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When preparing for the SAT or the ACT, there are two main components to your preparation. One is practice, the other is strategy. You need to know what you’re aiming for, and how you’re going to get there. Many people ask ‘what is a good score on the SAT?’ or ‘what is a good score on the ACT?’, but these questions aren’t really that relevant. A better question to ask is whether the ACT or SAT score you have are good enough to get into the university that you want to go to. Remember that the SAT and ACT aren’t meant to compare you with every single other student, although it may feel like it!

The main tips and strategies for the ACT and SAT involve managing the time you have an using it to the best of your ability. In order to do this, you need to recognize your strengths and weaknesses.


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, trashy magazines, “top 23 things” type internet list articles – Buzzfeed, some business books (some are written at a stupidly low level!).
  • Medium: teen fiction, popular adult fiction, 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, they probably won’t help you improve your reading score.

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!

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!

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 have this problem in school, but I 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 1 Comment on Help! I don’t know what to write in my ACT essay

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 – if you want to know about structure and format, look here.

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?

What is the new SAT essay?

What is the new SAT essay? published on No Comments on What is the new SAT essay?

One of the biggest changes to the SAT is the format of the new essay. Instead of writing an essay commenting on a semi-philosophical statement, as you’ve been required to in the past, you now have to produce an analytical essay. This is a very different beast – you need to demonstrate that you understand the argument, but whether or not you agree with it is irrelevant. Instead, you must look at how the writer uses certain devices to build an argument. You have 50 minutes to do this.

The prompt consists of an extract of persuasive text. This is sometimes from a speech (often a famous politician), or sometimes a magazine article, aiming to prove a point with facts and figures.

You then get the following statement:

As you read the passage below, consider how the writer uses

  • evidence, such as facts or examples, to support claims.
  • reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence.
  • stylistic or persuasive elements, such as word choice or appeals to emotion, to add power to the ideas expressed.


Write an essay in which you explain how the writer builds an argument to persuade his audience that [whatever the argument is]. In your essay, analyze how the writer uses one or more of the features in the directions that precede the passage (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of his argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage.

Your essay should not explain whether you agree with the writer’s claims, but rather explain how the writer builds an argument to persuade his audience.

I know you tend to skip over these sections because it’s the part of the prompt that you’ve seen before, but it actually gives quite a lot of clues. Firstly, you’ve got suggestions for your 3 body paragraphs! Those 3 bullet points at the top are great for the basis of your paragraphs, since nearly all persuasive texts have those. They also encourage you to do that further down in the prompt. Most of the sample essays have done it, so it’s a pretty safe choice.

Remember that they are looking for an analytical essay. This means it’s not too creative, so don’t worry about having great ideas, hooks, or metaphors in your essay. Analytical essays are basically technical and boring, but they are quite easy to grade reliably. I’d rather be graded on this essay than on the new ACT essay to be honest!

The College Board has released two sample essay prompts on their website (as well as 4 more if you buy their book), along with 8 sample essays to read online. These are real student produced essays, and they are actually really useful – well worth a read (except maybe the really low scoring ones).

I recommend reading the 444 essay (i.e. a perfect score in each category). Then read the 413 (low score in analysis). My guess is that quite a lot of essay writers will fall into the trap of the 413 essay. The writer has basically summarized the essay instead of analyzing it: the paragraphs spend too much time describing what the author says, rather than looking at why he says it and how it is effective. This leads to a weak score in analysis. I’d really like to to tutor this writer and explain to them how they can improve!


Each of the high scoring essays is structured in the same way (big clue here!). The students pick 3 specific things that the author has used to build their argument (often the 3 things suggested in the prompt), and then said how they are effective. Each one of the three things forms a short body paragraph. So the structure is pretty easy to figure out. Your 3 ‘features’, if you’re not using the suggestions, are things you already know from English class – metaphor, anecdotes, humour or maybe something more dramatic – pathetic fallacy, dramatic imagery etc. Remember that you don’t need to be too creative. I have a great article about the different devices you can write about.

Your essay should still have a thesis. It should look something like this: ‘The writer effectively uses the devices of x, y and z to make a strong case for a or b’.


Two markers score you out of 4 in each category (reading, analysis and writing). This gives you a total score out of 24. You can read the rubric here if you want.

  • The reading category measures your understanding of the text, what it sets out to do, and how it uses ideas to support its point. To prove your skill in reading comprehension, you can quote from the passage (not extensively, do it effectively to support your points, not replace them) or summarise the argument. This can be done as your thesis statement or elsewhere in your introduction.
  • Analysis is what you say. It’s an analytical essay, meaning that you have to figure out how the writer uses ideas in their argument. This is the probably the hardest category to score highly in, because it’s the most dissimilar to the old essay format. All of the paragraphs in the high scoring analysis categories state the device that the author has used and then how and why it is effective. Read the samples to get the idea.
  • The writing category is how you say stuff. It’s grammar, sentence structure, transitions, organization and vocabulary – all the technical stuff. You probably already know whether you’re ok at this or not.

Comment and let me know your thoughts and questions on this new essay format.

What’s a good score on the ACT?

What’s a good score on the ACT? published on No Comments on What’s a good score on the ACT?

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!


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. 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

Choosing the right way to prepare published on No Comments on Choosing the right way to prepare

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!


4 things to avoid

4 things to avoid published on

Here are my 4 big no-nos for your test prep. These are things I wish my students would avoid!

  1. Don’t leave your test prep too late! It sounds obvious … but ideally you should start working for the test about 4-6 months before you want to write it. You’ll need more time if your score is a long way below where you want it to be (more than 5 points on the ACT, more than 300 points on the new SAT). It’s very rare that someone is good at the tests straight away, and contrary to popular belief, universities don’t look down on multiple attempts at the tests. You need to give yourself time to get where you want to be. Remember that the school only sees your scores; they don’t know whether you did 2 weeks of prep or 2 years! If your goal is to get a certain score, give yourself enough time to achieve it – it’s as simple as that!

  3. If you have left it too late (and I’m defining ‘too late’ if you haven’t looked at the test properly and it’s less than 1 month away), don’t panic! At this point, the best thing you can do is get some outside help – a good tutor can still do quite a lot with only one month. Look here for my tips on choosing a tutor. If that’s not an option, make a plan to motivate yourself into preparing for the test and make sure you have practiced each section separately, corrected your wrong answers and written the entire test in one sitting before you write the real test.

  5. Writing the test only once is a big no. The only exceptions here are if you get a perfect or nearly perfect score, or if you’ve written more than 3 practice tests (from the College Board or the ACT – not a prep book), and your score on the day is by far your highest one. There are all sorts of factors that go into your actual score – probably the most significant are your personal ‘form’ on the day (if you haven’t slept well, you’re stressed out in the test, general panic or just not knowing what to expect), and statistical variation on the test. I strongly believe that you should write more than once – here’s why.

  7. This one may be the most important. Don’t cram your prep into a month. Most of what’s on the the tests is skill based, not content based. This is the opposite of school exams, and it means that intense study in the week before the test won’t do much for your score, unlike in school exams. The best thing to do is 2-3 hours prep per week for 4-6 months before the test. This means that you will developing those critical reading, grammar, math and writing skills over that length of time (remember that you’ve actually been learning all of these since you were born – it does take that long!). You can’t cram some facts and wing it on the test – you need to have the skill basis to start with. On the plus side, you probably won’t be doing much more work in the week before the test. Certainly no crazy all nighter before the test – this will definitely hurt your score!! Just make sure you know your math formulae, and you can relax and do normal Friday night stuff.

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.