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Top 4 ACT Science Timing Tips

Top 4 ACT Science Timing Tips published on


I think that there are 3 aspects to doing well on the ACT Science test. You have to approach the test right, you have to do it fast, and you have to know a certain amount. Yes, knowledge is one of the three, but probably not in exactly the way you think*. If you want to know how to approach the test, look here. If you want my best ACT Science timing tips, keep reading!


ACT science timing tips top tips ACT test how much time
The ACT Science section is not something to be afraid of …


The 4 best strategies

  1. Practice with no timer! Wait, “why is this one of your ACT Science timing tips?” I hear you ask … So many students practice the Science (and reading too) by endlessly setting timers for 35 minutes and failing to finish on time. When you do this, you’re not learning anything. You’re just repeating your mistakes. In order to get better at the test, you need to understand the questions and the topics. Think about it – in which other situation do you learn something by doing it as fast as you can? Never – it’s a terrible way to learn something new. Instead, you break the process down, try it slowly and build up confidence. Now, although you’ve studied science before, you likely haven’t done a test like the ACT Scientific Reasoning, so before you start trying to do it as fast as you can, build up slowly. Start off by not worrying about the time at all. Just figure out the questions and answers. Then try to reduce your time by 2 minutes every time you take the test, until you can get it down to 34 minutes (to give you one minute spare). This way, you’re actually learning how to answer the questions, which means you’ll get better, and therefore faster at it. Doing the test straight off in 35 minutes is like learning to pole vault by just picking up the pole and running. Scary.

  3. Spend 15-30 seconds reading the passage first. People have pretty different opinions about this! I think it’s worth your time. You won’t get a full understanding of the topic of the whole passage, but you will be able to navigate it later on. Figure out the main topic of the passage, what kinds of information you’re given, and how many experiments there are. It’s a bonus if you understand what each experiment is testing and what changes between the experiments.

  5. If you’re still struggling to complete the test on time, figure out which are the most time consuming types of questions for you. Some questions are very easy; they really just ask you to get some information from a graph. Others are much harder, and therefore take a lot more time. Two of the most challenging types are the questions with answer options that read “yes because” and “no because”. These are usually very wordy and it’s easy to get confused. Another is the kind of question that asks you “suppose that [additional information], would this agree or disagree with …”. This is often found in the conflicting viewpoints, but also elsewhere. If you didn’t understand the passage at all, I wouldn’t recommend attempting this kind of question – just guess and move on.

  7. Use a halfway timing marker. This is the best of my ACT Science timing tips: I think everyone should use it. The proctor for the test is supposed to give you a 5 minute warning (although they sometimes forget), but there’s not much you can do if you’ve got 2 passages left and only 5 minutes. So what you should do instead is look at the clock when the test starts, add 17 minutes to that time (since the test is 35 minutes) and write that time somewhere in the 4th passage (the halfway point of the test). If you are doing a test that has only 6 science passages, write it at the beginning of the 4th passage. When you get to the 4th passage, check the time against what you wrote down to see whether you’re ahead or behind, and adjust your pace accordingly. This works well because it’s not too much to think about, so you can concentrate on the actual questions, but it does mean that you are keeping an eye on the time. As a side note, I would also recommend this for reading.

  9. Here’s a bonus ACT Science timing tip! I only promised you four! My fifth tip is to get a comprehensive overview of what the test is all about. If you like my advice so far, you could really raise your score by reading Understanding the ACT Scientific Reasoning, my guide to the ACT Science section. Here’s the main features of it so you can see what you’re buying:


    • Advice about how to approach the section – understanding how the passages are structured and what to look for. My method is based on how science is actually done, so it helps you navigate all the passages you could ever see.
    • Discussion of the good and bad timing strategies and which suit different students or score targets.
    • 30 page review of outside knowledge you need*, including how to answer equation/math based questions.
    • Answer explanations to the ACT’s 5 free online practice tests so you can apply your skills on the real tests (which are always better than book tests).
    • Explanation of different types of graphs and what kind of data they could be displaying to you.


How should I apply these strategies?

Grab a cue card or small piece of paper. Write these 4 strategies down in note form, and keep this in front of you when you practice. Read through the card before every practice test and you’ll start to be able to apply them effectively.


*Why do I think knowledge is important?

Above, I mentioned that you need to know some science stuff for the ACT Science test. This is true in two ways. Firstly, about 1 question per test will have an answer that’s not contained within the passage. Usually this will be a basic piece of knowledge (like the pH scale), and it may be asked directly, or you may be asked to use this idea in the passage. I deal with almost all the outside knowledge that’s been required on past tests in Understanding the ACT Scientific Reasoning.

The other way in which knowledge is required is a bit more subtle. It’s not specific facts, like the first type, but it’s a general idea about how science works. You have to realise what kind of thinking you’re required to do to answer the questions. You have to know enough about science to understand that you need to interpolate (read between the given data), or to know when to connect one idea from the passage to another one. This isn’t specific fact knowledge, but it’s a certain kind of knowledge. In theory, students who study science will have an advantage here over ones who don’t … but that might not actually be the case. I also deal with this in Understanding the ACT Scientific Reasoning – in fact, I think it’s one of the biggest ways in which the book can help you. It will help you understand how the test works, which means you’ll be much better at it!

Which questions should you skip on ACT Reading?

Which questions should you skip on ACT Reading? published on


Almost every student I ever work with finds themselves running out of time on the ACT reading section. It’s a pretty common problem, so you shouldn’t be surprised if you find yourself rushing, or needing an extra 5-10 minutes. The good news is that for most people, this is pretty easy to overcome, just by practicing, learning the pace of the test, and getting used to the style of questions. So if you’ve just starting preparing for the test (and by this, I mean that you’ve done less than 5 ACT reading practice sections under the 35 minute time limit), the advice I’m about to give is probably not for you. Before you go away and figure out which questions you should skip, do some more practice, and that may resolve your issue. If not, keep reading.

Some people advise all sorts of wild strategies like not reading the passage and going straight to the questions (I disagree!), or skipping one passage entirely (fine if you’re aiming for a score below 25) … none of those are great if you want to just fine tune your timing a little bit. I am not usually one to advocate for skipping questions, but recently, I’ve found that there is a certain type of question that can be skipped with very little consequence to you. If you’re looking to save 1-2 minutes and still score well, this is the strategy for you. The only disadvantage to this is that these questions are sometimes hard to classify, in terms of “type”. They don’t always use the same wording, so it can be hard to know quickly whether a question falls into this particular category. There also isn’t one on every test, so you can’t really rely on this as a failsafe timing strategy. It’s more like an extra boost to use if you need it.


So which question should I skip?

In short, you should skip questions that are about information that’s not in the passage. In short, anything that’s going to require you to skim the passage for some information that might not even be there. For example:

Which of the following is not mentioned as a reason why Marcia was angry with Daniel?
A. He stole her shoes
B. He was always late
C. She didn’t understand his sense of humor
D. She never forgave him for poisoning her cat.


Ok, so that’s a silly question, and not really an ACT style one, but there’s three reasons why this question is time consuming to answer.

  1. In order to be sure about the answer to this question, you don’t just have to look for one thing in the passage, you have to find 3 things to choose the one that’s not in the passage! For other questions, once you find an answer that’s certainly right, you can ignore the other 3. But for this one, you need 3 answers to be fully correct before you can move on.
  2. You can spend a lot of time trying to find an answer that’s not really there! If you start off by skim reading for the word “shoes”, that might be the one that’s not mentioned. But if shoes are mentioned, but in a slightly different context, you could still be unsure and have to check the other choices.
  3. The phrasing of the question means that the answer could be anywhere in the passage! There are some questions that direct you to a specific part of the passage by identifying lines or a paragraph for you to look at. Others direct you to a part of the passage because they ask about the cause or explanation of something that you know is mentioned at a certain point in the passage. In short, you have less skimming to do. But for this type of question, the answer could be anywhere (or indeed nowhere!).


How to identify good questions to skip

Read the question, and try to figure out if you know where the answer is in the passage. If they tell you to look at line 30, then it’s obvious. If you remember reading the information at the beginning or end of the passage then that’s easy too. But if you think that you might have to skim the whole way through the passage more than once to eliminate answers one by one, it’s time to skip the question and move on!

What strategies work for skipping question for you? Comment below.

SAT & ACT Cheats and Hints

SAT & ACT Cheats and Hints published on

… and why I don’t believe in them

Yes, you heard me right. I’ve noticed an interesting problem this summer with some of my students. I’ve happened to take on some students who have been dissatisfied with their progress in some previous prep programs … (no big names mentioned here!), and have come to work with my company, a small independent center in Toronto. Quite a few of them have come in with the attitude that the test is a “trick”, doesn’t reflect real achievement, and that you need to get inside the mind of the test … or enter the higher circles and access the secret knowledge, or something like that. They want me to teach them the SAT or ACT cheats and hints.


So why do I have a problem with this?

I totally disagree with this approach. For one, I think it’s just a marketing ploy. But more importantly, it does real harm to students! The tests are not a trick!! Grammar and Math questions always have one objectively correct answer that can be found by using rules are commonly accepted, and that’s at least 50% of the test! Granted, the rhetoric and reading questions on the test can be a little subjective, but in my experience, there is a clear right answer about 99% of the time on the ACT and about 95% of the time on the SAT (yes I do think there’s a bit of a difference actually).

The harm this does to students – you – is in making them second guess themselves. They are taught not to go with their intuition, which often would be correct. They receive the idea that there is some sort of strategy that’s a specific SAT rule (or some ACT cheats and hints) that will get them the answer. I don’t believe there is, and half the time, their belief in this actually hurts their test score.


 sat tips tricks act cheats and hints suspicion hacks
You’re right to be suspicious…


One particular student (let’s call him Rob), came in struggling with the ACT reading section (score of 22, looking for a 30). We sat down together and read some reading passages, and he seemed to understand them really well. I was surprised at this, because I’d have expected him to be getting may 7 or 8/10, not the 4 or 5/10 he was currently getting.

We did another passage. Same thing happened. Rob fully understood the passage, but got more questions wrong than right. So I repeated the exercise again, just to be sure. I had an idea forming in my head, but I wanted to be sure before I told him. Here’s what I said, after he’d read and understood his third passage, but answered the questions poorly:


“Rob, I think you need to stop thinking of the test as a trick. For the past few questions, we’ve gone over the answers together, and you’ve agreed with my explanation for the right answer. I know you understand the passage. I think you just need to think simply: find the answer in the passage and choose the closest option. Forget what Big Name Company X told you about ACT cheats and hints. Just choose the answer you know is right. I think you’re trying to be confused because you’ve been told that you should be.”


Rob was a bit skeptical, but agreed to try this new approach. I picked out a difficult prose fiction passage (I used passage 1 in form 64E where a woman recounts her experience of not being able to dream). No word of a lie – his score was 8/10. I asked him how he felt about the new approach. He said it seemed to make sense. So we continued, and his score continued to remain at the same level – about 2 errors per passage. With subsequent practice, he now makes around 1 mistake per passage and typically scores 30+ on the reading!


So … how did I manage to achieve this tutoring magic?!

By NOT using any kind of ACT cheats and hints! I honestly believe that the only real tricks to the tests are timing tricks (which more often than not are ways of figuring out which questions you’re going to skip), and tricks that help you to understand the question better. For example, my recommended approach to vocabulary in context questions or what to do when the answers are a list of verbs. I really do believe that timing strategies like these can be really helpful, and I use them all the time!

I just don’t think most of these SAT and ACT cheats and hints are helpful to understanding, and let’s face it, we all know that better students do better on these tests. Clearly tests aren’t the entire picture, and there are some people who don’t do as well as they should do, but there is certainly a difference in achievement between a student who scores a 900 and a 1500. I’m not saying one is a better person, but that one has a better mastery of learning skills than the other. I’m also not saying that there’s a difference between a student who scores a 32 and a student who scores a 34 – I don’t think there is.


What can you do instead of using SAT or ACT cheats and hints?

  1. First of all, try to get to the point of the passage or question. It’s asking you to infer, or for the main idea of the passage, or the reason why the author used a specific example. So what was the reason? Ask yourself the question directly. Sometimes the answer will become clear to you.
  2. For rhetoric or style questions in English/Writing & Language, ensure you read the question really carefully. So many students are in the habit of choosing the choice they prefer, when often the question will tell you exactly what it’s looking for – for example, joining the two sentences together most effectively, or questions that begin “which choice best expresses … “. Read the question and answer it. Often it’s as simple as that!!
  3. One last useful tactic is to cover up the answers and think of your own. I would only recommend doing this when you’re practicing, as it takes too much time on the real test. It does really hone your skills though! If you like, get a friend or family member to cover up the answer choices with cut out post-its and write over the top of them. Then, when you’ve answered all the questions in your own words, peel off the post-its and match what you wrote to an answer choice underneath. This isn’t a way to approach the reading section as a whole, as it doesn’t work for all the questions, but it is a way to think about the test a little differently.


Why do I think this happens?

This is a really interesting problem and one that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. I think that encouraging students to use process of elimination for every question helps them to find “artificial reasons” – constructing reasons for any of the answer choices. This doesn’t help you see clearly which choice is the right one, it makes you able to find a reason for anything. Unfortunately, I think some tutors and test prep companies are guilty of doing this themselves when they teach. Certainly there are some SAT books which give very tenuous answer explanations for the reading passages on the SAT.


In my mind, the take home point is this: Be clear headed! The answer is in the passage, or the question. It’s a simple as choosing the right one! I genuinely believe this, and it’s an approach I communicate to all my students, with great results.


How do I stay focused for the ACT or SAT?

How do I stay focused for the ACT or SAT? published on

This article is the result of a question that someone asked me recently. They said that they found their mind wandering and struggled to stay focused for the SAT, even on time pressured sections. I realized that there’s a lot of people who might be finding it hard to stay focused on the ACT or SAT!


If you find it extremely challenging to focus on the ACT or SAT, you may want to consider getting assessed by an educational psychologist to see whether you have ADHD. Note that one of the diagnostic criteria for ADHD is that you have a hard time staying focused on tasks that you enjoy, so if this is a problem specific to the ACT or SAT because you find it boring, that is not ADHD.


Regardless of whether or not you have formally diagnosed concentration issues, there are a number of strategies you can use to stay focused for the ACT or SAT. Even if you do have a diagnosis, it’s vital to recognize that you need to make good use of learning strategies to work around your problem.


The tips I’ve got below are specific to things you can do to improve your focus and concentration for the ACT or SAT on test day – if you’re looking for ways to stay motivated in your preparation, check out this article. Read these strategies now, practice them to see which ones work for you and help you to stay focused for the ACT or SAT. Then read through them again before you walk into the test center so that you remember to apply what you’ve practiced.


study focus act concentration tips strategy


Top 10 tips to stay focused on the ACT or SAT

  1. Stay active while you’re doing the test. This is especially applicable to the reading and scientific reasoning sections where your mind could wander as you read the passage. Try to use your pencil to underline parts of the passage as you read. If you don’t actually want to underline, just doodle in the margin or fiddle with a spare pencil. Many people find that keeping your hands active is the key.
  2. Make sure you’re filling in the bubble sheet after every passage (and after every 10 questions for math). This is the most efficient way to do it anyway, but if you’re having concentration problems, it has the added benefit of breaking the section down into smaller parts.
  3. Try to do some physical activity during the break between the math and reading sections. There’s lots of evidence that physical activity aids concentration. I know it would be a bit ridiculous to start doing jumping jacks in the test center, but you might be the kind of person who doesn’t care what other people think! If you can go outside and get some fresh air then do. Don’t do anything that will jeopardize your test though! In the same way, you might be able to do little stretches at your desk while you’re doing the test to help yourself stay focused.
  4. Make sure you’re actively thinking about what you’re doing. Ask yourself about what you’re reading – after each paragraph (even if you’re just skimming), ask yourself what the point of the paragraph was, how that characters feel, whether the previous paragraph is in agreement with the one before it, etc.
  5. In less time-pressured sections, you may find that you can actually allow yourself 2-3 minutes of not focusing during the test without it hurting your performance. Take a break after the 3rd passage and just stare at the ceiling and let your mind wander. Take deep breaths, and don’t get so distracted that you take 10 minutes! This is an important one to practice, in case you do find that you accidentally take a 10 minute break.
  6. Write instructions to yourself at the top of each page. Don’t spend ages doing this, but it may be helpful to have a visual reminder that you need to stay focused on the ACT or SAT.
  7. Practice positive self-talk. So many students, with or without concentration issues, have negative thoughts running through their minds on test day. This is so unhelpful, and it’s been shown that your performance on a test is partly correlated to your expectations of yourself (Steele & Aronson, 1995). Focus on the questions, and what you’ve studied and prepared for. Put your fears to the back of your mind. Tell yourself that you will think things through after the test is finished.
  8. Practice plenty of full tests under test conditions. Don’t listen to music or white noise. I know this is a concentration aid, but you won’t get it on test day, so make sure you’re not relying on it. Make sure you’re not interrupted when practicing, and give yourself a break after the first two sections only (true for both the ACT and SAT).
  9. When you get to the test center, you might find that you can choose your seat. If not, it may be worth asking the proctor whether you can sit either near the front or the back of the room. Think about whether you are more likely to be distracted by noises behind you or visual activity in front of you, and choose accordingly.
  10. Use a timing marker! This is particularly helpful for reading and scientific reasoning. Let’s say the reading section starts at 10.06. You should be halfway through the reading section by 10.23 (i.e. 17 minutes after the test begins). So the first thing you should do when the test begins is find the 3rd passage, and write the current time plus 17 minutes at the top. Then start the test at the beginning. By the time you get to the third passage, you’ll know if you are ahead or behind your time, and you can re-adjust your pace accordingly. If you don’t know that you’re behind on time until halfway through the last passage, it’ll be impossible to catch up! You can use this idea of timing markers wherever you like. Just don’t use too many (I’d say 3 maximum), otherwise you’ll waste time putting them in. If you need more timing advice, check here.


Applying those 10 tips should help you to stay focused for the ACT or SAT. Remember that practice is key – both for applying your concentration strategies and generally getting familiar with the test.

What should I read to improve my reading score?

What should I read to improve my reading score? published on No Comments on What should I read to improve my reading score?

Here’s the thing. In order to improve your reading score on the ACT or SAT Reading sections, you must already be good at reading. Aside from timing (which is more relevant to the ACT than the SAT anyway), you can’t improve your reading score that much unless the basic skill is already there. I’ve written before with a few basic tips to improve, but what you really need to do to improve your reading score is to just do more of it! When I was a kid, the books in my school library were color coded according to reading level. If you’re preparing for the ACT or SAT, chances are you’ve moved beyond this by now!!

books shelf reading levels color coded improve your reading score
Remember this?!


But … it’s still true that your reading progresses when you read harder material. If I were to do a reading hierarchy, it might look something like this:

  • Easy: kids’ books, some magazines, “top 23 things” type internet list articles.
  • Medium: some teen fiction, popular adult fiction (think the kind of paperbacks you buy in airports), accessible non-fiction (stuff that aims to introduce a topic that’s not familiar to the audience), typical news articles.
  • Hard: “serious” adult fiction (the kind of stuff that wins literary awards), classic fiction, specialist non-fiction, analytical news articles, op-eds, popular science books.
  • Ridiculous: scientific papers, legal documents, government policy papers.


Ok, so before anyone criticizes this list, and I know I’ve put some controversial things here, I’m NOT suggesting that any of these categories are more or less valuable. There is a place for Buzzfeed articles, kids’ books and popular adult fiction!! I read all of those things, and enjoy them. It also doesn’t mean that the writing is poor. For example, the Harry Potter series would fall into the medium category here – but it’s incredible writing and storytelling. Which is why it’s so successful. There’s nothing good or bad about any of these categories – they all have their place. But, reading some of the easier material probably won’t help you improve your reading ability overall, because it’s not stretching you.

So if you want to improve your reading score, you should be comfortable reading material that’s in the “Hard” category above. That’s just the level of material that’s on the test. If you’re not there yet, or (especially) if English is not your first language, then this list should be helpful. Oh, and the other benefit is that you’ll actually learn stuff as well as reading!!!

I know you’re in high school and you probably don’t have time to do a lot of reading. Try 15 minutes per day – before you go to bed, when you wake up, when you’re eating breakfast, on the bus, waiting for the bus, in the car, in a boring class … You can make time!! Also, you’re probably reading this article to help you improve your reading score. But remember to enjoy it! Understand what you read, and learn from it!


The list!

  1. “Serious” adult fiction: Literary awards are given usually once per year to works from modern writers. Various judges read them, shortlist different books and then award the final prize. That doesn’t mean you’ll like the books, of course, but at least they come with some kind of recommendation. Look at the shortlists and choose what interests you. Here’s a general list of award winning fiction since 1990. You can also just look up the shortlists for major prizes such as the Man Booker prize, Pulitzer Prize, Folio Prize, Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Governor General’s Literary Award, National Book Award, Bailey’s Womens Prize for Fiction and of course the Nobel Prize for Literature.

  3. The classics: You’ve likely studied some of these in school. They are works of literature that have stood the test of time. They somehow transcend the time and situation in which they were written and are now defining works in our culture and even form the basis of other works. This category is good practice for the SAT, which usually contains at least one passage written before 1900. I’ve found that these are much a matter of personal taste. For example, I like Tolstoy, but don’t get on with Dickens. Both are known for being quite wordy! This is a pretty good definitive list of them.

  5. Analytical news & op-eds: This isn’t news in the sense of ‘something that just happened’, but more like ‘explaining and opinions about the news’. Most of the articles are persuasive in tone – the writer will be making a case for something. 2 of the ACT passages are this type, and usually 3 of the SAT passages. Op-ed means ‘opposite editorial’. The editorial is a section in a newspaper written by the editor themselves. It usually discusses a large ongoing issue, and to some extent represents the opinion or position of the newspaper overall. An op-ed will be a similar type of article, just not written by the editor. On a website, this is usually organised into an opinion or comment section. My favorite news sites are Guardian , New York Times, Huffington post, Economist and New Scientist. All of these have at least some free content. There are lots of other similar sites too. The last one here is one I just discovered, but love. It collects news articles from across major sites and posts links to them. It’s called Arts & Letters Daily.


  6. Popular Science: This would be a good category to talk about in an admissions essay or interview, if it comes up in conversation (don’t make a big point of mentioning it, you’ll look stupid!), especially if you’re looking at a science based major. There are some awesome books in this category. Writers in this category are usually scientists or researchers who are making their work accessible to a more public audience. The field is quite broad and includes medicine, economics, social sciences such as psychology, sociology, criminology, mathematics and the natural sciences (physics, chemistry and biology). I own a lot of these books! Since this is more of a genre, it’s easy to find by just putting ‘popular science’ into the search bar of Amazon or another book store. My personal favourites in this category are Freakonomics (Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt), Outliers (Malcolm Gladwell), In Pursuit of the Unknown (Ian Stewart), The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat (Oliver Sacks) and The Code Book (Simon Singh).


Get reading!


How to beat procrastination and get motivated!

How to beat procrastination and get motivated! published on

I’ve been thinking about tackling the topic of study habits for a long time. This morning, I decided to sit down and write this article. I sat down in front of my computer. Then I noticed I needed to empty my recycling bin. Then I checked Facebook. Then I picked up the book I was reading last night. Procrastination happens to everyone!

Beating procrastination takes willpower, and willpower needs motivation – if you’re not convinced that you actually need to do whatever it is you’re trying to do, you won’t be able to get started. Ultimately though, beating procrastination and having productive study habits is a tool that will help you for the rest of your life, so it’s worth developing the habit now!

beating procrastination develop good study habits
Procrastination: beat it!

Good study habits are different for everyone. There are some things that everyone must do, some things that never work for anyone, and lots of in betweens! You need to find what’s right for you.


3 things that everyone must do!

  • It’s important to make sure you’re not interrupted, especially if you’re doing timed practice. If this might happen, make a “Do not disturb” sign, and put it on your door or desk. It’s important that whoever you live with supports your commitment to whatever you’re trying to study for.
  • Be disciplined with your phone. Don’t have it on your desk, and put it on silent. If you need to use it to time yourself, put it on airplane mode so you aren’t distracted. If you think this is too hard, you need to consider how much your phone use is distracting you in other areas of life.
  • Also, if you’re working on a screen, you should take an eye break for 30 seconds every 10 minutes. Stay at your desk, but stand up, close your eyes to rest them, and stretch your arms and legs. Then open your eyes and focus on an object that’s far away for a few seconds. This seriously helps your eye health. I learned this the hard way!


The 5 aspects to your study habits

study organize stationary
Get organized!
  1. Your work environment
    • Noise level: If I’m trying to understand something very intense, I need to study in silence. Otherwise, I like white noise. I work very well in coffee shops. If you’re like me, but don’t want to spend a lot of money on coffee, this site surprisingly works pretty well! If you like to listen to music, consider whether music with or without words makes a difference to you. Sometimes it does, other times it doesn’t. If you’re putting music on, make sure you’re listening to an album or a playlist. If you have to keep stopping to change songs, that’s very distracting. A big no is watching TV when you study – it’s too distracting, and I don’t think this works for anyone.
    • Mess level: I can work in a messy environment if I’m doing creative work, but if I need to be methodical, my environment must be tidy. I like to tidy my desk before I start studying – it gives a sense of control and organization. This isn’t just me being weird, tidying is psychological de-cluttering as well. Figure out what works for you, just don’t get distracted and reorganize your entire desk!
    • Study spot: I also find it hard to work in bed, or even on the couch. To me, these places are associated with lazing around, so I’m not as productive. I have to use a desk. This is true for a lot of people. If you find yourself studying in bed, make sure you know that that really is as good as sitting at a desk, and that you’re not just doing it because you don’t want to get out of bed!


  2. Structuring your study and break time

    Before you start studying, decide how to structure your breaks. Don’t allow yourself to bargain with yourself about when your breaks are going to be – it distracts from your study. Write your break times down if you have to. Your breaks should constitute no more than 20% of your total study time – e.g. if you’re studying for 3 hours, your breaks should be no more than 36 minutes. This gives you two 15 minute breaks, plus a little extra, so you can break your study up into three 1 hour long sessions, split by 15 minute breaks. You get the picture.

    You also must make sure that you can concentrate for 1 hour at a time. If you can’t do this, you are unprepared for university, and poorly prepared for the ACT or SAT. Both of them have sections that are this length. Your first study habit to develop is to build up your concentration stamina so that you can do this.

    Every time you take a break, make sure you leave your desk, walk around and stretch. This is a must for everyone. You can grab some food, a drink, chat to someone, or use your phone (but don’t start a conversation with someone who is going to keep messaging you when you’re trying to study). If you’re taking a longer break, it’s good to get some exercise. It really helps to increase your concentration when you get back to work again.


  4. Structuring your overall study plan

    You also need to be strict about how much study you’re going to do. If you’re preparing for the SAT or ACT, and you’re serious about getting the best score you possibly can, you need to study for 4-6 months at 2-3 hours per week. You can double the number of hours and halve the time (2-3 months at 4-6 hours per week), but you shouldn’t expect to get your best score if you study for less than 2 months. Training your brain takes time. Putting in 40 hours of prep in the week before the test will not get the same result as 40 hours spread over 2 months. If you have a fairly regular schedule, you might find it helpful to set aside a specific period of time every week. If it’s less predictable, you might need to juggle around it a bit. Just make sure it happens. If you’re still planning how to prepare, this article might be helpful to you.


  6. Accountability

    Being accountable to someone for the amount of work you do is the key to sticking to your study habits. That someone could be you, if you have a high level of self-discipline and usually manage to follow through on plans you make for yourself. Some people find this very difficult, so you might need to ask someone to help you. It could be a parent, if you trust them not to pester you. (This would never have worked for me – I hate it when people pester me!) If you have a friend preparing for the test as well, consider making a pact to study each week for a certain amount of time.

    I read a book recently that discussed habit formation and how different people are able to hold themselves accountable and get stuff done. It’s called ‘Better than Before’, and it’s by the writer Gretchen Rubin. She theorises that people fall into 4 categories by whom they feel accountable to. You can take a quiz from her website to figure this out. This might help you to decide who you’re going to persuade into helping you study.


  8. Are you a carrot person or a stick person?

    If you haven’t heard that expression before, it is an old country phrase about how to get a donkey to go where you want. You can offer it a carrot, or use a stick to prod it. Probably neither of those will produce good study habits, but the principle is the same! Consider whether you’re motivated by fear, or reward. If you’re motivated by fear, write a list of things that will happen if you don’t study. Don’t be overdramatic and make yourself panic; if you don’t study a reasonable consequence is that you won’t do well, or possibly you will fail the exam, but it’s not reasonable to assume that you’ll never get a good job! If you’re motivated by reward, withhold something from yourself. It could be a small thing like getting to use your phone in your breaks, or watching a TV show when you’ve done your weekly study. It could be something bigger, like buying a game or clothes. If you’re motivated by fear, maybe just think about this guy! fear motivation



    One last thing… Some people like motivational quotes and sayings. Pin some above your desk if it will strengthen your study habits. I don’t really go in for this, except for one that I think of when I find myself reluctant to do something: “the path of least resistance gets you nowhere”. The easy way out is never the way to achieve anything. Success requires discipline. Make sure you stay strong and dedicated to your goals! There’s no easy route to success.

Should I learn vocab words?

Should I learn vocab words? published on

What I really think about learning vocab…

Ok, so I believe this may be my first rant type post! I couldn’t tell you the number of times someone on a forum or in person has asked me ‘Should I learn vocab words for the ACT/SAT’. It used to be a bigger deal because the SAT Critical Reading (old format) tested it directly, but the only way it’s now tested on both the ACT and the SAT is vocab in context questions. They’re not common on the test (maybe one or two on every reading section), but I’ve posted about these before. I like these questions.

But I hate the idea of vocabulary questions done any other way.


sculpture letters words sky
It shouldn’t be this confusing…


Firstly, it’s not actually a test of your language skills. Those vocab in context questions are – they test whether you understand what you’re reading without knowing the exact meaning of a specific word. Anyone who reads remotely challenging material is using this skill all the time, so it’s a great thing to test. Being able to understand the function of a word in a sentence without knowing what it means is a fundamental reading skill. It’s actually why you can’t always define a certain word, even though you can use it in a sentence.


So why is “learn vocab words” such popular advice?

  1. It’s very easy for a test prep company to claim that they’ve got some magic list of words that will come up on the SAT or the ACT, and that if you learn vocab words, your score will increase. That is complete rubbish – if that list is publicly available, any test maker will also have it, and could easily choose to avoid those words. Also, there are just too many words in the English language. You’d need to learn vocab words by the thousand to have a decent chance of seeing the words you know come up on the test.
  2. A lot of people have a strange perception of what ‘smart’ means. Someone who uses big words is not necessarily smart. You might be able to learn vocab words that sound impressive and drop them into conversation or an essay, but that doesn’t make you smart. You might not even be using them correctly! Someone who spits out random facts is not necessarily smart either.


This is the same mindset that thinks that studying for 12 hours a day is a good idea. It is not. Sure, you should expect to in exam period (maybe), but if that is your regular routine, that’s a problem. I am a great believer in working smart, not hard. I have worked with too many students who think that learning is about cramming all the knowledge in and knowing all the little tricks and tips and getting through the exam. This is not learning, and if you do this, it will not help you outside the classroom. Don’t take this as criticism – take it as a warning. This attitude usually comes from the culture of your family, school or perhaps country, and it’s very hard to go against the grain. If your teachers believe that this is the way to learn, you will have a hard time getting around that. But true learning stays with you, and it’s something that can be applied to new situations.


Why I really hate being asked ‘Should I learn vocab words?’

I find that the students who ask me this question are often struggling on reading type sections. This can be because they are an ESL (English as a second language) student, or because they have difficulty reading at speed. In either case, learning vocab words it touted as a quick fix solution.

There is no quick fix solution to reading comprehension . Again, this is something I’ve written about before. In my experience, I can help a student raise their English or Math score quite significantly – maybe even 10 points on the ACT. But reading is much harder. It’s a skill you’ve built up over a long period of time, and if you haven’t been reading challenging material in English for long enough, you just won’t have this skill. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do to improve – there is. But it won’t happen overnight, and you should steer well clear of anyone who offers you a quick fix solution.

As a side note, if your reading comprehension is your weakest point, the SAT will likely be a better test for you than the ACT. Your time limit is more generous, and reading comprehension is also tested on the Scientific Reasoning ACT section, for which there is no SAT equivalent.

Rant over! In all seriousness though, I hope that this has helped you understand a little more about how standardized testing is supposed to work, and what you can do to make a genuine improvement.

My top 5 timing strategies for the ACT

My top 5 timing strategies for the ACT published on

I’ve been working a lot recently with students preparing for the upcoming September ACT. A lot of the time, they wrote the test in June and want to practice in the summer break to improve their score. I think this is a great strategy, because you can write the test in June along with all your other exams while you’re in exam mode, see how you do, and use the summer to refine your skills.

Almost everyone has more time in the summer than in the school year, so if you’re lucky, you might be able to get in enough work to get the score you need in September and then have an ACT free school year! While working with these dedicated summer-sacrificers, I’ve noticed a common theme – everyone needs good timing strategies for the ACT.

This isn’t the first time I’ve noticed this of course! It’s one of the hardest things about the test.


Many open books lying flat before a blue background with various formulas and letters.


Everyone should watch the clock

For the English section, because it’s so predictable and methodical, you might be able to get away with it, but in Math, Reading and Science, EVERYONE should watch the clock. Don’t become obsessive about it, because that’s a distraction, but you need to make sure you’re on pace. I’m emphasizing everyone here because I think everyone should have a specific plan for how to deal with the timing on these 3 sections.

Strong mathematicians should pace themselves so they don’t rush and make stupid mistakes. If your target is to get the first 30 questions done in 20 minutes, don’t move on to question 31 until 20 minutes is up. Slow down, pace yourself, and check your work. I mean it!

If math is not a strength for you, make sure you are moving fast enough through the test to get through all the questions you’re intending to get to. I’ve written more on math timing strategies for the ACT here – if you don’t have a plan, check this article out! Similarly, you should pace yourself for reading and science.


Use timing markers

This is particularly helpful for reading. I find that when I give my students one reading passage at a time, they usually finish in eight and a half minutes. But when we start putting all four together, they really lose track of time and end up only having 3 minutes for the last passage. This usually ends up lowering a reading score by about 4 points, so it’s critical that you have a good timing strategy for the ACT reading!

Let’s say the test starts at 10.06. You should be halfway through the reading section by 10.23 (i.e. 17 minutes after the test begins). So the first thing you should do when the test begins is find the 3rd passage, and write the current time plus 17 minutes at the top. Then start the test at the beginning. By the time you get to the third passage, you’ll know if you are ahead or behind your time, and you can re-adjust your pace accordingly. If you don’t know that you’re behind on time until halfway through the last passage, it’ll be impossible to catch up!

You can use this idea of timing markers wherever you like. Just don’t use too many (I’d say 3 maximum), otherwise you’ll waste time putting them in.


Skip a passage

Warning: this is not a strategy you should use if you want above a 28 in that section. It’s very hard to get a great score if miss a whole passage, especially on the reading, but if you’re pushing from the low 20s to the high 20s, and always run out of time by a large margin, this can work. Make sure you practice this strategy before test day! You need to have tried it several times to see if it produces a score improvement for you, since there’s a very good chance that it might not work.

For reading, you should have planned already which passage you’re going to skip. Most people find one of the passages much harder than the others – maybe you hate prose fiction, or maybe you hate humanities. Skip that one.

A good, less extreme timing strategy for the ACT reading is to partially answer that ‘skip passage’ – just do all the questions that are about a specific line in the passage. If the question says ‘According to lines 56-58 …’ you stand a reasonable chance of getting it right without having read the whole passage.

For science, it’s a bit harder to decide which passage to skip. If you haven’t studied physics since grade 9, but you’ve done biology and chemistry recently, then skip a physics passage. If you don’t do well with large blocks of text, skip the research summaries passage. If you find it hard to interpret graphs, find the passage with the most complicated looking graph and skip that! Again, you should decide what you’re going to do before test day, and practice it so that you don’t waste time getting stressed out over your decision.


Choose your skip questions

This is one of those timing strategies that works for almost everyone. Some people might skip 10 questions, others only 2, but if you find that you’re spending more than two minutes on a question and not getting any closer to the answer, skip it. Put a star by it so you can come back to it later though. Likewise, if you have no idea how to begin a question, you should skip it. If you find that you have no idea how to begin a question in Math, and that happens more than 15 times across the whole test, that’s an indication that you need to study more. Be careful that you don’t abuse this strategy and just do the questions you like.

When you’re practicing, these skip questions should be the ones you should focus on most; they’re an easy area for improvement. Skip doesn’t mean ‘give up’: it’s a way of playing to your strengths under timed conditions.


Do some untimed practice

This might sounds really counter intuitive, but because you’re putting so much stock into timing strategies for the ACT, this can become your foremost concern. Maybe once every 3 or 4 practice sections, take your time. Focus on getting every question right. It’s easy to become so caught up in timing that you forget about content and answering the questions. You need to strike a balance.


Comment below with your favorite timing strategies for the ACT!

Want to see how I plan and structure the SAT essay?

Want to see how I plan and structure the SAT essay? published on


So today, I introduced one of my students to how to write and plan the SAT essay for the first time. Generally, it’s a pretty straightforward beast. You have to analyze a persuasive text, and say what devices they use to built their argument. If you’re not sure what I mean, read this article where I discuss literary devices in the SAT essay.

I made 2 copies of the essay – my student annotated one, and I did the other. You can see what I’ve picked out, and what I’m going to write.

Here’s a great tip: before I started reading, I found the thesis of Carter’s argument by looking at the box on the end of the essay. In this case, it’s ‘the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge should not be developed for industry’. Knowing that this was what the passage was going to be about helped me to pick out persuasive devices right from the start of the text.


plan the SAT essay persuasive devices

plan the SAT essay persuasive devices


I’m going to write a 4 paragraph essay using the following plan:

  1. imagery – the imagery of the first three paragraphs contrasts with the fourth
  2. patriotism and non-partisan appeal (phrases such as ‘national heritage … frontier America’)
  3. structure, and how the writer builds emotional appeal before backing it up with facts later
  4. appeals to the timeless nature of the Arctic Tundra and contrasts it with the ‘short term’ economic benefit

This should give you some idea of the scope of what you can write about!


How long should my essay be?

This mostly depends on you and how fast you can write. You do have 50 minutes, and the planning process is quite straightforward, so I think most students should be aiming to write an essay with 3-4 body paragraphs. Try to pick 4 persuasive devices as you’re reading. This way, if you’re only writing a 3 paragraph essay, you’ve got a spare idea, and you’re still fine if you have time left over and can write 4 paragraphs.

ACT Essay scoring changes

ACT Essay scoring changes published on


Most of us have noticed that the ACT scoring for the new essay introduced in 2015 is …. a little unreliable, to say the least! Most people’s composite scores are much higher than their essay scores (as in, getting a composite score of 30 and an essay score of 20!), and often a student’s scores vary quite a lot across different tests. The ACT has clued in, and decided to devise a new ACT essay scoring procedure. This was announced on the 28th June, and the first test affected will be September 2016.

ACT essay scores new change

Why the changes to the essay score?


The ACT measures something called Standard Error of Measurement – the amount by which your score could be expected to change on a different test date (assuming that you remain the same). The SEM for your composite scores is 1, meaning that if your true score is a 27, you could reasonably get a 26 or a 28. However, on the essay, the SEM was 4, meaning that if you got a 26, that could have easily been a 22 or a 30, or anywhere in between. This is way too high, so what they’ve done is compressed the scale together – your essay score will now be reported on a 2-12 range.


What hasn’t changed in the new scoring?

  • The essay prompts are still exactly the same.
  • Your score is still calculated on the four categories: Ideas & Analysis, Development & Support, Language Use and Organization.
  • You still have two markers grading you out of 6 on each category. Their scores get added together in each category.


What has changed in the new scoring?

  • Your score is no longer out of 36, it’s now out of 12
  • Your new score is simply the average of your scores out of 12 on each category

How to approach Vocabulary in Context questions

How to approach Vocabulary in Context questions published on


Are you struggling to tackle those vocabulary in context questions? Fortunately, they are the only type of vocabulary questions to appear on the ACT and SAT now. No more memorizing long lists of obscure words in the style of the old SAT. If you are doing this, you are wasting your time – STOP! (Arguably, you were wasting your time in the first place!).


Strategy for vocabulary in context

The best way to tackle these questions is to think of your own synonym (word with the same meaning) for the word in the sentence. Choose something really simple – even a short phrase will do. This way, you get your own idea of what the question means before you look at the answer choices. Make it as simple as possible, and be clear in your mind exactly what the word means before you answer the question. Otherwise, you’ll be falling into the trap of being accidentally persuaded by the answer choices.

What does the vocabulary in context question look like?

The type of question you’ll now see looks like this:

Secondly, we felt that without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy. All lawful modes of expressing opposition to this principle had been closed by legislation, and we were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority, or to defy the Government.

Q1: The word “modes” most nearly means:

A. acts
B. reasons
C. methods
D. averages

Q2: Which of the following is not an acceptable synonym for “closed”?

A. removed
B. shut
C. prevented
C. disallowed

The first question asks you about a word you may not know the meaning of, and then to confuse you, throws in the most likely context in which you know it (mode as an average), which would be incorrect here. Think of your synonym, which in my case would be ‘ways’. Now I can clearly identify that ‘methods’ is the right answer.

For the second question, my synonym would be ‘stopped’. That’s the same as prevented and disallowed, and in this context is the same as ‘removed’. ‘Shut’ and ‘closed’ are normally interchangeable, but not in this context.

Let’s try a harder one:

“The Limes,” which had come to him by inheritance without any accompanying provision for its upkeep, was one of those pretentious, unaccommodating mansions which none but a man of wealth could afford to live in, and which not one wealthy man in a hundred would choose on its merits. It might easily languish in the estate market for years, set round with noticeboards
proclaiming it, in the eyes of a skeptical world, to be an eminently desirable residence.

Q3. The word ‘languish’ in the passage above most nearly means

A. bask
B. remain
C. droop
D. rise

A simple synonym here would be ‘stay’, because that’s clearly what’s intended by the meaning of the sentence.

You might be tempted to pick ‘droop’ or ‘rise’, since they are opposites, but don’t be! ‘Droop’ is inappropriate personification for a house – how can a house droop?. ‘Bask’ is also inappropriate personification for a house. ‘Rise’ is the opposite meaning to what’s intended, so ‘remain’ must be the correct answer.

I’d be really interested to hear other strategies for tackling these questions. Comment below!

The big question – will I get in to school xyz?

The big question – will I get in to school xyz? published on

I get asked this question literally all the time!!! Here’s the thing. Obviously you want to know that, but the only way you’ll know for sure is to apply and see if you get in! I’m going to rephrase the question for you. It should be “how do I know which schools I should apply to?”. This is a question I can answer!


There are a lot of different schools in the US. There are small schools, large schools, private, public, tech focused schools, arts focused schools, schools in cities, schools in the middle of nowhere as well as a bunch of different curricula and approaches to learning. There’s also a wide variety of financial differences, athletic considerations and religious influences between different schools. There is a huge variety in schools: much more than in the UK, where I grew up, and in Canada, where I now live. So there are a lot of options. The best way to navigate these is with a college counsellor. They will be able to find a school that suits you, that you can afford and that you can get into. I don’t really know a lot about this, because what I do involves helping raise your grades and test scores so that you can get to your dream school. If you can find a counsellor, then do. They might be in your school if you’re in the US, but internationally, you might have to find a private counsellor. Try looking through HECA, NACAC, or OACAC. I can’t emphasise enough the wealth of knowledge that a good counsellor will bring to your application!


If you’re doing this on your own, here’s two really important points:

  1. Firstly, almost every school publishes a profile of the last class that they admitted. Here’s Caltech’s, for example. It’s usually called the class profile, or the admissions profile. This is where you can see how your grades and test scores measure up to the last class. If you fall within the ranges they give, then great. If you’re significantly below, don’t apply unless other parts of your application are really amazing, or you have proven and documented extenuating circumstances (e.g. illness affecting a year’s GPA).
  2. You should make a shortlist of 4-8 schools that you want to go to. Two of them should be schools you have a long shot at getting into, but still a chance (your ‘reach’ choices). Two of them should be schools whose admissions profile you fit into perfectly. And two should be schools where you think you can get into no problem (‘safe’ choices). An admissions counsellor will help you make this list and take into account a bunch of other factors (they call this ‘fit’ – how the school suits you).

There’s my super short admissions guide – I hope it helps you!

How not to be distracted by the answer choices!

How not to be distracted by the answer choices! published on

Here’s an interesting problem I encountered around a month ago. I think I’ve just figured it out, so I thought I’d share it with you. It mainly applies to Reading and Science sections.

second guessing ACT SAT reading improve score stop guess

This is the situation. You know the tests (ACT and SAT, same applies to both) are sometimes a bit strange. You know they’re trying to trick you. So you’re prepared to think about ways that the answer that you initially want to go for might not be the right one. You find yourself justifying all the answer options, and then you’re not sure which to pick. Is this you?


I find that students who do this tend to do quite well – getting around 75% of the questions right. But they find it hard to progress from there, as there’s so much second-guessing going on.


Here’s how it typically plays out in lessons: I’ll set my student a reading passage, then we’ll mark it and find that he or she got 2 or 3 questions wrong. They’ll be questions about whether someone in the passage would agree with a statement, or how they feel about something. My student will give very good justifications for 2 or even 3 of the answer choices – and I’ll agree with them! But to me, there’s one choice that clearly stands out as the correct one. I’ll explain why to my student, and it will make sense to them – but he or she won’t be able to get by themselves. The answer choices can be so confusing.


This is a very common problem – but I think I will have something that will help.


If I really need to demonstrate this point to a student, I give them a reading passage with all the answer choices blanked out (this works with nearly all the questions). Then they just have to write their answer. They almost always write something that’s very close to one of the options, and they have no trouble identifying it. You should try this yourself! At the very least, when you read the question, don’t look at the answers straight away (maybe cover them with your hand) – think about what you think first and then decide. I am confident that this will help you overcome the second guessing and indecision!

Why you should write the SAT or ACT more than once!

Why you should write the SAT or ACT more than once! published on

I strongly recommend writing the test more than once (ideally 3 times), to maximize your chance of getting your best score. Think of it like this:


You might give up after 2 attempts, because your score dropped, but really your average score is closer to your first test. The one you actually want to submit is your third test, but you need to know where that score falls on your personal scale before you decide whether to write again or not.

In my experience, students’ test scores vary around their mean score. So let’s say your mean ACT score is a 27. The first time you write, you get a 24. Then a 26, followed by a 28, then a 27. You need to know what your mean score is, otherwise you won’t know what your highest possible score could be. Each test is different, so one test could suit you more than others for a totally random reason. If you only write once and get a 28, that could be your highest possible score, but statistical variation in the test could get you a 30 the next time you write.

Also, you’re more likely to be motivated if you’re only 2 points away from the score you need to get into your dream school. The other thing about only writing once is that students who are doing this are usually doing it on their last possible test attempt, which means added pressure – if you write more than once, you always know you have another chance, which really lowers stress levels in a timed test!

One of my students, Allen, wrote the SAT twice, with only a month in between. He didn’t do any work in between because he was studying for end of year exams, but his total score improved by 100 points. This isn’t a huge difference, but it’s worth giving up a Saturday morning for! There are two possible reasons for this: either one particular test happened to suit Allen more than the other, or studying for his school exams helped his score as well.

Some people think that admissions officers are expecting you do get a great score first time around. This isn’t true – achievement takes perseverance, and I’ve heard admissions people say that they may even look positively on multiple test attempts if the student improved. This might not be true in all situations, but it certainly is in some! Be warned though. There’s nothing to gain from writing a test 5 times. Don’t keep writing the test and expect things to improve when you haven’t done anything in between. Generally, a large number of test attempts is not looked on favourably. There’s a balance to be struck, and two tests attempts is a good idea for almost all students.

I took a diagnostic test – what do I do with the results?!

I took a diagnostic test – what do I do with the results?! published on


Many people start off their prep by taking both tests, or a diagnostic test. If you’ve done this, this article will help you work out how to interpret your results. I know that many diagnostic tests provide some interpretation of their results, and some guidance about which test you should take based on your results, but here’s what I would say to you if you’re trying to interpret your diagnostic test, or your scores on a practice ACT and SAT.


What even is a diagnostic test?

Diagnostic tests are basically shortened versions of a real test. They contain all the same types of questions as the real tests. Some companies sell these as the introduction to their prep schemes. This is definitely a good idea, but you should also know how to get the most out of the test.

A warning: My biggest concern about diagnostic tests or just taking both the SAT and ACT without studying is that there are many things that can cause your score to be a poor reflection of your potential score if you’re unprepared for the test. You could forget a small formula, for example. You could miss the point of a whole passage just because it wasn’t what you were expecting. Mistakes like this will make your 4+ hours writing the tests completely useless. You should absolutely definitely familiarize yourself a little with the tests (2-4 hour study on each one) before you rely on a score from a diagnostic test. This is not common advice, but I strongly believe in it, and it’s what I do with all my students.

Some pointers for starting your study:

  • Look at the summary sections for the ACT and SAT.
  • Know how much time you have! Be aware that the ACT reading and scientific reasoning are tough on time
  • Practice ACT Scientific Reasoning. It’s different to anything you’ve seen before. If you’re trying to figure it out in the middle of your diagnostic, you’ll do worse than if you know about it beforehand
  • Get some formula sheets for the Math sections – or make one from your math notes. You need to know things like slope of a line, area of triangles, sine and cosine law etc
  • Expect data based reasoning on the SAT Reading. It can be a little weird the first time you see it, but you’ll get used to it


I’ve already taken the diagnostic, what should I do?

Firstly, compare your scores. I’ve got an article that nicely explains the College Board’s concordance table (currently the only thing that you can use to compare scores). You should note that the ACT has officially disagreed with this document, but right now it’s the only thing out there that compares the ACT with both the old and new SAT.

If you score much better on one test than the other then your decision is easy. I would define ‘much better’ if your ACT score is more than 3 points higher than your converted SAT score, or if your SAT score is more than 80 points higher than your converted ACT score. If, like most students, the difference is not that large, then you really need to consider which test you prefer, or which you’d find easier to study for.

If you’ve found this helpful, I suggest you read my comparison of the ACT and SAT to give you more information.

Persuasive devices in the SAT Essay

Persuasive devices in the SAT Essay published on 1 Comment on Persuasive devices in the SAT Essay


ideas space essay writing text SAT
No idea what to write? Fear no more…

The SAT essay is an analytical essay: you are presented with a passage of persuasive text, and asked to analyze how the writer effectively persuades his or her audience.

You can read more about how to write the actual essay, the format and scoring here , but if you’re struggling to identify how exactly the writer persuades the audience, look for the following things that are likely to crop up in persuasive writing.

As a general rule, you should pick 3 of these things that you can identify in the passage, and write a paragraph about each of them. If you want to practice picking them out, read the opinion columns in a newspaper. There are always plenty of these devices to be found there!


Top 10 persuasive devices for the SAT essay

  1. One of the most powerful literary devices, repetition is a good persuasive tool.
  2. A good argument uses powerful examples to prove the point
  3. Using an analogy (likening a situation to another that the audience may be more familiar with) helps to illustrate the point, or make the opposing argument look ridiculous.
  4. Metaphors and similes. You should already know what these are and why they’re persuasive. If not, ask your English teacher! These can be especially effective if the argument opens with them, as the audience is expecting a discussion of one topic, but the writer opens with another, seemingly completely different topic, and then shows that they are in fact related. This works well with analogy too.
  5. Asking a rhetorical question (a question that everyone knows the answer to) is a powerful way of making people agree with you in their heads. You know what I mean, don’t you?
  6. Appeal to your audience. Anything that makes the audience feel good about themselves, or feel particularly united as a group will encourage people to support them. Look out for things like the writer/speaker describing the audience’s characteristics, praising them for being hardworking or dedicated, thanking them for their support, or even using the word ‘we’ a lot. I know you guys are intelligent enough to pick up on this strategy wherever it’s used.
  7. Likewise, empathizing with the audience is also powerful. If the speaker or writer shows that he or she understands the plight of the audience, they will be more supportive.
  8. Using inspirational words like ‘action’, ‘meaningful’, ‘hope’, ‘freedom’, ‘future’ and ‘change’ are all powerful persuasive devices.
  9. Ridiculing the counter argument by either making the opposing side look stupid, or dismantling the counter argument in a thorough, structured manner. Depending on the tone and context of the passage, this could also involve humour
  10. Soundbites: short phrases that summarise your point help people to remember, and thus agree with the writer.

Tackling test anxiety

Tackling test anxiety published on

I don’t know why I haven’t thought to tackle this topic before now! Test anxiety is pretty common. But could it be a good thing?

rocket confidence test ACT SAT
So many cheesy metaphors I could put here…

You should expect to be anxious before a test. Some people are confident test takers, and even need the pressure of a test in order to perform at their best. I have students who are too relaxed taking practice tests, and do much better in a real test situation! If this is you, then you probably don’t need this article.

On the other end of the scale, anxiety can completely derail all your hard work on test day. This is when it becomes a problem. For you, the anxiety has taken over, and become irrational. You need to take back control! This will take a lot of practice, but it is within your power.

First, make a study plan that will prepare you for the test. Check it over with a teacher, parent or tutor so that you’re confident it covers everything. Then follow it. Once you’ve followed it, your task is to convince yourself that any anxiety you feel is irrational, so learn to do things to calm yourself down – say ‘I’ve prepared, and I am ready’. Take deep breaths, listen to music, or do something else to calm yourself down, and only listen to your ‘rational head’. Ignore anything that tells you you are not prepared – you know that you are! Practice this way of thinking on tests you take in school – even small quizzes, so that you know your strategy works. Then you can apply it to bigger tests, such as end of year exams, and even the SAT or ACT. I didn’t personally have this problem in school, but I definitely used all these strategies to pass my driving test!

If you can, talk to a teacher about your test anxiety problem. They may be able to help you address it, by providing accommodations (like extra time) to help you tackle your test anxiety. Here’s a tip though – don’t go to them and say ‘I need extra time on tests’! Instead, say ‘I get really anxious about tests, and I’m really trying to fix this problem so that I can get through next year/university – can you help me?’, then later in the conversation say ‘I think that if I can take the next 3 class tests with extra time, that will allow me to use the strategies I’m practicing during the tests. Then I can go back to doing them in the normal time. I’m willing to stay into lunch or after school if that helps’.

The helpful thing about the SAT or ACT is that you can take them more than once – unlike exams in school! Make sure that your study plan includes room for multiple test attempts so that you can also tell yourself on test day that this specific test doesn’t matter all that much. You get to decide whether it matters after the test when you get your score.

Stay calm and good luck!

Help! I don’t know what to write in my ACT essay

Help! I don’t know what to write in my ACT essay published on


The essay topics on the new ACT are very specific, and with the new format, they are sometimes things that you don’t have much experience with. In my opinion, this change is deliberate, and the test makers are trying to gauge how you observe an analyze the world around you – in other words, whether you notice everyday events and actually think about them.

A key change in the new essay is that it hinges on good examples. There is a whole category for this in the marking rubric – it’s called ‘Development & Support’. If you have good examples that prove your point, and you build your argument around them, you should score highly in this category, and you will also know what to write!


When I teach the essay section to my students, I tell them to think of examples that relate to the topic, then construct the essay around them. Just as a side note, I’m mostly focusing on content of the essay here, rather than the structure and format of the essay.


Here’s how I think you can find your examples:

  • Imagine opening a newspaper and reading an article about the given topic. Consider what the headlines would be? I came up with a good one with my student Tim the other day. Our topic was about whether both arts and sciences courses should be mandatory in high school. My article headline was ‘American students behind Asian students in mathematics’, which is a headline I have actually seen! His headline was ‘students lack creativity due to poor arts funding’. The fact that we both came up with opposing stories just illustrates the different points of view on this topic! These could form your examples, illustrating how both are valued and a balance is needed.
  • Think of an example from your own experience. If the topic is ‘Internet Privacy’ – do you think that the government should be able to access our browsing history, or not? Think about how you’d feel if it were your school? Would you change your behaviour – and do you think you should have to? What if you were researching a controversial topic for an essay, but got called in to speak with the principal over it? This is an important question, because it could happen on a government level. For example, some journalists are in regular contact with known terrorists for their reporting – what if the government started reading their communications because of that? The second situation, which you might not actually know about, is just an extension of the one that you thought of based on your experience! Showing that you can draw parallels between different situations like this is a good way to use your analytical skills.
  • If you can think of a historical example, this is often a good idea. It shows that you can appreciate how this issue might have been dealt with in the past, and you can see past the specifics of the modern situation and relate it to something similar. For example, if your topic is technology, think of things that were considered very advanced, but that we now take for granted. Think about the changes they brought in the world and what that meant to everyday people then. Good examples here would be radio, the printing press, weaving machines etc. This is exactly what the “perfect” essay on the ACT website does.


When you’re practicing for the essay, brainstorm some topics just to think of potential issues. For example, your issue could be healthcare. Potential essay topics here include who should be responsible for paying for healthcare, public health issues such as obesity or laws governing alternative health. You can then search a news site for the category to see what the issues actually are. Do this a few times, and you’ll be finding some great examples to use!

Remember to use your examples logically, and be clear about what your point actually is. Plan first, and think about which perspective you agree with. If you don’t make a clear argument out of your examples you won’t score highly. Use your examples to decide what your opinion is, and make sure that you develop your point based on your examples, rather than just fitting them in your paragraph whenever you get stuck on what to write next. Also remember to spend 2 minutes proofreading your essay at the end!

Things I spot on practice tests/How to analyse a mock ACT

Things I spot on practice tests/How to analyse a mock ACT published on

Here’s an answer sheet from one of my students, Elise. I chose Elise’s answer sheet because these are the kinds of issues I see most commonly on the ACT. This sheet could have come from any number of students of mine! Elise got a composite score of 26, but I think if she takes my advice below, she could get a 30+. Is this you? Keep reading!

ACT Bubble Score Sheet


Here’s exactly what I said to Elise about each section:

English: Mostly, you know your grammar rules. There’s a little blip around Q22-24. Maybe something distracted you while you were filling in the answer sheet? I’d look at those questions individually – maybe something confused you in the passage (sometimes questions are close together, which makes it hard to read any part correctly). You also seem to have a weakness in rhetoric. Questions 14,15, 29, 30, 44, 45 etc (all the ones at the end of the passages) are almost always rhetoric, and you got most of them wrong. We should look at that more closely.


Math: There’s some work to do here as well. You clearly know the basics, but you struggle when the questions get harder. Let’s take practice tests and work through questions 45-60 together. We also need to work on those small errors at the beginning – it costs the same number of marks to get Q13 wrong as it does to get Q60 wrong, but it’s much easier to get Q13 right! Let’s look at why you got Q13 wrong and take careful note not to do that again! You also ran out of time, I think. Once we’ve practiced those problem areas, we’ll focus on timing.


Reading: This is interesting. You did very well on the middle two passages – I’ve actually scored them separately on the left of your sheet. You got 8 and 9 out of 10 there. That shows me that you can do well on the test. I think you ran out of time on the last passage, so we need to get quicker there. It also looks like you don’t get along with Prose Fiction too well!! Let’s look at your specific issues with questions there. It may be that that is costing you too much time, and so you run out later. A short term strategy for improvement is to do Prose Fiction last, and only spend about 5 minutes on it – this assumes that you’re not going to do well on it anyway. A long term strategy is to focus specifically on that passage and how you can improve. This will save you time as well as improving your score on that passage.


Scientific Reasoning: You have some good section scores in here. Again, I’ve tallied them up by passage on the left. You did well on the 7 question opinion passage, which is sometimes a weakness for students. Again, it looks like you ran out of time (I know this because the last passage is one of your worst). It also looks like you had a problem with Passage 5. We’ll look at why this was and try to work on answering questions when you don’t understand the passage.


In summary, it looks like you don’t have quite enough practice under your belt to write the test for real yet. This isn’t anything to do with your score, it’s because I think you have room for improvement. A couple of months of timing practice, as well as math and reading work should get you prepared.

How to finish the ACT Math section

How to finish the ACT Math section published on No Comments on How to finish the ACT Math section

Many students struggle to finish the ACT math paper. This is either because they run out of time, or because they can’t solve the more difficult problems. One good way to get around that is to aim to complete only part of the paper. This is a great strategy if you’re aiming for a math score in the 20-30 range. If you want above a 30, you need to attempt all the questions (you can probably get away with 2 or 3 guesses).

Here’s a strategy for getting to a 21: You need to get roughly half the questions right.

  • First 30 minutes: Aim to answer questions 1-20. Count the number of questions you have to skip, and put a * by any questions that you’re unsure of.
  • Next 20 minutes: From questions 20-45, try to answer 15, plus the number you needed to skip from the first 20. This means you’ll have answered 35 questions without guessing any. Fill in the bubble sheet with what you have so far.
  • Last 10 minutes: Go back to the * questions, see if you can finish any.
Here’s a strategy for getting to a 25: You need to get about 38/60 to get this score.

  • First 30 minutes: Work through questions 1-30. Count the number of questions you have to skip, and put a * by any questions that you’re unsure of.
  • Next 20 minutes: Focus on questions 30-60. If you read the question and have no idea, cross through it. If you can solve it, but it’s taking too long, put a * by it and come back to it later. Don’t forget that although the questions go in order of difficulty, there are sometimes some easy questions at the end of the test. Don’t write of questions 55-60, you may be able to do them. Fill in the bubble sheet with what you have so far.
  • Last 10 minutes: Go back to the * questions, see what you can do.
Here’s a strategy for getting to a 30: You need to get approximately 50 questions right. This means you need to attempt almost the whole paper.

  • First 20 minutes: Do questions 1-30. Work at a steady pace, don’t rush. If you can get this bit right, you have a huge time bonus for the harder questions. It’s essential that you practice this a lot so that you know what pace enables you to do 30 questions in 20 minutes.
  • Next 20 minutes: Tackle questions 30-50. You’re now working at 1 minute per question. If you have to skip any, replace them with questions from 50-60. For example, if you skip questions 37 and 42, you need to do questions 51 and 52 instead. Put a * by any you think you should come back to.
  • Next 10 minutes: Investigate questions 50-60. See what you can do. If there’s any that you don’t have a clue about, put a line through. Also fill in your bubble sheet in this time.
  • Last 10 minutes: Go back over your * questions. Anything you can get here is a bonus, because you’ve already answered 50+ questions.

What’s your timing strategy? Is it working for you?