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How to Get a Higher Score on the ACT

Written by Swoop Staff

As the ACT approaches this Saturday, students are picking up their prep books with the goal of gaining a few points. With scholarships based solely on test scores, a small increase could get you a considerable cut.

Undoubtedly, standardized testing has become more prevalent than ever. 20 states (including Mississippi) now provide funding for every student to take the test in their junior year. (1) As a result, the number of students taking the ACT has increased by more than 300,000 from 2009 to 2013. (2) Perhaps due to colleges’ emphasis on standardized testing, it appears that states are implementing legislation to prepare their students and allow them with an opportunity to score well.

At the University of Mississippi, a student increasing from a 25 to a 28 on the ACT would save one thousand dollars in tuition, and every point after that would result in roughly a thousand dollar increase in scholarship funds. At a 33 or above, tuition is free. (3) Many other schools, like Mississippi State University, University of Southern Mississippi, and the University of Alabama, offer similar merit scholarships based solely on ACT scores.

While there are many tips and tricks that one can find on the internet, the most valuable advice is to completely understand the test and the types of questions that will be asked.



The fast-paced English portion contains 70 questions in 35 minutes. This test consists of 5 passages, each containing 15 questions. It covers two topics:

  1. Usage/Mechanics- These questions involve punctuation, grammar/usage, and sentence structure. These questions oftentimes can be answered out of context (they don’t require the student to read beyond the sentence in question).
  2. Rhetorical Skills- For this section, the student must usually look outside of the sentence in question to find the answer. Luckily, the passages on the English section are typically much easier to read and skim than those of the Reading section. For these questions, it’s important for the reader to determine:
  • Purpose/Tone: Commonly, the reader is asked to revise a sentence to fit with the tone of the passage. Alternatively, the reader can be asked to add or delete a sentence based on how relevant and how well it fits to the rest of the passage.
  • Organization: Questions in this section will regard the reader’s ability to effectively transition from one idea to another using opening and closing sentences.
  • Style: These types of questions ask the reader the best way to rewrite a sentence. Perhaps the most useful tip is to find the easiest answer to read; a concise sentence is a good one.

(Luckily, this section doesn’t cover topics involving spelling and vocabulary.)

For this test, it is important to look through the rules of grammar with concepts such as subject-verb agreement, pronoun-antecedent agreement, verb tense, proper contractions, etc. This test is the most straightforward, and likewise the student should complete the questions in order.


Timing Suggestion: 7 minutes per passage (Around 30 seconds per question)



In the Math section, there are 60 minutes for 60 questions. While this section seems to be a hit or miss with many, students can easily improve their score after briefly going over certain subjects taught over the course of high school.

The Mathematics test goes over six topics:

  1. Pre-Algebra: This area focuses on basic operations, including the concept of exponents, scientific notation, proportions, linear equations, absolute value, and probability.
  2. Elementary Algebra: The name is surely deceiving! This area comprises of squares, square roots, substitutions, operations, and factoring quadratic equations.
  3. Intermediate Algebra: This involves the quadratic formula, rational/radical expressions, equations, inequalities, sequences, systems of equations, matrices, and functions.
  4. Coordinate Geometry: Questions in this area involve graphing equations/inequalities, slope, midpoint, and distance.
  5. Plane Geometry: This section includes angles (among perpendicular and parallel lines), volume, and properties of circles, triangles, and quadrilaterals.
  6. Trigonometry: This area focuses on relations in right triangles, graphing/understanding trigonometric functions, and solving trigonometric functions. Essentially, this area focuses on sine, cosine, and tangent.

If one is unsure about any of the concepts listed above, a quick refresher is needed in order to maximize his or her possible score.

All math problems have a quick and easy way out; the ACT confirms that all questions can be solved without a calculator. (5) While using one is obviously preferred, a student that is spending a long time on a question is probably attacking it from the wrong angle.


Timing Suggestion: 1 minute per question (While there are 60 minutes for 60 questions, many of the easier questions take ~30 seconds and the harder questions take up to 2 or 3 minutes each. With this thought in mind, try to answer the first 40 questions in less than 30 minutes.)



The Reading section is a 35-minute test composed of 40 questions. There are 4 types of passages presented in the Reading section:

  1. Prose Fiction/Literary Narrative: Common questions include main theme and author’s tone/intent.
  2. Social Science: Many questions ask for paraphrasing and finding statements the author would agree with.
  3. Humanities: Questions are similar to the Prose Fiction section in terms of finding main theme and tone.
  4. Natural Science: Common questions are focused on specific details found in the passage.

Each passage consists of 10 questions. With a total time of 35 minutes, a student must be able to complete each question in less than a minute on average. While this sounds daunting, questions are read and answered in a fraction of that time–most of the time spent is attributed to actually reading the passages.

Some students recommend reading the questions first; they find it easier to read the passage with the intention of gathering specific points from it. Other students recommend briefly skimming before reading the questions; this way, they have an idea of where certain ideas are and can go back to them when the question asks. In the end, it is the reader’s decision on which method works best.

If unsure about a question, the student can circle it and move on. After spending time answering different problems about the same passage, the reader will gain more insight on the passage itself and will be able to better answer the unresolved question.


Timing Suggestion: 8-9 minutes per passage



The science portion, which is comprised of 40 questions, takes 35 minutes to complete. This section includes 7 passages:

  • (3) Data Representation Passages [5-6 questions each] – This primarily tests students based on their ability to interpret visual data found in graphs, scatter plots, and tables.
  • (3) Research Summaries Passages [5-6 questions each] – This section provides descriptions of one or more experiments; it focuses on the design of the experiment and the interpretation of results.
  • (1) Conflicting Viewpoints Passage [7 questions] – This presents differing viewpoints on a certain theory. These questions ask the reader to compare, analyze, and understand the dissenting hypotheses.

In the science test, it’s easy to become bogged down with unfamiliar concepts typically presented. As a result, a helpful tip is to read the questions beforehand; with an idea of what to look for, the science passages become much, much easier.


Timing Suggestion: 4 minutes per Data Representation Passage, 5 minutes per Research Summaries Passage, 6 minutes on Conflicting Viewpoints Passage


Simply put, knowing the test leads to acing the test.  While many students don’t want to hear it, practice tests sincerely help. Instead of taking ACT every other month and hoping for a higher score, taking a practice test allows students to grade themselves and investigate the questions they missed. They now have the time to figure out why they made these mistakes and, more importantly, how to not repeat them. Practice tests can be found easily! A plethora of free material is available online, and there are several practice books at Hancock High’s library.








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Swoop Staff