Tag Archives: ACT

New study: writing about test anxiety improves test performance

15 Feb

Every year, we see dozens of great students who complain about horrible test-related anxiety. Their grades are great, they prep for the ACT for months, and they still worry they will choke at the end. If you are in this category, check out this cool new research! Researchers found that writing about exam worries for 10 minutes before the exam significantly improves students’ results.

Before the ACT starts, instead of sitting around at the test center trying to keep down your breakfast, WRITE. Write about all your fears relating to the test, all your college admissions anxieties, all your worries about what that cute girl in bio might think if you don’t score as well as she did. Then report back and let us know how it went! Here’s the article:



It’s a feeling you’ve almost certainly experienced before – the fear of waiting for an exam to start, heart thumping, palms sweating and brow furrowing. You worry about whether you’ve prepared adequately, and about the consequences of failure. So why not write these worries down? Gerardo Ramirez and Sian Beilock have found that students do better in exams if they spend the prior ten minutes writing about their worries. Even better, the most anxious students showed the biggest improvements.

People often choke under pressure, performing far worse that they ought to. There are many reasons for this. For physical tasks, such as taking a penalty kick in football, people under pressure become overly conscious about their own actions. This disrupts the automatic side of familiar movements, turning experts into rookies. For mental tasks, anxieties about performance compete for the same mental resources that we need to succeed. In particular, these worries crowd out our working memory, which juggles small pieces of information and keeps is focused on the task at hand. Beilock is something of an expert on these issues. As the author of Choke, she has literally written the book on the topic. Together with Ramirez, she reasoned that writing exercises might help to reduce pre-exam worries, freeing up enough resources for working memory to function at its best. It was a sound idea. After all, psychologists have used expressive writing to help depressed people from spending too much time ruminating over their thoughts.

At first, Ramirez and Beilock tested their solution in the laboratory. They asked 20 college students to take two advanced arithmetic tests and put them in a high-pressure scenario, involving the prospect money and the judgment of peers. Before the first test, the students were simply told to do their best. Before the second test, they were told that they had been paired with a partner, who had already finished and improved on their original score. If the volunteer could do the same, both partners would earn money. If not, neither would get anything. To make things worse, their performance would be filmed and watched.Before they started the second test, half of the students sat quietly and the other half wrote openly about their thoughts and feelings on the pending exam. Ramirez and Beilock found that although both groups scored similar marks after the first relaxed test, the ‘writing’ group did much better at the second intense test. Their scores improved, rising by an extra 5%. By contrast, the students who sat quietly actually did worse; their marks were 12% lower.

Reference: Ramirez & Beilack. 2011. Writing About Testing Worries Boosts Exam Performance in the Classroom. Sciencehttp://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1199427

2 other articles linked at the end are as interesting:




Do all colleges accept the ACT?

15 Sep

Our test prep company is located in Ohio, where most students choose to take the ACT. (Great choice!) The students have no problem choosing the ACT over the SAT; it’s usually the parents who panic:

“ACT? Isn’t that a mouthwash brand?”

“Shouldn’t we just stick with the SAT and play it safe? After all, that’s what we took back when we were in school.”

“Do all colleges even accept the ACT?”

Dear parents, I am here to allay your fears. First of all, as of 2007, all four-year colleges in the U.S. accept the ACT. After hearing this piece of good news, parents inevitably ask if colleges still prefer the SAT. While I can’t speak for all colleges nationally, we have never found that to be the case with thousands of our students applying to selective colleges. And really, how could colleges favor one over the other at this point? In 2010, equal numbers of students took both standardized tests. The SAT is no longer the dominant college admissions test in the U.S.

Once in a while we have students applying to colleges abroad. Then the SAT/ACT preference is an issue. The ACT hasn’t really caught on in many countries around the world. But if you’re attending a 4-year college in the U.S., you can tell mom and dad to relax. The ACT can get you where you need to go.

ACT test prep products that aren’t terrible

15 May

I am so sick of the quality of the ACT test prep products available on the market today. Actually, before I proceed with my tirade, I should clarify that by ‘products,’ I’m referring to ACT prep books and software geared toward those who are preparing for the ACT on a budget. I thought the $1000 Kaplan course I taught for four years was fabulous. But really, how many people can afford that in today’s economy?

Let’s say a student wants to prepare for the ACT as inexpensively as possible. No pricey course or personal tutors. (This precisely describes my situation when I was in high school. I am the oldest of 8 children (!) and there was no way my parents could afford an ACT prep course. But I digress…)

You want to prepare for the ACT on a budget. What are your options? Let me put them out there. You can buy The Real ACT Prep Guide: The Only Official Prep Guide From The Makers Of The ACTpublished by the ACT company.  This is the #1 ACT prep book as ranked by Amazon.com. This is a great book because it’s the only one that offers official ACT tests. But this book is really weak on ACT strategies. After all, giving away “sneaky” test taking strategies would be a conflict of interest for the ACT people. There’s also not a lot of review of the actual skills tested on the ACT. Not sure what subject-verb agreement is? Don’t know how to calculate the distance formula? You’re stuck. Sorry.

You can buy one of the strategy books out there like Princeton Review’s Cracking the ACT, 2010 Edition or Kaplan’s Kaplan ACT 2010 Premier Program . What’s wrong with these? This is where I get particularly cranky.  First of all, their practice tests are terrible approximations of the actual ACT. Just read the reviews on Amazon:

The tests in this book were nothing like the real test. Not a great thing to discover at the June 2009 test.

The actual test was a lot harder than the tests in this book.

Ouch. Check it out. There are more. The other problem with these books is how watered down the strategies are. As someone who taught Kaplan courses for four years, I get really steamed up when I see just how few of their decent strategies actually make it into their books. My friends who worked for Princeton Review report the same thing about Princeton Review books. These companies save most of the really fantastic tips and tricks for the folks shelling out the $1000 + for their courses or private tutoring. And obviously, this makes business sense. But where does that leave those of us who want effective ACT test taking strategies, but just can’t pay that much?

Then there are the ACT books like those put out by Peterson’s, McGraw-Hill, and Barron’s.  The problem with these books is that these companies are not actually test prep companies. Peterson’s is mainly in the educational consulting business. McGraw-Hill is a global publisher of all sorts of educational materials. Barron’s is another publisher that publishes a huge range of educational materials. In fact, my daughter’s potty training book is one of them.

When it comes to college admissions, your ACT score can make it or break it. It can mean the difference between a full scholarship and no aid at all. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather put my test prep in the hands of people who pour millions of dollars each year into test prep, and only test prep. Which brings us back to Kaplan or Princeton Review. Or does it?

Well, here’s where the shameless self-promotion comes in. Here at Advantage Point, we have created an amazing software product called Boost Your Score! Students using this product have reported tremendous successes. In fact, if you combine our software with the ACT folks’ The Real ACT Prep Guide , we think you have all you need for ACT success. The software picks apart your performance on four official ACT tests (the free one on the ACT website as well as the three in The Real ACT Prep Guide ). It provides comprehensive diagnostic feedback so you know exactly which skills need improvement. Then, a resources section provides targeted review and practice of all the skills you need to boost. There’s also a wealth of fabulous strategies including sneaky tricks that can help you get a question right even if you have no idea how to solve it. You can buy the product or find out more here. We’re also publishing our own ACT test prep book, The Underground Guide to the ACT.  You can read more about it here. The book will be out in 2011, so stay tuned!

Why we love the ACT

15 Jun

The SAT dominates the national discussion of standardized testing; the ACT seldom gets mentioned. However, each year, nearly the same number of students take each test. As of 2007, all four-year colleges in the U.S. accept the ACT as readily as the SAT.

After years of experience in the field, we think the ACT is a much easier to test to crack. Here’s why:

1) The ACT is far more predictable

Unlike the SAT, which swings back and forth from math to reading to English with no pattern (and throws in a useless waste of an experimental section), the ACT has four sections which are always in the same order: English, math, reading, and science.

Furthermore, there is predictability within the sections as well. For example, the categories of reading passages are always the same AND in the same order. There are always the same amount of style, strategy, punctuation, grammar, organization, and sentence structure questions in the English section. Similarly, students will always know that there are 14 pre-algebra questions on the math section, 14 plane geometry questions, 9 coordinate geometry questions, etc.

There are dozens of examples of the ACT’s predictability. (Take one of our courses to learn more!) Since students truly know what to expect on the ACT, prepping for the test is much easier. Our courses target exactly what you can expect to see. There are few surprises on the ACT. (To learn how to use the ACT’s predictability to your advantage, check out our powerful, proven products.)

2) No guessing penalty

On the SAT, you lose points for guessing, but there is no guessing penalty on the ACT. And for the English, Reading, and Science sections, there are only 4 answer choices to pick from. Those are great odds!

3) The ACT is shorter

If you aren’t crazy about spending more than three hours on a standardized test (and who is??), go for the ACT.  The ACT lasts two hours, 55 minutes (plus 30 minutes with the optional writing test). The SAT lasts three hours, 45 minutes.

4) The structure of the ACT is ideal from a neuropsychology perspective

We mentioned the ACT’s predictability above. Students automatically feel more comfortable and confident knowing the order of the sections up-front and knowing exactly how many times subskills in a section will be tested. This is unlike the SAT, which throws random sections at you in no particular order. However, there is another HUGE structural perk to the ACT. On the SAT, there are 10 sections, 3 of each content area and each approximately 20-25 minutes long. Students are already thrown by the fact that they have no idea what subject is coming next since the 10 sections appear in random order. Then, as soon as a student really gets “into” a section….it’s almost over.

20 minutes is just about enough time to get focused and in a groove. On the SAT, that’s about the time when your section will be over. On the other hand, the ACT has only four mandatory sections, one per content area, and always in the same order. Students first see the English section, then math, then reading, and then science. Always. And students have enough time on each section to really get into a groove. 45 minutes for English, 60 minutes for math, and 40 minutes for reading and science. This is enough time to focus and really “get into” the material.

5) A much easier (and optional) essay

On the SAT, the essays are often philosophical in nature, asking you to expound on rather abstract topics. The optional ACT essay asks about topics relevant to a typical high school student. An example on a recent ACT: Should high schools enforce a school dress code? Are there any high school students who don’t have an opinion about that?

6) There are more strategic shortcuts for the ACT

The predictable nature of the ACT lends itself to lots of “underground” strategies that can help students nail the test even when they have no idea what’s going on. Really. More about this when you take one of our courses or buy our products.