The Counterpoint ACT Test Prep Guide
There comes a time in almost every student’s life when she or he has to take one of the big tests. The ACT can play a huge role when it comes to college admissions, so the pressure is on to perform well. Whether you’re a student getting ready for the big day or a parent trying to prepare your student for academic success, the most important factor is always preparation.
For many students, school has been fairly easy. Some may be able to perform well with just a short study session the night before an exam, while others are able to succeed solely by paying attention in class. These feats are impressive, but the ACT will require a bit more effort.
The ACT covers a variety of topics students learn about in high school, but it’s much more than a measurement of how much you know. It’s representative of the kind of experience students will have in college. You can’t earn a good score on the ACT simply by studying the night before. It requires extensive preparation, and that’s exactly what you can expect from college as well.
It’s clear that preparation is necessary, but how one should go about that preparation requires a deeper understanding.
To best prepare for the ACT, you need to understand the basics first. The ACT, originally an abbreviation of American College Testing, is a standardized test used for college admissions. It essentially acts as a summary of a student’s academic ability, granting colleges a better understanding of what kind of student one might be. Many more aspects to college admissions make an impact on the outcome, of course, but the ACT plays a major role.
The test itself is divided into four mandatory sections and a fifth optional section. Mandatory sections include English, Math, Reading and Science, while the fifth optional section is Writing. While all the sections, with the exception of Writing, are generally the same in their multiple choice structure, there are some unique features of each section that you should be aware of.
On the English section, the student will find 75 multiple choice questions. This section has more questions than any other section, and test takers only have 45 minutes to complete them all. Topics covered are grammar, punctuation, sentence structure and other rhetorical skills.
The Math section has fewer questions than the English section, coming in at just 60, but students will have a full hour to complete them all. That means they’ll have a bit more time on each question. This section covers both algebra 1 and 2, in addition to geometry and a bit of trigonometry.
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There are only 40 questions in the Reading section, but students have just 35 minutes to complete them all. This section consists of four passages, with one each about social studies, natural sciences, humanities and prose fiction. Each passage has 10 questions.
The Science section is set up similarly to the Reading section, with 40 questions and a 35-minute time limit, but students will use graphs, tables, charts and other research to answer questions about scientific passages. Keep in mind, this section tests a student’s ability to exercise science and understand data, rather than their knowledge of science.
Finally, there’s the optional Writing section. Students have 40 minutes to write an essay about a prompted topic. While there’s no way to know what the topic is beforehand, the essay will always follow the same general format. Students will be presented with an issue, along with three perspectives on that issue. The essay requires students to analyze and evaluate the perspectives, as well as develop their own perspective.
Why You Need the ACT
At first glance, succeeding at the ACT can seem like a daunting task, and trying to avoid it may seem like an appealing option for many. Some colleges have their own entrance exams, and one doesn’t have to take the ACT to get a high school diploma. With the competitive job market and labor shortage these days, however, college is more important than ever.
College graduates are always going to be in a better position than those with only high school diplomas. In fact, college graduates stand to make over a million dollars more throughout their lives than non-graduates. That, in turn, can affect the kind of neighborhood one lives in, as well as the kind of schools and opportunities available for future children.
Like the job market, however, college can be incredibly competitive. Some of the best colleges openly brag about their low admission rates, so you know that the competition is fierce. Applicants must make their application stand out, and without stellar SAT and/or ACT test scores, some colleges may throw the application out by default.
It’s important to keep in mind that every school is different. Some colleges like to advertise themselves as being test-optional schools in that they look for more impressive GPA scores in conjunction with a history of challenging classes. If a student’s high school GPA isn’t all that impressive, having a high ACT score can help show colleges they have what it takes to be a good student.
A trend with many colleges now is to focus less on test scores, but they can still play a major role. Imagine there are two applicants with virtually the same qualifiers. Both have high GPA scores and both submitted an impressive entrance essay. With so much in common, colleges will have to look at test scores to see which student would be the better fit, so no matter what kind of college a student applies for, high ACT test scores will always be an advantage.
How the ACT Is Scored
To help you get a good score on the ACT, it will benefit you to know how the ACT is scored, so you can focus your efforts wisely. Put simply, students can earn an ACT score of 1-36, with 36 being the perfect score. On average, scores tend to be around 21, so earning higher than that will already put one at a significant advantage.
When calculating that score, graders will give test takers a 1-36 score for each of the four mandatory sections. Those scores are then averaged for an overall composite score. This offers a distinct advantage over the SAT in which scores for each section are added rather than averaged, since it’s easier to hide a weak subject. If one does poorly in the math section, for example, a strong English score can offset that.
Graders use a scale when turning students’ raw scores into scores from 1-36. Since each section has more than 36 questions, they can’t simply give a single point for each correct answer. That means each individual question in a section with fewer overall questions will be more impactful toward the overall score. It’s also important to keep in mind that there are no penalties for wrong answers, so answering every question, even with a guess, is always beneficial.
The optional Writing section plays into the score a bit differently than the other sections. Regardless of whether or not one takes the Writing section, your composite 1-36 score will always be the summation of the four mandatory sections. The Writing section is scored differently and separately.
While the Writing section doesn’t affect your overall score, it can still give colleges insight into your writing abilities, and writing is a skill all students need to have. Instead of a 1-36 score, the Writing portion will earn a score of 2-12. Two graders will read through the essay and assign a 1-6 score each. Those scores are then added together to get the final score.
Taking the Test
When the time finally comes to take the test, students need to keep a few strategies in mind to ensure the test doesn’t get the better of them. Among the most important is the process of elimination. All the questions on the ACT are multiple choice, so it’s especially helpful to go ahead and eliminate known wrong answers first. Not only does this increase a student’s chances of making an accurate guess, but it can also help one think when facing fewer options.
For the math section, using the plug-it-in method is especially helpful. Students will have a list of possible answers for every math problem. When applicable, they simply have to plug in the possibilities to the equation and see which one works.
Identifying trigger words also goes a long way to help students fully understand the question they face. ACT test makers often implement words like “best” to indicate that there might be multiple answers that technically work. Additionally, they’ll use words like “and” when creating comparisons and “but” when creating contradictions. Recognizing these trigger words will help contextualize questions and lead to better answers in the Reading section.
No matter how much one prepares for the ACT, he or she is probably going to feel stressed when exam day finally comes. Knowing how to manage that stress is essential for earning a high score. The first step is to eliminate some stressors beforehand. Make sure you or your student gets enough sleep the night before the exam. Additionally, keep in mind that water serves as a much more sustainable energy boost than coffee or energy drinks.
Now that you know how the ACT works and what to expect, it’s time to prepare. Whether you’re a student yourself, or you are helping one prepare, some important study tips are sure to lead to better performance on the ACT. Some students get through high school fairly easily without studying, so they may not think the ACT will be all that different. The truth is, if students want to earn the highest score they can, they have to study.
Most tests in high school are graded on the classic 0-100 scale. That grants a lot of wiggle room for errors, but the ACT only offers a 1-36 score. With such a small scale, every single point is that much more important, so when you hear that a test prep course can boost scores by five or six points, it’s a big deal. Those five or six points can greatly expand a student’s options when it comes to applying for colleges.
Like any other skill, test taking is mastered through practice. That’s the primary function of studying in general. Repeatedly going through practice questions is a great way to understand what students will experience when taking the actual ACT. In fact, we can help with this through our Question of the Day service, where you can practice a brand new question every day.
The details of practicing for the test can be a bit different for everyone. Not all students learn in the same way, so it stands to reason that studying strategies will vary quite a bit as well. For example, visual learners can benefit by matching concepts with pictures and writing things down, while verbal learners could succeed better by vocalizing concepts or repeating them with a study partner.
Regardless of learning style, however, certain memorization tips tend to be universally helpful. Flashcards and talking to oneself actually go a surprisingly long way when it comes to forming retrieval cues. Even a student’s diet can play a role in the effectiveness of studying. Make sure you or your student is snacking on the good stuff when trying to boost brain power.
Making a study plan also goes a long way to increasing the effectiveness of studying. A good study plan involves keeping a specific allocated study time, along with details about what topics and subjects the student is going to cover at what time. Keep in mind that the study plan can be used as an ongoing document when it comes to lesson details. After all, it’s smart to start studying for the ACT six months to a year in advance.
Distractions can minimize the effectiveness of study time drastically, so students need to make a focused effort to eliminate distractions. That means that phones generally need to be put away, as juvenile as that may sound. Additionally, a good study session is often held in a quiet, secluded space, like a dedicated office area in one’s home or a library.
Feeling like you’re on the go all the time in high school is common for a lot of students, and that can seriously impact their ability to study. Fortunately, there are a few tricks for studying, even with busy schedules, that can still land a satisfying ACT score. Making sure that study materials are accessible on mobile devices like phones and tablets is important, as it brings efficiency to rides on the bus or as a passenger in a car, as long as the tech isn’t a distraction.
Benefits of Online ACT Test Prep
You can prepare in many ways for the ACT, but few methods work as well as online test prep courses. You or your student can always take classes or buy study books, but having everything you need for study available online adds an entirely new level of convenience and effectiveness that one would be unable to experience otherwise.
Online ACT test prep allows students to go at their own pace. Instead of having to create a pace that works generally for a classroom full of students, online courses are completely individualized, allowing the student the freedom to focus on or blaze through areas as they see fit. It’s also important to remember that every student learns somewhat differently, and a custom pace helps cater courses to unique styles of learning better than any classroom could.
Making a study schedule is also much easier when dealing with online test prep. Attending a class or finding the time to gather all the necessary materials can put a serious hindrance on one’s schedule, but online test prep can be accessed on a mobile device from anywhere.
The convenience of online test prep goes beyond accessibility, however, as online courses offer immediate feedback. Instead of having to wait for teachers to grade a practice test, the results are ready instantly. Practice tests are among the most essential aspects of ACT test prep, after all, so speeding up that process always makes studying more effective.
Counterpoint Test Prep
At Counterpoint, we strive to take online ACT test prep to the next level with our unique Advantage-Point Strategy. This system was developed by Dr. Kay using proven teaching and test-taking strategies that are sure to improve student scores on the ACT. It’s expressed in three parts: Pinpoint, Checkpoint and Endpoint.
The first step to this unique approach to problem solving is Pinpoint. For this step, students must rephrase the question or problem in their own words. They discover what it’s actually asking by identifying key words and matching them with possible compatible key words in the answer choices.
After gaining a full understanding of the problem, the Checkpoint stage is tackled. Here, the problem solver works to eliminate two of the answers. In doing so, they identify the keywords in the eliminated answers that make them wrong, such as words that serve to switch the meaning or act as a distraction. With two answers remaining, it’s time to determine which actually answers the question.
At the Endpoint stage, one essential question needs to be answered, and the answer will solve the problem. Which choice can’t be eliminated? Reaching the endpoint for each question will put students in a much better position to achieve a higher score on the ACT.
We Can Help You Get the Score of Your Life!
Fortunately, Counterpoint offers extensive ACT test prep courses designed and taught by actual teaching and test-taking professionals rather than by people who simply did well on the ACT. We can help students not only score well on the ACT, but also be better prepared to get into the college of their dreams.
In the years we’ve offered our wide range of ACT test prep courses, our results have spoken for themselves. Counterpoint students earn an average 25-27 on their ACT exam, while the national average is 20-21. While Counterpoint students in general average about 40% higher than everyone else, top Counterpoint students score in the top 5-15% nationwide. With high scores like that, students are eligible for a wider variety of colleges and even some scholarships.
From building confidence with the core subjects to writing the college essay and completing the application, click here to see the complete menu of courses and services we have to help you get the score of your life!
For the record - We’re successful only when our students are. That's why you can always count on us for ACT success. Our courses are entirely comprehensive, and we’re always happy to offer individual help. We believe students deserve every edge they can get when applying to college, and the ACT test is an essential step in that direction. Academic success is right around the corner, and nothing can get students there quite like the Counterpoint Advantage.
Meet The Authors, Co-founders of Counterpoint College and Test Prep:
Dr. Kay Van Der Burg
Dr. Kay is a National Board certified Master Teacher and has a Ph.D. in education from the University of Wisconsin- Madison. She has had training at both Harvard and Stanford universities. She taught Advanced Placement (AP) coursework and was the district SAT/ACT prep lead for one of the highest ranking districts in the country. She has been tutoring students for more than two decades and is the co-founder of Counterpoint Test Prep.
Damien Van Der Burg, CHPC
Damien has a Bachelor’s degree in Marine Biology from the University of California Santa Cruz, and a Master’s degree in biology from Point Loma Nazarene. He has taught high school science and math courses for 15 years, including Advanced Placement (AP) coursework. In addition to co-founding Counterpoint Test Prep, Damien is also an investor, a certified high performance and leadership coach and founder at Damien Vanderburg Coaching.
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