How to Support Your Students Through ACT Prep


Whether you’re teaching a specialized ACT course or acting as your school’s point person for students taking the ACT, providing the right kind of support for your students as they prepare for the test can make a huge difference--not only in students’ scores, but also in the quality of their lives. Realizing the pressure that students are under to do well on standardized college admissions tests is the first step. That doesn’t mean you should assign less homework or let students get away with bad behavior, but it does mean that there are some concrete, actionable steps you can take to help set your students up for success, both in your classroom and for their futures.

Help students set ambitious, yet realistic, goals.

This is particularly important if you’re teaching an ACT course, but classroom teachers may not realize the impact they can have on students’ beliefs in what they can accomplish. In whatever scenario you’re discussing the test with students, emphasize that the ACT is a standardized test. Experts know the content that it will cover. This means that it’s eminently learnable and students can raise their scores significantly.

With that said, students shouldn’t expect a 15-point jump overnight (or even within a month). The best thing students can do is to take an ACT practice test to get a sense of where they are at the beginning of their prep, then set a goal that they can work towards over a period of several months. Emphasize, as well, that almost everyone will do better by taking the ACT twice. Some colleges will even combine applicants’ best sectional scores into a “superscore.” So while students may be impatient to get the test “over with,” help them see that preparing for the ACT is a process, and that the end goal has a significant impact on their future--but also that, by being willing to make this time investment, they can reap substantial rewards.

Understand what your students are getting into.

If you’re an ACT teacher, you most likely already know your stuff (I hope!) On the other hand, if you’re a classroom teacher tasked by your school with preparing or supporting students through the ACT process, you may not have thought about ACT content since you took the test yourself!

It’s vital that students know that the ACT doesn’t test just anything. It tests a set curriculum of subject matter. Getting a good ACT study guide and working through it before you start to guide students can make all the difference in the kind of support you’re able to provide students. If they come to you with low practice scores, you’ll be so much better equipped to help them pinpoint exactly which areas to work on.

Maximize school support.

While its name and form have changed slightly over the years, the PreACT remains a vital piece of the ACT success puzzle. By taking a shorter version of the exam in 10th grade, students learn the form and content of the test in a low-pressure environment. At the same time, this testing helps encourage them to start their ACT prep as soon as possible. The caveat here is that, if your state or school district doesn’t already provide the PreACT for students, they can only take it as a school-administered test. Encourage administrators to invest in the exam (it’s $12 per student), as taking it will not only help students maximize their prep for the official ACT, but it will also encourage others to think about college as a post-high-school option early on in their high school careers.

Provide the best resources.

Or, if you can’t provide them, at least know what’s out there. Students can take courses (expensive), get tutors (even more expensive), work with books (less expensive, but of varying quality and requiring great self-discipline), or choose an online course (which has some of the same advantages and disadvantages of the above options, depending on what program they choose). If you’re teaching an ACT course yourself, this is vital, but it’s also important if you’re acting as students’ ACT contact at school. In either case, you may be the only expert source to which students have access--so make sure you’re a well-informed one!

The most important thing? Do your research to help your students get the best possible prep. The best prep will mirror the test itself in terms of question types, format, and content, and it will also provide detailed questions and explanations for the practice problems and practice tests it should offer.

Encourage review.

We all know the story: students get their tests, look at the scores, and toss them aside. Bad enough in class, but fatal in ACT practice. For really top-notch prep, students should be taking an ACT practice test about once a week. However, unless they review their work (in addition to the scores--which are only so relevant, especially early on), those tests only have limited value. You can make sure that you’re encouraging maximum review by providing students with notebooks they can use as “error logs,” recording the questions they got wrong, as well as answers and explanations, so that they can try those problems again in the future and eventually master them.

Know that you can’t do it for them.

I’m sure there’s only a handful of teachers out there who would actually take the ACT for their students (um...don’t!), but I’m speaking more generally here. Once you’ve provided students with tools and support, the ball’s in their court. Encourage as much as you can without adding pressure to students. It’s our role to emphasize the test’s importance by providing the right scaffolding for students’ ACT prep to allow them to do their best--not to push them into it kicking and screaming!

At the end of the day, be authoritative, be knowledgeable, and be kind. That’s all anyone can ask of you--and it also happens to be exactly what students need.

Rachel Kapelke-Dale is a High School and Graduate Exams blogger at Magoosh. She has a Bachelor of Arts from Brown University, an MA from the Université de Paris VII, and a PhD from University College London. She has taught test preparation and consulted on admissions practices for over eight years. Currently, Rachel divides her time between the US and London.

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