ACT Tips and Tricks

September, 2014

Here's the Latest!

The ACT has been administered to hundreds of thousands of students since its inception in 1959. A quick look at the ACT Timeline posted on the official site reveals that it is now taken by more students than the SAT.

Providing Valid Advice to Students

Students should certainly practice the ACT before they take the "free" version provided by their district and the Alabama State Department of Education. Because it is a fluid test, they should make sure they practice with the most recent practice tests available. For example, the Writing Assessment, which all Alabama students will take, has only been offered since 2005. Other portions of the test have changed from time to time as well.

While older siblings or friends can certainly provide helpful advice, it is important to note that the ACT test they took several years ago may not be similar to the one the current junior class will take. The list that follows is for the administration of the 2014-2015 ACT test.

  • The math test covers a large number of formulas; these formulas are not provided on the test.
  • There is no penalty for guessing. Thus, when the "five-minutes-remaining" announcement is made, students should bubble in all remaining questions with the same letter. Some students believe this should always be letter C; this is not necessarily the case. The important thing is to choose a letter and stick with it.
  • The most difficult part of the test for many students is the time factor. On average, students can improve their score three points between the first and second time they take the test just because they know they must work faster. You can help your students by giving them the opportunity to do a practice test.

The Semicolon Controversy

Many English teachers and students across the state have heard a tip that goes something like this: "No question will ever have an answer with a semicolon in it." Searching for the origin of this information has turned up a wide variety of opinions.

The Grockit Test Prep group clearly believes the semicolon is an important part of the test. Read the second paragraph on their page regarding semicolons, colons, and dashes.

BenchPrep, a competing Test Prep website, seems to have one version of the "don't pick the semicolon" rule, and thus could be the source of this advice. Again, look at the second paragraph on their page about the topic.

And finally, Varsity Tutors begins their explanation of semicolon usage by having a question that does include a semicolon in the answer.

What should you, as English teachers, do? Teach semicolons!


  • This section contains 75 questions based on five reading passages.
    There is a 45-minute time limit.
  • Questions on the English test only have four answer choices.
  • There are 40 usage/mechanics and 35 rhetorical skills questions.
  • The English passages are short, and should be skimmed before reading the questions.


  • This section has 60 questions and has a one-hour time limit.
  • All questions have five answer choices.
  • The test covers Algebra I and II, Geometry, and some Trigonometry.


  • There are forty questions, to be answered in 36 minutes.
  • There are four answer choices for each question
  • There will be four passages: Prose fiction, Social Science, Humanities, Natural Science
  • There are ten questions per passage
  • The passages always appear in this order but do not have to be read or answered in this order.
  • Time management is critical on this test!


  • There are seven passages, each followed by questions. There is a time limit of 35 minutes to answer the 40 questions.
  • There are three data representation passages followed by five questions each.
  • There are three research summaries followed by six questions each.
  • There is one conflicting viewpoints passage followed by seven questions.


  • You will be given a prompt for an argumentative (not persuasive) essay on a topic relevant to high school students.
  • Take up to 5 minutes to “digest” the prompt and decide which side of the issue you are going to take.
  • Take up to 10 minutes to outline your essay, selecting relevant examples, anticipating “con” arguments, developing refutation for “con” arguments, and devising a strong conclusion.

Practice Makes Perfect!

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