The ACT has been around for over 65 years, and for more than 40 of those, The Princeton Review has been helping students to increase their test scores. Here's the time-tested advice on how to avoid the six most common mistakes students make on the ACT.

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Common ACT Mistake 1 – Not Preparing

The makers of the ACT claim that it “measure[s] skills that are … acquired in secondary education.” This statement makes it seem as if you’ve already learned everything you need to know for the ACT in high school.

While some of what you’ve learned in high school will be useful on the ACT, this knowledge isn’t enough for success on a timed test. Test-taking strategies are arguably more important to improving your score. And to learn those strategies, you need to build up your ACT- test-taking skills.

First, assess what you already know by taking a practice test . If your score isn't at or above the top of the scores accepted at your dream school, set that as a goal to work toward. There are a variety of ways to prepare for the ACT, from books to courses and tutoring. Our Enrollment Advisors are available to help you determine the best way to work towards your goals on the ACT.

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Common ACT Mistake 2 – Following ACT’s Advice

The directions that the ACT includes with their test do not describe the best way to approach each section. For instance, the directions for the English section recommend that you “read each passage through once before you begin to answer the questions that accompany it.” The problem with this advice is that you only have 36 seconds per English question, not counting any time spent reading the passage. If you read the passage first, you’re almost guaranteed to run out of time on this section.

More than a million students take the ACT each year; their approach may not be the best one for you. Take the test on your terms by trying out different strategies until you find the ones with which you're most comfortable.

Common ACT Mistake 3 – Ignoring Time

You may have noticed how little time you have per English question. Time is your enemy on every part of the ACT. Math is a relatively leisurely 1 minute per question. Reading and Science are only 52 seconds per question, and you’ll need to deal with the passages, too.

Plan in advance how to spend your limited time in each part of the ACT. Have a pacing goal in mind – you don’t necessarily need to do every question in every section to get a great score. In fact, most students will score higher by intentionally choosing not to do a certain number of questions in each section and focusing instead on their accuracy for the questions they answer. (Skipping a question doesn’t mean leaving it blank— there’s no guessing penalty, so choose a letter and fill in all the blanks with it before time runs out.)

Common ACT Mistake 4 – Doing the Questions in ACT’s Order

In addition to lacking a plan on how to use time wisely on the ACT, most students approach the questions in order. Within each section, every question is worth the same number of points, and in every section but Math, the hardest questions could be at the beginning. (In Math, the questions are ordered by difficulty, but this is ACT’s order, not necessarily yours.) For instance, many students get stuck on the first Literary Narrative passage in Reading, get frustrated, spend a lot of time, and perhaps don’t do very well. Then, those same students are rushing (or guessing!) on easier passages that happen to appear later in the section.

Consider approaching each section using your Personal Order of Difficulty (POOD). Instead of doing the questions in ACT’s order, do the questions that are easiest for you first. Next, go back and answer the questions you need in order to meet your pacing goals. Guess your Letter of the Day on those questions that were the hardest, most time consuming in the section, not the questions that happened to appear at the end.

Common ACT Mistake 5 – Doing the Work in their Heads

Because of the intense time pressure, many students feel as if they need to work as quickly as possible. These students skip taking notes, feeling that doing so will slow them down. Instead, these students do all the work in their heads, using their pencils only to put in answers on their answer sheet.

Ironically, the students who don’t write down their work may end up wasting more time. Using scrap paper prevents you from having to rework steps if you get distracted or confused. Marking up the passage with your pencil in English, Reading, and Science helps you to focus on what’s important for answering the question (which is what the ACT is really testing).

Furthermore, writing down work improves accuracy. This is related to Mistake 3 above. Many students think the goal is to do as many questions as possible in the time limit. However, the goal should be to get as many questions correct as possible in the time limit. Even if writing down steps prevented you from doing as many questions as possible (which it really doesn’t), you’d still improve your score if you got more questions correct.

Common ACT Mistake 6 – Looking for the Correct Answer Only

You get points for filling the bubble that corresponds to the correct answer on your bubble sheet, so it makes sense to look for the correct answers. However, sometimes answer choices seem correct but have something wrong with them. Other times, multiple answers seem right, or none of the answers seem right.

Instead, you should use Process of Elimination (POE). All questions but the Writing Test are multiple choice on the ACT. This means that, for every question, the correct answer is on the page. Identifying and eliminating the three or four incorrect answers is often faster and more accurate than looking for the correct answer. Furthermore, on many questions, there may be more than one correct answer; you only get points for the “best” answer (what is often called on standardized tests the “credited response”). Using POE is the best way to narrow down your choices and identify the answer that’ll give you the points.

Having to answer 215 questions from topics across your entire educational career—and doing so in under three hours—can be intimidating for ACT test takers. Furthermore, the ACT's instructions and recommendations might clash with your test-taking strengths. By learning from those that came before and avoiding these common ACT mistakes, you’ll be on your way to an excellent ACT score.