Five 'Tips' to Score Higher on the ACT and SAT





While the multiple-choice format of the SAT and ACT can feel intimidating with its official Scantron form and total absence of partial credit, test-takers should see the upside in the format.

For instance, there’s no need to show your work or use the right process as long as you get the right answer. Also, the answer choices can serve as very helpful assets for you.

Savvy test-takers have a way of using the multiple-choice answers to their advantage. Here are the five most common ways:


  • Process of elimination

  • Backsolving

  • Plugging in numbers

  • Taking hints

  • Comparing


Process of Elimination

On the SAT and ACT, there are two ways to know you have the correct answer: You either have strong confidence in the choice you pick, or you know for certain that the other choices are wrong. This means that even if you don’t know how to get the right answer, you can use what you do know to eliminate wrong answer choices.

[ READ: ACT vs. SAT: How to Decide Which Test to Take. ]


On a math question, for example, you may not know what the answer is but you do know that it cannot be negative. That may eliminate one or more choices. On a reading section, it’s often easy to eliminate a few choices that just weren’t mentioned or highlighted.

Often, you’ll find that the process of eliminating wrong answers helps to get your brain working in a way that leads you to the right answer.

Backsolving


The SAT and ACT include a lot of algebra, and it’s easy to get bogged down in long calculations. But the answer choices often give you a shortcut – a handful of options for what the variable could be. So instead of doing the algebra, you can insert those choices back into the problem and work only in numbers.

There are a few strategies for how to do this. One relies on the fact that the answer choices are generally in order from least to greatest or greatest to least, so if you pick a middle number you can often determine if you need a smaller or larger number and be done in two or three steps.


Another backsolving strategy is to just pick the easiest numbers to try. If the answer choices include easy-to-calculate numbers like 0, 1, 10 or 100, you may be able to do those in mere seconds and save yourself lots of time.

Plugging in Numbers

Backsolving is great if there are numbers in the answer choices to plug in to avoid algebra. But if there’s undone algebra in the answer choices – that is, if variables appear in your answer choices – there’s a shortcut you can use for these questions, too.

If you choose an easy-to-calculate number and set that equal to the variable everywhere it exists – for example, x = 2 - then you can see which answer choice produces the same result as the problem itself.


A great clue that this strategy will work is when a question uses the phrase “is equivalent to…for all values of.” In these instances, quite common on the SAT in particular, the question is giving you one way of phrasing an algebraic expression and then asking you what another equivalent form of that expression is. The “for all values of” wording is telling. If this equivalency must be true for all values of that variable, then you can pick an easy value for that variable and see which answer choice is equivalent. Taking Hints Another great thing about answer choices is that they give you hints about how you should approach the question. For example, if answer choices in a geometry problem include the term "the square root of 3," you might ask yourself where that number tends to appear. Most often, it’s in a 30-60-90 triangle given the side ratio of 1::2. Or on a grammar problem, if the answer choices all include some version of "its," "their," "is" and "are," you know quickly that you need to find the subject and determine if it’s singular or plural. If you ever find yourself stuck on how to approach a problem, a glance at the answer choices often gives you clues as to what’s important or what’s involved. Savvy test-takers take the hint. [ READ: How to Take the SAT, ACT for Free. ] Comparing Have you noticed that frequently you can get down to two possible answer choices but get stuck there? Often, test-takers will then make a guess based on a hunch or preference, but the answer choices actually give you a much better shot than that. Try to compare the two answer choices and look for differences. There’s a reason that you still like two of them, so comparing them is a great way to try to find the small flaw in one of them. Suppose, for example, that one of them says that birds can fly while another says that only birds can fly, or all birds can fly. While you might not initially have noticed “all” or “only” in a dense answer choice upon first glance, now you realize that the big difference is that one answer is general and the other is very specific. Then ask: Is that specificity true? Comparing answers is a great way to determine what your decision criteria should be. When you’re down to two answer choices, don’t just go on a hunch – get specific on the differences. It’s important to recognize that answer choices on the ACT and SAT are not just a list to choose from, but are also useful assets that can help you get right answers and get them more quickly. Learn to see answers as assets and watch your confidence and score soar.