Number One Tip for ACT test-takers

I offer small group mock testing frequently for my students who tutor with me, usually at least in the form of a baseline test and a mock test shortly before their first real tests. Although I take real ACTs and real SATs side-by-side with other juniors and seniors, I hadn’t had the opportunity to observe from the perspective of one who sits at the front of a class. I also hadn’t had the opportunity to walk around such a large group of students to watch their techniques of how they approach their test sections.

But this perspective and walking opportunity is exactly what I had the chance to experience on Sunday when I hosted a FREE mock ACT test for local high school students.

What did I observe? First off, I was somewhat struck by how tired many of these students appeared. This goes right along with the ideas discussed in a lead article in the Greenwich Time that morning about stressed out and sleep-deprived students. But that’s a whole other topic.

My most interesting observation, though, occurred after the test started. I noted how most students chose to work through their tests. All of the novice students had the bubble page lined up covering one side of the test booklet. Students read a question and bubbled in the appropriate answer on the bubble page. Nothing was written in the test booklet itself. Not in English, Reading, or Science. Sometimes, the students would write a formula or intermediate step in the math section of their test booklets. But frequently, I saw either pondering (mental math) or calculator-clicking. During the Reading, I watched as one student leaned back in his chair as he picked up the test booklet like a newspaper to put it in front of his face. I collected some of the test booklets at the end of this mock test experience, and some were totally blank, with nothing written in the booklet, not even in the Math section.

I contrasted these observations to the process that the three experienced test-takers used: they hash-marked through incorrect answers, underlined phrases of questions and phrases of passages, wrote out all intermediate steps in math, and drew all over the Science section graphs and charts. They transferred answers to the bubble pages only at the end of each passage in Reading and Science or at the end of each page in English or in Math.

This process is of marking up the test booklet, remaining focused on the test booklet, and tracking off the page only to transfer groups of answers to the bubble pages is my NUMBER ONE TIP for novice ACT test-takers.

Why is this so important?

• Focus!

• You know you have the correct answer when you’ve ruled out the incorrect answers.

• Saving your Working Memory

• Providing visual landmarks

• Improving speed when you choose to answer the questions in an order that differs from that presented in the test sections.


Your eyes lead to your mind’s attention. If you read a passage and constantly track off the page to a bubble page to answer each question, you are constantly shifting your focus away from the passage. In English, Reading, and Science, this leads to distraction. Think about when you meditate or pray: you close your eyes, right? Why? Because you are going inside. If you kept your eyes open, your mind would stray to what you were observing. This same stray is what the bubble page is doing to those students who maintain a one-for-one bubbling technique. It is far easier to remain focused on a passage when the bubble page is off to the right and out of the visual field.


In English, when you are deciding between grammar usage answers, it is far easier to be certain that you have the correct answer once you have ruled out each incorrect answer. This is how my students improve from missing 15 to 20 questions to fewer than ten or even five. The same holds for the Rhetorical Skills questions in English, the Reading questions, and the Science questions. Here, there is no one “right” answer; there is only one “best” answer. And that answer is always the most specific, literal response that answers the question. One must read all choices to know.


In Math, imagine working through problem after problem in you mind’s eye instead of by writing down intermediate steps on paper, or instead of drawing a complicated figure on paper. There is nothing wrong with this approach if you aren’t in the middle of a four-hour-long standardized test in which stamina matters. So, when you take an ACT test, save your working memory, boost your stamina, and avoid careless errors by keeping the problems visual on the paper instead of taxing your mind’s eye.


When you underline phrases of topic sentences in the Reading passages, or when you bracket off the lines specified in a line reference question, you are providing a great visual landmark for your eyes to direct your attention and focus. When you underline key phrases of questions in Science, you are much more likely to use the correct graph to determine your answer. When you underline a phrase in a high-difficulty math question, you improve your chances of answering the correct question. Underlining is a critical technique in improving scores in every section. With the bubble page out of the way, a student’s focus remains on the test booklet, and the pencil is more likely to be engaged with that test booklet.


Imagine reading a long passage of two columns of paragraphs followed by ten detailed questions in random order about the passage, and having only 8-1/2 minutes to do this? Then, repeat three times. That’s what the ACT Reading test is all about.

Each student must discover his best techniques for the Reading section, but I teach several different approaches for the different types of passages, and all of my approaches recommend that the student complete the questions in a different order than the one presented. If you do this, and then you attempt to bubble one-for-one, you will waste a tremendous amount of time searching for each random bubble on the answer page. It is far more efficient to circle the answers in the test booklet in the most efficient order, followed by transferring all ten reading answers to the bubble page at once. This technique also improves efficiency for the Science section, where students also benefit from answering the questions in a different order than that presented.

If you like this Number One Tip, please make sure to approach your ACT practice using this same approach. Always use a bubble page when you practice partial or full sections, and practice marking up your test booklet and transferring to the bubble page at the end of passages or pages.

Let me know if this technique makes a difference for you!

What are your favorite techniques to build efficiency?

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