Why Is It So Hard to Improve My ACT Score?

Most of the tests that the Average Joe takes in his life are pretty limited in their scope. Sure, his math final covers months of learning material, and his Spanish midterm includes years’ worth of language, but they’re all focused on one topic or a specific set of study material. Few tests rival the ACT in sheer subject range. Other major standardized tests come close (the SAT comes to mind, of course) but the ACT still covers more than the average range of material.

ACT math topics start from the very basics of number properties and arithmetic, and stretch all the way to trigonometry. This means the ACT includes areas that you might not have studied for semesters or years, depending on your courses. Meanwhile, the ACT reading comprehension aims to evaluate your total reading ability. Pair that with the writing section and science sections—both which deal with similar skills, built up over a lifetime—and you’ve got quite a test on your hands.

Let’s bring it back to the title of this post: why is it so hard to improve your ACT score? You might’ve guessed the answer, based on all of the above. You can’t study for the ACT in the same way that you study for other tests. It’s bigger than those other tests. You need to practice different skills, practice them in a different way, and take longer to work on them. You’ll need a good ACT study plan to keep yourself on track, because this isn’t a test you can cram for. Students who make improvements most reliably are those who’ve studied hard for months, not days.

There are a few things you need to study. While this may seem obvious, you need to know the material. This is how the ACT is like other tests, and so you should be pretty comfortable with this study style. Unless you know the math that the ACT is based on, there’s no “weird trick” that’ll get you a high math score. ACT writing tips might help you to improve your essay. However unless you know academic vocabulary, correct grammar, and basics of style, they can only get you so far. If anybody does tell you those fundamentals aren’t necessary, walk away.

There’s more to it. The most notable thing is the format of the test. You should know the types of questions you’ll see and how to approach them just as well as you know the actual content of the test. Across the four sections (five if you count the essay), there are dozens of different types of questions you’ll want to become familiar with. You still need to master your pacing. You don’t want to sit there, staring at some mind-boggling Rubik’s cube of a math problem while the clock ticks away. You don’t want to spend ten minutes writing the perfect introduction to what will be an under-developed essay. Getting that timing right takes experience. Then there’s test-anxiety, too: how to deal with it and how to avoid it. Believe it or not, that’s something you can practice and improve.

There’s a lot going on here, more than on your average English quiz. You can improve your score, but it’s not easy. It takes time, don’t give up too quickly. The road to competitive colleges is littered with the bodies of those who just sat down and quit. Keep working at it. Even if the test is huge, you’ll get there.

This post was written by Lucas Verney-Fink, resident ACT expert at Magoosh. For more advice on ACT prep, check out Magoosh’s ACT blog.