Wouldn't it be great if there was a key that unlocked all the shortcuts to success on the ACT? Although that dream might be a little unrealistic, the advice in this article will give you the next best thing in the form of mini-strategies that will cut down on your stress levels and improve your scores.
Can You Actually “Hack” the ACT?
To a limited extent, yes. The strategies in this article may lead to a small increase in your scores, but they won’t fix major issues you have with the content of the test. Understanding the format and how to get around some of the trickier parts of the ACT is important, but there’s no substitute for in-depth studying.
Consider these tips as supplements to your regular studying rather than cure-alls for your more serious issues with the material on the test. We’ve written a guide on how to study for the ACT that you can check out for more insight into the review process.
Overall ACT Hacks
Here are some techniques that you can use on all parts of the ACT to earn the best possible score on each section.
#1: Skip Hard Questions at First
On every section of the ACT, you need to pace yourself carefully to avoid running out of time before you get to all of the questions. If you come across a question that completely stumps you, don’t linger. Struggling with one question for too long can damage your scores because it takes up time you could have used to answer easier questions later in the section. You can always come back to the questions you skipped if you have time, but you shouldn’t prioritize one tricky question over getting through the section before time is called.
#2: Fill in an Answer Bubble for Every Question
The ACT has no guessing penalty, so it’s in your best interests to fill in an answer choice for every question on the test. Even if there are only 30 seconds remaining in a section and you have five questions left, you should fill in those bubbles at random in case you get lucky. If you do, you’ll earn more points, and if you don’t, your score will be no different than if you’d left the questions blank.
#3: Know the Test Structure
Since this is a standardized test, you should prepare by becoming familiar with how it’s structured. If nothing on the test comes as a surprise to you, you’ll feel much more relaxed. You'll be able devote all of your mental energy to understanding the content rather than navigating an unexpected test format. This article provides a complete guide to the format of the ACT, including skills tested, number of questions, and length of each section.
#4: Use Process of Elimination
Process of elimination is the most effective strategy for answering questions on the ACT. It’s much easier for look for reasons to get rid of answers than it is to pick the correct choice out of the lineup right away. Be picky about what it means for an answer to be correct. This is especially applicable to questions in the English and Reading sections. If you can’t find evidence in the passage that definitively supports an answer choice, get rid of it!
You don't have to guess what's behind each door - you'll be able to find clues that rule out 3 out of 4 answers. If you answer correctly, you'll get a brand new karaoke machine. Be sure to claim your prize from the College Board. You deserve this.
ACT English Hacks
Here are a few tricks specific to the English section that will help you find the answers to questions that might otherwise stump you.
#5: Choose the Most Concise Answer
The essence of good writing is saying what you mean in the most accurate way without any extra unnecessary words. When you’re trying to decide between a few different phrasings for a sentence in the English section, usually the least wordy choice is correct. There are exceptions to this rule, but it’s enough of a common trend that if you’re totally stumped by a question, picking the shortest answer is a fairly safe bet.
#6: Tread Carefully With NO CHANGE Answers
Many students are either too wary of NO CHANGE answers or too eager to pick them. Always double check before choosing NO CHANGE, but if you genuinely feel that it’s the right answer, try not to doubt yourself too much. NO CHANGE answers make up around a quarter of the correct responses to questions where they’re presented as an option. Don’t assume that a NO CHANGE option is any less likely to be correct compared to the other choices.
#7: Read Around the Question
Context is important on ACT English because all the questions are based on longer passages. When answering a question about the structure of a sentence, you should always read the entire sentence, not just the part that you’re asked to revise. It might even be helpful to read the preceding and following sentences so that you can get a feel for how the different answer choices affect the flow of the passage. This will help you see that some phrasings sound more awkward than others when considered in a larger context.
Context is always important. For all we know, this is just a disembodied pair of arms underneath a pile of clothes.
ACT Math Hacks
The Math section is the most challenging part of the ACT for many students. Here are some hacks that will help you get through tough problems.
#8: Plug In Answers
The great thing about multiple choice tests is that the correct answer is always right there in front of you - all you have to do is find it. This means that you can often work backward to find the correct answers to math problems on the ACT even if you’re not sure of the actual solution method. This can take longer than just solving the problem the old-fashioned way, so it shouldn’t be your first move, but if you’re stumped it’s a viable way to solve problems successfully.
#9: Use the Diagrams
Diagrams on the Math section exist to help you, so make sure you take advantage of them. Diagrams are useful in estimating the correct answer even if you aren’t sure how to solve the problem. If you need to calculate a dimension of a shape, for example, consider how large that dimension looks compared to other parts of the diagram that are already labeled. In doing this, you can ensure that your answer makes logical sense.
#10: Memorize Important Formulas
The ACT doesn’t give you a list of formulas like the SAT, so you have to know the most commonly used formulas off the top of your head. Make sure you take a bit of time to review this list of formulas before the test.
For example, you should know that the cosine of angle B in this image is equivalent to the length of side C divided by the length of side a.
ACT Reading Hacks
The Reading section involves a great deal of time pressure and high-level reading comprehension skills. These strategies will help you on the road to overcoming these challenges.
#11: Decide Whether to Skim or Skip
You should go into the Reading section with a strategy in mind for how you want to approach the passages. Some people can read the passages normally all the way through and still make it to the end of the section, but for most students, it’s smart to adopt a more efficient alternative approach.
One option is to skim the passage before starting work on the questions. This usually means reading the intro paragraph, first and last sentences of each body paragraph, and conclusion paragraph. These parts of the passage usually provide the most critical information about the central topic.
Another option is to skip the passage initially and head straight for the questions. You can answer questions about small details by going back and searching for them in the passage. Save the broader questions for last after you’ve already gotten a handle on what the passage is about by putting together the smaller details. Experiment with each of these strategies on practice tests so you know what works best for you and saves you the most time.
#12: Read Your Favorite Subject First
In the ACT Reading section, the passages are always in the same order with regards to their subject matter. You can take advantage of this by determining the optimal order in which to read the passages beforehand. It’s best to start with the subject matter or writing style that you feel most comfortable reading because you’ll get through that passage faster than the others and probably won't struggle as much with the questions. It would be a bad idea to save the subject you like most for last because you might run out of time before getting to that question set.
#13: Always Find Direct Evidence
You should never make assumptions to get to your answers to questions on the Reading section. If you think that two answers seem equally valid, reread the relevant part of the passage and carefully analyze the evidence. There is only one irrefutably correct answer, and you'll always be able to point to something in the passage that gives it away.
The resigned pain in this child's eyes resembles the attitude with which most students approach ACT Reading passages.
ACT Science Hacks
Here are a few ACT hacks you can use to make the science section a little less intimidating and more manageable.
Conflicting viewpoints is the most time-consuming part of the ACT Science section for almost every student. It involves much more reading than the other parts of the section, which mostly consist of data interpretation. It’s best to save conflicting viewpoints for last so you can get through all the quicker passages first.
#15: Visuals Are Your Friends
The ACT science section appears complicated because there are detailed explanations of experimental procedures combined with diagrams and charts. However, most of this information only exists to make you freak out about all the stuff you think you don’t understand. You can ignore most of the background information and just focus on the data provided in the visuals when answering questions. These questions are mostly based on logic, not complex science.
#16: Don’t Bother Studying Science Terms
The Science section on the ACT doesn’t have much in common with the tests that you’ve taken in high school science classes. It’s not necessary to study terms because there won’t be any obscure concepts that you need to understand independently. Anything obscure that you need to know to answer the questions will be defined for you in the passage. Succeeding on the Science section is about getting used to the format and digging down to the logical core of each question.
Science is tooooootally tubular.
ACT Writing Hacks
If you’re taking the ACT with Writing, here are some ways to ensure that you end up with a decent score even if you’re not completely confident in your writing abilities.
#17: Include an Introduction and Conclusion
Introductions and conclusions are the most important aspects of any ACT essay. The graders pay close attention to the first and last paragraphs of each essay because they provide insight into the quality of the rest of your writing. The introduction is even more critical to your score than the conclusion because it includes a thesis statement, which gives the reader a preview of the rest of your essay. Make sure your intro contains a clear thesis statement that will make it easy for the grader to give you points!
#18: Write at Least Two Pages
There’s no official length requirement for the ACT essay, but you should aim for at least two pages of writing to ensure that your argument is fully developed. Essays that are less than two pages typically score lower because they don’t include enough details or explain their ideas completely. If you have an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion, making your essay at least two pages probably won’t be an issue.
Conclusion: How to Hack the ACT
You need to have strong fundamental knowledge of the content to earn a high score, but there are still a few simple ACT hacks you can use to make the test easier for yourself without doing a bunch of extra studying. Here's a consolidated list of all the strategies I've gone over in this article:
Overall ACT Hacks
- Skip Hard Questions at First
- Fill in An Answer for Every Question
- Know the Test Structure
- Use Process of Elimination
ACT English Hacks
- Choose the Most Concise Answer
- Tread Carefully with NO CHANGE Answers
- Read Around the Question
ACT Math Hacks
- Plug in Answers
- Use the Diagrams
- Memorize Important Formulas
ACT Reading Hacks
- Decide Whether to Skim or Skip
- Read Your Favorite Subject First
- Look for Direct Evidence
ACT Science Hacks
- Save Conflicting Viewpoints for Last
- Visuals Are Your Friends
- Don't Bother Studying Science Terms
ACT Writing Hacks
- Include an Introduction and Conclusion
- Write at Least Two Pages
These tactics will help you become a more efficient and confident test-taker as long as you use them in tandem with a responsible long-term study plan!
Are you looking for a reliable guide to preparing for the ACT? Check out our list of the best ACT review books released this year.
You might not have time to get through a whole review book before you take the ACT. If that's the case, this article has a list of critical last-minute strategy guides that you should read.
Feeling ambitious? This guide will tell you exactly what you need to do to work towards a perfect score on the test.
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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.