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The ACT: Test-Day Tips
This spring, I put up a series of posts with The Princeton Review’s signature SAT advice. Now, in weekly posts, I’m showing the same love for the ACT .
This week's post is all about performing your best on test day. (Check out last week's post on the process of elimination and guessing here .)
For more information on these and other strategies, see The Princeton Review’s Cracking the ACT guidebook!
The Night Before the Test
Unless you are the kind of person who remains calm only by staying up all night to do last-minute studying, we recommend that you take the evening off. Go see a movie or read a good book, and make sure you get to bed at a normal hour. No final, frantically memorized math formula or grammatical rule is going to make or break your score. A positive mental attitude comes from treating yourself decently. If you’ve prepared over the last several weeks or months, then you’re ready.
If you haven’t really prepared, there will be other opportunities to take the test, so get some rest and do the best you can. Remember, colleges will see only the score you choose to let them see. No single ACT is going to be crucial. We don’t think night-before-the-test cramming is very effective. For example, we would not recommend that you try going through this book in one night.
On the Day of the Test
It’s important that you eat a real breakfast, even if you normally don’t. We find that about two-thirds of the way through the test, people who didn’t eat something beforehand suddenly lose their will to live. Equally important, bring a snack to the test center. You will get a break during which food is allowed. Some people spend the break out in the hallways comparing answers and getting upset when their answers don’t match. Ignore the people around you and eat your snack. Why assume they know any more than you do?
While you’re having breakfast, do a couple of questions from an ACT on which you’ve already worked to get your mind going. You don’t want to use the first test on the real exam to warm up. And please don’t try a hard question you’ve never done before. If you miss it, your confidence will be diminished, and that’s not something you want on the day of the test.
At the test center, you’ll be asked to show some form of picture ID or provide a note from your school—on school stationery—describing what you look like. The time or time remaining is often not announced during the test sections, so you should also bring a reliable watch—not the beeping kind—and, of course, several No. 2 pencils, an eraser, and a calculator. Check www.actstudent.org/faq to see if your calculator model is permitted. If you haven’t changed the batteries recently (or ever), you should do that before the test or bring a back-up calculator.
When you get into the actual room in which you’ll be taking the exam, make sure you’re comfortable. Is there enough light? Is your desk sturdy? Don’t be afraid to speak up; after all, you’re going to be spending three and a half hours at that desk. And it’s not a bad idea to go to the bathroom before you get to the room. It’s a long haul to that first break.
Zen and the Art of Test-Taking
Once the exam begins, tune out the rest of the world. That girl with the annoying cough in the next row? You don’t hear her. That guy who is fidgeting in the seat ahead of you? You don’t see him. It’s just you and the exam. Everything else should be a blur.
As soon as one test ends, erase it completely from your mind. It no
longer exists. The only test that counts is the one you are taking right now. Even if you are upset about a particular test, erase it from your mind. If you are busy thinking about the last test, you cannot focus on the one on which you are currently working, and that’s a surefire way to make costly mistakes. Most people aren’t very good at assessing how they performed on a given section of the exam, especially while they’re still taking it, so don’t waste your time and energy trying.
Keep Your Answers to Yourself
Please don’t let anyone cheat off you. Test companies have developed sophisticated anti-cheating measures that go way beyond having a proctor walk around the room. We know of one test company that gets seating charts of each testing room. Its computers scan the score sheets of people sitting in the immediate vicinity for correlations of wrong answer choices. Innocent and guilty are invited to take the exam over again, and their scores from the first exam are invalidated.
Beware of Misbubbling Your Answer Sheet
Probably the most painful kind of mistake you can make on the ACT is to bubble in (A) with your pencil when you really mean (B), or to have your answers be one question number off (perhaps because you skipped one question on the test but forgot to skip it on the answer sheet). Aargh! The proctor isn’t allowed to let you change your answers after a section is over, so it is critical that you either catch yourself before a test section ends or—even better—that you don’t make a mistake in the first place.
We suggest to our students that they write down their answers in their test booklets. This way, whenever you finish a page of questions in the test booklet, you can transfer all your answers from that page in a group. We find that this method minimizes the possibility of misbubbling and it also saves time. Of course, as you get near the end of a test, you should go back to bubbling question by question.
If you get back your ACT scores and they seem completely out of line, you can ask the ACT examiners to look over your answer sheet for what are called “gridding errors.” If you want to, you can even be there while they look. If it is clear that there has been an error, ACT will change your score. An example of a gridding error would be a test in which, if you moved all the responses over by one, they would suddenly all be correct.
Should I Ever Cancel My Scores?
We recommend against canceling your scores, even if you feel you’ve done poorly. If you have registered as we recommended and not sent the scores to any colleges and possibly not to your high school, then the score you receive won’t go anywhere unless you send it on later. There is no need to panic and cancel your score without knowing what it is if no one will ever see it. You never know—perhaps you did better than you think. Furthermore, if you’ve taken the ACT two or more times (something we heartily recommend), you can choose which score you want colleges to see when you request reports from ACT.
If you do decide to cancel your scores, ACT allows you to do it only at the test center itself. However, you can stop scores from reaching colleges if you call ACT by 12:00 p.m. Central Time on the Thursday following the test. The number to call is 319-337-1270.
Some Final Advice
- Make sure you know where the test center is located and where you need to go once you are at the test center.
- Show up early; you can’t show up right when the test is scheduled to begin and expect to get in.
- Lay out your pencils, calculator, watch, admission ticket, and photo identification the night before the test. The last thing you want to be doing on the morning of the test is running around looking for a calculator.
- Bring a snack and a bottle of water just in case you get hungry. There’s nothing worse than testing on an empty stomach.