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  • Writer's pictureWill Helms

Last Minute ACT Thrive Guide

Updated: Mar 7, 2020

It's standardized test season and I always wonder the best way to help as many students as possible. I was given the idea of a "Last Minute Survival Guide" full of helpful tips on the ACT. Don't worry, I'll have one on the SAT soon after this post.

First of all, this is a "thrive guide". We're not simply trying to survive the ACT, we want to excel. Obviously, there's no substitute for long-term studying/test prep, but there are ways to raise your score a couple of points, even if it's the day before the test. Those things are what I'll focus on in this post.

Understanding the Test

Unlike the SAT, the ACT is not a critical thinking test. It's mostly a test of your test-taking skills and of your basic knowledge of high school and late middle school subject matter. The test is less conceptual than the SAT, meaning most questions (though sometimes more difficult) are far more straight-forward than the SAT. There's no wondering what the question is actually asking, it's usually a "What is....?"

That's helpful to know. Never overthink on the ACT.


The ACT moves at a faster pace than pretty much any standardized test you'll ever take. Here's the breakdown:

English (Grammar): 75 ?s, 45 minutes (36 seconds per ?)

Math: 60 ?s, 60 minutes (1 minute per ?)

Reading: 40 ?s, 35 minutes (53 seconds per ?)

Science: 40 ?s, 35 minutes (53 seconds per ?)

That's fast. The most important tip on the ACT is to never, never, ever spend 3-4 minutes on a single question. Just guess and move on. Even if you get it right, you'll probably run out of time before you have time to answer a lot of questions you actually would be able to get right.

Don't stress out if you don't know an answer, just make sure you answer as many as you can.

The most important tip on the ACT is to never, never, ever spend 3-4 minutes on a single question. Just guess and move on.

If you don't get to every question, take the last 45 or so seconds to pick a letter and bubble that for the rest of the second. If you're feeling 'A', bubble A for every question you didn't get to answer. It'll help, I promise.

Understanding the Sections


I mentioned above that the English section ends up being about 36 seconds a question. Move quickly. It's my personal recommendation that you do NOT read the whole section. You probably won't have time. Some people will tell you otherwise, but I stand by that.

Instead, read the first sentence of the passage to get a feel for how it sounds. Then, read just the sentences containing questions. Note: There are some questions that ask you to place a sentence somewhere, meaning you'd have to read the whole paragraph. I'll leave it up to you to decide if that's worth it or if you want to quickly skim and guess.

The non-underlined parts of the passage are presumed to be perfect, meaning even if you'd write it a different way, that's your standard. You need to make the underlines fit with the rest of the passage.

Some tips:

  1. Work quickly

  2. Eliminate obviously wrong answers (If there's an answer with one parenthesis and there isn't another in the passage, that answer is wrong)

  3. There are some very black and white grammar questions with three very wrong answers and one very correct answer. You either know the answer or you don't, there isn't much thinking to these. Eliminate wrong answers and guess if you don't know.

  4. Never choose an answer that has a "twin answer". If you have two answers that do the same thing, they're both wrong, after all they can't both be right. Examples of this include "therefore" and "thus" or "next" and "then"

  5. The ACT loves to put some easy questions at the end of sections. If you can, at least get to the point where you've read every question to see if you can find an easy question that takes 10 seconds to answer


ACT math is all calculator active. There are some easy questions and some very, very difficult questions. Your goal is to sift through these and answer as many easy questions as you can first. Once you've answered every question you can answer easily, then attack the harder questions.

The subject matter is very, very broad. There are probably some topics you learned last week and some you learned last year (Even some you learned 3-4 years ago). Use good judgment when choosing which questions to focus your energy on. It's better to answer 45 questions that you know that it is to try every question and end up answering only 30 right because you spent too much time on what you don't know.

Some tips:

  1. Work quickly

  2. Skip questions you don't know

  3. Eliminate very wrong answers. There are five answer choices on each math question, but all that means is that at least one is very clearly not the correct answer.

  4. Don't be afraid to use the calculator, even if it means just plugging something in rather than solving the "correct" way.

  5. Plug in answer choices where you can, it can sometimes save time and help you answer a question you might otherwise struggle with


The reading section is broken up into four passages of 10 questions each. It will ALWAYS start with a narrative (fictional story) passage and contain one passage each in humanities (history-related), social science (Psychology), and natural science (biology, chemistry, etc.).

Here's the key, read each passage description before you start the whole section, then quickly decide which will be your favorite and which will be your least favorite passage. You need to start with your favorite and end with your least favorite.

But why? Two reasons. First, it doesn't matter what order you go in (Just make sure you bubble correctly!). Second, there isn't a lot of time, just under nine minutes to read a whole passage and answer 10 questions. Chances are that even if you answer every question, you're going to have to speed through at least one passage. Wouldn't you rather take your time on a passage you enjoy and understand than a passage you hardly understand to begin with? Continuing the theme here, you need to spend the most time on questions you can actually get right. The biggest ACT mistake is when people spend their time on questions they're probably going to miss anyway.

Some tips:

  1. Work quickly

  2. Start with the best and end with the worst passage

  3. The questions aren't usually in order, so you probably need to at least skim the passage (If not read it completely) before trying the questions

  4. Remember, a lot of the questions are straight-forward (What happened? In what order did this occur?) but some require more thought (Why did the author add this? What did the author mean by this?)

  5. You don't need much outside info to answer the questions, it's all in the passage, just maybe with a bit of reading between the lines.


This section is very similar to the reading section, but all about science and with a lot of graphs, figures and charts. Typically, there's a passage in each of the following: chemistry, biology, environmental science and physics. However, unlike the reading section, that isn't guaranteed.

Approach this section like you did the reading section. Start with your favorite/best passage and go from there.

The key to this section is that like the reading section, just about everything can be answered with information in the passage. Some people get stressed because they aren't good at science, but the two most important skills for this science section are reading comprehension and the ability to understand basic graphs. A lot of the answers are found in the graphs, not just the words.

Some tips:

  1. Work quickly

  2. Start with your best passage and end with your worst

  3. Look in the graphs and figures for answers. Some require you to read into figures (For example if a table says that a mixture is 40% salt after one hour and 60% salt after four hours and the question asks how much salt is expected after three hours, choose the answer between 40 and 60%)

  4. Some math may be required. It is never above a fourth or fifth grade level. It may ask you to divide two easy numbers or add some stuff together. It's never hard math. If you find yourself doing harder math, you're probably overthinking.

  5. Very little outside info is needed. You might need to remember something simply like that plants go through photosynthesis or that chemical equations have to balance (You can't start with 3 carbon atoms, go through a chemical change and end up with 10 C atoms) but usually the passage gives you all the info needed.

Understanding the Scoring

Lastly, we need to understand the scoring.

It's not like a normal test in school. If you're used to getting B's in your classes, don't expect to walk in and get 85% of the questions right.

"Average" on the test is about a 20, which is around 55% on the English, 50% on the science and reading and 45% on the math. "Average" in school is a C, or about 75%. I promise that you're probably doing better on the test than you think. I'll put a chart at the bottom of this post with the exact scoring, if you're interested.

Do your best and don't stress. You got this!!

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