3 Tips to Score Well on the ACT from a 2340 SAT Scorer

My name is Courtney Tran and I’m no stranger to academic rigor.  I’m a second year at UC Berkeley with senior standing, pursuing a double major and a minor. I’ve gotten straight A’s in all my classes so far. I’ve taught SAT classes for Veritas Prep for a year and a half, scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT, scored a 5 on the AP Calculus BC test in high school, and have tutored others in every core high school academic subject.  In spite of all my academic success, I made a few mistakes preparing to take the ACT test a few months ago (I took the ACT for “fun” just to see what I might get).  I’d like to share some of things I learned along the way and pass on a few tips!

It was something of a shock to walk into a room full of high school students several years younger than me, turn to the math section of the October ACT, and realize I had absolutely no idea how to solve the last five questions. This leads me to Tip 1:

1.  Study – WELL!

I didn’t. Disregard every voice in your mind telling you how smart you think you are. Test taking is about knowing the test – more so, I’d argue, than knowing the material. If you plan on resting on your straight A’s in school to get you a good score, prepare to be disappointed.

The entirety of my ACT studying time added up to four hours, tops. Those hours were inefficient and unfocused, and covered only the English and science sections. I took only part of a practice test, reaching only the first ten or so math problems before deciding I had done enough. I looked through the list of topics covered in the ACT and quickly assumed I knew them all just because I recognized the ideas.  If I had stopped to review my own knowledge of trigonometry, I would have realized that, although I was familiar with all the concepts, I didn’t remember most of the actual methodologies involved in solving anything beyond the most basic trigonometry problems.  To avoid this mistake, take several practice tests all the way through and review any topics you’re feeling rusty with.

2.  Exercise, Eat, and Sleep.

These are vastly more important than many people assume. Alertness and focus are vital for both studying and test-taking.

I’ve always been moderately active, and perform better in school when I keep to my exercise routine. My high school years, however, were chock-full of late nights and sunrise mornings. It wasn’t until I arrived at UC Berkeley (and got to design my own schedule!) that my nightly sleep jumped from 5 hours to 9 hours. My happiness, alertness, and productivity spiked massively. I breezed through work and spent more time exploring and enjoying life, while simultaneously retaining my lessons more accurately.

Looking back, it’s frightening to think that I was locked in such a low level of daily awareness—and completely unaware of it, since I’d been in that rut for so long. In summary: Even if you think you’ve adapted to a sparser sleep schedule, try out a 9-hour routine, even if just for a week. It may not require a trade-off for productivity, and the difference could be astounding.

3.  Practice!

Practice, even if you know your stuff. The point here is to know your time limits and practice your pacing. And, of course, it doesn’t hurt to double-check that you know the material.

Honestly, I could do the science section of the ACT in my sleep. But, could I do it in 35 minutes? That’s a totally different question.

I found myself considerably crunched for time in both the science and math sections, purely because I wasn’t familiar enough with the time limits. Every type of test feels different, so every test time limit is different—even if it’s the same time limit across different tests. Getting used to the “feel” of a test can do wonders for your comfort level, since you know a) how to budget your time, and b) what to expect next.  Also, tests like the ACT and SAT are hours long and are basically “mental marathons.”  You have to train your mental stamina to stay sharp through the end of the test.  You wouldn’t practice for a 26-mile marathon by running 2-3 miles a day right?  Why make the same mistake on standardized tests?

Despite my mistakes, I fortunately scored a 34—in the 99th percentile. But I remember walking out of my test frustrated because I knew for a fact that I could have done better. Even though my score was high, it was impossible for me to really be happy with it because I knew it didn’t represent my full potential. I’ve studied hard for tests before. I just made the mistake of thinking that I didn’t have much to worry about.

Learn from my mistakes. Think smart. Think ahead. I promise it’s worth it.

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Courtney Tran is a student at UC Berkeley, studying Political Economy and Rhetoric. In high school, she was named a National Merit Finalist and National AP Scholar, and she represented her district two years in a row in Public Forum Debate at the National Forensics League National Tournament. 

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