camps, hard practices with my older brother, and hundreds of wrestling tournaments as cornerstones of my childhood. From a young age I was determined to be the best; and quickly concluded that meant winning a PIAA state championship. When I entered Junior High, I discovered that only ten wrestlers in the history of Pennsylvania had won a state championship each year of their high school careers - and becoming the eleventh became my personal ambition.

Entering high school, I centered my life around the goal of winning a state title my freshman year. I became disciplined in every aspect of my life: from how many hours of sleep I got, to what exact foods I ate. I was obsessed with my intensive training regimen, and fell asleep each night to the dream of my hand being raised in the circle of the main mat on the Giant Center floor.

As the season progressed, I experienced success. My state ranking climbed steadily and by the time the state tournament began, I was projected to finish third. I wrestled well throughout the tournament, advancing to the semifinals where I defeated the favorite 11-0. At last: I was to wrestle in the final match for the state championship. I prepared for my opponent, whom I defeated the week before. However, when the match began, I wrestled nervously, was unable to fully recover, and ended up on the short end of a 3-1 decision.

In just a few short minutes, my dream was shattered. For me, it felt like the end of the world. I had based my whole identity and lifestyle on the dream of winning four state titles. It felt as though the sport I loved most had ripped out my heart,  and on live television, in front of thousands of people. I was upset after the match.  I was depressed and felt worthless, devoid of my passion for and love of wrestling.

After a month or perhaps more of introspection, and some in depth conversations with the people closest to me, I began to realize that one lost wrestling match, at age fifteen, was not the end of the world. The more I reflected on my wrestling journey, the more gratitude I developed for all of my opportunities.   I realized that wrestling had helped forge some of the most important relationships of my life, including an irreplaceable fraternity with my older brother, teammates, and coaches. My setback in the state finals also helped me to understand all of the lessons learned through wrestling, and that there was much more I could still accomplish. Wrestling helped me learn the value of hard work, discipline, and mental toughness. But most important, I learned that no matter how much we try, we cannot control everything, including the outcome of a wrestling match. We cannot control what happens to us, but we can control our reaction, attitude, actions, and effort. In the words of my father, “it is the effort that counts, not the result.”

Hence, through my experience of failure I learned an invaluable lesson applicable to every walk of life. In retrospect, I am grateful for the opportunity to compete, to represent myself and my school, and to lay all my hard work on the line. The process of striving to become a state champion taught me more than achieving this title ever could, and my failure in the state finals was a blessing in disguise.

[Want to learn more about the author of this essay? Check out John's story here]


COLLEGE ESSAY EXAMPLE #11 - The problem of social integration

Author: Harry
Class Year: Princeton University 2020
Type of Essay: Universal Common Application Personal Statement - How do we establish common values to promote harmony in an increasingly diverse society?
School Acceptances: Princeton University

Establishing a cohesive society where common values are shared is increasingly difficult in multi-faith, globalised societies such as the one I’m part of in the UK. My studies in politics and philosophy have made me more sensitive to this problem and as I have a much larger number of friends from different ethnic backgrounds than my parents and the previous generation, I realise that the friction created by the presence of different ethnic and social groups is not going to disappear anytime soon.

Admittedly, the problem of social integration is one I feel can be widely overstated – for example, when I was looking into some research for a similar topic a couple of years ago, I found numerous surveys indicating that ethnic minorities (especially Islam) identify much more closely with Britain than do the population at large. Still though, I, like many others, find myself constantly troubled by the prospect of the war from within that seems to be developing. This fear is fuelled by events such as the brutal killing of the soldier Lee Rigby at the hands of two British Muslims a couple of years ago.

This cold blooded murder provides a clear example of what can happen when people lose their human connection to the society that they’re a part of and instead pursue hate and violence on a pretence to a higher purpose (killing in the name of religion). I think suggestible minds are undoubtedly most prone to this, and the two British men who killed Rigby, previously Christians, are examples of how minds devoid of any instilled social values are fertile ground for the fomentation of harmful ideas.

What I find particularly worrying is the distinct danger of allowing a largely atomised society to develop, where conflicts such as this one begin to characterise the interaction between the different parts. It’s imperative that we avoid this situation and work towards social unity, and so I think a long-term and complex solution to social integration must be found. Given the upward trends in multiculturalism and globalisation, it is going to be paramount that my generation takes on the problems of integration and cultural diversity to create a harmonious society.

The solution will no doubt be an ongoing process, involving years of detailed and thoroughly considered legislation, but I think that in working towards it, we should focus on certain things.

With regard to the role of religion, I think its relationship with the state needs to be clarified and communicated to everyone. As the case of Lee Rigby quite bluntly reveals, where religion triumphs over civic duty, there’s a potentially dangerous situation, especially when put into the context of radical fundamentalism. By the same token however, it’s neither desirable nor feasible to have a society where politics trumps religion, so I think that when addressing the issue of social cohesion there must be an overarching commitment to other people within society that’s established – humanity must transcend any form of politics or ideology, and bind the two camps so their incompatibility does not become entrenched.

I think that this has to be done primarily through education: both within the formal curriculum which all citizens of a democratic nation state should be compelled to follow until at least the age of 16, and in the wider sense through more promotion of cultural programmes nationally that encourage the nation’s population to participate in the continuing discussion and examination of our core, shared values. We have to work at this constantly since identity is itself always in a state of flux and accept that this continuing ‘conversation’ will always require us to confront some very difficult questions about freedom and responsibility. People need to understand these ideas not simply as abstract questions, but also as issues of practical, pragmatic relevance, deconstructing them into how we actually treat each other, the true test of how civilised and tolerant we are.


What These College Essay Examples Have in Common

You've read through these 11 college essay examples. What do they all have in common? What's the secret sauce that earned their writers Ivy League acceptance?

Remember: the college essay is only one part of the college application.

The admissions officers reading these essays thus were considering other aspects of the writers' applications, including extracurricular distinction and academic achievement.

That being said, we've done the research and pinpointed the 7 qualities of successful college essays that all of these pieces exemplify.

These are:

  • Introspective and reflective
  • Full of a student's voice
  • Descriptive and engaging
  • Honest
  • Unconventional and distinct
  • Well-written
  • Meaningful

How to Write an Essay Like These College Essay Examples

What can you do to write a personal statement in line with these stellar college essay examples?

First, let's talk about how to actually read one of these college essay examples.

If you're at this point in this post, you've likely read at least one of the examples in this post at least once. Now, return to that essay and read it a second time with a more critical eye.

Ask yourself questions like these:

  • What do you like? What do you not like?
  • How does the essay make you feel?
  • How is the essay structured?
  • How does the writer craft the introduction? The conclusion?
  • What's unique about this college essay example?
  • What value(s) does the writer express? Key takeaways?
  • Is there anything unexpected or surprising?
  • Do any writing techniques stick out to you?

Pay attention to your answers to these questions, and reflect on the qualities that surface. Compare them to the 7 qualities of a successful college essay. What do you notice?

Complete this exercise for several other college essay examples -- you can download 19 additional college essay examples right here!

This can help you understand exactly what it it takes to write a compelling college essay, including what impact a strong essay has on a reader.

It's also a great first step to take in the college essay writing process, which we've boiled down to these 10 simple steps


Download 30 College Essay Examples

You can check out even more college essay examples by successful applicants! For 19 additional essays, download PrepMaven's 30 College Essays That Worked.

With this document, you'll get:

  • The essays included in this post
  • 19 additional full personal statements of applicants admitted to top-tier institutions

Need some additional help? Check out our college essay service and work with one of our Master Consultants.

At PrepMaven, our mission is not only to help your child increase their test scores and get into a great college but also to put them on the right track for long-term personal and professional success.


Greg Wong & Kevin WongGreg Wong and Kevin Wong

Greg and Kevin are brothers and the co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They are Princeton engineering graduates with over 20 years of education experience. They apply their data and research-backed problem solving skills to the test prep and college preparation process. Their unique approach places a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service as key components of college admissions success.


ACT Reading Strategies from the Experts_PrepMaven

10 ACT Reading Strategies to Get A High Score

10 ACT Reading Strategies to Get A High Score

Bonus Material: PrepMaven's ACT Guidebook

ACT Reading can be a challenge for many test-takers. Many are intimidated by the dense, boring passages.

Timing is also a constant struggle for students on this section -- it can feel virtually impossible to tackle 40 questions in 35 minutes on top of those passages!

You're also not at your freshest when taking ACT Reading, which arrives third in the section lineup. At this point of the test, many students are battling major test fatigue.

So what's the secret to improving your ACT Reading score? Strategy.

It’s extremely important to establish a strategic approach for all sections of the ACT, precisely because it is a standardized (and thus predictable) test. 

We've compiled our very best strategies for succeeding on this difficult section, no matter where your strengths lie. Some of these strategies also appear in our comprehensive ACT Guidebook, which you can grab for free below.

Bonus Material: PrepMaven's ACT Guidebook

  • Details about ACT scoring, content, testing options, and more
  • An introduction to PrepMaven’s ACT strategies
  • Information about ACT prep resources
  • Application essentials for the top U.S. colleges

Click here to download a copy of our digital guide!

Here's what we cover:

  1. ACT Reading in a Nutshell
  2. 10 ACT Reading Strategies from the Experts
  3. Bonus: PrepMaven's ACT Guidebook

1) ACT Reading in a Nutshell

ACT Reading Strategies from the Experts_PrepMaven

ACT Reading tests your critical reading skills -- your capacity to identify main ideas, understand how writers formulate arguments, and analyze key details in a text.

Here's what you need to know:

  • The ACT Reading section is the third section of the ACT
  • It's scored on a scale of 1-36, like every other ACT section
  • There are 40 questions on ACT Reading, to be completed in 35 minutes, and 4 passages
  • There are four types of passages: Prose Fiction / Literary Narrative, Social Science, Humanities, and Natural Science
  • One of these passages will be a dual passage, which contains two shorter passages
  • The questions will always boil down to key ideas and details, craft and structure, and integration of knowledge and ideas

Let's look at the strategies you can use on ACT Reading to succeed.

For an even deeper dive into ACT Reading, check out our post Everything You Need to Know About ACT Reading.

You can find all of the strategies in this post and so much more in our free ACT guidebook, a great resource for first-time ACT test-takers. Grab it below!


2) 10 ACT Reading Strategies for Success

Strategy #1: Think like the test-makers, not a test-taker.

The test-makers design the ACT Reading section to be challenging. They want students to fall for trap answers and use their time inefficiently. They want students to answer questions in predictable ways.

That’s why it’s important to think strategically on ACT Reading. Be on the lookout for ways that the ACT is trying to trick you--the more you can anticipate these traps, the more likely you are to not fall for them! 

Here’s one example. The literary narrative passage is always the first passage on ACT Reading. At first glance, this passage sounds easy-peasy. Fiction? Characters? Dialogue? Cool!

But on second glance, the questions associated with this passage are detail-oriented and time-consuming, like this one:

Many students who start with this passage end up losing a lot of time.

You guessed it: the test-makers do this for a reason. They want you to waste your time on this first passage so you have limited time to get to the others! The predictable test-taker will do this passage first. The savvy test-taker will not.

Strategy #2: Prioritize easier passages and questions.

Every question is worth the same amount of points on ACT Reading, and there's no wrong answer penalty. For that reason, be sure to play to your strengths on this section and start with the passages and questions that are easiest for you.

What does "easy" look like on ACT Reading?

Every student will answer this question differently! But, in general, here's how "easy" tends to look on ACT Reading in terms of passage types and questions:

  • An "easy" ACT Reading passage is one that interests you (even if it's a teeny bit of interest) -- you are more likely to stay focused and answer questions accurately when you are interested in the subject matter!
  • An "easy" ACT Reading question contains a line-reference or concerns a single detail in the passage -- these require less overall comprehension of the passage as a whole

Difficult ACT Reading passages are typically dense, technical, and/or detail-oriented. Many students find that the Prose Fiction / Literary Narrative passage on ACT Reading is extremely time-consuming, even if it is interesting.

Tough ACT Reading questions are big-picture questions that require more knowledge of the passage. Always save these for last (or for guessing opportunities!).

Strategy #3: Boost your fluency in ACT Reading question types.

It’s important to recognize the different types of questions you’ll encounter on ACT Reading. This fluency will help you pinpoint your strengths and cater to these.

It can also clue you in to the predictability of ACT Reading. It will have the same types of questions every time, after all!

ACT, the organization that produces the test, identifies three question types for this section:

  • Key Ideas and Details
  • Craft and Structure
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas

However, these categories are rather broad! Within them, students can expect to find questions on any of the following:

  • Inferences based on evidence in the text
  • The function or purpose of words, sentences, paragraphs, or the passage as a whole
  • The main idea of the passage as a whole or individual paragraphs
  • Details and keywords from the questions
  • Narrative point of view or authorial perspective
  • Vocabulary words in context
  • Literary devices (metaphor, personification, allusion, etc.)
  • Character analysis

Strategy #4: Annotate the passage while you read it.

Time management is a big challenge on ACT Reading, especially on longer, denser passages. To work through passages more efficiently, read them strategically.

What does strategic reading look like?

Prioritize main ideas as you read, as a lot of the questions will concern these. Don't get lost in details and elaborations. Take notes as you go, underlining central ideas, keywords from the questions, and author opinions.

These annotations will create a "passage map" -- notes that can lead you more easily (and more quickly) to the answers when it comes time to get to those questions. Plus, they'll help you develop a baseline understanding of the passage as a whole, which is vital for big-picture questions.

Here's what that might look like on part of an ACT Reading passage. We've annotated this paragraph for its key ideas, which all have to do with the pika's very specific climate needs:

Strategy #5: Find your answer in the passage.

We like to call ACT Reading an open-book test. Why? All of the answers are right there in front of you, in the passages!

This means that you shouldn't have to rely on outside content knowledge or big-leap inferences to answer a Reading question. In fact, if you find yourself doing so, that's a surefire sign that you're headed in the wrong direction.

Get in the habit of pinpointing exact moments in the text that answer specific questions. Put your finger on it--literally! You can even do this for more big-picture questions.

Here's an example of what that looks like.

This question asks about a specific detail from the passage, namely what a study indicates stresses a pika population the most during the summer:

We can hunt in the passage for key details from this question, including the study published in Ecological Applications, pika populations, and stress during the summer. Here's the bit that includes all of those details:

Reading carefully reveals that "chronic heat stress" or "overall hotter summers" impacts pikas most, so the answer to this question is H. See how we could actually put our finger on that answer in the text? Awesome!

You can find all of the strategies in this post and so much more in our free ACT guidebook, a great resource for first-time ACT test-takers. Grab it below!

Strategy #6: Get familiar with classic wrong answer choices.

The ACT is a standardized test, which means it is highly predictable. We see this predictability at every level of the test -- including the content tested on ACT English and Math and the number of passages on Reading and Science.

We also see it in terms of typical wrong answer choices.

Becoming fluent in types of wrong answer choices on ACT Reading can help you streamline your elimination game and avoid trap answers.

Some classic wrong ACT Reading answer choices include the following:

  • Extreme answers -- those that include words like never or always
  • Vague answer choices -- those that are too general or broad
  • Answers that go too far -- those that sound nice but make too big an inference or logical leap
  • Answers that scramble details from the passage -- the details may appear right, but they're slightly off

Notice a common thread in these? You guessed it -- wrong answer choices are wrong because they can't be supported with direct evidence from the passage.

Students should thus get in the habit of identifying evidence in the passage for every answer choice they select.

Strategy #7: Don’t get lost in the answer choices.

This is one of the most important ACT Reading strategies we pass along to our students.

Many test-takers get in the habit of reading through all of the answer choices before coming up with an answer to a question. Don’t do this! This increases your odds of getting sidetracked by a “shiny” trap answer.

We recommend reading the question first, researching your answer in the passage, making a prediction, and then eliminating answers that don’t match your prediction. 

Hint: This strategy is very effective when paired with strategy #6 (getting familiar with classic wrong answer choices).

Strategy #8: Divide and conquer on the dual passage.

Don’t forget that one of the 4 ACT Reading passages includes a dual passage. This means students will have to read two smaller passages in one, and answer questions about both.

Instead of reading through these two passages before getting to the questions, divide and conquer! Make your life easier by tackling only one passage at a time.

  • Take a look at the questions
  • Tackle the passage that has the most questions first
  • Answer questions for that passage
  • Tackle the other passage and its respective questions
  • Complete questions about both passages

This strategy means that you only have to think about both passages at once for the questions that concern both (arguably the harder questions on the dual passage).

Strategy #9: Be literal.

Every correct answer to every ACT Reading question can be found in the passage itself. This means that students should be very cautious if they find themselves making assumptions, huge inferences, or other logical leaps.

Approach questions literally! Work only with what you see in the passage and in the question stem. Be very skeptical of answer choices that lead you away from these two things.

Strategy #10: Practice, practice, practice.

Remember: timing is often the biggest issue for students on ACT Reading. All of the strategies we've discussed in this post can help with time management and accuracy.

But the real key to tackling timing on ACT Reading lies in consistent practice.

Students should get in the habit of completing regular timed drills, for example--this can be as simple as completing one Reading passage in about 8.5 minutes (if you're attempting all four passages).

It's also important to supplement your ACT prep with consistent practice tests. Find 6 official ACT practice tests for free right here and tips for navigating the ACT as a whole in our FREE guidebook.

Bonus Material: PrepMaven's ACT Guidebook

  • Details about ACT scoring, content, testing options, and more
  • An introduction to PrepMaven’s ACT strategies
  • Information about ACT prep resources
  • Application essentials for the top U.S. colleges

Click here to download a copy of our digital guide!


3) Want More ACT Reading Strategies? Work With an Expert!

These are only a sampling of the awesome ACT Reading strategies out there. What's more, every ACT test-taker is different -- it's important to customize your strategies based off of your strengths.

Working with a PrepMaven ACT expert can help you do just this! With one-on-one ACT tutoring, you'll be well on your way to strategically approaching ACT Reading and improving your score.

Learn more about PrepMaven ACT tutoring options now.


Everything You Need to Know about ACT Reading_PrepMaven

ACT Reading: Everything You Need to Know

ACT Reading: Everything You Need to Know

Bonus Material: PrepMaven's ACT Guidebook

ACT Reading is the third section of the ACT. It comes right after ACT Math and before ACT Science.

This section can be a tough one for students, especially when it comes to timing. Students have to work through four dense passages and 40 questions in only 35 minutes.

Plus, one of those passages is a dual passage, which requires students to compare ideas in two shorter passages.

What do you need to know about ACT Reading? What strategies can you use to improve your Reading score?

We've got the answers, which we cover in this post! Plus, readers can check out our ACT Guidebook, a free resource for test-takers navigating this test. Grab it below.

Bonus Material: PrepMaven's ACT Guidebook

  • Details about ACT scoring, content, testing options, and more
  • An introduction to PrepMaven’s ACT strategies
  • Information about ACT prep resources
  • Application essentials for the top U.S. colleges

Click here to download a copy of our digital guide!

Here's what we'll discuss:

  1. The ACT Reading Section in a Nutshell
    1. Format
    2. Passage Types
    3. Question Types
    4. Scoring
  2. How to Improve Your ACT Reading Score
  3. Bonus: PrepMaven's ACT Guidebook

1) The ACT Reading Section in a Nutshell

ACT Reading

Here's what ACT, the organization that writes the test, says about Reading:

The ACT reading test measures your reading comprehension. The test questions ask you to derive meaning from several texts by (1) referring to what is explicitly stated and (2) reasoning to determine implicit meanings. Specifically, questions will ask you to use referring and reasoning skills to determine main ideas; locate and interpret significant details; understand sequences of events; make comparisons; comprehend cause-effect relationships; determine the meaning of context-dependent words, phrases, and statements; draw generalizations; and analyze the author’s or narrator’s voice and method.

What does this actually mean?

In simpler language, the Reading section tests your critical reading skills -- your capacity to identify main ideas, understand how writers formulate arguments, and analyze key details in a text.

ACT Reading is a very literal test, which means that all of its questions will boil down to main ideas, author's purpose, and textual details. In other words, you'll always be able to find answers to these questions in the passages themselves.

Let's look at the format of the section so you can gain a better understanding of what we mean by this.

Format

ACT Reading is the third section of the test, appearing after ACT Math and before ACT Science.

There are 40 multiple-choice questions on ACT Reading, to be completed in 35 minutes. This is also how ACT Science is structured -- there’s a reason why the two sections are back-to-back!

Those 40 questions are attached to four passages, all roughly the same length. Every passage begins with a short blurb that identifies the passage genre, author, title, and any other relevant context.

One of these passages will be a dual passage, which means that students must answer questions associated with two smaller passages in one. Here's what that looks like:

ACT Reading - Dual Passage

The subjects of these passages will vary within their genres. You may or may not be familiar with these subjects, but don't worry -- that won't keep you from doing well on this section!

There are still many predictable components of this section: the format, passage and question types, and scoring.

Passage Types

There are four genres of ACT Reading passages, which will be the same on every test and appear in this order:

  • Literary Narrative or Prose Fiction
  • Social Science
  • Humanities
  • Natural Science

Note: Any of these passages can be a dual passage. In very rare instances, there won't be a dual passage, but this tends to only happen about once a year (if at all).

Literary Narrative or Prose Fiction passages will be excerpts from novels, short stories, memoirs, or personal essays, like this one here:

Social Science, Humanities, and Natural Science passages all frequently come from journal or newspaper articles, research papers, books, or other academic sources. Given how general these categories are, the subjects of these articles can be about virtually anything--from rock ants to the Grateful Dead's management style.

There's often one thing that all of these passages have in common: they can be very dense and very boring! Luckily, however, we've got some strategies to help with that, which we'll discuss at the end of this post. You can also check out our these 10 ACT Reading strategies to get a high score.

Question Types

ACT Reading questions boil down to three categories of questions, according to ACT:

  • Key Ideas and Details
  • Craft and Structure
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas

Key Ideas and Details Questions

These questions are all about passage central themes and ideas. They require students to summarize information and ideas, draw logical inferences from the text, and understand "relationships" between ideas (like cause-and-effect, chronological, or compare-and-contrast).

Here's an example of a Key Ideas and Details question on Reading:

Craft and Structure Questions

Craft and Structure questions test meanings of words and phrases, text structure, author's purpose and perspective, and character points of view.

Here's an example of a Craft and Structure question on Reading:

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas Questions

These questions measure your ability to distinguish between opinion and fact, understand authors' claims, and to use textual evidence to analyze a dual passage. In some cases, these questions more broadly test your ability to analyze how authors build their arguments.

Here's an example of an Integration of Knowledge and Ideas question on Reading:

Do any of these Reading question types require outside content knowledge? Not directly. ACT states that "these questions do not test the rote recall of facts from outside the passage, isolated vocabulary items, or rules of formal logic."

In fact, all answers to ACT Reading questions can be found in the passages themselves!

Students are expected to have knowledge of basic literary devices, however, such as personification, simile, metaphor, and analogy. Similarly, they should be familiar with things like themes, point of view, topic sentences, and transition words.

Scoring

How is ACT Reading scored? Every section on the ACT is scored on a scale of 1-36. So, 1 is the lowest score you can earn on this section and 36 is the highest score. 

The test graders calculate this based on section-specific algorithms that boil down to converting your raw score (the number of questions you get right) to a number between 1 and 36.

All ACT section scores are averaged to generate a composite score on a scale of 1-36. You can find out more about how this works in our ACT scoring guide.

There is no wrong answer penalty on the ACT. This means that you don’t lose points for getting a question wrong on ACT Reading -- you simply do not get any points. Students can use this to their advantage by never leaving a question blank on this section!

How many questions do you have to get right in order to achieve a high score? The answer: it depends.

Even though the ACT is a standardized test, no two Reading sections are the same in terms of difficulty and content. A 30 on one Reading section likely doesn’t equate to a 30 on another. 

The key to improving your ACT Reading score thus lies in maximizing your raw score -- the more questions you ace on this section, the higher your odds are of earning a competitive score.

We’ll talk more about how to improve your Reading score later on in this post. If you want more insight into what counts as a “good” ACT score overall, check out our other post on the subject.

If you're enjoying this post, you'll love our ACT guidebook, which contains all of this information about ACT Reading and so much more. It's a great, free resource for first-time test-takers, and you can grab it below right now!


2) How to Improve Your ACT Reading Score

The Reading section on the ACT can be a challenge for many test-takers. Many are intimidated by the dense, boring passages.

Timing is also a constant struggle for students on this section -- it can feel virtually impossible to tackle 40 questions in 35 minutes on top of those passages!

You're also not at your freshest when taking ACT Reading, which arrives third in the section lineup. At this point of the test, many students are battling major test fatigue.

There are many ways to improve your ACT Reading score, which we explore more fully in another post. For now, however, the secret to doing well on Reading lies in strategy.

It’s extremely important to establish a strategic approach for all sections of the ACT, precisely because it is a standardized (and thus predictable) test. 

Here are four of our best strategies for succeeding on this difficult section, no matter where your strengths lie. Find even more strategies in our 10 ACT Reading Strategies to Get a High Score post.

Strategy #1: Prioritize easier passages and questions.

The ACT as a whole does not necessarily set students up for success, especially on ACT Reading. The most difficult passage for you personally, for example, may be first in the line-up. You are also likely to find some question types much easier than others.

Every question is worth the same amount of points on ACT Reading, and there's no wrong answer penalty. For that reason, be sure to play to your strengths on this section and start with the passages and questions that are easiest for you.

What does "easy" look like on ACT Reading?

Every student will answer this question differently! But, in general, here's how "easy" tends to look on ACT Reading in terms of passage types and questions:

  • An "easy" ACT Reading passage is one that interests you (even if it's a teeny bit of interest) -- you are more likely to stay focused and answer questions accurately when you are interested in the subject matter!
  • An "easy" ACT Reading question contains a line-reference or concerns a single detail in the passage -- these require less overall comprehension of the passage as a whole

Difficult ACT Reading passages are typically dense, technical, and/or detail-oriented. Many students find that the Prose Fiction / Literary Narrative passage on ACT Reading is extremely time-consuming, even if it is interesting.

Tough ACT Reading questions are big-picture questions that require more knowledge of the passage. Always save these for last (or guessing opportunities).

Strategy #2: Annotate the passage while you read it.

Time management is a big challenge on ACT Reading, especially on longer, denser passages. To work through passages more efficiently, read them strategically.

What does strategic reading look like?

Prioritize main ideas as you read, as a lot of the questions will concern these. Don't get lost in details and elaborations. Take notes as you go, underlining central ideas, keywords from the questions, and author opinions.

These annotations will create a "passage map" -- notes that can lead you more easily (and more quickly) to the answers when it comes time to get to those questions. Plus, they'll help you develop a baseline understanding of the passage as a whole, which is vital for big-picture questions.

Strategy #3: Find your answer in the passage.

We like to call ACT Reading an open-book test. Why? All of the answers are right there in front of you, in the passages!

This means that you shouldn't have to rely on outside content knowledge or big-leap inferences to answer a Reading question. In fact, if you find yourself doing so, that's a surefire sign that you're headed in the wrong direction.

Get in the habit of pinpointing exact moments in the text that answer specific questions. Put your finger on it--literally! You can even do this for more big-picture questions.

Here's an example of what that looks like.

This question asks about a specific detail from the passage, namely what a study indicates stresses a pika population the most during the summer:

We can hunt in the passage for key details from this question, including the study published in Ecological Applications, pika populations, and stress during the summer. Here's the bit that includes all of those details:

Reading carefully reveals that "chronic heat stress" or "overall hotter summers" impacts pikas most, so the answer to this question is H. See how we could actually put our finger on that answer in the text? Awesome!

Strategy #4: Get familiar with classic wrong answer choices.

The ACT is a standardized test, which means it is highly predictable. We see this predictability at every level of the test -- including the content tested on ACT English and Math and the number of passages on Reading and Science.

We also see it in terms of typical wrong answer choices.

Becoming fluent in types of wrong answer choices on ACT Reading can help you streamline your elimination game and avoid trap answers.

Some classic wrong ACT Reading answer choices include the following:

  • Extreme answers -- those that include words like never or always
  • Vague answer choices -- those that are too general or broad
  • Answers that go too far -- those that sound nice but make too big an inference or logical leap
  • Answers that scramble details from the passage -- the details may appear right, but they're slightly off

These are only four of our very best ACT Reading strategies. Find the rest in our 10 ACT Reading Strategies to Get You a High Score post.


3) Download PrepMaven's ACT Guidebook

We've covered everything you need to know to jumpstart your ACT Reading prep in this post.

But you'll find even more helpful information about navigating the ins and outs of ACT test-taking in our free ACT Guidebook, which you can download below!

Bonus Material: PrepMaven's ACT Guidebook

  • Details about ACT scoring, content, testing options, and more
  • An introduction to PrepMaven’s ACT strategies
  • Information about ACT prep resources
  • Application essentials for the top U.S. colleges

Click here to download a copy of our digital guide!



The ACT Science Section_PrepMaven

The ACT Science Section: Everything You Need to Know

The ACT Science Section: Everything You Need to Know

Bonus Material: PrepMaven's ACT Guidebook

The ACT Science section can feel like the wild card of the ACT. 

Most students are familiar with the other three sections of the test -- English, Math, and Reading.

But Science? What’s that all about? 

The ACT Science section is the fourth section of the ACT. It comes right before the optional ACT essay and, yes, it does involve a lot of science.

But here’s the secret -- the ACT Science section really boils down to data analysis and figure interpretation. With the right tools and prep, you can feel confident in your capacity to do well on this section.

That’s what this post is all about! We’ll dive into the format, passage types, and scoring of ACT Science. We’ll also explain just what science you need to know for this section, as well as tips for improving your ACT Science score.

We're also giving our readers access to our free ACT guidebook for 2021, which includes all kinds of helpful information about preparing for this test and earning a competitive score. Grab it below!

Bonus Material: PrepMaven's ACT Guidebook

  • Details about ACT scoring, content, testing options, and more
  • An introduction to PrepMaven’s ACT strategies
  • Information about ACT prep resources
  • Application essentials for the top U.S. colleges

Click here to download a copy of our digital guide!

Here’s what we cover in this post:

  1. The ACT Science Section in a Nutshell
    1. Format
    2. Passage Types
    3. Question Types
    4. Scoring
  2. What Science Do I Need to Know?
  3. How to Improve Your ACT Science Score
  4. Bonus: PrepMaven's FREE ACT Guidebook

1) The ACT Science Section in a Nutshell

ACT Science Test_Graphic

Here's what ACT, the organization that actually writes this test, says about the Science section:

The ACT science test measures the interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning, and problem-solving skills required in the natural sciences. The questions require you to recognize and understand the basic features of, and concepts related to, the provided information; to examine critically the relationship between the information provided and the conclusions drawn or hypotheses developed; and to generalize from given information to gain new information, draw conclusions, or make predictions.

What does this actually mean?

In simpler language, the ACT science section tests your understanding of the process of science.

The process of science involves making hypotheses, conducting experiments, analyzing data, drawing conclusions, and making predictions. While it's tough to test all of those skills in a 35-minute paper-based test, ACT Science does its best to measure those skills through six very science-y "passages" and various question types.

Let's take a look at the format and make-up of this test so you can get a better understanding of what we mean by all of this!

ACT Science - Format

The ACT Science section is the fourth section of the ACT. It comes right after ACT Reading and right before the optional ACT Essay.

There are 40 questions on ACT Science, to be completed in 35 minutes. This is also how ACT Reading is structured -- there’s a reason why the two sections are back-to-back!

Those 40 questions come attached to 6 “passages.” Each "passage" will contain some text and/or graphics in the form of charts, figures, tables, and/or graphs. Some passages will contain more text and/or graphics than others.

The subjects of these passages will always be related to science in some capacity: chemistry, biology, physics, earth science, space science, you name it!

You may or may not be familiar with the concepts in the passages themselves (but that won’t keep you from doing well on this section, we promise). These concepts will vary from test to test.

Whether you’re completing a passage on bark beetles or pendulum physics, however, there are some predictable components of this section: the format, passage and question types, and scoring.

Passage Types

There are three passage types on ACT Science:

  • Research Summaries (3)
  • Data Representation (2)
  • Conflicting Viewpoints (1)

Research Summaries require students to analyze and/or compare scientific experiments or studies. These passages often include small headings that specify Study 1 and Study 2, for example, or Experiment 1 and Experiment 2. They also typically have 7 questions.

ACT Science Section_Experiments Passage

Data Representation passages typically involve one scientific concept and a few figures. They generally do not involve a series of studies or experiments and typically have 6 questions.

ACT Science Section_Charts and Graphs Passage

Lastly, students will have to compare and analyze the perspectives or theories of several scientists or theorists. You can recognize these passages because they will specify Theory 1 and Theory 2, for example, or Student 1 and Student 2.

ACT Science Section_Conflicting Students Passage

It's important to note that these passage types can appear in any order, although Data Representation passages have appeared first in the lineup in several official practice tests.

Question Types

There’s a lot of science on this section, but ACT Science questions are largely concerned with the following:

  • Data analysis (what ACT calls "Interpretation of Data")
  • Analysis of experiments (what ACT calls "Scientific Investigation" and "Evaluation of Models, Inferences, and Experiential Results")
  • Scientific knowledge*

*There are about 2-4 questions per ACT Science section that require outside knowledge. However, this knowledge is most likely foundational knowledge students will have learned in high school science classes. We discuss this more in the next section of this post (jump there now).

Take a look at this sample question from a Data Representation passage. Yes, it’s full of what we call scientific jargon -- fancy, big science-y words that seem intimidating. But the secret to answering this question correctly lies in pulling simple data from a table.

ACT Science_Sample Question

The same goes for this question from a Research Summaries passage:

Sample ACT Science Question_Experiments

More advanced questions might require students to do the following:

  • Examine information from more than one table or figure
  • Identify differences between experiments
  • Work with details located in the text
  • Complete basic math
  • Apply data trends to a hypothetical situation or additional study

This question, for example, requires that students apply data trends to a hypothetical additional study:

Sample ACT Science Question_High Difficulty

Scoring

How is ACT Science scored? Every section on the ACT is scored on a scale of 1-36. So, 1 is the lowest score you can earn on this section and 36 is the highest score. 

The test graders calculate this based on section-specific algorithms that boil down to converting your raw score (the number of questions you get right) to a number between 1 and 36.

All ACT section scores are averaged to generate a composite score on a scale of 1-36. You can find out more about how this works in our ACT scoring guide.

There is no wrong answer penalty on the ACT. This means that you don’t lose points for getting a question wrong on ACT Science -- you simply do not get any points. Students can use this to their advantage by never leaving a question blank on this section!

How many questions do you have to get right in order to achieve a high score on ACT Science? The answer: it depends.

Even though the ACT is a standardized test, no two science sections are the same in terms of difficulty and content. A 30 on one ACT Science section likely doesn’t equate to a 30 on another. 

Take these two official ACT practice tests, for example. On the first one, getting 30 questions correct on Science equates to a 26 sectional score. On the second, however, 30 correct questions translates to a 25 sectional score.

The key to improving your ACT Science score thus lies in maximizing your raw score -- the more questions you ace on this section, the higher your odds are of earning a competitive score.

We’ll talk more about how to improve your Science score later on in this post. If you want more insight into what counts as a “good” ACT score overall, check out our other post on the subject.


2) What Science Do I Need to Know for ACT Science?

Do you actually need to know science facts to do well on ACT Science? Not necessarily!

All of the “passages” on ACT Science, as we’ve already discussed, will concern scientific concepts, studies, or themes. But students will only encounter 2-4 questions on ACT Science that directly test your knowledge of scientific content. ACT confirms this:

"Some of the questions require that the students have discipline-specific content knowledge (e.g., knowledge specific to an introductory high school biology course)... Knowledge acquired in general, introductory science courses is needed to answer some of the questions."

Don’t worry, though -- the scientific content that surfaces in these questions is largely foundational content students will have already learned in basic science classes. Many also can be answered through common sense and/or logic.

Here’s an example of a standard Scientific Knowledge question on ACT Science, from an official practice test. Students must know the difference between an acid and a base, and how these relate to pH.

The scientific knowledge questions we’ve seen on official ACT practice tests have concerned the following topics:

  • pH (acids and bases)
  • Chemical equations
  • Speed, force, and drag
  • Energy
  • Phase changes (liquid, solid, gas)
  • Endothermic vs. exothermic
  • Osmosis
  • Genotypes (i.e., recessive vs. dominant alleles)
  • Boiling and freezing points
  • Scientific notation
  • Basic chemical formulas (i.e., H20 or C02)

Because these questions are so broad, it’s virtually impossible to prepare for them. That’s why we advise that students don’t sweat them in the long run. 

If you do come across a question and have no idea how to approach it, work your process of elimination as best you can and, if need be, guess. Remember -- there’s no wrong answer penalty on the ACT, so it’s to your advantage to leave no questions unanswered on every ACT section.

Enjoying this post? We've included all of this information -- and so much more -- in our free ACT guidebook for 2012, which you can download below.


3) How to Improve Your ACT Science Score

The ACT Science test often gives students a fair amount of grief. Many are intimidated by the test’s reliance on data analysis and figure interpretation. What’s more, the test is the fourth section, meaning that students are often battling fatigue on top of complex passages!

Timing is also a common struggle for ACT test-takers. It can feel virtually impossible to tackle 40 ACT Science questions in 35 minutes!

There are many ways to improve your ACT Science score, which we explore more fully in another post. For now, however, the secret to doing well on ACT Science lies in strategy.

It’s extremely important to establish a strategic approach for all sections of the ACT, precisely because it is a standardized (and thus predictable) test. 

Here are four of our best strategies for succeeding on this difficult section, no matter where your strengths lie.

Strategy #1: Think of this as another Reading section.

At first glance, ACT Science appears to be all about data and technical experiments. To some extent, this is true. But students can and should approach this test as they approach ACT Reading: strategically.

This means taking passages and questions out of order, prioritizing those that are easiest for you personally. When approaching questions, think in terms of main ideas of the experiments or scientific concepts presented in the passage.

When starting your ACT Science prep, familiarize yourself with the test’s question and passage types -- and, most importantly, which are easier and harder for you!

Here’s a hint: many students find Data Representation passages on ACT Science to be easier, because they often involve a single scientific concept and fewer charts or figures. On the other hand, the passage that contains conflicting viewpoints tends to be more challenging because it often doesn’t include charts or figures.

Similarly, shorter, single figure based questions tend to be easier for students than those that involve several figures and lots of verbiage.

Strategy #2: Annotate the charts and figures before answering questions.

Much as we encourage students to annotate the passages on ACT Reading before diving into the questions, we also recommend annotating the charts and figures in an ACT Science passage first.

When annotating, identify and notate the following:

  • Trends and patterns in the data (i.e., what's increasing, decreasing, and/or staying the same)
  • X-axis and Y-axis designations
  • Units
  • Chart titles
  • Main ideas or experiment purposes
  • Equations
  • Differences between experiments

Strategy #3: Don’t get lost in the jargon.

It can be really easy to get overwhelmed by the technical details of the ACT Science passages. Yet do your best to look past this jargon and focus only on main ideas, what the questions are asking, and data trends.

You don’t have to understand everything about the scientific concepts discussed! You only have to demonstrate your ability to approach charts and figures strategically.

In some cases, you won't even need to read any of the text associated with the passage. In fact, we encourage students to ignore this text unless they encounter a question that directly concerns it. Keep this in mind on all passages.

Strategy #4: Think like a scientist.

This may sound pretty obvious, but thinking like a scientist can be helpful on ACT Science. What does it mean to think like a scientist, though?

It means approaching questions in the context of scientific investigation. In many ways, this boils down to the Scientific Method:

  • Make an observation
  • Ask a question
  • Form a hypothesis
  • Make a prediction based on that hypothesis
  • Test the prediction
  • Use your experiment results to make a conclusion, other predictions, or new hypotheses

Many ACT Science questions use words like "hypothesis," "observation," "prediction," or "results." There's a reason for that! When analyzing the data for a given passage, analyze it in the context of the Scientific Method. This will allow you to dive into those questions with greater confidence.

We’ve given you only four of our expert strategies for ACT Science -- to grab more, head on over to our post on How to Improve Your ACT Science Score.


4) Download PrepMaven's ACT Guidebook

We've covered everything you need to know to jumpstart your ACT Science prep in this post. But you'll find even more helpful information about navigating the ins and outs of ACT test-taking in our ACT Guidebook.

Bonus Material: PrepMaven's ACT Guidebook

  • Details about ACT scoring, content, testing options, and more
  • An introduction to PrepMaven’s ACT strategies
  • Information about ACT prep resources
  • Application essentials for the top U.S. colleges

Click here to download a copy of our digital guide!


ACT Science Strategies from the Experts_PrepMaven

8 ACT Science Strategies From the Experts

8 ACT Science Strategies From the Experts

Bonus Material: PrepMaven's ACT Guidebook

The ACT Science section often gives students a lot of grief, and for good reason! 

On ACT Science, test-takers have to complete 40 questions in only 35 minutes, which makes timing a huge challenge.

They have to perform data analysis and wade through complex scientific content. Plus, they have to do this after completing 3 other tough ACT sections: English, Math, and Reading.   

The good news is that there are ways to do well on ACT Science! The secret to earning a high score on ACT Science lies in strategy. 

We’ve put together our best strategies for succeeding on this difficult section, no matter where your strengths lie. 

Plus, we give readers access to our ACT Guidebook, which compiles our best advice for all aspects of the ACT test-taking process, from prep to Test Day. Grab it below!

Bonus Material: PrepMaven's ACT Guidebook

  • Details about ACT scoring, content, testing options, and more
  • An introduction to PrepMaven’s ACT strategies
  • Information about ACT prep resources
  • Application essentials for the top U.S. colleges

Click here to download a copy of our digital guide!

Here’s what we cover:

  1. The ACT Science Section in a Nutshell
  2. 8 ACT Science Strategies from the Experts
  3. Bonus: PrepMaven’s ACT Guidebook

1) ACT Science in a Nutshell

ACT Science Strategies from the Experts

What's on ACT Science? In a nutshell, the ACT science section tests your understanding of the process of science.

The process of science involves making hypotheses, conducting experiments, analyzing data, drawing conclusions, and making predictions.

While it's tough to test all of those skills in a 35-minute paper-based test, ACT Science does its best to measure those skills through six very science-y "passages" and various question types.

Here's what you need to know:

  • The ACT Science section is the fourth section of the ACT
  • It's scored on a scale of 1-36, like every other ACT section
  • There are 40 questions on ACT Science, to be completed in 35 minutes, and 6 "passages"
  • Each "passage" will contain some text and/or graphics in the form of charts, figures, tables, and/or graphs
  • The subjects of these passages will always be related to science in some capacity: chemistry, biology, physics, earth science, space science, etc.
  • There are three kinds of passages: Data Representation, Research Summaries, and Conflicting Viewpoints
  • The questions will always boil down to data analysis, figure interpretation, and scientific knowledge

You may or may not be familiar with the scientific concepts in the passages themselves (but that won’t keep you from doing well on this section, we promise). These concepts will vary from test to test.

Does this section directly test scientific knowledge? Yes! But only on 2-4 questions, and the concepts in these questions are those you've most likely already learned through a typical high school science curriculum.

That's why strategy is your best friend on ACT Science! Remember: the ACT as a whole is a standardized test, which means it's predictable. It also means that students who approach the test strategically will be at an advantage!

Let's look at the strategies you can use on ACT Science to succeed.

For an even deeper dive into ACT Science, check out our post Everything You Need to Know About ACT Science.


2) 8 ACT Science Strategies for Success

Strategy #1: Think of this as another Reading section.

ACT Science comes right after ACT Reading, which also has 40 questions and a 35-minute time limit.

At first glance, ACT Science appears to be all about data and technical experiments. To some extent, this is true. But it's actually more similar to ACT Reading than meets the eye.

In fact, students can and should approach this test as they approach ACT Reading: strategically.

This means:

  • Taking passages and questions out of order, prioritizing those that are easiest for you personally.
  • When approaching questions, think in terms of main ideas of the experiments or scientific concepts presented in the passage.

When starting your ACT Science prep, familiarize yourself with the test’s question and passage types -- and, most importantly, which are easier and harder for you! A great way to do this is to take an official ACT practice test.

Many students find Data Representation passages on ACT Science to be easier, because they often involve a single scientific concept and fewer charts or figures.

On the other hand, the passage that contains conflicting viewpoints tends to be more challenging because it often doesn’t include charts or figures.

Similarly, shorter, single figure based questions tend to be easier for students than those that involve several figures and lots of verbiage.

Strategy #2: Annotate the charts and figures before answering questions.

Much as we encourage students to annotate the passages on ACT Reading before diving into the questions, we also recommend annotating the charts and figures in an ACT Science passage first.

This means taking at least 30 seconds to identify and notate the following:

  • Trends and patterns in the data (i.e., what's increasing, decreasing, and/or staying the same)
  • X-axis and Y-axis designations
  • Units
  • Chart titles
  • Main ideas or experiment purposes
  • Equations
  • Differences between experiments

Why is this important? Many ACT Science questions will directly ask about trends in the data or differences between experiments. What's more, because most questions concern data analysis, getting comfy with that data ahead of time can dramatically improve time management.

Here's what a sample annotation might look like for a Data Representation passage. Notice how the student identified maximums and minimums for each figure ("highest intensity" / "lowest intensity"), similarities between the two figures, and the axes and scales.

Strategy #3: Don’t get lost in the jargon.

It can be really easy to get overwhelmed by the technical details of the ACT Science passages. Yet do your best to look past this jargon and focus only on main ideas, what the questions are asking, and data trends.

Why? That's what the questions will be all about! And, at the end of the day, answering questions correctly is vital for improving your ACT Science score.

You don’t have to understand everything about the scientific concepts discussed! You only have to demonstrate your ability to approach charts and figures strategically.

In some cases, you won't even need to read any of the text associated with the passage. Take this blurb, for example. All of this information may seem important, but the only critical part is likely that last sentence that describes the purpose of the experiments: To study whether the introduction of Strain W or Strain R would be more likely to protect the larval food supply.

In fact, we encourage students to ignore this text unless they encounter a question that directly concerns it! You'll be able to identify these questions as ones that can't be directly answered from data in the charts, graphs, or figures.

We've included these ACT Science strategies -- and so much more -- in our free ACT guidebook, a fantastic resource for test-takers navigating the ACT for the first time. You can download it below!

Strategy #4: Think like a scientist.

This may sound pretty obvious, but thinking like a scientist can be helpful on ACT Science. What does it mean to think like a scientist, though?

It means approaching questions in the context of scientific investigation. In many ways, this boils down to the Scientific Method:

  • Make an observation
  • Ask a question
  • Form a hypothesis
  • Make a prediction based on that hypothesis
  • Test the prediction
  • Use your experiment results to make a conclusion, other predictions, or new hypotheses

Many ACT Science questions use words like "hypothesis," "observation," "prediction," or "results." There's a reason for that! When analyzing the data for a given passage, analyze it in the context of the Scientific Method. This will allow you to dive into those questions with greater confidence.

Strategy #5: Brush up on your science facts.

We mentioned that you'll only encounter 2-4 questions on ACT Science that directly test your knowledge of basic science facts.

Here’s an example of a standard Scientific Knowledge question on ACT Science, from an official practice test. Students must know the difference between an acid and a base, and how these relate to pH.

While it's tough to prepare for these questions, it can't hurt to brush up on some foundational scientific knowledge. Test-takers who are well-versed in the process of science and all that that entails are more likely to feel confident on this section.

What facts will be helpful on this section? In general, those that you've covered in introductory high school science courses, including biology, earth science, and chemistry.

The scientific knowledge questions we’ve seen on official ACT practice tests have concerned the following topics:

  • pH (acids and bases)
  • Chemical equations
  • Speed, force, and drag
  • Energy
  • Phase changes (liquid, solid, gas)
  • Endothermic vs. exothermic
  • Osmosis
  • Genotypes (i.e., recessive vs. dominant alleles)
  • Boiling and freezing points
  • Scientific notation
  • Basic chemical formulas (i.e., H20 or C02)

Strategy #6: Embrace accuracy over quantity.

Here's a secret: you don't have to answer every question on ACT Science to do well on this section! In fact, racing through to attempt every question on this section can actually hurt your score, resulting in careless errors.

Aim to maximize your accuracy on questions as opposed to the number of questions you attempt. (Hint: this can also help a lot with timing!)

What does this look like?

It might mean, for example, setting a goal to attempt only 4 out of the 6 passages on ACT Science and earn 80-100% accuracy on those passages. Once you're able to earn high accuracy on those 4 passages, see if you can add another passage to the mix (and attempt 5), etc.

Sometimes the key to improving your ACT Science score lies in backing up a little bit and doing fewer questions!

Strategy #7: Annotate the questions.

ACT Science questions are notoriously wordy and confusing. Take a look at this question, or example:

What even is this question asking?!

To approach difficult ACT Science questions, try annotating them--underline key pieces of information, take notes, and identify any referenced charts or figures. Take a look at the answers too, and the way they're formatted, as this can help you figure out what you'll have to identify. Annotating has the added advantage of forcing you to slow down so you don't miss key details.

After annotating this question, we notice a few key things:

  • We're looking at Gas Z at a specific temperature (400 K)
  • The researcher is decreasing V (container volume) and keeping P constant
  • The answers all have to do with manipulating T and n

Yes, that's a lot of information, but it does simplify things in the midst of all that science-y language! Now we know that we have to analyze Experiments 1-3 to understand the relationship between V, P, T, and n.

Sounds like a typical ACT Science question that is interested in how variables in an experiment impact each other!

Strategy #8: Look for the answer in the passage.

With the exception of Scientific Knowledge questions, the answer to every ACT Science question is in the passage itself.

Yes, you might have to do a bit of data analysis and critical thinking to find those answers! But they are, nonetheless, in the passage. That's why we urge students to complete their data analysis before jumping to the questions.

When approaching questions, see if you can pinpoint exactly where the answer is likely hiding. Is it in Table 1, for example? Or is it a value you'll need to derive from two separate figures or charts? Will you have to read the text or look at that equation?

Once you know where to look, most of the battle (if not all of it) is over.

We've included these strategies and so much more ACT guidance in our free ACT guidebook, which you can download below!

Bonus Material: PrepMaven's ACT Guidebook

  • Details about ACT scoring, content, testing options, and more
  • An introduction to PrepMaven’s ACT strategies
  • Information about ACT prep resources
  • Application essentials for the top U.S. colleges

Click here to download a copy of our digital guide!


3) Want More ACT Science Strategies? Work With an Expert!

These are only a sampling of the awesome ACT Science strategies out there. What's more, every ACT test-taker is different -- it's important to customize your strategies based off of your strengths.

Working with a PrepMaven ACT expert can help you do just this! With one-on-one ACT tutoring, you'll be well on your way to strategically approaching ACT Science and improving your score.

Learn more about PrepMaven tutoring options now.


Your Complete Guide to the SSAT_PrepMaven

Your Complete Guide to the SSAT for 2021

Your Complete Guide to the SSAT for 2021

Bonus Material: PrepMaven's FREE SSAT Guide

The Secondary School Admissions Test (SSAT) is an important part of secondary school applications. If you're applying to private school in the U.S., you'll likely to submit SSAT scores when doing so.

The SSAT is a challenging standardized test for many reasons. That's why we created this post -- so that you can have confidence at every step of the SSAT test-taking journey, from wrapping your head around what the test is all about to actually taking it.

In this guide to the SSAT, you'll learn the basics about the test, how to prepare, and what to expect on Test Day.

We also give readers access to PrepMaven's SSAT Guidebook, which includes all of the information in this post and much more. It's absolutely free and you can grab it below!

Here's what we cover:

  1. SSAT Basics You Need to Know
    1. What is the SSAT and Who Needs to Take It?
    2. The Sections of the SSAT
    3. SSAT Scoring 
  2. Preparing for the SSAT
    1. When To Start SSAT Test Prep
    2. SSAT Prep Resources
    3. Your SSAT Study Plan
  3. Taking the SSAT
    1. When to Take the Test
    2. The Character Skills Snapshot
    3. SSAT Testing Accommodations
  4. Next Steps: The Ultimate SSAT Guide

1) SSAT Basics

What is the SSAT and Who Needs to Take It?

The SSAT is one component of most secondary school applications. It is a standardized test focused on the following skills:

  • Verbal
  • Math
  • Reading
  • Writing

The Enrollment Management Association (EMA) administers the SSAT at three levels:*

  • Elementary Level for students in grades 3 and 4
  • Middle Level for students in grades 5-8 
  • Upper Level for students in grades 8-11 

*Students take the test that corresponds to the grade they are currently in, not the grade they are entering. The three different SSAT levels are designed to test material appropriate for each student’s respective grade level.  

According to the EMA, “the SSAT is not an achievement test or a measurement of personal characteristics. It is one component of a complete application.” It is written and reviewed by independent school educators and content and testing experts.

Most students applying to U.S. private schools must submit SSAT scores as part of their application. However, schools are likely to place different emphases on SSAT scores in the admissions process.

What's on the SSAT?

No matter which level SSAT test you take, the sections are always the same: a Writing Sample section and Quantitative, Reading, and Verbal multiple-choice sections. 

Here is a birds-eye view of the Upper-Level SSAT’s structure and timing:

Section Number of Questions Duration
Writing Sample (unscored) 1 25 minutes
Break -- 5 minutes
Quantitative 1 25 30 minutes
Reading 40 40 minutes
Break -- 10 minutes
Verbal 60 30 minutes
Quantitative 25 30 minutes
Experimental (unscored) 16 15 minutes

You can find a detailed breakdown of each section of the SSAT in our What's on the SSAT? post. For now, here are the highlights for each!

SSAT Writing Sample

This section is unscored but sent to admission departments for review. It helps give admission officers a sense of a student’s writing abilities. Upper-Level SSAT test-takers will have the choice of writing a persuasive essay or creative story in 25 minutes based off of two prompts.

Here are two sample persuasive prompts typical of an Upper Level SSAT writing sample:

  • What does it mean to be a "well-rounded" student?
  • What is, in your opinion, the most pressing social issue today? How would you resolve it?

Here are two sample creative prompts:

  • She could not believe her eyes.
  • They knew it was time to turn back.

You can learn more about the SSAT Writing Sample--and get access to free SSAT Writing Sample prompts--in this post here.

SSAT Quantitative 1 & 2

The SSAT features multiple-choice questions that span a range of math topics. Questions are designed to be solved without a calculator (students are not allowed to use one).

In its official online practice portal, the SSAT provides a list of topic categories for practice. These are a good indication of the topics that will surface on the actual test.

Upper-Level: 

  • Algebra
  • Computation
  • Geometry
  • Number Sense
  • Pre-Algebra
  • Statistics and Probability

Middle-Level: 

  • Algebra 
  • Data Analysis
  • Geometry
  • Measurement
  • Number Concepts
  • Number Conversion
  • Pre-Algebra
  • Statistics & Probability 

Want more information about SSAT Quantitative? Check out our detailed post on SSAT Math and what to expect.

SSAT Reading

There are approximately 8 SSAT reading passages. Each is about 250-350 words in length, and there are generally 4-6 questions per passage. About half of the passages are narrative and half are argument-based. 

Passage genres include: 

  • Literary fiction 
  • Humanities (biography, art, poetry) 
  • Science (anthropology, astronomy, medicine) 
  • Social studies (history, sociology, economics)

SSAT Reading questions test your reading comprehension on both a general and specific level. Question types include:

  • Main ideas
  • Details
  • Inference
  • Words in context
  • Author’s purpose
  • Author’s tone and attitude
  • Evaluation of author’s attitude and opinions
  • Evidence-based predictions

We discuss more in our Introduction to SSAT Reading and SSAT Reading Strategies from the Experts.

SSAT Verbal

The SSAT Verbal section contains 60 multiple-choice questions, divided into Synonyms and Analogies sections of 30 questions each.

In the Synonyms section, students must choose the answer that has the closest meaning to the capitalized word. Here is an example Synonyms question:

SSAT Upper Level Verbal Section_Synonyms
 Source: SSAT.org Upper-Level Sample Questions

An analogy is a comparison of two things. On an SSAT Analogies question, these two things will have a very specific relationship. Students must determine what this relationship is, and select the answer choice that most closely features that same relationship. 

Here is a sample Analogies question:

SSAT Verbal Section: Analogies
 Source: SSAT.org Upper-Level Sample Questions

Dive deeper into this section in our SSAT Verbal Introduction and SSAT Verbal Strategies from the Experts.

Experimental Section

This section is not scored and features questions from the different multiple-choice sections. It is intended to test the reliability of future SSAT questions.

Scoring on the SSAT

We demystify SSAT scoring in a separate post. For now, here are a few essential takeaways for students and parents new to the test.

1) Your SSAT score consists of 3 scored sections.

These include:

  1. Verbal
  2. Quantitative
  3. Reading

There are 2 additional unscored sections: a Writing Sample and Experimental section. The Writing Sample is the first section of the SSAT, while the Experimental section is the last.

2) There is a wrong answer penalty on the SSAT.

On the SSAT, test-takers receive 1 point for every correct answer. If you leave a question entirely blank, you neither lose nor gain points. However, if you answer a question incorrectly, you lose a 1/4 point.

3) Students earn a percentile ranking for each SSAT section.

Your raw score is the number of questions you get right on a section minus 1/4 point for each incorrect answer. This raw score is converted to a scaled score between 500 and 800. Then this scaled score becomes a percentile ranging from 1 to 99. 

This percentile compares performance to that of first-time test-takers of the same grade/gender who have taken an SSAT on a standard test date in the U.S. / Canada in the past three years (not including this year). This group of test-takers is called the "norm group," and this norm sample is unique for every SSAT the test-makers score.

Most schools have an average SSAT percentile that they consider in the admissions process. Many look at your percentile score when reviewing your application.

We want to point out that a 50th percentile score on an SSAT section isn’t a big red F for failure: it’s right in the middle of the pack! In technical terms, it is the median score within the designated norm group.

Here's an example of percentiles in action:

If you scored in the 50th percentile overall, you performed better than 50% of the test-takers in the "norm group." The same goes for the individual sections: if you ranked in the 70th percentile on the Verbal section, you performed better than 70% of students in the norm group on the Verbal section. 

Remember that scaled scores and percentiles are calculated based on data from a unique norm group. Because every test's norm group is different, it is difficult to precisely pinpoint what raw/scaled score you need to get a certain percentile ranking! EMA actually admits this on SSAT.org:

"The same scaled score on the SSAT may have a different percentile rank from year to year or even from test to test, and the SSAT percentile ranks should not be compared to those of other standardized tests because each test is taken by a different group of students."

Here's an example. Let's say that Darla is a rising 9th grader who has taken the SSAT twice to date. Here are her raw and scaled scores and percentile rankings for the SSAT Math section.

# Qs #Correct  # Wrong  # Blank  Raw Score Scaled Score  %ile
1st Test 50 40 5 5 38.75 776 92
2nd Test 50 38 10 2 35.5 761 88

On the second test, Darla got twice as many questions incorrect as she got wrong on the first test. Yet this only translated to losing four percentile points. From another perspective, however, getting only two more questions right meant Darla broke the 90th percentile range on her first test.

Our conclusion?

Because percentile rankings are essentially out of a student's control, the best bet is to focus on maximizing the raw score of each section. Doing so is the safest means of increasing a student's likelihood of earning a higher percentile on each section. We also strongly encourage SSAT students to take the official SSAT several times, given that test difficulty is likely to fluctuate from exam to exam.

Your SSAT Score Report

Student scores become available on the SSAT website within two weeks of the test date. Log in to the student version of your SSAT account to view your scores.

When you do so, you will first see a score overview page that looks like this:

SSAT Score Report

You may be wondering what the “T Scaled/V Scaled/Q Scaled/R Scaled” columns mean. These refer to a student’s scaled total SSAT score (T), Verbal score (V), Quantitative score (Q), and Reading score (R). Don’t worry about these too much, as scaled scores are mainly intermediaries to get to that percentile score, which schools are most focused on. 

There is a little more information we can get out of the SSAT score report.

Simply expand the menu and click “View Score Report.” This gives students their scaled scores, percentiles ("SSAT Reference Information"), and a listing of right, wrong, and unanswered questions in each section. 

SSAT Score Report
SSAT Score Report
Source: Reading Your Middle or Upper-Level SSAT Score Report

This report also includes a brief breakdown of question types for each section (i.e., “Main Idea” vs “Higher Order” for Reading). 

What’s a “Good” SSAT Score?

If you score in the 50th percentile on any SSAT section, you will achieve the "median" SSAT score for that test. And if you score higher than the 50th percentile, you perform better than the median.

A good starting place for SSAT test-takers is to surpass the median SSAT score for each individual section.

But what counts as a “good” SSAT score? 

Our answer: it depends.

Each student’s talents, interests, and goals are entirely unique. What’s more, a “good” SSAT score is likely to fluctuate depending on the institution a student is applying to.

We can still make some general conclusions, however, to guide students in their SSAT test prep journey. Find our thoughts on a "good" SSAT score here.

Additional Resources


2) Preparing for the SSAT

One of the most difficult things to figure out is how to actually prepare for the SSAT! In many cases, it's the first standardized test students take in the context of school admissions.

The good news, however, is that the SSAT is a standardized test. This means that the content is predictable, even if it is unfamiliar and highly strategy-based. It also means that students can and should take the time to learn the test so they can walk into that Testing Center with confidence.

Effective SSAT prep boils down to the three following components:

  1. Time
  2. Goals
  3. Practice

These three things all help students master the three aspects of the SSAT that set it apart from other tests: duration, content, and strategy.

When Should I Start Preparing for the SSAT?

We encourage students to start preparing for the SSAT as soon as possible, yet in general, we suggest allocating at least three months prior to an official test date for adequate preparation. 

Yet a percentage of our students choose to start preparing 1+ years beforehand. Doing so can enable students to more effectively build vocabulary, prepare for tested material not covered in school, and develop skills specific to standardized testing.

While many students take the test only once, most of the students we work with will sit for the SSAT at least twice to maximize the potential for score increases. Some private schools also “superscore,” meaning that they review a student’s highest scores across multiple test dates.

SSAT Prep Resources

Great resources for your SSAT prep can be difficult to find, especially as EMA has released a very limited supply of official practice materials.

We've compiled a full list of reputable SSAT prep resources we recommend our students utilize when preparing for this test. Here are the highlights:

1) Official SSAT Practice Online*

The Enrollment Management Association doesn't release a ton of materials, but their Official SSAT Online Practice is ideal for students preparing for the Middle and/or Upper-Level SSAT. An SSAT Practice Online account includes 3 full-length practice tests, 15 section tests, quizzes, on-demand content, and more.

2) Official SSAT Guide Books*

If you'd rather work from a physical book, we recommend that students purchase an Official SSAT Guide Book (Middle or Upper Level). Each book includes 3 full-length practice tests with answers and explanations, which are exactly the same as those offered online through the SSAT Practice Online package.

3) Tutorverse Upper-Level SSAT Practice Questions

Tutorverse is a third-party test prep company, but that being said, we do find the practice questions in this text to be more reflective of SSAT questions than other materials. This book comes with more practice questions than 10 official SSAT tests, spanning all content areas on the SSAT (Verbal, Reading, Quantitative, and Writing).

4) Success on the Upper-Level SSAT Course Book

Students seeking a supplementary text to official SSAT or Tutorverse content should consider this text by Test Prep Works. It includes content instruction, suggested strategies, drills, practice questions, and one full-length practice test.

5) PrepMaven's SSAT Prep Resources

We've compiled a wide variety of SSAT prep resources for our students and families, including valuable strategies, practice questions, and more.

Creating an SSAT Study Plan

As we’ve already mentioned, we encourage students to allocate at least three months for effective SSAT prep. How should you fill those three months? Create an SSAT study plan that aligns with your goals and timeline.

1) Identify Your Testing Date & Type

Begin by identifying the first official SSAT testing date and type. EMA now offers multiple testing options and dates, which can you learn more about in our post on SSAT Testing Options.

2) Take a Diagnostic Exam & Establish a Target Score

Taking a diagnostic SSAT effectively introduces students to those components that make this standardized test so different from standard exams: duration, content, and strategy.

It also establishes a baseline score for all sections, giving students a clearer sense of what stands between them and their target score. Diagnostic score reports can additionally highlight content areas for further work, essential strategies, and timing issues.

3) Determine Your Resources & Study Tools

Effective SSAT studying requires effective resources. Take the time prior to jumping into your prep to assemble the study tools guaranteed to give you success! We've already outlined SSAT prep resources available to students. Tutors or test prep experts can also be helpful, specifically to aid in strategy development.

4) Set Aside Weekly Time

Effective SSAT prep requires consistent time and effort. Treat your prep as you would any high school class, and devote weekly time to homework and practice. 

5) Take Regular SSAT Practice Tests

Regular practice tests give students the surest means of enforcing the strategies they’ve been developing on their own. It can also build physical and mental stamina – not to be underestimated on Test Day! We recommend taking a practice test every 3-4 weeks prior to your official test date.

6) Establish Consistent Goals

Your SSAT study plan should include realistic, specific, and actionable goals. Begin by setting a goal SSAT score after you’ve taken your first diagnostic exam. Then set smaller, individual goals throughout your practice to help you reach this goal score.

Here are some examples:

  • Scoring 80% accuracy on all geometry questions on Quantitative 1 & 2
  • Getting Synonym questions 1-10 100% correct
  • Working through 80% of the Reading passages with high accuracy
  • Creating an effective outline for an SSAT Writing Sample prompt

Additional Resources


3) Taking the SSAT

When Should I take the SSAT for the First Time?

Many SSAT test-takers will take the SSAT for the first time in September, several months before they submit applications to secondary schools. The September administration is the first in the academic year testing cycle.

However, students who wish to have more opportunities to take the SSAT may take their first official exam in June. 

While the vast majority of students take the test only once, most of the students we work with will sit for the SSAT at least twice to maximize the potential for score increases. Some private schools also “superscore,” meaning that they review a student’s highest scores across multiple test dates.

Historically, the standard SSAT has been offered eight times at testing centers per academic year (August 1 - July 31) in the following months:

  • September
  • October
  • November
  • December
  • January
  • February
  • April
  • June

Yet as of August 2020, there are three current SSAT testing options, which have dramatically increased the available SSAT testing dates:

  1. Computer-Based SSAT at Home
  2. Computer-Based SSAT at a Prometric Testing Center
  3. Paper-Based SSAT 

SSAT Flex Tests are also an option. Flex Tests occur on any date that is not a standard SSAT administration date. They can occur at member schools or special testing locations, called "educational consultants."

There are a few reasons why a student may wish to take a Flex Test. They may:

  • have testing accommodations that require a special testing situation
  • prefer a non-traditional testing environment (i.e., small group or individual)
  • be unable to sit for any of the standard SSAT test administration dates

Member schools are those secondary schools that provide on-site SSAT Flex Testing. Your schools of choice may or may not provide Flex Tests on their premises--we recommend calling to see if they do!

If your school(s) of choice do(es) not offer on-site SSAT Flex Testing, you can work with an educational consultant to register for a Flex Test at their approved SSAT Flex Test center. Educational consultants are approved professionals who provide on-site SSAT Flex Testing and, in many other cases, other admissions services.

Here's what Learning Associates, an educational consultant that offers SSAT Flex Testing in Morristown, New Jersey, says about Flex Tests:

Learning Associates is an approved SSAT Flex Test center. This means we can administer the SSAT in our office on dates we establish, outside the prescribed test dates. Some clients prefer the Flex Test because of the very small setting and greater scheduling flexibility. If your child has accommodations approved by the SSATB, those will be incorporated in our testing. Appointments can be made through our office.

Students can only take one SSAT Flex Test per calendar year. Any other SSATs they sit for must be standard administration.

It can also be pretty confusing navigating the registration process for SSAT Flex Tests. We walk you through the ins and outs of this process in our detailed post on SSAT Flex Testing.

The Character Skills Snapshot

There's more to the SSAT than just the test itself. Students have the option of taking the SSAT Character Skills Snapshot, an additional online assessment that is meant to give schools a "richer holistic view" of an applicant.

Here's what SSAT.org says about the Snapshot on its website:

It measures your student's view of his/her character skill development and is meant to complement more traditional cognitive assessments such as the SSAT. The Character Skills Snapshot gives admission teams additional information and illuminates areas where their schools can help your student grow, thrive, and shine. 

Also, according to SSAT.org, the SSAT Character Skills Snapshot tests a wide range of character traits, including (but not limited to) the following:

  • Teamwork
  • Social Awareness
  • Resilience
  • Self-Control
  • Openmindedness
  • Initiative
  • Intellectual engagement

This online assessment takes approximately twenty minutes to complete, and can be completed in one sitting at home. Students who are in grades 5 through 11 applying to grades 6-12 are eligible to take the Snapshot.

SSAT.org admits that the Snapshot may not be representative of the full scope of a student's character:

The Snapshot is meant to provide a snapshot in time of your student's view of his/her character skills - it is not a fixed, absolute measure.

While we agree that it's pretty challenging to assess a person's full character in twenty minutes, the Snapshot can provide potentially valuable information not otherwise able to be gleaned from other parts of an application.

You can check out the Character Skills Card for more details here, or read through our post on what to expect with the SSAT Character Skills Snapshot.

  • Have an “identified disabling condition or impairment”
  • Be substantially limited by this condition or impairment in performing “major life activities”

We've written a lengthy post that walks families through the types of SSAT testing accommodations, how to request them, and other frequently asked questions.

Additional Resources

Navigating the SSAT can be challenging, especially for first-time test-takers. That's why we created our free SSAT Guidebook for 2021, an excellent resource for families starting the secondary school admission process.


Work with an expert SSAT tutor in 2021

In this SSAT Guide, we've walked you through the ins and outs of the SSAT, from what the test actually is to how to prepare for it. Now you have a great foundation for beginning your SSAT prep!

To accelerate that prep, we encourage students to turn to the ultimate guide: a PrepMaven SSAT tutor.

The SSAT is a very specific test that is unlike any middle school exam out there. Success on the SSAT often boils down to gaining a deep understanding of the test itself and following through with a methodical preparation plan, which requires time and expert guidance.

Working one-on-one with an SSAT tutor is the fastest and most effective way of preparing for the SSAT--and getting that much closer to a competitive score.

At PrepMaven, we're here to match students with the very best tutors in the industry, many of whom are Ivy League graduates. Learn more about SSAT private tutoring with PrepMaven today!



Your Complete ACT Guide_PrepMaven

Your Complete ACT Guide for 2021

Your Complete ACT Guide for 2021

Bonus Material: PrepMaven's Free ACT Guide

Looking for an industry-leading ACT guide? You've come to the right place!

If you're applying to college, you're likely planning on taking either the ACT or the SAT.

Navigating either test can be challenging, especially for students who are unfamiliar with standardized tests! If you're taking the ACT, you likely have a lot of questions.

What even is the ACT? How is it scored? How do you prepare for the ACT?

We spend a lot of time researching, creating, and publishing high-quality ACT content. Hundreds of people (like you!) consume and download our ACT guides and workbooks. Every day.

As a result, we’ve become a top resource for the ACT, and we consult with schools and families on a regular basis. 

This ACT Guide highlights some of our best research and addresses the most frequently asked questions about taking the ACT. Plus, we give readers access to our free ACT Guidebook, which is even more comprehensive. Grab it below now if you'd like!

Here's what we cover in this ACT guide post:

  1. The ACT in a Nutshell
    1. The ACT Format
    2. ACT Scoring
    3. ACT vs. SAT
  2. Preparing for the ACT
    1. Timeline
    2. Practice
    3. Strategy
  3. Taking the ACT
    1. Registering for the ACT
    2. Standard ACT Test Dates
    3. ACT Testing Accommodations
  4. Next Steps: The Ultimate ACT Guide

Your Complete ACT Guide for 2021

ACT Guide Part 1: The ACT in a Nutshell

PrepMaven's 2021 ACT Guide

The ACT is a college entrance exam administered by a nonprofit organization also called ACT.

It is a critical component of college admissions, which means that many U.S. colleges and universities require applicants to submit ACT test scores as part of their application.

There is another college entrance exam: the SAT. Colleges accept ACT and SAT scores equally! We compare the two tests and discuss how to figure out which test is right for you later on in this ACT guide (jump there now). 

According to ACT, the ACT measures “skills that are most important for success in postsecondary education and that are acquired in secondary education.” 

Not all colleges require standardized test scores from applicants--many are test-optional. But some may still consider ACT scores for other purposes, including:

  • Advising and placement
  • Financial aid and scholarships
  • Athletic recruitment

What weight do U.S. colleges place on standardized test scores when reviewing applications?

This is a hard question to answer. Most institutions aren’t that forthcoming when it comes to discussing what they prioritize in making their admission decisions. There is some data available, however, for certain schools.

In a Common Data Set from 2019-2020, for example, the University of Notre Dame specifies the following:

  • Standardized test scores are “important” to the admissions decision (but not “very important”)
  • The university does make use of SAT, ACT, or SAT Subject Test scores in admission decisions 
  • The university uses the SAT essay or ACT essay for advising purposes only (but does not require it)

Such data sets are not available for all U.S. colleges and universities. However, it is safe to assume that, if required, SAT or ACT scores can range from slightly to very important in informing the college admissions decision. For more competitive, elite institutions--like the Ivy Leagues--these scores can be very important.

Note: The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted the emphasis that schools now place on standardized test scores. Many schools are modifying their testing policies as a result, either temporarily (i.e., for 2020-2021 admissions only or a pilot period) or permanently. Notre Dame, for example, is test-optional for the 2020-2021 admission cycle. You can find out more about how the pandemic has altered college admissions in our COVID and College Admissions post.

The ACT Format

PrepMaven's 2021 ACT Guide

So what's actually on the ACT? There are five sections on the ACT:

  • ACT English
  • ACT Math
  • ACT Reading
  • ACT Science
  • ACT Essay (Optional)

The ACT is a timed test, although testing accommodations are available for select students.

Here’s the timing and question breakdown for each ACT section:

ACT Section Time / Questions
English 45 minutes / 75 questions
Math 60 minutes / 60 questions
Break 10 minutes
Reading 35 minutes / 40 questions
Science 35 minutes / 40 questions
Break 5 minutes
ACT Essay (Optional) 40 minutes / 1 question

Yes, that fifth and final section, the ACT Essay, is optional! That doesn’t necessarily mean you should skip it, however.

One of the biggest challenges students face on the ACT is timing. Completing 75 English questions in 45 minutes, for example, is no easy feat! The same goes for answering 40 questions on ACT Reading on top of reading passages in just 35 minutes.

Additionally, it's important to note from a general strategy perspective that the two very content-heavy sections, English and Math, come first, while the two skills-based sections, Reading and Science, are at the end.

If you're enjoying this ACT Guide, we recommend downloading our ACT Guidebook, a FREE resource for all of our students and families. It includes all of the information in this post and so much more!

We'll take a deeper dive into each of the five ACT sections now.

Test 1: English

75 questions, 45 minutes

The ACT English section contains 5 passages with 15 questions per passage. Questions do not appear at the end of each passage, as they do on the Reading section, but rather throughout each text, as in this example (Official ACT Practice Test #1):

ACT English_Sample questions

On ACT English, students will encounter questions about basic English conventions and writing strategy. Here are the general areas tested:

  • Punctuation
  • Verbs
  • Idioms
  • Transition words
  • Concise and clear writing
  • Pronouns
  • Conjunctions, prepositions, and modifiers
  • Vocabulary in context
  • Author's purpose
  • Expression and organization of ideas

Pro Tip: Check out our post on the 13 Grammar Rules tested on the ACT to get a head start prepping for those English conventions questions on ACT English!

Test 2: Math

60 questions, 60 minutes

The questions on the ACT Math section are arranged in order of increasing difficulty. This means that, in general, the first third of ACT Math questions are low-difficulty, the middle third are medium-difficulty, and the final third are high-difficulty.

Students who have completed Algebra 2 are likely to be familiar with all content on the ACT Math section. Here are the general principles and content areas tested:

Triangles, circles, rectangles, polygons Perimeter, area, and volume Ratios and proportions Slope Combinations and permutations
Fractions Mean, median, mode, range Charts and two-way tables Solving expressions and variables Word problems
Probability Cartesian graphs Functions Math vocabulary Matrices
Percentages Trigonometry Linear equations Exponents Number properties

However, the ACT may not test this content in a straightforward way! Here's an example of an ACT math question that tests familiar math content in an unfamiliar fashion:

ACT Math_SampleQuestion
Source: ACT Official Practice Test 1

This ACT Math question is basically testing your knowledge of exponent rules. But is this immediately clear? Nope! 

Test 3: Reading

40 questions, 35 minutes

The ACT Reading section consists of 4 passages of the following genres:

  • Literary narrative
  • Humanities
  • Social science
  • Natural science

One of these passages will be a dual passage, which will require students to compare 2 smaller passages (Passage A and Passage B).

ACT Reading_Dual Passage
Source: ACT Official Practice Test 1

Every ACT Reading passage has 10 questions. 

This is the only section of the ACT that does not require any outside content knowledge! For this reason, students should anticipate approaching ACT Reading from a purely strategic perspective.

What kinds of questions can you expect to see on this section? Here's a list:

  • Detail
  • Author's purpose
  • Inference
  • Character analysis
  • Words in context
  • Literary devices

Test 4: Science

40 questions, 35 minutes

The ACT Science section may sound daunting, but it basically tests the following skills:

  • Data analysis
  • Figure and graph interpretation
  • Analysis of experiments
  • Scientific knowledge*

*There are about 2-3 questions per ACT Science section that require outside knowledge. However, this knowledge is most likely foundational knowledge students will have learned in high school science classes.

This section consists of 6 "passages." Each "passage" will contain some text and/or graphics in the form of charts, figures, tables, and/or graphs.

There are three passage types:

  • Experiments (3)
  • Charts and graphs (2)
  • Two scientists/theorists (1)

Experiments passages require students to analyze and/or compare scientific experiments or studies, while Charts and Graphs passages typically involve one scientific concept and a few figures. Lastly, students will have to compare and analyze the perspectives or theories of two scientists or theorists.

With ACT Science, it's very easy to get lost in the technical, scientific jargon of each passage. That's why it's so important to zero in on what each question is really asking and to analyze the figures prior to answering each question.

Here's what an Experiments passage question looks like on the ACT:

Sample Question_ACT Science
Source: ACT Official Practice Test 1

Test 5: Essay (Optional)

1 question, 40 minutes

For the optional ACT essay task, students must analyze an issue and three different perspectives on this issue. They will then have to craft an essay response that discusses their perspective of the issue, including specific evidence and examples. Here is a sample essay issue:

ACT Essay Issue

Want even more details about the ACT, including our best advice for preparing for this test (and earning a great score)? Download our ACT Guidebook for 2021, a FREE resource for all of our students and families.

ACT Scoring

PrepMaven's 2021 ACT Guide

Every ACT section (except the essay) is scored on a scale of 1-36. 1 is the lowest score you can achieve on an individual section, while 36 is the highest score possible.

ACT Section Score Range
English 1-36
Math 1-36
Reading 1-36
Science 1-36

Students will also receive an ACT total score, also called the composite score. This is the average of the scores received on the four required ACT sections.

Take a look at this sample student ACT score report to see this scoring system in action:

 Source: ACT.orgSample ACT Score Report

Here, the student's composite score of 21 is the average of the student's individual ACT section scores (19, 18, 24, and 23). The student's ACT essay (also referred to as Writing) scores do not impact this composite score and fall on a range of 2-12.

ACT score reports also include information about a student's "ranking" in the U.S. and that student's home state. These are approximate percentages of recent grads who have taken the ACT in the U.S. and your state and achieved the same score as you or lower. The ACT offers these rankings for your composite score, individual section scores, and STEM/ELA scores. 

We take a deeper dive into all of this in our ACT Scoring Guide.

A “Good” ACT Score

What counts as a good ACT score? Naturally, most students assume that because 36 is the highest possible ACT score (both composite and individual), it's a "good" ACT score. While a 36 will definitely add a competitive edge to an application, anything less than a 36 isn't necessarily a bad ACT score.

ACT.org regularly releases a "National Norms" report for ACT scores. This includes data from all ACT test scores reported between 2019 and 2020 (although these scores could be from 2017, 2018, and 2019 class graduates). 

The most recent National Norms ACT Report includes the average section and composite scores of those reported between 2019 and 2020. Here's what they are:

Section 2019-2020 Average Score
English 20.2
Math 20.5
Reading 21.3
Science 20.8
Composite 20.8

One definition of a "good" ACT score is one that is nationally above-average. In this sense, a composite score of 21 or higher on the ACT could be considered a competitive score!

At the very least, we encourage students who are new to the ACT to aim for a target score that is above national averages, on individual sections and the whole test itself.

Of course, scoring above-average on the ACT is just one interpretation of what it means to do well on the test. There are two other things to keep in mind when defining what counts as a good ACT score:

  • Average scores of admitted applicants to your school(s) of choice
  • Your current scores

It can be challenging to pinpoint the precise average scores of admitted applicants to your school(s) of choice. Some colleges make such information public, while others are a bit reluctant to release this information.

The good news is that we've put together the average scores of admitted applicants to the top 499 U.S. colleges and universities, which you can find in our data-backed post on Good ACT Scores for 2021.

Bad ACT Scores: Do They Exist?

We've discussed the good. What about the bad? Is there such thing as a bad ACT score?

Once again, the answer to these questions really depends on your definition of "bad."

Yet from a general perspective, a “bad” SAT score often misses the mark of what ACT.org has called college readiness. 

These scores are typically below-average in comparison to the mean. They may also not meet the benchmark scores ACT.org has established in terms of college preparedness, especially with respect to content areas like English and Math.

Here's what ACT.org says specifically about benchmark scores on its website:

Students who meet a benchmark on the ACT have approximately a 50% chance of earning a B or better and approximately a 75% chance of earning a C or better in the corresponding college course or courses. 

Here are the benchmark ACT scores for college readiness as of 2020:

  • English: 18
  • Math: 22
  • Reading: 22
  • Science: 23

First-time ACT students should prioritize meeting and surpassing these benchmark scores.

The ACT vs. the SAT

PrepMaven's 2021 ACT Guide

All U.S. colleges and universities accept ACT and SAT scores equally. So which test should you take?

The answer to that question depends upon your personal strengths. At the end of the day, you'll want to take the test most likely to give you the highest possible score.

You can learn more about choosing your best fit test--as well as 5 easy questions to ask to do so--in our detailed post, Should I Take the SAT or ACT?. We also encourage students to download our 2021 ACT Guidebook, which includes all of the information in this post (and more), absolutely free.


2) ACT Guide: Preparing for the ACT

PrepMaven's 2021 ACT Guide

Students can prepare for the ACT in a variety of ways. Yet in our many years of helping students succeed on the ACT and earn acceptance into their dream schools, we have learned that effective test prep boils down to three things:

  1. Timeline
  2. Practice
  3. Strategy

The ACT is not like traditional high school exams. Its duration, content, and emphasis on strategy all mean that students should set aside a significant amount of time to prepare for this standardized test. 

Timeline

PrepMaven's 2021 ACT Guide

How much time students allocate to ACT test prep has to do with a lot of things, including:

  1. When they take the ACT for the first time
  2. When they take it for the final time
  3. When they intend to apply to college
  4. How many times they take the ACT
  5. Their target ACT score

When should I take the ACT for the first time?

In December 2017, we polled 89 of our tutors, the vast majority of whom were Princeton undergraduates or graduates. 80% of our tutors polled took the test for the first time sometime in Junior year, with Fall and Spring the most popular times.

Determining your first official testing date, however, has a lot to do with your college application timeline, which we discuss in our responses to the next questions. Students should also plan to take the ACT for the first time after they’ve finished Algebra 2, as much of the test’s math content spans this subject area.

What is my latest possible testing date?

Answering this question can be vital for helping students establish a viable test prep timeline. The latest possible testing date is often the last ACT a student can take and still be able to submit official scores to colleges. Most schools will also indicate on their websites latest recommended testing dates.

We also recommend that students check out these 9 sample ACT testing schedules.

When do I intend to apply to college?

Do you intend to submit regular decision applications? Early action? Early decision? A mix of all of the above? Whatever the case, be aware of application deadlines and school policies for final testing dates. 

For most schools:

  • Regular Decision deadline = January 1st
  • Early Action/Early Decision deadline = November 1st

It usually takes about a month after your testing date before schools receive your scores, so these are the latest recommended testing dates:

  • December ACT if applying Regular Decision
  • October ACT if applying Early Action/Early Decision

How many times should I take the ACT?

75% of our polled tutors took the SAT or ACT between 2 to 4 times. The ideal situation is to crush the test on the first try and be done with it. Realistically, you'll probably need to take the test several times even if you're hitting your target scores in practice.

Multiple testing dates are also likely to reduce test anxiety and mitigate potential unforeseen circumstances (i.e., getting sick). Students who take the ACT multiple times can also take advantage of Superscoring, if their schools of choice permit this.

What is my target ACT score?

A target ACT score is essential for effective prep. It gives students a direction and can significantly impact their prep timeline. Students can answer this question by taking a diagnostic ACT, reviewing score ranges of competitive applicants to the schools on their list, and creating a solid ACT study plan.

How much time should I plan between testing dates?

After receiving your scores, you might be super close to your target. In this case, you'll probably want to sign up for the next available testing date. If you feel like you still have a lot of improvement to make, you might want to give yourself a couple more months before re-testing.

If possible, avoid scheduling back-to-back testing dates if they are only a month apart. Ideally, you'll first want to receive your scores back before figuring out the best strategy moving forward.

We recommend planning several months between official ACT testing dates. Be sure to keep in mind potential scheduling constraints, including junior year workload, AP tests, college applications, summer activities, and extracurricular obligations.

How many hours should I plan on studying for the ACT?

Having an understanding of how many hours you plan on studying will help you plan out your study schedule and determine how soon you can take your first test. In general, we recommend:

  • Minimum of 20 hrs
  • Target of 40 hrs
  • Ideal of 80 hrs
  • Superstars put in 120+ hrs

Let's say you want to get in 80 hours of studying before your first test and want to to take advantage of summer break. A 2-month study schedule might look like:

  • 2 hrs/day
  • 5 days/week
  • 8 weeks

80 hours sound like a lot, but it's more than doable if spread out over a period of time. In this scenario, you would be in great shape to take your first test at the end of the summer/ early fall. We do not recommend showing up cold to your first test without any preparation.

Want even more details about the ACT, including our best advice for preparing for this test (and earning a great score)? Download our ACT Guidebook for 2021, a FREE resource for all of our students and families.

ACT Practice

PrepMaven's 2021 ACT Guide

Consistent practice is essential for effective ACT prep, especially when it comes to assessing progress, building stamina, and maintaining grasp of content and strategies. Besides setting aside a sufficient timeline for their ACT prep, students should also make sure they have the right resources to set them up for success.

These include official practice tests, other reputable practice materials, and private tutoring and/or group classes.

Official ACT Practice Tests

ACT has released six official practice tests over the years. These are excellent resources for every test-taker, because they allow students to apply what they’ve learned to test-like questions. They also serve as fantastic benchmarks.

Students should start their ACT prep, for example, by taking a practice test, which can serve as a diagnostic of where they stand score-wise. Taking regular practice tests throughout a prep timeline can also be vital for assessing progress and honing specific skills.

Practice Materials

It’s vital to prep as close to the source as possible. For this reason, we always encourage our students to utilize ACT resources first and foremost. This includes the following:

With the exception of the Official Beginner’s Guide to the ACT and the Official ACT Prep Guide books, all of these resources are free to ACT students. 

When it comes to other resources, keep in mind that these are not as likely to be as representative of the official exam (although they can still prove helpful). Use these as a last resort, and be mindful that practice test scores may not be reflective of your current abilities. 

We recommend supplementing official ACT practice with targeted content work through various reputable third parties. 

Online resources include:

Private Tutoring & Group Classes

We strongly encourage test-takers to enlist the help of experts in preparing for this tough test! There are lots of options out there for this, but we find that our students have the most success when working with a private tutor and/or enrolling in a group class.

Strategy

PrepMaven's 2021 ACT Guide

The ACT is a standardized test, which means that it is predictable in many ways. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be considered a fair benchmark in college admissions!

This also means that successful test-takers must rely on strategy as much as content knowledge. This is especially the case for the ACT Reading test, which is entirely strategy-based, and the ACT Science test, which requires outside content knowledge for only 2-3 questions.

The strategies we discuss here are only a few of the many strategies students can use when approaching the ACT, but we’ve compiled the best ones here.

ACT English

In order to master the ACT English test, students need to be comfortable with the following concepts.

As you can see from this chart, Conventions of Standard English (i.e., grammar) questions will test your knowledge of standard written English grammar, punctuation, and other rules. Learn more about these 13 grammar rules here.

Production of Writing and Knowledge of Language questions will ask you to improve the effectiveness of communication in a piece of writing. These questions will often have a question in front of them, whereas the Conventions of Standard English questions will not. 

In general, this often means that Production of Writing and Knowledge of Language questions take more time to complete than English Conventions questions. They often require a firm understanding of context, rather than rote grammar rules, main ideas, and how topics are developed in a passage.

Strategy #1: Read the full text.

Unlike the ACT Reading test, students do not need to have an in-depth understanding of the passages in order to be successful on the English test. That being said, Production of Writing and Knowledge of Language questions will often require students to consider context and main ideas of sentences, paragraphs, or the passage as a whole. 

For this reason, skimming can be detrimental to test-takers. Read all of the words of the passage, even if they do not contain any underlined portions. It is also a good idea to keep the big picture in mind as you work through paragraphs and passages.

Strategy #2: Identify which concept the question is actually testing. 

Compare the answer choices to one another for clues – how do they differ? Do some answer choices include a plural subject, while others make the subject possessive? If so, this is probably a question focusing on apostrophes. 

Once students have identified the guiding principle of a given question, it becomes much easier to identify the error and correct it. 

Strategy #3: Prove answer choices wrong.

Remember that for every English Conventions question, there will only be one answer that is grammatically correct. In addition to finding the right answer, it’s important to check every other answer and identify why that answer choice is grammatically incorrect.

If students ever feel that there are two or more grammatically correct answers, they need to look closer because they are probably missing something. The ACT loves to include “nearly correct” choices that appear solid at first glance, which is why it’s important to check every answer carefully. Students should be able to definitively rule out all but one choice. 

The Production of Writing and Knowledge of Language questions can be a little trickier because more than one answer may be grammatically correct, but only one will communicate the author’s intention most clearly.

Strategy #4: Shorter is often better.

In general, if more than one answer is grammatically correct, the shortest answer will be the right one. The ACT loves to test wordiness and how to avoid it – in general, shorter is always better.

By extension, if there’s ever an answer choice that says “DELETE the underlined portion,” students should check this one first. It is not always correct, but it has a high likelihood of being the right answer.

Remember that process of elimination is your best friend. If you’re ever stuck on the Production of Writing questions, compare the answer choices to one another to see how they differ. If every piece of information included in an answer choice isn’t absolutely necessary, then you’re probably better off cutting it out. 

Strategy #5: Plug it in.

Finally, before students choose an answer, they should plug it back into the passage to make sure it fits. An answer that makes perfect sense on its own might create an error in the context of the passage. 

ACT Math

Strategy #1: Question Order

All questions on ACT Math are worth the same number of points (within each individual section). The questions on ACT Math are arranged (generally) in order of increasing difficulty.

It just doesn’t make sense to waste five minutes struggling through a difficult problem (that a student might get wrong anyway!) at the expense of spending that time on easy/intermediate questions a student can definitely get right. 

Similarly, it doesn’t make sense to rush through the initial easy questions to get to the hard problems if it means making careless errors! Focus attention on where you’ll have the most success.

For that reason, don’t feel like you have to answer every question on ACT Math in order. In fact, this is what we recommend:

  • Skip around, prioritizing quick, easy questions first
  • Then work questions you feel comfortable answering but know will be time-consuming
  • Finally, attempt any difficult questions (if there is time left)

How do you recognize hard questions on ACT Math? Remember that ACT Math questions are arranged in order of increasing difficulty, so harder questions will appear in the middle and at the end of the test.

As a rule-of-thumb, hard questions also require more than 1 minute to complete. In general, high-difficulty ACT Math questions occur at the end of the test, approximately questions 40-60. If you’ve spent a full minute on an ACT Math question, pause and re-evaluate. If you can solve the problem in another 30 seconds, go for it. Otherwise, skip it and come back to it later. 

Strategy #2: Guessing

While you might not have time to attempt every ACT Math question, never leave a question blank. There are no penalties for wrong answers on the ACT, so make sure to bubble in an answer for every question, even if it’s a total guess! 

That being said, try to use process of elimination as much as possible to weed out unlikely answers and increase the probability of guessing correctly. Every answer choice ruled out significantly increases your odds of getting a correct answer. 

In the event that no answer choices can be ruled out, choose a “Letter of the Day” (i.e. A, B, C, or D) and use that same letter for every guess.

Strategy #3: Be Prepared

Finally, while this may sound obvious, students should come into the test prepared. Save yourself time by memorizing the ACT Math instructions that appear at the start of the test:

Lastly, understand the how-and-when of using calculators. While many students rely on a calculator for computation, it’s not always the quickest way to solve a problem (especially on the ACT!). Practice problems with and without a calculator in advance of the test to understand which is fastest for you.

Strategy #4: Know the content.

ACT Math relies heavily on outside content knowledge. Many of these math topics concern Algebra 1, Algebra 2, and Geometry. It’s important to note that ACT Math often tests familiar content in unfamiliar ways. That’s why it’s essential to also consider the next strategy.

Strategy #5: Think like a problem-solver.

The most important strategy for ACT Math is solving problems in the fastest way possible. This does not mean rushing through problems. Rather, it means being a savvy test taker and adapting your strategy for each problem.

Unlike high school math, the ACT doesn’t care how students solve the problem. You don’t get credit for showing your work (although showing your work can help you avoid careless errors). Choose whichever method is quickest for solving an ACT math problem. 

ACT Reading

The ACT Reading test is the only section on the ACT that doesn’t require outside content knowledge

What’s more, if you find yourself bringing in outside knowledge to answer an ACT Reading question, that’s a sign that you’re veering towards a wrong answer choice. All of your information should come from the passage, and the passage alone.

Strategy #1: Think like the test-makers, not a test-taker.

The test-makers design the ACT Reading test to be challenging. They want students to fall for trap answers and use their time inefficiently. They want students to answer questions in predictable ways.

That’s why it’s important to think strategically on ACT Reading. Be on the lookout for ways that the ACT is trying to trick you--the more you can anticipate these traps, the more likely you are to not fall for them! 

Here’s one example. The literary narrative passage is always the first passage on ACT Reading. At first glance, this passage sounds easy-peasy. Fiction? Characters? Dialogue? Cool!

But on second glance, the questions associated with this passage are detail-oriented and time-consuming. Many students who start with this passage end up losing a lot of time.

You guessed it: the test-makers do this for a reason. They want you to waste your time on this first passage so you have limited time to get to the others! The predictable test-taker will do this passage first. The savvy test-taker will not.

Strategy #2: Identify where your strengths lie and always play to these.

There is no wrong answer penalty on the ACT. This means that students do not lose points when they answer a question incorrectly. They simply do not gain any points. 

For this reason, there’s no harm in guessing! Students should never leave answers blank on ACT Reading. 

Every question is also worth the same amount of points on each individual section of the ACT. There is no point value difference between an easy ACT Reading question and a hard one.

Make your life easier from the outset by prioritizing what is easier for you in terms of:

  • ACT Reading passages
  • Questions

For example, if you consistently have high accuracy on questions associated with Natural Science passages on the ACT Reading test, start with those passages. If you always nail detail questions, do those first for every passage.

Save the harder passages and questions for the end--or for guessing. Beginning with your strengths on ACT Reading is the surest way to guide you closer to a high score.

Strategy #3: Boost your fluency in ACT Reading question types.

It’s important to recognize the different types of questions you’ll encounter on ACT Reading. This fluency will help you pinpoint your strengths and cater to these. It can also clue you in to the predictability of ACT Reading. It will have the same types of questions every time, after all. 

And each question type will have its own predictability, especially in terms of wrong answer choices. Here are the types of questions you can expect to find on ACT Reading:

  • Words in Context
  • Function / Purpose
  • Main Ideas
  • Detail or Line Reference
  • Inference
  • Literary devices 
  • Character analysis
Strategy #4: Recognize typical wrong answer choices.

The more you can learn to recognize typical wrong answer choices, the greater your odds are of avoiding these traps on ACT Reading. Some common wrong answer choices include:

  • “Extreme” answers, which often include words like never or always
  • Inferences that go too far beyond the passage
  • Distortion of details or keywords from the passage
  • Verbiage that sounds “nice” but can’t be backed with passage evidence
  • References to outside knowledge

Notice a common thread in these? You guessed it -- wrong answer choices are wrong because they can't be supported with direct evidence from the passage.

Students should thus get in the habit of identifying evidence in the passage for every answer choice they select.

Strategy #5: Don’t get lost in the answer choices.

This is one of the most important ACT Reading tips we pass along to our students. Many test-takers get in the habit of reading through all of the answer choices before coming up with an answer to a question. Don’t do this! This increases your odds of getting sidetracked by a “shiny” trap answer.

We recommend reading the question first, researching your answer in the passage, making a prediction, and then eliminating answers that don’t match your prediction. 

Strategy #6: Divide and conquer on the dual passage.

Don’t forget that one of the 4 ACT Reading passages includes a dual passage. This means students will have to read two smaller passages in one, and answer questions about both.

Instead of reading through these two passages before getting to the questions, divide and conquer! Make your life easier by tackling only one passage at a time.

  • Take a look at the questions
  • Tackle the passage that has the most questions first
  • Answer questions for that passage
  • Tackle the other passage and its respective questions
  • Complete questions about both passages

This strategy means that you only have to think about both passages at once for the questions that concern both (arguably the harder questions on the dual passage).

Strategy #7: Annotate the passage.

ACT Reading passages are complex, dense, and boring. Maintain focus by annotating when you engage with any passage. Pay attention to main ideas as you work a passage. Jot down the main idea for every paragraph in the margins, circle words you recognize from the questions, and underline anything that feels relevant.

Students should focus less on details. They should prioritize big picture ideas and arguments as they annotate, as ACT Reading questions are most interested in these. These notes can be extremely valuable later on as students answer questions, providing a specific road map for passage ideas (and ultimately answers).

It’s equally important to answer questions with these main ideas in mind. In fact, in many cases, it’s possible to employ process of elimination based on which answers are in line with the passage’s central claim, and which aren’t.

Strategy #8: Be literal.

Every correct answer to every ACT Reading question can be found in the passage itself. This means that students should be very cautious if they find themselves making assumptions, huge inferences, or other logical leaps.

Approach questions literally! Work only with what you see in the passage and in the question stem. Be very skeptical of answer choices that lead you away from these two things.

ACT Science

The ACT Science test often gives students a fair amount of grief. Many are intimidated by the test’s reliance on data analysis and figure interpretation. What’s more, the test is the fourth section, meaning that students are often battling fatigue on top of complex passages.

Here are strategies for succeeding on this difficult test, no matter where your strengths lie.

Strategy #1: Think of this as another Reading section.

At first glance, ACT Science appears to be all about data and technical experiments. To some extent, this is true. But students can and should approach this test as they approach ACT Reading: strategically.

This means taking passages and questions out of order, prioritizing those that are easiest for you personally. When approaching questions, think in terms of main ideas of the experiments or scientific concepts presented in the passage.

When starting your ACT Science prep, familiarize yourself with the test’s question and passage types:

Passage Types

  • Conflicting Scientists
  • Single Figure-Based Concept
  • Analyzing Experiments

Question Types

  • Figure-based
  • Scientific knowledge
  • Data analysis
Strategy #2: Annotate the charts and figures before answering questions.

Much as we encourage students to annotate the passages on ACT Reading before diving into the questions, we also recommend annotating the charts and figures in an ACT Science passage first.

When annotating, identify and notate the following:

  • Trends and patterns in the data
  • X-axis and Y-axis designations
  • Units
  • Chart titles
  • Main ideas or experiment purposes
  • Equations
Strategy #3: Don’t get lost in the jargon.

It can be really easy to get overwhelmed by the technical details of the ACT Science passages. Yet do your best to look past this jargon and focus only on main ideas, what the questions are asking, and data trends.

You don’t have to understand everything about the scientific concepts discussed! You only have to demonstrate your ability to approach charts and figures strategically. Keep this in mind on all passages.

Strategy #4: Don’t sweat the scientific knowledge questions.

Some students get hung up on the fact that 2-3 questions on ACT Science test outside scientific knowledge. Yet keep in mind that these questions will likely test basic content students should already know from their high school science curriculum.However, if one does appear and you have no clue how to proceed, select your guessing letter and move on.

Here’s an example of a standard Scientific Knowledge question on ACT Science, from an official practice test. Students must know the difference between an acid and a base, and how these relate to pH.

Want even more details about the ACT, including our best advice for preparing for this test (and earning a great score)? Download our ACT Guidebook for 2021, a FREE resource for all of our students and families.

3) ACT Guide: Taking the ACT

PrepMaven's 2021 ACT Guide

So far in this ACT guide, we've discussed what the ACT actually is--from its format to its scoring. We've also taken a deep dive into the components of effective ACT test prep. Now it's time to discuss the ins and outs of Test Day itself!

ACT Registration

PrepMaven's 2021 ACT Guide

To register for an official ACT administration, you’ll need the following:

  • Computer with internet
  • Credit card or other payment (to pay for registration fees)
  • High school course details
  • Headshot photo 

Here’s how you register:

  1. Choose your ACT test date (discussed in the next section) and testing center.
  2. Create a free MyACT account and log in.
  3. Provide your full legal name and other identifying information as requested.
  4. Follow the prompts to register for your selected test date and testing location.
  5. Select the ACT Writing test (essay) if applicable.
  6. Upload a headshot photo of yourself.
  7. Check out and print your admission ticket!

Depending upon your circumstances, you might need to enter the following additional registration information:

  • Your high school’s code
  • Testing accommodations and English Learner Supports details (if approved)
  • Fee waiver details (if approved)

ACT’s Educational Opportunity Service

When you register for an ACT, you’ll be asked if you’d like to sign up for ACT’s Educational Opportunity Service. This connects students to colleges and scholarship agencies for recruitment. 

This is entirely optional, but can be a good opportunity for students to:

  • Get discovered by colleges
  • Find financial aid programs
  • Broaden their college search

Test Fees

Students do have to pay a fee to register for an official ACT administration. These fees are non-refundable, yet fee waivers and state vouchers are available for eligible students.

Here are the ACT Test Options and Prices for 2021:

The full ACT (no writing) -- includes score submission to 4 colleges $55
The full ACT (with writing) -- includes score submission to 4 colleges $70

*Note: You can get refunded for a writing test fee ($15) if you are absent on test day or decide to switch to a no writing ACT at the last minute.

Additional Fees

Service Fee Details
Late Registration $35 Applied if you register or change your test date during the late period for a national ACT test date
Standby Testing $56 Refunded if you are denied admission to the test center on test day or registration was cancelled due to no photo provided
Change Fee $35 Includes making a Test Date Change or Test Center Change
Score Reports to 5th and 6th College Choices $13 Request online before the test date. Refundable on written request if you do not test
Additional score reports $13 You can request additional score reports online
Test information release $22 Students can request a copy of their test questions and answers

Standard ACT Test Dates

PrepMaven's 2021 ACT Guide

The ACT is administered in the U.S. (and U.S. territories and Puerto Rico) on the following national test dates for 2021. More dates for the fall of 2021 are likely to be available soon and/or might change pending the evolving pandemic, which is why we encourage students to check ACT’s website for test date updates.

Test Date Registration Deadline
February 6, 2021 January 15, no late fees
April 17, 2021 March 12
June 12, 2021 May 7
July 17, 2021 June 18

Note that registration deadlines are often a month prior to the official testing date. Students can register late for an added fee.

You can make the following changes to your ACT registration via your online account (fees may apply):

  • Adding or removing the essay
  • Changing your test date
  • Changing your test location
  • Updating your personal information
  • Adding or changing your college choices

ACT Testing Accommodations

PrepMaven's 2021 ACT Guide

ACT offers testing accommodations designed to ensure that eligible students are not disadvantaged when sitting for the test.

In other words,

ACT is committed to serving examinees with documented disabilities by providing reasonable accommodations appropriate to the examinee's diagnosis and needs.”

The keyword here is certainly “documented.” The ACT can be very particular about the documentation needed in order to approve a student’s request for accommodations.

Students with “documented disabilities” may be eligible for certain kinds of ACT accommodations. The ACT claims it responds to all requests for testing accommodations in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA defines a disability as follows:

a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits a major life activity compared to the average person in the general population.”

Some examples of disabilities that may necessitate ACT testing accommodations include:

  • Learning disabilities
  • Psychiatric disorders
  • Visual impairment
  • Hearing impairment
  • Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder
  • Traumatic brain injuries
  • Autism Spectrum disorders
  • Speech and language disorders
  • Specific medical conditions

According to ACT, your student may be eligible for accommodations if:

  • The condition is professionally diagnosed AND substantially limits one or more major life activities
  • Requests are appropriate and reasonable for the documented disability

We break down everything you need to know about requesting ACT testing accommodations in another post.


Work with an expert ACT tutor in 2021

In this ACT Guide, we've walked you through the ins and outs of the ACT, from what the test actually is to how to prepare for it. Now you have a great foundation for beginning your ACT prep!

To accelerate that prep, we encourage students to turn to the ultimate guide: a PrepMaven ACT tutor.

The ACT is a very specific test that is unlike any high school exam out there. Success on the ACT often boils down to gaining a deep understanding of the test itself and following through with a methodical preparation plan, which requires time and expert guidance.

Working one-on-one with an ACT tutor is the fastest and most effective way of preparing for the ACT--and getting that much closer to a competitive score.

At PrepMaven, we're here to match students with the very best tutors in the industry, many of whom are Ivy League graduates. Learn more about ACT private tutoring with PrepMaven today!