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ACT Philosophies For The Modern Era of College Admissions

1) The ACT is a decent test of skills and knowledge. It is not a great predictor of success after college and is a dubious predictor on in-college success, but since competitive four year colleges have made it a major factor in their admissions decisions and merit scholarship awards, it makes sense for students seeking admissions at highly regarded colleges to prepare for the ACT.

1A) ACT prep should not replace any efficacious part of a high school curriculum or wholesome extra-curricular activities.

2) The ACT is a good standard to help in college admissions decisions, given disparities in high school quality and students’ choice of courses.

3) Colleges overweight the ACT because other measures, like GPA, moral character, and school competitiveness, are difficult to compare.*

4) Overweighting the ACT gives a great opportunity to high school students who lack strong grades, or are at less-highly regarded schools.

5) Overweighting the ACT means students with good grades and at good high schools have to protect them with a solid ACT (or SAT) score.

6) The ACT is not a measure of FIXED knowledge, skills, or “intelligence”. Ask any of our ACT students who have raised their scores 16+ section-points after two months’ preparation.  (Four section-points = 1 composite point on the ACT.)

7) The ACT is coachable. Almost everyone improves with training. The question is how much.

8) To be blunt, but real: almost anyone seeking a competitive college who doesn’t attempt to master the ACT (or SAT) is gaining time but sacrificing long-term fulfillment. We say this owing to the number of adults who rue not trying harder in high school, and to the trends that elite colleges carry MORE punch in hiring and grad school decisions than ever before.

9) Though we try to make it otherwise, mastering the ACT is not particularly fun.

10) We don’t drag out the learning. A few intensive weeks with us, or once a week for a full semester is all, if you do it right. Consider it a part-time summer job; or consider it an extra honors course for a semester. Test prep has become one of the responsibilities of the college-bound teenager.

10A) We don’t drag out class time either. A semi-militaristic attitude towards promptness and missed classes helps everyone. We offer extra help, and encourage parents to prompt students to use Home Study Hot Line

11) The best time to study for the ACT is when the student has the most free time, often summer.  The second best time is during a long vacation. The third best time is when the student has a light semester. **

12) All other things being equal, the best time to study is early – the summer before junior year, junior fall, or junior winter.  It is almost irrelevant whether a student has had Algebra II – a good ACT course teaches the required Algebra II. Holding a great ACT score before senior year makes college visits and college decision-making easier.

13) High school success does not automatically translate to ACT success.

13A) Even for good students, the ACT Math is difficult because it asks familiar concepts in unfamiliar ways.

13B) Even for good students, the ACT Verbal is difficult because asks grammar questions in unfamiliar ways, and demands reading skills many students have never used.

13C) Even for good students, the ACT Essay can be difficult because it asks for impromptu opinion-based essays, with a severe time constraint (40 minutes to assess, plan, compose and edit).

13D) Even for good students, the ACT science can be difficult because it shows experiments not previewed in high school textbooks, and requires a furious pace.

14) The ACT is not a socio-economically biased test. It does test things related to American culture, but that is the culture familiar to almost every American high school student. Though the ACT may be unfair to the recent immigrant, colleges tend to assess immigrant applicants by other standards anyhow.

15) Highly-ranked colleges are inappropriate for some students. We simply want every child who might find it appropriate to have all options open. The US News Survey has a highly flawed methodology, but since it is the most-recognized ranking, students seeking competitive colleges should consult it.

16) Highly ranked colleges merit your consideration BECAUSE JOB RECRUITERS and GRAD SCHOOLS value that high ranking. Irrespective of the training students receive at the top-ranked colleges, the imprimatur of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, UChicago, Duke, Stanford, and CalTech carries significantly into the market for the first job, for graduate school, and perhaps even for promotions thereafter. Ask recruiters who unabashedly state that they have discrepant thresholds for interviewing candidates based on their school. Ask Nicholas Lehmann, who said in a PBS Frontline interview – “a good school puts you in the way of more opportunity”.

17) For students willing and able to prepare for the ACT and do their college search early, applying Early Decision is sensible so long as there is no need to shop among financial offers. According to The Early Admissions Game, at some schools the effects of applying E.D. (early decision, which is binding) give an applicant a 34.8 percent boost, which corresponds to a 2.5 point composite ACT advantage”.

18) The PSAT is worth preparing for if the student needs a strong score for self-esteem, has a decent shot at National Merit semi-finalist recognition or would be greatly aided by a minority recruitment program. Otherwise, the PSAT is a useless test: colleges do not see your scores, and it is not a great reflector of the ACT. It is significantly shorter, with fewer hard math questions, and lacks the essay tested on the ACT. We recommend to most students that their prep time target the ACT, and not be concerned about PSAT. If in early September, you are testing well enough in practice to have a realistic shot at National Merit Finalist, then we push hard on it.

19) Plan to take the ACT at least twice following study. All colleges take the better score, and most (by our survey 95% of competitive colleges) cherry pick and combine the best Math on one sitting with the best Verbal on perhaps a different sitting. This is known as “superscoring”, which is always advantageous to students taking the test multiple times. Thus there is no downside to a second test. However, if you can start early enough to complete your study by the first test, you could be “one and done”, which feels nice.

20) The overweighting of the ACT in admissions decisions has caused anxiety and pressure. The best way to alleviate that anxiety is by being a well-prepared student.

* Since the 2016 change, many colleges are not weighting the ACT more than the SAT.

** Scheduling the ACT Test
We have one piece of advice that far too many students don’t follow, and on this one we know we’re right: START EARLY. Colleges do not penalize an applicant for taking the ACT two or three times. The ACT is not a test that rewards skills acquired only in senior year. The only academic background needed to take advantage of the Ivy Bound course is a semester each of Algebra I and Geometry. Since most students have this by tenth grade, there is nothing wrong with taking the ACT test at the end of 10th grade or the beginning of 11th. We like to see kids sitting on solid ACT scores by winter of junior year. That frees them to concentrate on their academics in junior spring and senior year. It also frees them to take the courses they really want to. Strong scores earned early allow students more fervent participation in the extra-curricular activities. The confidence a strong ACT score bring just may allow the kids to have FUN, which we’re in favor of too.

All other things being equal, if you need to prepare for the ACT, do so when you have the most time. ACT test preparation is work. A good ACT prep class will demand as much time as an honors high school class. Thus, students need to beware of an overload and schedule their prep time accordingly. If it’s during the academic year, avoid committing to a full course of study in the same semester as playing a varsity sport.