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  • Writer's pictureDavid Brooks, Ph.D.


Mastering the Second of Two Academic Index Elements - Standardized Test - Post #10 of 21

Standardized Test Answer Sheet

Okay, what about the ACT? Is that important too? The answer is that scoring well on the ACT or SAT--and either are acceptable to every top 30 school in America--is absolutely crucial to admission at all elite universities. It is true that the University of California system last year dropped the requirement for standardized tests. It is also true that I believe this will be reinstated very soon in California. After I made this prediction in an earlier post of this blog, MIT then announced a few month afterwards (details here) that they are moving from standardized-test-optional status to standardized-test-mandatory status now that the pandemic is waning. I believe there is no alternative for elite universities but to apply the colander of a standardized test to winnow down their tens of thousands of applicants who can each boast nosebleed-high GPAs. So in my humble estimation, the ACT is here to stay, and we need to plan accordingly.

So, let’s say you followed all 32 steps which were enumerated and detailed in the previous blog post to make very high grades in high school. Let’s say you have a 4.6 GPA. Are nosebleed-high grades completely sufficient? Definitely not.

The problem is that grade inflation has been rampant across America for decades. To be honest, it is common knowledge among admission departments across America that many high schools have teachers and coaches who teach classes and give “A”s to anyone and everyone who they really like. And moreover, many high schools require relatively little effort and expertise to make an “A” compared to the gauntlet to earn an “A” required by the top-tier high schools across America.

So what ACT score is required by the top 30 schools? The debate rages wildly among the bloggers on this subject, but in my opinion, for the ACT, whose perfect score is a 36, the score that bestows that golden ticket is between a 33 and a 36. Slightly lower can still work, but an elite school really has trouble rejecting any student who has both a 4.5+ GPA and a 33+ ACT score. That should be your goal.

Remember, as a high school teacher I both proctored the ACT several times and taught ACT prep classes on Saturday morning. These experiences informed me considerably me when began to prepare my own kids to take the ACT.

Here are the 27 steps my kids have each taken to achieve that ethereal, sublime, mythical 33+. Again I will compose these steps as if I am speaking to your child.

1) Intellectual stimulation from the crib.

Several earlier posts of this blog enumerated the details on this, but when you sit down with pencil and legal calculator in hand to take the ACT on a Saturday morning, these early activities and plans begin to bear fruit. An organized, deliberate parental campaign to generate a hyper-enriched environment from the get-go is a solid gold preparation for the ACT. The current average ACT score across America is a 21, and the current minimum ACT at the University of Alabama is 21, Texas is 23, Michigan is 31, and Yale is 33. Intellectual stimulation at the formative developmental stage—such as intensive reading, preschool chess classes, and music lessons—gives you a head start to reach whatever score you seek.


2) Test early and often.

Make testing from an early age a priority to shake out those nerves. The earlier a child begins taking standardized tests, the more the ACT is no big deal and a comfortable experience, which for most U.S. students, it certain is not.

3) Puzzle Time!

Make testing fun and common and a game. I personally loved taking standardized tests as a kid. You as an ACT examinee should think of this as a fun morning.

4) Take only honors courses.

Yes, this is the key ingredient to making a high GPA, but conveniently, it is also a key ingredient in nailing the ACT. Being exposed to the most intricate, complicated concepts in every discipline is how students score the perfect 36.

5) Make “As” in all these honor courses.

Taking honors course is one thing, and actually understanding and excelling at the material is quite another. Acing a course means truly understanding the information taught, and all elite colleges recognize this fact. Standardized tests drill straight into the subject matter delivered on these standardized tests, so “As” in a bunch of honors courses means you will automatically know some of the questions, which frees up your valuable time to address the impossible questions that only the most elite students answer correctly.

6) Be an avid reader.

Pretty much all students who walk the campuses of America’s top thirty colleges were lifetime readers who were often seen in their childhood reading a book. Intimate familiarity with dozens of different writing styles will make interpretation of the thick, incomprehensible paragraphs of the ACT far easier; the reading comprehension terrain will be far more familiar. Reading also vastly increases your vocabulary, which is a must on standardized tests.

7) Chess is crucial.

Problem solving and critical thinking need to be your regular routine throughout your childhood. If you are used to the fun puzzle of finding a checkmate in a crowded field of distractors, then you are training your mind to solve the puzzle of dozens of ACT questions. Serendipitously, both the ACT and afterschool chess programs and summer chess camps are pressurized ticking-clock-based timed tests that are really testing if you have nerves of steel under enormous pressure. Make sure you do.

The Knight School kids playing chess

8) Be on the math team.

None of my three kids were on the math team, but our family admits that if they had been, things would heave been far easier. Graduation ceremonies are always dominated by awardees who are on the math team, and undergoing grueling calculus and trigonometry practices and competitions all day Saturdays for years definitely makes that ACT score radiate.

Kid solving math problems

9) Save up money.

ACT tests are expensive, around $70 each, and I recommend you take five. ACT prep courses are far more expensive, and I recommend you take two. Plan accordingly.

10) Wait on it…Wait on it…

Don’t bother taking the ACT until junior year because until eleventh grade, you actually have not learned enough Math and Science to make the very high scores in these sections. The same goes for the English and Comprehension sections. Moreover, you have not experienced enough life to give you context and toughness to figure out the really tough questions.

11) Practice a ton.

I suggest you take a real, Saturday-morning practice ACT “cold” during the sophomore year, as a baseline and to get all comfy with the gauntlet you will run your junior year.

12) Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Take the ACT four to five times between January and July of your Junior Year. Once you make a 34 you can stop. There is absolutely no penalty for taking this test repeatedly, and no reason not to once you’ve saved up for this expense!

13) Utilize all free online ACT practice tests.

Practice tests are critical for getting acclimated to this strange beast. So many of my students were shocked by the unfamiliarity. Like a scalding jacuzzi, you must become slowly acclimated.

14) ACT prep courses are crucial.

These were key to my own kids’ success on the ACT. My kids each started at a baseline of 27, then took a very effective ACT preparation course and that vaulted their scores to a 33. I highly recommend you google/ask on Facebook/ask high school counselors what the very best ACT Preparation Course is and take that in January of your junior year, right before taking the ACT tests that spring.

15) Take a second ACT prep course.

This is probably not a shock to you after reading the ten posts of this blog, but I recommend enrolling in an entirely different ACT prep course the fall of the junior year. I would enroll in the second-best in your city first in the fall, then the best in January. This will make you razor-sharp when the test rolls around in February.

16) Check out the internet.

There are new online courses that Shark Tank and others are raving about. I never did this, but I recommend you consider it, especially if your area has no strong ACT prep courses. For example, check out

17) Get physiologically perfect.

Take the test day very seriously; getting enough sleep, hydration, and wearing a warm outfit in layers are all important elements to ensure you are comfortable and ready to wrestle the beast for four hours.

18) Guess.

Make sure you finish every section—guessing helps a ton if you can narrow down the question to a few possibilities. But importantly, guessing also helps if you have no idea. There is simply no penalty for guessing on the ACT, so NEVER leave a bubble unfilled; it could be the magic bubble! Here's an interesting Princeton Review article on guessing when it comes to the ACT and SAT.

19) Use process of elimination.

Figure out every question like a little puzzle, and eliminating all the wrong/impossible answers will yield the one correct answer! Math is funny because you can actually plug each choice in to see which works in your formula.

20) Have stamina.

Four hours is a very long time. Make sure you are set for this going in; many strong testers peter out after three hours and that final section may be the deal breaker. Practicing a whole test in one sitting is a great idea.

21) Answer what is comfortable for you first.

This helps relax you and get you into the rhythm. Be sure to answer all the easy ones first, then go back and work the harder ones.

22) Bubble beautifully.

When I proctored the ACT, I sometimes witnessed sloppy students whose bubbling was radically misshapen. As a proctor I could say nothing, but to myself I was sad that these bubbles would be simply unrecognizable by the machine that graded them. Be neat.

23) Memorize common math formulas.

It is what the math team does and it is one of their secrets to success in applying to the top 30 colleges. Here are some:

24) Know what a distractor is.

A “distractor” is what the ACT calls each of the possible answers. In other words, they are deliberately trying to trick the test-taker into choosing an attractive yet incorrect answer. My advice is always to try to answer the question (other than certain math questions) without ever looking at the answer choices. Then if your answer is on the list, you are golden.

25) See what you missed after each test.

If you plan to re-take the test at least once, which you most certainly should, take advantage of the special ACT test dates that offer the option to pay $20 extra to receive your detailed results (called a Test Information Release). This extra report will show you your main subject areas of struggle, for more focused practice to improve results on your next ACT!

Learning from mistakes to improve standardized test scores

26) Understand where you are.

Basically, you as a test-taker must understand the weight of the moment. Never trivialize this test since it is the primary separator between the 10% of jubilant admittees and the 90% of disappointed applicants at each elite college. Internalize the importance of the ACT.

27) Stay calm.

While understanding the weight is important, keeping a cool head is equally important. This is where all those practice tests, and all those official Saturday-morning attempts at the ACT, pay off. They lighten the tension and make you comfortable and ready.


I believe that these twenty-seven steps will definitely help with your standardized test. I wish you the best of luck!


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