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The Most Common Mistake on Each Section of the ACT

Here at the Learning Island we’ve talked extensively about how the ACT and SAT are “fun house mirrors” of high school subjects. Test sections follow their own specific logic that often flies in the face of how verbal, mathematical, and scientific concepts function in the real world. In fact, some rules are so counterintuitive that students have a difficult time adopting them. In this lesson, we’re going to look at the single mistake on each section of the ACT made by virtually every student I have taught.

English: Choosing Answers Based on Style 

All grammar and rhetoric questions on the English section follow a specific set of rules. Style choices, such as whether to use a semicolon or a period and the best flow for a sentence, are inherently subjective. Make sure you can cite a test-specific grammar or rhetoric rule for each correct answer. If all answer choices seem equally grammatically/rhetorically correct, pick the answer that is the shortest, simplest, and most specific.

Math: Not Using Shortcuts
Time is tight on the Math section. If you attempt to set up and solve every question in its entirety, you will run out of time. Some questions will require you to follow all of the steps to reach the correct answer. Therefore, it is important to use shortcuts and workarounds whenever possible to bank more time for the most challenging questions.

Reading: Subtle Analytics 
Reading requires you to stick to what is present on and absent from the page and to resist the urge to read between the lines. This simplification of critical reading actually puts students who are more advanced in literature at a disadvantage. AP Lang courses stress analyzing and uncovering deeper meanings in texts. However, these skills have no place on the Reading section. If critical reading is your strong suit, resist the urge to subtly “nudge” the passage toward the answer you think is correct. The only correct answers are the ones directly supported by the text itself.

Science: Overreliance on Actual Science

Relying extensively on the scientific concepts you’ve studied in high school is actually a bad idea for the Science section. First, there is very little actual science on its ACT namesake. Second, there is almost always an easier way to solve a question than a purely “scientific” approach. Third, approaching Science section questions the way you would “real” science problems can cause you to miss the ways the ACT will try to trick you. Finally, relying too much on what you do know about science can leave you at a loss when you come across a concept you are unfamiliar with.

Writing: Arguing for the Position you agree With
The ACT Writing graders care only about how well you can support a position. They don’t care whether you personally believe in that position. Accordingly, you should always advocate for the position you can make the strongest case for, even if you strongly disagree with that position.