The American College Test (ACT) is a college admissions exam used to test students’ knowledge in English, math, reading, and science. Achieving a high ACT score signals to college admissions committees that you’re ready for the rigor of a college curriculum.
If you’ve taken the ACT before or have taken multiple practice tests, you may be frustrated if your score isn’t improving. There are numerous reasons your score isn’t budging and we cover them all here, so don’t lose hope!
We’ll walk you through some common reasons why your ACT score isn’t improving and counter with tips to improve your score.
Let’s face it: tests are hard. If your ACT score isn’t going up, know you’re not alone. Here are a few reasons why you may be struggling to increase your score.
Let’s say you’re getting ready for test day: you’re confident you have a good handle on the ACT’s subject matter, you have all your materials ready, and you’re about to head out the door. Then it hits you. Maybe it’s sweaty palms, a wave of nausea, a persistent thought that tells you you’re not going to do well. Now you’ve gone from cool and ready to on edge and nervous.
Taking the ACT is a significant step toward your college dreams, and it’s normal to feel a little apprehensive about the test. It’s also normal for some people to feel high anxiety levels before and during exams like the ACT. If this sounds like you, know you’re not alone.
High stress levels can infiltrate thoughts, making it difficult to concentrate on the ACT’s content, especially for three hours.
Maybe you’re an overachiever who wants to spend as much time studying as possible. While it’s great you’re so dedicated to studying and performing well on the ACT, you might be hurting your score. If you’re spending every free moment of your time feverishly reviewing materials, you’ve bought yourself a one-way ticket to burnout-town.
Overstudying can lead to changes in your school performance, isolation and withdrawal from social activities, disrupt your sleep patterns, and even make you feel physically ill. Studying too much can “can cause mental distractions and make it difficult to retain information,” the exact opposite of your goal.
Cramming isn’t fun—and it’s hard on your mind and body. While you may feel good and ready to take on the world in a 3 AM coffee-filled haze, the morning of your test tells a different story. Putting off studying until the last possible day is never in your best interest, and it won’t make much of a difference to your ACT score.
The ACT requires a deeper understanding of the material that you can’t gain in one night of cramming. It can also impact your mental health: according to Stanford Ph.D. candidate Sukuru Burc Eryilaz,“cramming places too much stress onto the brain, pushing it beyond its limits. When the brain is overworked too much, too often, it increases feelings of anxiety, frustration, fatigue and even confusion. Like the human body, the brain needs time to breathe, relax and refocus. Cramming does the opposite of this.”
In addition to the harm cramming has on your brain and emotions, you’re more likely to forget what you’ve learned during or directly after your test because you’ve only committed the information to your short-term memory.
Taking practice tests is an excellent way to grasp the ACT’s material. However, practice tests take time; remember, the ACT takes three hours to complete, not including scheduled breaks. Practice tests can be time-consuming, but they’re a great way to ensure you get used to actual test day conditions.
High school students are busy. You have coursework, extracurricular activities to participate in, and maybe family obligations or a part-time job. It can be difficult to pencil in time to study for the ACT when you feel you have a million other things you need to do in a day. Life is a balancing act and it takes some trial and error to develop your time management skills.
Maybe you’ve done an excellent job reviewing and have a firm handle on the ACT’s content, but the time limit element is throwing you off your game. Unfortunately, the SAT and the ACT are timed tests, meaning you have to be accurate and relatively quick.
If you get stuck on a problem, it’s common to want to commit to it until you’ve hammered out an answer. Generally, answering questions quicker comes down to how comfortable you are with the content and how much you’ve practiced.
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This is a common pitfall among students at any age for any test. When you know you’re going to be tested on the material, it’s easy to fall into a habit of learning for the sake of repeating information back on tests as opposed to fully understanding the content. Committing information to memorization instead of genuinely understanding the content can lead to lower test scores, especially when you’re faced with many different questions.
Effective studying can look different depending on how you learn best. However, if your ACT scores aren’t improving, poor study habits may be the culprit. Are you multitasking while you study? Maybe you’re scrolling through TikTok, liking photos on Instagram, or having your attention snapped away by rapid-fire group chat DMs? These are the hallmarks of bad study habits. Other habits you should avoid while studying include listening to music, learning in a noisy or busy place, procrastinating, and generally being disorganized.
So now that you know some reasons why you’re not seeing your score improve, you’re probably wondering what you can do to fix it. That’s why we’ve compiled our top 10 tips to tackle the ACT and boost your score.
Know you’re not alone; many people get test stress of varying severity levels. Tackling anxiety before the ACT may not look the same for everyone, but these tips can help you feel calmer and ready to take on the exam:
Stress can sometimes be unavoidable, but that doesn’t mean you need to sit and suffer with it. Try a few of these methods to see which ones stave off your pre-exam jitters best. You’ll be sure to enter test day with a clearer head and even achieve a higher ACT score.
A target score gives you a clear goal to shoot for. Make sure your target score is specific and achievable within the time frame you give yourself. As a baseline, it’s generally considered that about 10 hours of studying can lead to about a 1-point increase on the ACT. So, if you plan to study 10 hours a week consistently, you can expect to possibly raise your score by 3 or 4 in a month. If your test is scheduled for a month away, it may not be possible to increase your score by 10 points.
It would be best to base your target score on the schools you hope to attend. Many schools release class profile data, including SAT and ACT scores. If you can manage to score in the middle or higher range of scores submitted by admitted students, you probably have a better shot of acceptance.
A consistent study schedule goes a long way when you’re preparing for the ACT. Consistency means you avoid burnout and cramming and are more likely to commit what you’ve reviewed to long-term memory.
When building a study schedule, ensure you can balance your time around your other commitments. You may not be able to squeeze in three hours of studying on a day where you go to school and work a part-time job, for example. Use your best judgment, and you’re sure to make a schedule that works best for you.
Some people like to use planners, calendars, or phone alarms to help them stick to their regiment. Whatever you do to stay on track, make sure you stay consistent.
If your ACT score hasn’t improved, you’ve likely given the test a shot already. In that case, you can see your score reports sometime between two to eight weeks after test day. On your score report, you’ll see a number between 1 to 36 on each part of the ACT, along with your composite score.
Take a moment and see where you did the best first. Are you a science whiz or a math lover? Identify where your strengths are; you’ll still need to review these areas before your next test, but you probably don’t need to spend as much time on them.
Next, see where your lowest scores are. These are your improvement areas, and these subjects are where you should focus when you review.
Practice tests are an excellent study method and a way to see how you could perform on the actual ACT. Just like evaluating your score reports, U.S. News World and Report states, “ACT practice tests can be a good way for students to familiarize themselves with the content and can serve as a diagnostic exam. Once students have identified their weak spots, they can work toward improving in those areas.”
However, you should ensure you take these practice tests with purpose. Go back afterward and work your way through every problem you missed, and figure out why you missed it. This strategy can help you work through any holes in your study regime and means you’ll be more prepared next time you see that type of question.
Spending too much time on one question is a surefire way to eat up the precious time you have. If you come to one of these questions that makes you want to pull your hair out, skip it. The more frustrated and anxious you get staring at it, the more likely you’ll pull yourself out of your testing mentality.
When you’re finished with your other questions, you can always come back to the one that gave you trouble later. By then, maybe you could've had more time to think, or you could view the question in a new light.
Let’s set the stage: you’re running out of time on the ACT, and you have three questions left unanswered that you don’t know how to answer. Leaving questions blank isn’t in your best interest: a blank answer is always a wrong answer. Instead, you should use the strategic process of elimination.
First, cross out any answer that you know isn’t correct. If you do this, you’ve already boosted your chances of finding the solution. Keep eliminating answers you know are wrong based on evidence until you’re left with one to three of them.
After you’ve done that, select the one you think is correct. You may not get it right, but there’s also a great possibility you won’t get it wrong. Educated guessing can help pull your ACT scores up slightly when you’re in a pinch.
Unlike the SAT, the ACT won’t give you a formula sheet. Therefore, there’s really no way to get around it: you need to know your formulas. Spend time reviewing and using formulas to get more comfortable and remember them.
From your practice tests and your review, you should have a good idea of what formulas you may need to use on the actual test. You should know formulas relating to statistics and probability, how to find the area of shapes, the radius of a circle, and others.
Don't stretch yourself too thin on the days leading up to test day. At the very least, avoid cramming. It would be best if you get a solid nights’ sleep, eat well, and generally take care of your health leading up to the test. Make your favorite meal the day before, get some light exercise in, and avoid sitting at your kitchen table until the morning hours trying to memorize formulas.
If you don’t want to go it alone, consider seeking an ACT tutor’s help. A tutor can help you identify where you should focus your study efforts and work with you to develop a study plan that you can follow. An ACT tutor’s help can raise your scores.
If your ACT score isn’t improving, take the time to evaluate possible reasons and see if they relate to your situation. If test stress, time management, or cramming is the culprit, know that there are ways to fix these things.
Just because you haven’t seen your score improve up to this point doesn’t mean you aren’t capable of bumping it up: we promise you are. Implement a consistent study schedule, evaluate your score reports, and consider seeking an ACT tutor’s help. With all the above advice, you can have many different ways to improve your ACT score.