by Brian Burnsed

Do you find the SAT daunting? Learn some valuable tips to help master the ACT, a viable alternative.

The ACT, which has long been the college-entrance exam of choice in the nation's heartland and some portions of the Southeast, is expanding its reach. It's proven to be a viable alternative to the SAT, as every four-year school that accepts SAT scores also accepts the ACT. With the test's broadening appeal, it's important to get a firm grasp of the test's structure to determine if it might be a better fit for you than the SAT.

The ACT doesn't consist of numerous subsections like the SAT. Instead, it is divided into four separate, timed tests: English, math, reading, and science reasoning. There's also an optional essay that most students complete. The English section consists of 75 questions over 45 minutes with a primary focus on sentence structure and grammar. Students are allotted 60 minutes to complete the 60 math problems, which range from basic algebra to trigonometry. The reading and science reading sections each have 40 questions, and test takers have 35 minutes to complete each section. The test is scored on a scale of 1 to 36.

Take a look at these six tips to decide if the ACT is the right test for you and how to earn the score you want:

1. You have options.

It's wise to invest some time to pick the test that best suits your skills and test-taking strengths, rather than simply selecting the ACT or SAT at random. Experts agree that students should take a timed practice version of each test to determine which one they're more comfortable with and which one might give them the best score. Colleges put equal weight into both tests, so there's no drawback in taking the ACT if you feel you can perform better. The official practice tests provided by the College Board (SAT) and ACT, Inc. can take several hours each but are the most effective way to help you earn a high score. "The ACT is a shorter and more straightforward test than the SAT," says Alexis Avila, founder and president of Prepped & Polished, a Boston area-based college counseling and tutoring firm. "To decide which test is best suited for you, I suggest taking a practice test for both the SAT and ACT, and go for the test that yielded the best results."

2. Are you a math whiz? If so, the ACT is for you.

Experts say that the math section on the ACT offers more challenging problems than those on the SAT. While the SAT might try to trick test takers with subtle wording in its otherwise simpler math questions, the ACT tests harder material and requires a deeper background in math in order to be successful. There are four trigonometry questions on the ACT and a higher concentration of intermediate algebra questions. Why should you take a test that has tougher math? There is a trade-off, experts say. The ACT does not directly test vocabulary like the SAT does. A strong working vocabulary is useful for the reading sections, but not essential for a good score. If you're a stronger math student, but have some catching up to do on the English side, the ACT is likely your best choice. "I think the ACT is a viable option for a lot of [mathematically inclined] students," says Ed Carroll, executive director of high school program development at the Princeton Review.

[Find out if the SAT is the right test for you.]

3. Pay attention in the science lab.

Unlike the SAT, the ACT has a science reasoning section. While only a handful of these questions are based on science content assimilated during school, a working knowledge of and familiarity with scientific concepts is advantageous. A bulk of the questions in the scientific reasoning section require you to examine graphs and data to draw conclusions. While simply reading these questions carefully, examining the data closely, and ignoring any superfluous information is enough to excel at these questions, a background in science keeps the questions from looking too complex at first glance. "They do a good job of making it look really confusing," says Carroll. "That section can be trouble for people who aren't necessarily science inclined."

The time limit can be a significant obstacle in the science section as well. Those who have had success on the test advise students not to spend too much time dissecting the scientific data or graphs. "There's not enough time to read all of the articles and graphs in the science section of the ACT," says Anna Lawrence, a high school junior from Illinois who scored a 35 out of 36 in April. "Go to the questions first and refer to the information as needed."

4. Take practice tests.

After taking those initial tests that help you decide whether the ACT is right for you, it's important to test frequently. Schools sometimes don't provide their students with ACT prep questions as part of classwork like they do with SAT questions, so familiarizing yourself with the subtle differences in question style and format by practicing is beneficial. And don't simply sit down with a book and try to knock out a few problems when you have a spare 10 minutes. People that have had success on the test claim that they would block out time to complete a whole practice section, or an entire practice version of the test, to prepare them for the actual testing experience. Ryan Pope, now a Harvard University graduate, took the ACT during his junior year of high school in 2003, scoring a 34. The biggest key to his success? He took five practice tests on his own. "Going through previous tests did a lot for me," he says. "In my opinion, there's no substitute for sitting down with a book of old exams and just going through them."

5. Don't skip questions.

Another key difference between the SAT and ACT is that there is no penalty for getting a question incorrect on the ACT. The SAT's penalty is in place in order to keep students from guessing, but ACT test takers can guess freely if they're stumped or out of time. Experts say it's best to work through each section in its entirety, skipping questions that prove to be problematic. Return to those questions when you've finished the entire section, but if you run out of time and are still clueless, pick a letter and bubble in any questions you have skipped. "No answer should be left blank," says Carroll. "Even if you run out of time, you should just pick the letter of the day."

6. Know your directions.

Through practice, you should get to know the directions for each section before you take the actual test. Because there are only four sections, learning what to expect from each type of problem should come easily with enough repetition. If you know the directions, experts say, there's no need to waste precious minutes reading the descriptions at the beginning of each section. This will buy you added time to solve tougher questions at the end of a section. This can be a risky strategy, but it could pay off if you practice enough before the test. It's particularly beneficial to slow test takers. "You want to know what the directions are for each section," says Kristen Campbell, director of college prep programs at Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions. "It's about time saving. You're going to need every second you can get to answer the questions. The last thing you want to do is spend a couple of minutes up front reading directions."

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6 Tips for ACT Test Score Success