Updated: Aug 11, 2021
Throughout my life, I’ve collected a handful of aphorisms and clichés that I try and live by. Although these seem to be common-sense tips that can be applied in any situation, you would be surprised at how they can improve your standardized test scores.
Want to hear Strive to Learn Founder Josefine's answers SAT/ACT Frequently Asked Questions? Check out this episode of Mindful Admissions, the Strive to Learn Podcast!
1. "Know yourself and know the enemy"
This little bit of wisdom from The Art of War has been floating around for thousands of years. In our case, you need to know everything you can about the test you are taking. How many sections are there? Are there any patterns that you can exploit?
Most importantly, you should know about yourself. How long can I stay focused on one topic before I need a break or change of pace? How long can I sit still without needing to stretch? How often should I take a bathroom break? How much water can I drink before I need to get up? Am I faster using calculator tricks or algebra tricks?
Knowing the test is easy, but knowing yourself as a test taker can be challenging. It’s not every day that we sit ourselves down for three to four hours and try to answer questions based on passages that we will never look at again. Some people are lucky enough to already know what works for them and how to maximize their own potential. For those who need guidance, a tutor is probably the most powerful tool to unlock a piece of wisdom that you might not have known was possible.
2. "An apple a day..."
In my adult life, I’m tested all the time, and no amount of cramming will ever allow me to pass these tests. You might think I’m talking about work deadlines or presentations, but I’m not. I’m talking about my blood tests and visits to the dentist’s office. Before each of these, I try to impress my proctors by eating large amounts of vegetables or flossing my teeth like I’m looking for gold. At the end of the day, small and consistent practice will always outperform large binging and study sessions. The ACT is a long test and it can be hard to find a window of time to take a practice exam; however, daily practice sessions between 15-30 minutes can help you build your confidence and learn the patterns that appear on the test.
3. Work smart (use your calculator)
You are allowed to use your calculator on the ACT. Of the approved calculators, my favorite is the TI-84 Plus. It has been the standard since I was in high school and is an incredibly powerful machine. At Strive to Learn we teach students how to use any calculator to avoid doing difficult algebraic manipulations. Whichever model calculator you have, you should look up to see if there is a guide of useful features
Be careful, though. Shortcuts can sometimes be the fastest way to the wrong answer. If you learn a shortcut, make sure you know why it’s being used and when the best time to use it is. Guided practice can be the best way to master this skill.
4. Easy things should be easy and hard things are allowed to be hard
Not all questions are built equally. In the math section, everything is arranged from easiest to hardest. The English-based reading and writing section has some common patterns that you can target. The science and reading sections have questions that directly refer to things in the passage. Some of these answers have strategies that require no thought to execute. With enough practice, these responses become automatic.
On the other hand, there is no shortage of tricky and time-consuming problems in the ACT and SAT. You should be familiar with your own pace and know approximately how long you would normally take on any given problem. If you feel like you are wasting your time, that is your sign from the universe to skip that problem. Instead of answering this one problem, you can answer two to three of those easier problems and come back to this sinkhole if you have free time in the end.
5. It’s all about quality, not quantity
There are 100 questions on a test. Student A answers all of the questions and gets 60% of his questions right. Student B answers 70 questions and gets 100% of her answers correct. Who scored higher?
A: Student B! The tortoise and the hare, etc., etc.
The ACT is a long test that requires students to think quickly. Time pressure can be one of the biggest factors in the way of the top score that you desire. By slowing down and focusing on accuracy instead of speed, you can actually improve your score.
The question is, what is the pace that is correct for you? Some students really benefit from the extra time as it gives them a chance to go back and check on their work. Some students move too fast without any restrictions. The Strive to Learn tutors are trained in coaching students through their test-taking journey and finding what works best for the individual.
Editor's note: Tristan is a multi-talented former tutor at Strive to Learn and our guest blogger for the article. He is a phenomenal person and we are lucky to have his words of wisdom.