Every so often I get a call or email from a parent who is concerned about my method of preparing for standardized tests like the ACT. Basically, the parent is worried that approaching the test the way I recommend somehow corrupts the purpose of the test as a learning experience for the student. Please allow me this opportunity to address this concern so we are all on the same page.

First of all, it’s hard to grasp, but standardized tests like the ACT have very little in common with the tests people are given in school. In school, tests have a lot to do with a student’s ability to learn, understand, and ultimately memorize a lot of information ahead of time, and then recall that information on test day. But doing well on the ACT is much more about being able to understand a set of standardized rules and patterns, and then recognizing those patterns and rules in action and responding in a highly repetitive way.

In other words, preparing for and doing well on the ACT isn’t a learning experience in the way you might think it should be. The skills that a student needs to do well on the ACT simply are not the same skills they have developed in school, for the most part.

Let me be very clear here: I think learning is EXTREMELY important. I think it is a very big deal for students to be passionate about learning and understanding new material. It is essential for all of us to read novels, and learn history, and study science, and to develop and grow intellectually- not just in high school or college, but for our whole lives.

But if the issue at hand is a high school student trying to get the best possible score on the ACT, then developing and growing in those ways simply isn’t going to help much, because the ACT doesn’t actually reward that kind of growth. So when I say things like “don’t worry about exactly what that word means,” or “there’s no point in learning advanced math formulas for this kind of situation,” it’s absolutely NOT because I’m against learning stuff in general. It is only because the point of my preparation with these students is to help them get the best scores on the ACT that they possibly can, so they can, in turn, receive as many dollars in scholarship/reward money as possible – and doing that requires them to know how the test actually works – even if it seems like we are avoiding an opportunity to learn something.

Even though it might seem like preparing for a test as important as the ACT should necessarily involve sharpening the skills a student would traditionally associate with being a “good student” it is probably best if we don’t look at it that way. It is much better if we understand that doing well on the ACT requires a different set of skills from those required to do well in school so that we can focus on developing this new skill set in the class. The ACT is simply an obstacle students have to overcome so they can move on to the next step in the education process.

Again, I am a firm believer in doing well in school, reading widely, learning new words, and studying math and science……but if I told my students to do that for ACT preparation, I would be wasting their time and my own. Since the only goal here is to get the highest scores possible, and since that involves following all the rules of the ACT, my classes and individual training sessions focus on learning and exploiting those rules so that my students have a leg up on the rest of the students taking the test and can reel in some of those scholarship funds.

There’s a few “secrets” to the ACT Test design and I’ve included them here and why they are such a huge part of the training I use when helping my students prepare for the test. I find that these few secrets are fairly basic but widely unknown to students at all.



Secrets of the ACT
These “secrets” are why I spend a lot of time discussing the test design when beginning training with a student

  1. It is absolutely necessary to PRACTICE but only using questions that follow the ACT Inc. rules – (so their official tests)
  2. The ACT isn’t designed like a regular high school test
  3. ACT Inc. is able to create difficult questions using relatively simple concepts.
  4. Some people do better in school than on the ACT, or vice versa, and that’s how they level the playing field for all students.
  5. Why there MUST be only one valid answer for each ACT question
  6. Common classroom experiences can set students up with the wrong expectations on test day
  7. The ACT’s biggest design weakness (which is a helpful thing for test-takers) is that it’s multiple choice. This means that the correct answer is right there on the paper.
  8. Different wrong answer choices make a question much easier or harder
  9. What to do when it seems like a question has more than one good answer! There’s a pattern/secret/trick to this!
  10. Key differences between classroom discussion and the mindset necessary for the ACT
  11. The best way to use answer choices to help you correctly answer the questions.