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Low ACT Scores: What Should You Do?


If you're currently scoring low on the ACT, you should make sure that you tailor your prep methods to your current needs and ability. Low ACT scorers and high scorers should prepare differently for the test and use different methods to get the best possible results.

In this article, I'll go over why students with low ACT scores should prepare differently and which strategies will be the most helpful for you.


Why Should High and Low Scorers Prepare Differently for the ACT?

When it comes to preparing for standardized tests, not everyone has the same needs. If you’re already scoring high on the ACT, you will almost certainly have different weak points than someone who’s scoring lower. On the ACT, a high scorer would be someone who is consistently scoring a 27 or higher on practice tests.

A low ACT scorer would be someone who is consistently scoring lower than a 20 on practice tests. If you're in between these two scores, you might try strategies for both types of scorers depending on the types of mistakes you're making and how close you are to either end of the spectrum.

High scorers are less likely to suffer from gaps in content knowledge and more likely to experience problems with careless mistakes or time management. In order to get a very high score on the ACT, you have to be extremely meticulous in answering questions correctly. The difference between a good score and a great score is often a matter of just a few incorrect answers. As a high scorer, you want to focus on eliminating those last few pesky careless mistakes that you’re making on the test and on giving yourself enough time to answer more difficult questions.

Low ACT scorers, on the other hand, might need to work on their foundational knowledge of the material on the test and should focus less on answering every single question. Low scorers need to worry about time management in different ways. They might end up getting stuck on difficult questions that they shouldn’t even be trying to answer and missing out on points. It’s especially critical for low scorers to understand their mistakes in order to study appropriately and improve.

All this being said, a low scorer can always become a high scorer with enough preparation. If you’re starting out with a low score, you might use the low scorer strategies in this article to get yourself up to a higher score range and adapt your approach going forward.

body_smallchangesYou're so right, creepy 50s man! And your eyebrow game is "on fleek," as the kids say. Sorry if I just ruined "on fleek" for you.


Strategies for Low ACT Scorers

There are some specific strategies that will benefit low scorers more than high scorers. It's very important for students who are scoring low on the ACT to understand where they're going wrong and adapt their prep and test-taking methods to these problems. As a low scorer, you need to make sure you're taking a broader approach to the test; your goal is to pick up as many easy points as possible in the limited time you have. Here are a few study tips that will help you to improve your scores dramatically if you're struggling with the ACT.

Understand Your Mistakes

This is critical for anyone who wants to improve their ACT scores, but it’s especially important for low scorers since their problems can come from many different areas. As a low scorer, you’re more likely to have issues with test content, but you might also be making careless mistakes or running into problems with time. It’s important to know where your mistakes come from so that you can start fixing them before you take the real ACT. Mistakes generally fall into a few different categories:

Careless errors: these are mistakes on questions that you should have known, but you messed up because you didn't read carefully or you were rushing.

Time pressure: these types of mistakes include questions that you missed because you didn't get to them at the end of a section or were forced to guess since time was running out

Content knowledge: these are mistakes that happen because you don't have the necessary background knowledge to answer a question.

Misunderstanding the question: this is when you can't figure out what the question is asking, or you misinterpret it and end up answering incorrectly.

Click on the link in the title of this section to read more about each of these types of mistakes and how to combat them. Then take a practice test, and see which mistakes are most common for you so you can practice the types of questions that give you the most trouble. Time pressure, content knowledge, and question misunderstandings tend to be the most frequent offenders for low scorers. In the next few subsections, I'll give you different strategies for combating these types of mistakes.

body_mistakeshappenYou have the opportunity to fix your mistakes. I can't necessarily say the same for this goat.

Skip the Hardest Questions

As someone who’s still scoring low on the ACT, you should focus on questions you know you can answer reliably. You want to avoid spending too much time on hard questions and missing out on easy questions later on in the section. This means training yourself to skip any questions that you spend more than 30 seconds trying to figure out without success. There is no point in spending excessive amounts of time on questions that may not earn you any points!

You should always make a first pass through each section and answer all of the easy questions first. Then, if you have time left, you can circle back to the beginning of the section and work on more difficult questions. This will allow you to spend as much time as you need on hard questions without sacrificing any points or stressing out about making it to the end before time runs out.


Change Up Your Reading Method

The Reading section on the ACT is where low scorers can run into a lot of issues with time. Most of the questions aren't too complex, but there's so much to read that students often find themselves rushing on the last passage or not getting to it at all. If you have this problem as a low scorer, I would recommend that you reevaluate how you're reading passages on the test. It's a natural tendency for students to read the passages closely because that's how they've been taught to read in school. However, this isn't the best method to use on the test, especially if you're having problems with time.

You should try skimming the passage quickly and then answering as many questions as possible. You can read in more detail based on the questions you're asked, but you won't necessarily have to read every single word of the passage. You might also try skipping the passage entirely at first and heading straight for the questions. You can read certain sections of the passage to answer detail questions and then do a quick skim later if you're having trouble with big picture questions without a full read through. Try these methods on practice tests and see which one works best for you.

You might also decide to read the passages in a specific order based on which type of subject matter is your strong point. For example, if you're more interested in science, you might skip to the end of the reading section right away and read the natural sciences passage first. This way, you ensure that you have the best shot of answering questions that are easier for you without being in a rush. This will maximize the points you earn on the section as a whole.

body_naturalscienceDinosaur exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Science is pretty cool I guess.


Fill in Content Gaps

Low scorers often have problems with their knowledge of content on the ACT. This is most prevalent in the math section, where many different concepts are tested, some of which you may have learned about a while ago and forgotten. If you're not clear on what exactly is tested on the math section, read this article that goes through all the main concepts. The ACT also doesn't provide students with formulas in the math section. If you're struggling in this area, take a look at this list of all the formulas you need to know for the ACT. 


Depending on the specific issues you're facing, you might use your class notes, textbook, or an ACT review book to brush up on your knowledge. As you go through practice tests results, notice the types of content errors you make most frequently and focus your studying on those areas. We have a bunch of different articles that review specific content areas on the ACT math section, including lines and slopes, angles, sequences, algebra functions, and many more. Once you feel more confident, you can go back and do some relevant practice questions to verify that you understand the material.


Prevent Question Misunderstandings

Question misunderstandings are a common problem for low scorers, although they may be less of an issue on the ACT than the SAT. These mistakes can be annoying, but they are easy to avoid once you get into better test-taking habits. A good way to make sure you're focused on what the question is actually asking is to underline the most important parts of the question before you answer it. This will prevent you from being distracted by extraneous information that might confuse you.

I would say this is a helpful strategy on the Science and Math sections in particular. ACT Science loves to distract you with a bunch of facts that aren't actually relevant to the question itself, causing many students to get confused and overwhelmed. If you zero in on key words instead, you may be surprised to see that the questions aren't all that complicated, and all the extra numbers and scientific facts are just there as filler. On the Math section, students sometimes make the mistake of solving for a value that is relevant to the question but isn't the actual answer. Underlining what the question is asking for can help you to avoid these types of misunderstandings as well.

body_distractionsDon't get distracted by information that's unrelated to the task at hand. Also, I can't even imagine what kind of insane person would text and drive with a flip phone.


Strategies Low ACT Scorers Should Avoid

There are also some strategies that work well for high scorers but shouldn't be a part of your test-taking methods or preparation if you have low ACT scores. Once you fix your more fundamental problems and raise your scores a little more, you might consider using these strategies, but they can hurt you if you're currently in the low scorer range.


Focusing Too Much on Careless Mistakes

Of course, low scorers can still make careless mistakes, but they're not nearly as common. If you're scoring low, most of your mistakes will not be careless - they will be because you're running out of time or struggling with understanding the questions. Try not to focus too much on these types of mistakes before you fix your other problem areas. Often, you will find that you make fewer careless mistakes as you start to remedy your deeper issues with content and time.

As you start to score higher and you find that a larger proportion of your mistakes are "careless," you can begin working on reading more carefully and preventing yourself from rushing. Save this for when you're consistently scoring closer to the high scorer range so that you don't ignore more pressing issues for superficial mistakes.


Trying to Answer Every Question Correctly

On the ACT, since there's no penalty for incorrect answers, you should always answer every question in each section (even if your answer ends up being a blind guess). However, if you're a low scorer, you shouldn't put too much pressure on yourself to figure out difficult questions. As I said earlier, you should immediately skip any question that you can't figure out within 30 seconds so that you make it through all the easy questions in each section before time runs out.

If you're not making progress on a difficult question, don't stress yourself out about it. As a low scorer, you don't have to worry too much about the hardest subset of questions on the test. You're not aiming for perfection or close to perfection (at least not yet) so getting wound up about hard questions is only going to exacerbate your anxiety and potentially hurt your scores. If you know you can't figure something out, just take a random guess and focus more on questions that are manageable and have a greater likelihood of earning you points.

body_stresseddessertsIf you get stressed out, remember this and you might feel better. Then again, it might just remind you of that one annoying older relative who clearly spends too much money in terrible gift shops.



It's beneficial for low scorers to use different strategies than high scorers to maximize their results on the ACT. The best strategies for low scorers include:

  • Understanding mistakes
  • Skipping the hardest questions
  • Finding a good reading method
  • Filling in content gaps
  • Taking measures to prevent question misunderstandings

With these strategies in mind, you should be able to fix most of the problems that are causing you to lose points on the ACT. Once you reach a higher score range, you can switch up your techniques again to make sure you're getting the most out of every study session.


What's Next?

If you're working on raising your scores, we have a bunch of other articles that can help you out! Learn some more tips and tricks for improving your scores.

Not sure how you should structure your studying? This guide will tell you how long you need to study for the ACT based on your score goals.

Are you worried about how your score will affect your chances of college admission? Find out what ACT score you'll need for college.

Disappointed with your ACT scores? Want to improve your ACT score by 4+ points? Download our free guide to the top 5 strategies you need in your prep to improve your ACT score dramatically.

Raise Your ACT Score by 4 Points (Free Download)


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Samantha Lindsay
About the Author

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.

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