The ACT and SAT have become the behemoths in the room for any student wanting to advance to college mathematics – or even just getting to college at all. Are they REALLY that important? There are a myriad of books, blogs, and published work out there aimed at trying to improve your ACT (or SAT) scores, and many offer their services paid, promising proficiency or a certain score. In my over 10 years of in-person and online math tutoring, as well as several years of high school and college teaching, I have seen the gamut of ways learners approach these tests. What follows is a list of five mistakes I believe are made by many students (and parents!) concerning these two important college entrance exams.

Time is Your Biggest Enemy

This is the first mistake – time. When preparing to take the exams, and even while actually in them, students fail to consider the crucible of time that is bearing down on them. For example, on the Math portion of the ACT, there are 60 minutes to do 60 questions – that’s 1 minute per problem on a test where some of the problems clearly take the average students much longer than a minute.

Because of this, time has to be approached extremely strategically. Since on the ACT, you get credit for every correct answer you have, it is best to devise a plan to ensure you don’t deplete the majority of your time on just a few questions. Time after time again (no pun intended!), I hear of students faced with a “Bubble-In Challenge” (ie, bubble in random choices as fast as possible) just to finish, or worse, leave questions blank. Which leads us to…

Leaving Questions Blank

Since 2016, both the SAT and the ACT have no penalty for guessing (the ACT has been this way for many years). Therefore, it does you no good at all to leave questions blank. Your score is only based on the number of questions you get correct, so any question you leave blank statistically hurts you.

For instance, if you finish a test and have 10 questions left unanswered, with 5 answer choices, you could statistically get 2 of those 10 questions correct purely by guessing alone. Those extra 2 questions correct will usually raise your score by a noticeable amount. Case in point – on the Math portion of the ACT, 2 more correct questions will raise your score by an entire point. This could be the difference in college admission or not – or scholarship or not!

Because of this, it is NEVER a good idea to leave any bubble blank – always make sure you have a minute or two left at the end if you can’t truly finish it to bubble in the remaining questions you haven’t reached. It may seem like a small boost, but it could save your future goals!

Christmas-treeing The Answer Choices

Okay, so maybe this exact strategy – zigzagging down the bubble sheet to make it look like a Christmas tree – is not a goal of anyone seriously reading this post, so why am I including it? Well, variations of this, from “If you don’t know, choose C” to “When there’s 5 minutes left, just bubble in B for everything” are widely circulated among test-taking circles, and this information is mostly bad. I say mostly, because I’ll give one instance it is permissable.

With 5 answer choices, your expected score if randomly guessing (or choosing C) for every answer choice is EXTREMELY low. Since I am a math person, I’ll pick on the Math ACT a bit more – a random guess strategy on the Math ACT is likely to yield you a score of 7 or 8. Out of 36. A score this low will not even allow entry into most legit colleges. The issue here is that ANY information that you can input into the question will improve your chances. In our example, simply being able to eliminate 1 answer choice as incorrect on every question will improve your 7 or 8 to a 10, and being able to eliminate 2 answer choices on every question will improve your score to a 13 expected value.

This means that it is ALWAYS important to eliminate obvious wrong answers when guessing for an answer, as even just eliminating 1 or 2 wrong answers greatly increases the probability of a correct answer. The only case where blind guessing is permitted strategically is a situation that has already been misplayed by making Mistake #1 above – if you have mishandled your allotted time and clearly do not have time to strategically work your way through the test, it is in your best interests to make sure every question has SOMETHING bubbled in, so you don’t commit Mistake #2 above.

Only Taking the Test Once

This is a huge mistake that students make all the time! The key principle to note here is error, or variation. No matter what the circumstances, there is unyielding and inevitable variations from one sitting to the next. The location may pose some benefits or hindrances to the test taker, the state of mind of the student changes from day to day, and even the questions themselves are different from one testing to the next.

These variations and a plethora of others combine to create a “cloud” of possible scores, a range of what score you may get. It is VERY unlikely that everything conspired perfectly for your absolute possible highest score on your first time taking the ACT or SAT. Even experience itself on the test can be taken into account. What is more likely is that your score falls somewhere in the middle of your Score Cloud. Taking the test again will likely give you another score inside the cloud, but with the benefit of experience now.

I recommend that every person take the ACT or SAT 3-5 times to maximize the chances at the best score possible. Just due to experience and the random variations, it is very likely you will score significantly better than the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, or 5th testing than you did on the first. And for a test that is so pivotal in the future of many high school students, it is definitely worth the time and investment to take it multiple times.

Not Hiring Any Help

Okay, so this last mistake may seem to be a gotcha moment – after all, I run tutoring services, so this is obviously my pitch, right? Not quite. The point here is not necessarily HIRING any help, so much as GETTING the help needed. See, the ACT and SAT are not colossal monsters that can’t be tackled. But most students put excruciatingly little preparation into it.

So the mistake here is not necessarily that they didn’t hire a tutor, although that is one remedy – the mistake is that the parents/students fail to plan accordingly for this important exam. To truly be successful on it requires planning months or years ahead of time (see Mistake #4 – you really should take it multiple times!), but at a minimum, careful planning in the weeks and days leading up to the ACT/SAT is crucial. The ACT loves certain types of questions. For instance, the Math ACT typically focuses on middle school math in the first 20 questions – a student not prepared for this will be left woefully lost faced with math he/she potentially hasn’t seen in 4 years.

A well-prepared tutor (whether online tutor or in-person tutor) can assist in anticipating these types of hurdles. But beyond the hired help, there are many free resources online, the best of which are practice tests. You can buy books of practice tests on Amazon or your local bookstore and can find some online for free. These practice tests, if properly conducted, can give careful and deliberate attention to the topics that should be expected.

The ACT and SAT have become benchmarks for college readiness in the United States, for better or for worse. Many people make these tragic mistakes, but it need not be so! For so many, these tests mark the beginning of the next chapter of their lives, so it would behoove us as teachers, parents, and students (I see you!) reading this to ensure that their next chapter starts as successful as possible, because yes, it IS that important.