Seven Basic Rules for Taking the ACT
These seven rules apply to every section of the ACT. They
really are just commonsense guidelines, but it’s amazing how the
pressure and time constraints of the ACT can warp and mangle common
sense. We list them here because you should always have these rules of
test taking resting gently in your mind as you take the test. You
don’t need to focus on them obsessively, but you should be sure
not to forget them. They will help you save time and cut down on
1. Know the Instructions for Each Subject Test
Since you’ll need all the time you can get, don’t waste
time reading the Subject Test instructions during the actual test.
Learn the instructions beforehand by taking practice tests and reading
our chapters on the Subject Tests.
2. Use Your Test Booklet as Scratch Paper
Some students seem to think their test booklet has to
look “pretty” at the end of the test. Don’t be one of those students.
A pristine test booklet is a sad test booklet. In the Math Test,
the ACT writers even give you “figuring” space for drawing diagrams
and writing out solutions. You should write down all your work for
math problems, in case you want to return to them later to complete
the question or check your answer. The Math Test isn’t the only
place where you can benefit from marginal scribbling, though. Making
margin notes alongside the Reading and Science Reasoning passages
can help you stay on track when answering the subsequent questions.
In addition, if you want to skip a question and come back to it
later, you should make a distinctive mark next to it, so you won’t
miss it on your second pass through the questions.
3. Answer Easy Questions before Hard Questions
This is a crucial strategy for the ACT. Since all questions
within a Subject Test are worth the same number of points, there’s
no point slaving away over a difficult question if doing so
requires several minutes. In the same amount of time, you probably
could have racked up points by answering a bunch of easy, less time-consuming
In summary, answer the easy and moderate questions first.
That way you’ll make sure that you get to see all the questions
on the test that you have a good shot of getting right, while saving
the leftover time for the difficult questions.
4. Don’t Get Bogged Down by a Hard Question
This rule may seem obvious, but many people
have a hard time letting go of a question. If you’ve spent a significant
amount of time on a problem (in ACT world, a minute and a half is
a lot of time) and haven’t gotten close to answering it, just let
it go. Leaving a question unfinished may seem like giving up or
wasting time you’ve already spent, but you can come back to the
problem after you’ve answered the easy ones. The time you spent
on the problem earlier won’t be wasted. When you come back to the
problem, you’ll already have done part of the work needed to solve
This strategy goes hand in hand with Rule 3. After all,
the tough question that’s chewing up your time isn’t worth more
to the computer grading your answer sheet than the easy questions
5. Avoid Carelessness
There are two kinds of carelessness that threaten
you as an ACT test taker. The first kind is obvious: making mistakes
because you are moving too quickly through the questions. Speeding
through the test can result in misinterpreting a question or missing
a crucial piece of information. You should always be aware of this
kind of error because the ACT writers have written the test with
speedy test takers in mind: they often include tempting “partial
answers” among the answer choices. A partial answer is the result
of some, but not all, of the steps needed to solve a problem. If
you rush through a question, you may mistake a partial answer for
the real answer. Students often fall into the speeding trap when
they become confused, since confusion brings nervousness and fear
of falling behind. But those moments of confusion are precisely
the moments when you should take a second to slow down. Take a deep
breath, look at the question, and make a sober decision about whether
or not you can answer it. If you can, dive back in. If you can’t,
skip the question and go on to the next one.
The second kind of carelessness arises from frustration
or lack of confidence. Don’t allow yourself to assume a defeatist
attitude toward questions that appear to be complex. While some
of these questions may actually be complex, some of them will be
fairly simple questions disguised in complex-sounding terms. You
should at least skim every question to see whether you have a feasible
chance of answering it. Assuming you can’t answer a question is
like returning a present you’ve never even opened.
6. Be Careful Bubbling In Your Answers
Imagine this: you get all the right answers to the ACT
questions, but you fill in all the wrong bubbles. The scoring computer
doesn’t care that you did the right work; all it cares about are
the blackened bubbles on the answer sheet, and the wrong answers
that they indicate.
Protect yourself against this terrifying possibility with
careful bubbling. An easy way to prevent slips on the ACT answer
sheet is to pay attention to the letters being bubbled. Odd-numbered
answers are lettered A, B, C, D (except on the Math Test, where
they are A, B, C, D, E), and even-numbered answers are lettered
F, G, H, J (except on the Math Test, where they are F, G, H, J,
You may also want to try bubbling in groups (five
at a time or a page at a time) rather than answering one by one.
Circle the answers in the test booklet as you go through the page,
and then transfer the answers over to the answer sheet as a group.
This method should increase your speed and accuracy in
filling out the answer sheet. To further increase your accuracy, say
the question number and the answer in your head as you fill out
the grid: “Number 24, F. Number 25, C. Number 26, J.”
7. Always Guess When You Don’t Know the Answer
We will discuss guessing below in “The Meaning of Multiple
Choice,” but the basic rule is: always guess! You’re much better
off guessing than leaving an answer blank because there is no penalty
for wrong answers.