If you're doing well on the ACT but you still want to improve, it can be difficult to find the right prep strategies. High scorers who hope to become elite scorers will benefit from different study strategies than low scorers.
In this article, I'll go through what it means to be a high scorer on the ACT, why high scorers can benefit from their own set of preparation strategies, and which strategies will give you the best chance of improving already impressive test results.
What Does It Mean to Be a High Scorer on the ACT?
To consider yourself a high scorer on the ACT, you should be scoring a 27 or higher on practice tests. This puts you in the top thirteen percent or so of scorers, or the 87th percentile. I’m setting the high score benchmark a bit higher in the percentile range for the ACT than for the SAT (for which I'd set it at the 75th percentile mark) because some states require all students to take the test regardless of whether they’re hoping to attend college. This means that average scores on the ACT are skewed lower, and you’ll need to score higher in the percentile range to get into very selective colleges.
Why Should High Scorers Prepare Differently?
High scorers on the ACT will benefit from different strategies than low scorers in efforts to raise their scores. For the most part, high scorers are not held back by a lack of content knowledge or problems with question comprehension. High scorers tend to have more issues with careless mistakes, rushing, and overthinking simple questions.
It’s important for high scorers to get specific when tracking down and eliminating their mistakes so that they can earn the last few points that will get them to a perfect or close to perfect score. In the following section, I’ll detail some of the best strategies high scorers can use to raise their ACT scores.
If these gummy bears represent all the students who take the ACT, you're about to become the triumphant yellow gummy bear right in the middle.
High Scorer Strategies
These strategies will help high scorers on the ACT break through the barriers to an elite score. If you’re still scoring lower on the ACT, you may want to consult these strategies that are more relevant to your needs; once you improve your scores a little more, you can come back to the high scorer strategies!
Strategy #1: Crack Down on Careless Mistakes
Careless mistakes often cause students who are already scoring relatively high on the ACT to fall short of a great score. A careless mistake is an error on a question that you would have answered correctly if you read more carefully or paid attention when you bubbled in your answer. These types of mistakes can be tough to eliminate because of the impact of test anxiety, but you can always take measures to reduce them.
The best way to avoid careless mistakes is to go back through each section at the end and double check your answers. If you still have a fair amount of time left before you take the real ACT, you can experiment with a practice test or two and see where careless mistakes happen most frequently. This way, you’ll know to be especially careful when double checking the sections that deal with subjects that give you trouble.
If you find yourself making careless mistakes on math problems, it can be helpful to underline or circle the value that you’ll need to solve for in the question. This way, you can avoid solving for the wrong value or only solving the problem halfway. If you get too wrapped up in your calculations, you might forget what you were supposed to find and end up bubbling in the wrong answer. Underlining key parts of the question can reduce or eliminate these types of silly mistakes.
For careless mistakes on other sections, the key is, once again, double checking and reading the questions carefully. Resist the urge to rush if you have that tendency. You’ll end up making a lot more mistakes if you’re in a panic! You might also try filling in all of your answers at the end of the section to avoid bubbling errors. Circle all of your answers in the test booklet as you go through the section, but wait until the end to fill in the answer sheet. Since you’re not constantly switching between tasks, you’ll be less likely to slip up and fill in the wrong bubble.
Careless mistakes happen to everyone, but you can take precautions to avoid them (like putting your coffee mug outside of elbow-range).
Strategy #2: Manage Time Wisely
As a high scorer aiming for an even higher score, you should make sure that you have enough time to answer every question on the ACT to the best of your ability. Be sure that you’re not spending too much time on difficult questions and missing a couple of questions at the end of each section. This could hurt your scores unnecessarily.
The best strategy is to skip a question if you find yourself spending more than thirty seconds trying to figure it out. Get through all the questions that are easy for you first, and then go back and tackle the hard ones. This strategy ensures that you don’t miss any questions as a consequence of time mismanagement. If you miss any questions, it should only be because they were especially difficult.
The reading section causes problems with time for many students on the ACT. Make sure you’re reading efficiently. If you tend to read each passage very closely and sometimes run out of time, you might try skimming first instead. Skimming will allow you to answer big picture questions about the passage, and you can go back and read certain parts more closely to answer detail questions.
Alternatively, you might be rushing through questions and answering incorrectly due to carelessness. As I said in the previous subsection, you should make a point of always double checking your answers if you have any extra time left at the end of a section. You should do a time check when you reach the halfway point for a section. If there are at least five minutes more than half of the total allotted time remaining, it might be a sign that you need to slow down and pay attention to your answers a little more.
Slow and steady wins the rAC(T)e. But not too slow! I just think snails are cute.
Strategy #3: Conquer Test Anxiety
Text anxiety can be a severe problem for high scorers. These types of students are so focused on getting a perfect or near-perfect score that they freak out if they have to skip hard questions. This can lead to a self-sabotaging cycle of doubt and worry that causes them to lose points.
Before the test, you should set up the expectation that you will inevitably have to skip a few questions on your first pass through each section. That doesn’t mean you won’t be able to answer them in the end! Usually, if you’re a high scorer, you can come back and answer them later when you’re less stressed about finishing the rest of the section.
Don’t get hijacked by thoughts of “Oh no, I skipped a question! My score is doooooomed!” when you know it's not true. If you’ve consistently gotten very high scores on practice tests, you’re capable of the same performance on the real exam. Don’t buckle under the pressure!
The ACT is gonna be a piece of cake for a smart, sassy individual such as yourself.
Strategy #4: Avoid Overthinking
Overthinking is a major pitfall for many high scorers. Simple questions can trip up high scorers who get anxious and start overanalyzing the different options. If you find yourself thinking too much about each answer and trying to justify why it might be correct, you should stop yourself and pull back.
Remember, there’s only one correct answer to each question on the ACT, and none of the answers should be subjective or ambiguous. Try not to impose your own biases or interpretations on the questions, particularly in the reading section. Everything is pretty cut and dry on the ACT, so if an answer seems like it doesn't quite fit, don't choose it!
Don't let this happen to YOU.
If you’re a high scorer on the ACT, you should adopt specific test prep and studying strategies that fit with your needs. High scorers tend to struggle with careless mistakes, less efficient time management, and problems with overthinking simple questions. You can use the strategies in this article to combat these problems.
You should also look closely at your mistakes on practice tests to make sure you’re addressing your specific issues on the ACT. This is the best way to take your performance from a high score to a perfect score!
If you're trying to get into highly competitive college programs, take a look at my article on the most selective colleges in the country.
Are you not sure whether or not you should take the ACT with Writing? Find out if the Writing section is important for you.
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Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.