10 Ways to Tackle the ACT’s Most Challenging Questions

Is your high school student gearing up for an upcoming ACT exam? Depending on whether they’re planning on taking the ACT, the SAT, or both, their test preparation plans may vary, but you’ve both probably already read a lot about what is involved with the ACT. If not, the first step is to get familiar with the introductory materials concerning how the test is structured, its sections and how much time is allotted. The ACT is probably unlike any other test you and your child have taken, so it’s important to have a thorough understanding of all that is involved. Once you have a clear picture of what you’re in for, it’s time to start more detailed preparations.

The ACT is known for its tricky, confusing questions, but it is possible to prepare for them — even if you don’t know exactly what they’ll be. Here are 10 tips to get you started.

1. If you get stuck, read the question, read the answers, then read the question and answers again. Make sure you understand what the question is asking because sometimes the problem will seem harder than it looks. The answer may be as simple as a fact given in the introduction.

2. In the Math section, do whatever you need to do to turn the question into simpler terms. Draw a visual if it helps, create a table and write equations out for word problems.

3. In the Science section, study the visuals in detail before you read the passage and the answers. The graphs and charts provided are the key to finding the right answer. Sometimes they will ask you to interpret the data given and make an assumption in regards to the relationship between one or more pieces of data.

4. Along the same lines as interpreting data in the Science section, one particularly hard question format will give you two passages with conflicting viewpoints and ask you to answer questions about how the two arguments relate to one another. Understand the question after the passages before reading the passages. You want to know what to look for before reading the passage — otherwise you will end up glancing over something you may have missed.

5. In the Reading section, though you should completely read the passage the first time around, get good at skimming. After you read the passage, then the question, you will want to go back and skim the passage for the correct answer. You’ll be asked a number of questions for each passage, and there is never as much time as you’d hope to find the answers.

6. When you are studying for the Reading section, study different styles of writing as well as different genres. Reading questions will be about fiction, social science, humanities and natural science. Be sure you know how to quickly pick out the important parts of the passage for each subject area. Also, consider starting the section you feel most comfortable with so you can spend more time on the harder subjects.

7. The English section is typically the trickiest. You will have questions about logic, grammar, sentence structure and mechanics, rhetorical skills, and style. Questions can get confusing, so slow down and be sure you understand what exactly the question is asking you. Being able to make educated guesses comes into play here.

8. The “No Change” answers can cause confusion. There may not be anything wrong with the answer even though the question makes you think there is. Likewise, “Delete” might be an answer too, which can sometimes help to eliminate ambiguity.

9. In the Writing (Essay) section, think about the argument from the introduction and thesis statement to the evidence and conclusion. Make an outline or jot down notes to help you remember.

10. Sneaky, but possibly risky, tip for the English section: Those reading your essay don’t usually have time to check all of your facts to see if they are true.

When all else fails, make an educated guess. The ACT doesn’t dock you for wrong answers, which means you must fill in every question of the test. Keep an eye on the time you have left to complete, and guess to the best of your ability. Even if you can eliminate only one option, you’ll significantly increase your chances of choosing the correct answer.

Lastly, make sure that your mind and body are fully prepared for test day — this can’t be underestimated.

  • Eat a healthy meal the night before, get enough sleep, and eat a healthy breakfast.
  • Warm up your brain before you start taking the test by reading a thought-provoking article of interest.
  • Don’t panic, and don’t let the anxiety take over. Take deep breaths and stretch out your arms, legs and entire body before sitting down for the test.
  • If you are having difficulties answering a question, don’t be afraid to skip it and come back to it later. Time management is essential.


About the Author

Ryan Hickey is the Managing Editor of Peterson’s & EssayEdge and is an expert in many aspects of college, graduate and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams and TOEFL; editing essays and personal statements; and consulting directly with applicants.

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