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Understanding the ACT and how you can help your child succeed



As a parent, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the standardized testing and college application process. The scope of tasks involved is daunting: There are vast amounts of paperwork to be completed, study hours that have to be put in, college visits that have to be made, and tuition that eventually has to be paid. Rest assured, though, that you’ve already taken the first and most important step: You’re getting involved, valuing your child’s education, and searching for the best way to help them along on this journey. Believe it or not, you have already given your child the single greatest advantage on the ACT and in college admissions because children who are raised in an education-oriented home typically perform better in school, on standardized tests, and in the college admissions process.

Understanding the ACT

The first, and most important, step is to understand exactly what the ACT is. The exam can be a source of great stress for your son or daughter—however, by knowing what the test is all about, you can help lend some structure to their studies and plans, and relieve some of the pressure they are likely to experience.

The ACT is one of two standardized examinations used for college admissions (the other is the SAT); it is accepted by all four-year undergraduate institutions in the United States. It is a four-subject, multiple-choice exam which can be taken with a writing section (known as the ACT Plus Writing) or without a writing section (known as the ACT (No Writing)). The four subjects tested by the ACT are English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science; each of the sections of the ACT is referred to as a “test” (therefore, a full ACT exam would have an English Test, a Mathematics Test, a Reading Test, and a Science Test; students taking the ACT Plus Writing also have a Writing Test).



 Math Test

60 minutes

 Math Questions

60 multiple choice

 Math Concepts

Pre-Algebra, Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, Trigonometry

 Reading Test

35 minutes

 Reading Questions

40 multiple choice

 Reading Concepts

Passage-Based Reading

 Science Test

35 minutes

 Science Questions

40 multiple choice

 Science Concepts

Data Representation, Research Summaries, Conflicting Viewpoints

 English Test

45 minutes

 English Questions

75 multiple choice

 English Concepts

Usage/Mechanics, Rhetorical Skills

 Writing Test

30 minutes (optional)

 Writing Questions

1 essay (optional)

 Writing Concepts

Writing skills on a persuasive essay

See sample ACT questions here.

The exam takes approximately three-and-a-half hours (including breaks) to complete. Students taking the ACT Plus Writing will test for an additional half hour. The entire testing day, including administrative protocols, typically takes between four-and-a-half and five hours.
Students are given an overall (Composite) score from 1 to 36, and are also given individual test scores for the English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science Tests. Students taking the ACT Plus Writing will also receive a Writing Test score from 2 to 12, as well as a Combined English/Writing score reported on a 1 to 36 range.

The ACT is administered six times a year in the U.S., U.S. territories, Puerto Rico, and Canada: September, October, December, February, April, and June. Outside of these areas, the test is given five times a year: October, December, February, April, and June.
In addition to understanding the ACT, however, there are other steps that you must take in order to ensure that your son or daughter has the most competitive advantage on test day.

Set a Goal

Help your child by setting a reachable goal. To begin, use their score on a practice test as a guide. You can download a free practice test on the ACT website or enroll them in a prep class that gives practice tests in class or at home. Then, research their top college prospects and choices. What is the average ACT score at each university? You can find this information on the school’s website, through online search engines at U.S. News and World Report , or in many of the college guides published in books and magazines. Finally, use all of this information to set a realistic goal. Maybe your child has already surpassed the average score of the colleges to which he or she plans to apply. If so, set the goal 4 or 5 points higher to open up more opportunities in case there are unforeseen events in the next year. Or, suppose your child is well below the average ACT score needed for his choice of schools. Set the goal at the score needed for admission, but begin looking at other schools that have a lower average.

Remember, every child is different and has different attributes and abilities; just because the neighbor’s teenager got a 31 does not make this a realistic goal for your son or daughter. Nor is an easily-attained practice test score a suitable goal; set the bar higher and make your child work to their full potential. PowerScore guarantees a 5-point increasein our full-length ACT course because we believe that nearly every student can improve with repeated practice and exposure, whether the student begins with an 18 or a 28.

Create a Practice Schedule

The ACT is very “coachable,” meaning that there are patterns to test questions and concepts which students can learn to recognize with repeated exposure.

Help your teenager by creating a practice schedule to prepare for the ACT. This might come in the form of an ACT classroom course or practice test questions from ACT. Some parents have their children read a Reading Test passage every morning at breakfast, or go through vocabulary flashcards every night before bed. You know your child best; taking into consideration their schedule, their academic ability, and their ACT goals, create a schedule that allows them to practice test questions and concepts. For many students, a course is the most structured option, but only you know the best practice method for your active teenager.

Offer an Incentive

While most parents and teachers feel that personal satisfaction and achievement should be sufficient motivation to study for the ACT, these reasons have little effect on many of today’s teenagers. If your student needs extra motivation, offer up a creative and fun reward for an official ACT score at or above the goal you set together. Your incentive does not need to be expensive; rather, look for rewards that are funny, original, or meaningful to your child. For example, offer to take the next official ACT (there is no age limit), promise not to chaperone the prom, or vow to dye your hair red for one week. Remember, though, that if you do promise an incentive, you must be ready to follow through when the goal is met!

Avoid Excess Pressure

There is a lot of pressure associated with the ACT. Students are worried about letting down their teachers, scoring lower than their friends and peers, and failing to gain acceptance to college. However, students report that the largest source of pressure is from their parents. Some parents create this pressure themselves, but more often the student is simply afraid to disappoint their mother or father. Therefore, anything you say about the ACT can be interpreted as added pressure.

It is extremely important to remain positive and encouraging throughout the testing process. It is okay to stress the importance of the ACT, but assure your child that you are confident in their abilities. If you have older children, do not cite their former test scores in comparison to where you expect this child to score. During practice tests, avoid expressing any disappointment in results or in your child’s ability to grasp a certain concept. Never make statements like, “How could you miss this?” or “This is an easy one.” Instead, assure them that all questions are valid and that it’s okay to make mistakes. Your teenager might not appear to be the most motivated or serious student, but he or she will perform to the best of their ability on test day.

Encourage Plenty of Sleep Before The Test

The entire ACT experience can take over five hours to complete, from the time the students arrive at the testing center to the moment they are released. The exam has four tests (five, if your son or daughter is also taking the Writing Test), and the last hour or two of testing can be grueling even with a good night’s sleep. Limit your child’s activities the night before the exam. We know that it is sometimes impossible to avoid athletic competitions or school events, but strongly encourage your child to get at least eight or nine hours of rest before the test.

Make Breakfast on Test Day

Your child must eat breakfast the day of the test. Not only will breakfast provide the energy needed to perform well, but it will keep your child’s stomach from growling in a silent testing room. Many students report that a rumbling belly—either their own or the nearest test-takers’—has distracted them from a top performance on the ACT. You should also ensure that your son or daughter takes a snack and a bottle of water in a backpack; students will be given an opportunity to eat a snack during testing breaks.

In the end, your child’s ACT score is dependent on dozens of factors, many of which are beyond your control. However, by providing positive support, encouraging practice and study, and helping set realistic goals, your son or daughter will have the confidence required to master the test.