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The ACT is a standardized multiple choice test that is required for admission to American universities. You can also choose to write the SAT, but most universities require you to write one or the other. This category is a collection of articles that outline how to study for the ACT test.

The ACT is a skill based test, which means that it is not testing specific knowledge. There are 4 sections, plus an optional essay section. The English section mostly tests grammar rules, while the Math section requires problem solving skills (and does test some specific knowledge concepts). The Reading section is testing reading comprehension, and the Scientific Reasoning section is testing your data based reasoning skills.

Because the test is likely different to anything you’ve done before, it’s important to consider how to study for the ACT test. The best method is to familiarize yourself with the content and style of the test, then brush up timing and knowledge as needed, through extensive practice. These articles will guide you more specifically on how to study for the ACT test.


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.

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!

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.

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

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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?

How can I improve my reading comprehension?

How can I improve my reading comprehension? published on No Comments on How can I improve my reading comprehension?

Reading comprehension is hands down one of the hardest areas in which to improve your score. You’ve been building your reading skills since age 4/5, so you can’t do much in 2 months to make a difference! If you’re only looking for a small score improvement, or you’ve got more time, you can probably make some difference. I don’t mean to be discouraging, but you must be realistic about what you can achieve or you will end up demoralized and possibly wasting your money too!

books reading study skill practice comprehension ACT SAT
Is this you?! The more you read the better.

For a short term fix (something you can do in less than a month), see this post. For a more long term target (2 months – 1 year), try these suggestions.

  • Set yourself reading goals. You might want to complete a certain book, a certain number of books, or read newspaper or a magazine (anything where the articles are longer than 500 words, or most of a page is good practice). Good places to look for articles like the ones on the ACT/SAT are magazines like The Economist, National Geographic, or comment/opinion sections in the newspaper. My personal preference for news articles is The Guardian.
  • Discuss what you read with someone. If it’s a book, look at discussion of it online, or talk about it with a friend who has read it. Look at what you found interesting, what you think the meaning is, any symbols or metaphors in the book.

I know that these strategies sound difficult to apply, and also quite generic, but in my experience, students who read because they enjoy it always do well on reading comprehension. To me, saying you don’t like reading is like saying that you don’t like breathing!

Top 10 Reading Comprehension Strategies

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Here are my favourite strategies for reading comprehension. This applies to the SAT, ACT, PSAT and most standardized tests.

Know how you’re going to approach the passage. Here are some suggestions. Which one you choose depends on whether you struggle to finish in time or not.

  • Skim read the passage, then answer the questions. If anything takes longer than 30 seconds, come back later. With this strategy, you should have time t the end of the test, so go to the passage that you best understood from your skim reading.
  • Read the questions first, underlining parts of the passage that are specifically referred to in the questions (e.g. first or fourth paragraph, lines 23-25).
  • Read in detail then answer the questions. This is the ideal strategy, and it is the easiest way to achieve a high score, but it will only work if your reading skills are up to scratch.

If you’re trying to improve your score, try a new strategy. Do 3 practice tests using it before you evaluate whether or not it is better. If it’s working for you, continue to practice using it. Don’t try a new strategy on test day – you’re almost guaranteed to do worse!

Look carefully at how specific the passage is and compare it to the level of detail in the answers. You should try to pick the closest match. For example, there are often two answer choices that say the same thing, but one is more general. Pick the one that’s closer to what the passage expresses.

Practice skimming and stating the main idea/title. Learn to identify the point of the passage by finding a thesis in the introduction or conclusion (this won’t always work, but it does about half the time).

Learn to recognize the question types:

  • What is the main point of the passage/paragraph?
  • What does this small detail mean? Where in the passage was the following detailed mentioned?
  • Inference: What would the author most likely feel/say about about the following hypothetical scenario?
  • Vocabulary: What does this word or phrase mean in the context of the passage?
  • Purpose: is the text persuasive, informative, an account, a dramatization, a discussion etc? (This often isn’t the actual questions, but it is implied).

Always be able to reference evidence in the passage for each answer that you choose. Don’t make assumptions that can’t be backed up by the passage. There is usually a wrong answer choice that relies on you doing this.

Make list of your mistakes and why you made them. Also remember to take up questions that you’re not sure about (put a star by them when you’re doing the test).

Train yourself to be faster. First, do a completely passage by reading it fully and answering the questions. Compare the time you took doing this to the time it should take (8.5 minutes for the ACT). Gradually reduce your time by 30 second increments until you can do a passage in 30 seconds less than the time you actually have.

For the ACT, the passages always come in the same order, so you might know that you always do worse on one particular one. Do this one either first (to ensure your full attention on it) or last (to focus on doing well on the others). Try this both ways around so that you know what works best.

Before reading the answer choices, come up with your own answer to the question. Cover them up with your hand, then uncover them and pick the closest one.

If the two passages are related, think about how. Spot specific lines that refer to the other passage, or points of similarity or difference between the two passages.

Know when you’re going to fill in the bubble sheet. I suggest after every passage.

There are actually 11 things in here, but I just couldn’t cut it down to 10!

Should I use a tutor to help me prepare?

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books tutor study ACT SAT

Here are my top reasons to get a private tutor for the SAT or ACT, and how to find a good one.

Reasons why you should get a tutor:

  • I have a score below 21 on the ACT or ~1090 on the SAT. These are the average scores, and they are also considered a minimum benchmark for entry (depending on the school). You’ll struggle to get into most schools with these scores because the indicate that you might not be able to cope with the challenging material in at least some areas of your course. A tutor can identify your weaknesses and help you to fix them. In this situation, a good tutor will teacher you for the test as well as improving your educational skills generally – which your score is suggesting is necessary!
  • I don’t think I’ll be motivated to study. Being accountable to someone else for your work could be the motivation you need. If you always leave studying until the last minute and you find yourself pulling all-nighters to study, bear in mind that you can’t do that for the ACT or SAT. Again, a tutor will help you develop this skill so that you can apply it later.
  • I need to improve my score by a big margin (5+ points on the ACT, 300+ points on the SAT). A tutor can identify what you specifically need help with. Be careful with anyone who guarantees you a score increase, especially if they haven’t worked with you. I’m not talking about people who offer money back if you don’t get a score increase – this is just a selling tactic, and it’s based on the average student. You should be careful if anyone promises that they can certainly improve your score before you’ve told them what your score currently is, or how long you’ve been prepping. It’s not always possible to make a guarantee like this!
  • My score in one section is a lot worse than my score in the other sections. Again, you have one or two specific weaknesses, which is the perfect situation for a tutor to work with.


As with any approach to preparing, make sure you allow enough time to make improvements – at least 6 months. A good tutor can really help you, especially if you struggle in school, but you’ll get best results over time.


How to find a good tutor:

Go on a recommendation! This is by far the best way to find a good tutor. Ask friends and family, or find a few businesses and google them. Ask teachers, older students, school counsellors – anyone who will give you an honest opinion.

If you can’t get a recommendation, book a lesson and see how it goes. A good tutor should have a plan for your preparation. It shouldn’t be set in stone, because you also want it tailored to you. Ask ‘what do you normally do to help students prepare?’.

A good tutor won’t force you to set a schedule that you don’t want, or can’t afford to keep to – for my students, 2 hours every 2 weeks is the minimum I will see them for (otherwise we just don’t have enough time to cover everything we need to, so it ends up being a waste anyway). If they suggest a schedule that you don’t like, ask them why. They should be able to give a good reason.

If you have a specific budget, be upfront about it. If I know that a student is willing to spend $2000 on tutoring but no more, I can come up with a plan that works around that and makes best use of our time. If they don’t tell me that they have a budget, but just quit after a certain number of lessons, I will plan differently, and they won’t get the best out of the time they pay for. A tutor should be able to accommodate a reasonable budget.

For students outside the US, a tutor is also a good idea, as they will know the differences between your curriculum and the US curriculum (trust me, the difference is significant even for Canadian students). They may also be a valuable source on information about taking the test, subject tests and other parts of your application that you won’t get help on in school.

Comment if you have questions or suggestions!

What’s a good score on the ACT?

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There’s really no such thing as a “good” score. I know it’s annoying, and everyone says it, but it’s true! You need to score within a couple of points of the average score for you’re the school you want to go to, and that’s pretty much it. Let’s say your score is a 27. This means that you should apply to a school that has an average score of 25 (your safe choice), several that have an average of 27, and one or two that have an average of 30 (your “reach” choice). Make sure you actually would consider going to these schools though – otherwise there really is no point at all in applying! You can usually find information online about the average ACT or SAT score for applicants to a certain school.


The average composite score among all test takers is a 21. It’s also 21 across all sections of the test, although sadly, the average is affected by factors such as gender and race. Most selective schools will need higher than a 21, however. As a very rough guide, the Ivies and similarly competitive schools will require a 32+. Many moderately selective schools and top state colleges will require anywhere from a 26-32. Some students with an athletic scholarship may be admitted with a 21, or with a lower score than the school would usually require, but this is highly dependent on the school, the sport, your athletic ability and your admissions profile. Check the school’s website, talk with someone who regularly advises people on admissions decisions, or talk to your coach if applicable.


Note that if you’re currently a junior looking at schools and currently getting a 27, you shouldn’t assume that 27 is the score you’ll get in a year’s time. I would add a half point for every month you have between now and the last time you’ll write the test. So if you’re applying in 9 months time and your score is a 24 right now, look at schools asking for between 26-30. When you actually apply, revisit your list with your actual ACT score in hand.


You can boost a weaker ACT score with SAT II (subject test scores), however, these tend to be harder than the SAT I or ACT scores. If you’re in the unusual position of having very different scores on different sections of the test (very different being more than 4 points on the ACT or 160 on the SAT), your composite score might be mediocre, but you can achieve very highly in one particular area. In this situation, it may be a good idea to take a subject test in your area of proficiency, even if the schools you’re applying for aren’t asking for it. Most students won’t be in this position. If you are, consider getting tutoring or outside help in that particular area. That’s always a better choice than accepting a weak score.


Remember, if you’re making the right choices in where you apply, any score can look like a good score – it’s all relative!

Choosing the right way to prepare

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There are so many different options available to you that it’s hard to know where to start! I’ll hopefully help here by outlining the different method, and pros and cons of each. Maybe you have a year to prepare, maybe only 2 months. Your two main considerations are your goal (target score), and how long you have to reach it.


5 most important facts to bear in mind:

  • No method is going to produce results instantly
  • The more tailored your program is, the quicker you should see results
  • You need time to practice. 4+ months is ideal
  • Be realistic about your target score


Most of your improvement will depend on you – be motivated and study!

It's a key choice ... ha ha ha.
It’s a key choice … ha ha ha.


Going solo: If you know you’re pretty motivated, and you won’t have trouble committing to 4 hours work per week when you’re not accountable to anyone for it, this is probably the route for you. There are loads of great online resources and practice books that you can use. This method is obviously the cheapest, but the results depend entirely on you, so make sure you’re being realistic about your goals. If you have less than two months to prepare, if your target score is more than 10 points away on the ACT or 400 on the SAT, you’ll find it hard to hone your skills that much by yourself in a short time. This is also not the route for you if you’re scoring below a 21 on the ACT or 1000 on the new SAT.


Private tutor: This is probably the most expensive way to prepare, ranging between $100-$1000 per hour. Look for someone with experience, and get recommendations from friends and family. Good tutors can survive solely on word of mouth.  A tutor is best if you haven’t got long to prep – they can show you the areas you need to work on most quickly and will have access to resources that you won’t on your own. A tutor is probably the best way to get you through a large score gap too – more than 10 points on the ACT or 400 points on the new SAT.  I would also use a tutor if you are scoring under a 21 on the ACT, or under 1000 on the new SAT. In this score range, you’ll have a tough time assessing your weaknesses on your own, and a group course could be pitched too high. You may have a specific weakness in one area (for example reading), so a tutor can help you with that outside of the test as well.


Group prep course: These are great ways to get a general introduction to the test. There are some big name companies which will give you a pretty good return for your money. I would choose this route as a compliment to solo prep – don’t expect one of these course to get your all the way to your target score (if it does, consider aiming a little higher!). I have never taken one of these courses, but I’ve spoken to several students who have, and they usually come out with an improvement. Typically, their next step is to go to a tutor, either to improve in one specific area, or to push up their composite by 2-3 (ACT) or 50-100 (SAT) points. It usually works, and they come out with the score they want.


Online prep: I’ve never taken one of these courses – but I’ve seen several extracts from different course materials and been on the receiving end of their marketing materials a lot! I think these courses are good for the motivated student, and also you should probably treat them like group courses. They should be part of your prep program, not the whole thing. When you’re choosing a course, make sure you know exactly what you’re signing up for (including whether there is a refund period). Get a recommendation from a friend, or look for online reviews that prove that the program gets results. There are some companies that have fancy marketing but poorly designed programs which don’t reflect the tests. Also make sure that they do what they say they do in terms of personalizing your program to you: some companies say they will do this, but don’t. You might as well buy a $20 practice book in this case. Online prep also needs you to be highly motivated on your own, since you’re not accountable to anybody. If you think you can handle this, then that’s good.


Let me know your experience about various prep methods below!


5 tips for success in ACT Math

5 tips for success in ACT Math published on


Start your prep off right! Make a list of the topics that appear on the test and rate yourself on each one – I use the traffic light system: red if you can’t usually answer questions on this topic, orange if it depends on the question, and green if you’re always fine at those questions. Then, make sure you have a list of formulae for the green questions if you need them, then read over notes/textbooks/internet for the orange questions. For the red topics, you probably need someone to teach it to you again. Ask your math teacher nicely, or a friend. Khan Academy has some great video resources if you’re still stuck and can’t ask anyone.

Here’s my list of topics on the test. You can use this for your traffic light system. It’s split up by level of difficulty as well.


Know your skip questions! In my experience, most students don’t finish the math section, and at least some of the last 10 questions are guesses. Unless you have no trouble finishing the math at all (in which case you’re probably not reading this page), pick which questions you’re going to guess. This means that you won’t have the pressure of answering 60 questions hanging over you the whole time. Look at your past tests and see where you’re making mistakes – is it on long wordy questions? Do you hate trigonometry? Are you better at questions with diagrams? Think in advance about which questions you might skip, and this will give you fewer decisions to make when you’re actually doing the test.


Keep track of your own time. Don’t rely on the adjudicators for the 5 minute warning – they sometimes forget. From the time that the test starts, add 20 minutes and write that time at the bottom of question 30. Add another 20 minutes and write that at the bottom of question 50. The last 10 questions are bonus questions – do them if you get time. This way, you won’t get lost in the test and not know how much time you have – you’ll know if you are ahead or behind, and by how much. (I’m assuming that you’re currently scoring between 26-32 on the math section – you might need to adjust where you put your 20 minute markers depending on what you want to achieve).


Play to your strengths and don’t waste time on questions that you find harder. I regularly find that my students can do at least 3 of the questions between 50-60, but they usually don’t even see them because they spent 3 minutes on question 45 before giving up. Make sure you’re using your time wisely. If a question is taking too long, write down any steps you’ve already thought of, put a star by the question, then come back to it if you have time at the end.


Practice your strategies! If you’re considering doing any of the above, make sure you do practice tests where you apply them. I like my students to have them on an index card in front of them while they practice as a reminder.  If you try them for the first time on the test, it could throw you off more, and make things worse. You want to be in your comfort zone when you’re writing the math section, so confidence is key!


Is the new ACT writing test harder?

Is the new ACT writing test harder? published on

Since September 2015, ACT test takers have been writing the the new style essay. Major changes include timing (increased to 40 minutes), the issue (not directly related to high school students, as the old ones usually were) and the 3 perspectives that you have to evaluate.

Generally it’s a more complex task – there is more information given to you at the beginning, and the perspectives don’t take such a one-sided opinion as the older ones did. This means that your argument must be more complex overall – they are looking for some analysis about the validity of the other arguments as well as examples to support your point. It’s not enough to state your opinion anymore.

The scoring has also changed – you are marked in these 4 categories:

  • Ideas and Analysis (your examples and what you say about the Perspectives)
  • Development and Support (how you craft your argument and use the examples and Perspectives)
  • Organization (structure and transitions)
  • Language Use (grammar, sentence structure etc).

These are all scored on the 2-12 range, then scaled out of 36 so you can compare them with your other section scores.


Here’s the sample prompt from the ACT:

The New ACT Essay Prompt


So is the new ACT essay harder?

Basically, yes! For the old writing section the 51st-87th percentiles are the 7-8 range. This would translate to the 21-24 range on the new score (just multiplying by 3 to get the scores out of 36). What we actually see is that those scores are now achieved by students in the 74th – 88th percentiles.

UPDATE: The ACT has finally realised that this is true, and that it’s confusing people! So they have now switched back to the 2-12 scale for essay scores.

Percentile Old writing score (multiplied by 3) New writing score
25th 15 12
50th 21 17
75th 24 21
95th + 27+ 27+

Alternatively, a 50th percentile student would get a 21 on the old essay (if it were scored out of 36), but only a 17 on the new essay.

Whilst this doesn’t necessarily prove that the test is harder, it does prove that students scored lower on the September test than they would have on previous tests. The only exception is at the top end of the scale, where students in the 95th percentile or above score anywhere from a 27 upwards. The most significant score drop is for the average student, who sees a 3 or 4 point drop in their writing score.

Here’s the full percentile chart if you’re interested!

ACT writing score essay September 2015 first new


Why are the scores lower?

This may be because the average student may not have been prepared for the new test. There are not many sample prompts around, and some test prep companies didn’t know about the change. If the same chart for October and December looks more similar to the previous figures, it will appear that students are adjusting.

What can you do to raise your score?

  • Get hold of as many sample prompts as you can, and practice them.
  • Get someone to read over your essay to check that your argument makes sense, and that you’ve effectively used your examples to answer the question.
  • Read this article!

How do I know whether I should take the ACT or the SAT?

How do I know whether I should take the ACT or the SAT? published on

How should I choose whether to take the SAT or ACT?

First things first: despite what you may have heard, it doesn’t matter to colleges whether you take the SAT or ACT. All schools accept either test, and neither test is preferred (some schools are also test-optional – check out their website admissions pages). Some schools are not accepting the SAT for students applying in 2017, because of the format changes, but this won’t be a permanent move. A few schools accept the ACT instead of subject tests, so that’s worth knowing too, before you make the decision.

Neither test is actually easier, but some suit different students differently. There are some key facts that make a difference between ACT and SAT, however. As a rule of thumb, the SAT is better for strong Math students, because half your score is Math based, compared to a quarter of your score on the ACT. The ACT is better for strong readers, because the Reading and Scientific Reasoning sections both rely heavily on fast and accurate reading comprehension. Don’t make the decision just on that basis though, there are other factors.


take the SAT or ACT questions choice decide prepare study
It’s a big choice!


Here are the factors that help my students to decide whether to take the SAT or ACT:

The ACT… The SAT…
Only asks vocabulary questions in context, and usually less than 2 per test The new SAT will not test vocabulary, except in context, like the ACT (the old SAT did).
Contains a science section – you do not have be studying science to do well on it, it’s more about drawing conclusions from information. I’d call it ‘data-based reasoning’ Contains data based questions in Math, Reading and Writing & Language (basically everywhere!).
Has 4 sections plus optional essay at the end Has 4 sections plus optional essay at the end
Total test time is 3 hours 25 minutes Total test time is 3 hours 30 minutes
Extensive documentation needed to get testing accommodations such as extra time Accomodations often approved automatically based on what you get at school
Has one math section Has two math sections, making up half your score
Essay is 40 mins to discuss a “current issues” type topic, based on perspectives given (new structure as of Sept 2015) Essay is 50 minutes to analyse a persuasive text.
One math section, for which you can use a calculator Two math sections, one without a calculator
Requires you to work very quickly for the reading and scientific reasoning sections Has a much more generous time limit for reading comprehension, although you do have an extra passage to read. Also the passages are slightly harder – of the 5 passages on the SAT, usually 2 or more were written before 1900.
Contains more curriculum based math – some of the questions will look more familiar to you Contains much more data/statistical math than the ACT.
No penalty for getting wrong answers, so you should fill in every circle on your bubble sheet. Also no penalty (note that this is a change from the old SAT).


You might already have an idea of which test you prefer, based on reading about the difference between ACT and SAT. To really know for sure, you should get a practice test for each, and take the SAT or ACT under timed conditions and compare them. Diagnostic tests work for this too, but they are often made by prep companies, so they are variable in quality, and never as good as the real thing. They also may be shorter than the real test, meaning that you’re less likely to feel the test fatigue that you do when your take the SAT or ACT for real.

If you’ve done this, and got results from both tests, you can read about how to compare them here.


Here are the main points I would ask my students to consider when choosing whether to take the SAT or ACT:

  • Did you prefer the timing of the ACT or SAT? You can only really know the answer to this question if you’ve done the full tests. For the ACT, the reading and scientific reasoning sections (third and fourth in order) must be completed at a fast pace. This means that you’re working faster at the end of the test, which may not be ideal for you. On the SAT, the reading is first, and takes 65 minutes. Math is at the end of the test.
  • Do students in your area mostly take the SAT or ACT? In some places, most students take the ACT, whereas in other areas, it’s the SAT. If, because of where you live, you have easier access to help on one test or the other (tutors, prep programs run at your school, or just friends to ask for advice), that is important to consider in your decision.
  • Which test did you enjoy more? You’ll do better on the test you feel more confident with. You’ll also be more motivated to study, especially if you’re doing all your prep by yourself.
  • Math represents half the SAT, but only a quarter of the ACT. If you’re a strong mathematician but aren’t so good at reading fast, the SAT is a good test for you. If you can read fast, but your math isn’t so strong, the ACT is better for you. ACT reading is quite well correllated with ACT science (as opposed to science scores being similar to math scores, as you might expect).
  • Writing and Language (SAT) is virtually identical to English (ACT). So you have to do that regardless – it shouldn’t be a factor in your decision to take the ACT or the SAT!
  • Although the essay portion represents a big difference between ACT and SAT, I wouldn’t make it a factor in your choice. Usually essay scores do not matter as much as the test score itself, because universities have lots of other ways to assess your writing ability.


Don’t spend too much time picking a test. Some people just write both to see which they do better on. There’s nothing wrong with this, it just takes more time. If you are going to decide on one test, bear in mind that the ideal timescale for prep for either test is 6 months or more, so make sure you’ve made your decision at least 6 months before you plan to write the test for the first time. I said first time because I strongly believe you should write a standardized test more than once to maximize your score. Here’s why.

Good luck in your choice!! Comment below and let me know how you decided whether to take the ACT or the SAT.