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College entrance exam requirements have been changing. Confirm testing requirements at the schools where you plan to apply. For information on test availability, check the SAT® and ACT® sites.

College entrance exams can seem daunting, especially if you aren’t sure how to prepare. But creating a strategic plan that fits your lifestyle and study habits can help you achieve test-day success. Here’s how Jaclyn Barr radically improved her ACT exam score between her junior and senior years of high school.

I attended high school in Taylorsville, Kentucky, a city with a population of just over 1,000 people. At my school, there wasn’t a strong emphasis on college readiness. Postsecondary education was framed around agriculture, technical skills or accelerated learning and vocational schools. As a student who was interested in heading to a four-year college after high school, I was in the minority.  

I had my share of good teachers, but my academic curriculum as a whole was not especially challenging. In addition to taking a full course load during my junior year, I worked two part-time jobs totaling around 30 hours a week, which should give you an idea of the rigor of my classes. This was the same year I signed up to take the ACT exam for the first time, and I was automatically enrolled in an hour-long prep session through my English class. It was the only thing my school offered, and my lack of knowledge about the ACT test led me to believe that since this was what was available, it would be sufficient to prepare me.

I’ve always known that I’m not the best test-taker — I perform better when I’m in an environment with less pressure and where I can work at my own pace.

As it turns out, that wasn’t the case. The first time I took the exam, I received a score of 22. I especially struggled with the math and science sections, two subjects that have never been my strengths. I was worried about what my score meant for my college plans. After calling my best friend, my next step was to do some research to determine the national average for ACT results, the average score range among admitted students at the schools I was interested in and what my score would need to be to make me eligible for certain scholarships. It actually wasn’t until after I took the test for the first time that anyone at my high school mentioned that my ACT score was not only important for college admissions, but also for scholarship opportunities. I realized pretty quickly that I needed to register to retake the exam.

I’ve always known that I’m not the best test-taker. I perform better when I’m in an environment with less pressure and where I can work at my own pace, such as when I’m doing hands-on work in the classroom or writing papers at home. So it was clear that to see my score improve, I was going to need to commit to a more dedicated study plan.  

Throughout my academic career, I’ve found value in ardent practice, so I bought a test-prep book and got to work. Right around this time, I quit one of my part-time jobs, reducing my hours to around 15 to 20 hours each week. That gave me more time to focus on preparing for the ACT exam. On days I didn’t have work, I’d study for three hours in the afternoon while curled up in the living room recliner. Usually no one else was home. It was a quiet stretch of time when I could give my attention exclusively to ACT practice, which included reading comprehension drills, math exercises, vocabulary quizzes, reviewing scientific concepts and honing my evaluation and analysis skills.

As the exam date got closer, I also sometimes met with friends so we could do our prep work together, which made the process a little more enjoyable. By the time I took the ACT test for the second time in the fall of my senior year, I was — thanks to the number of practice hours I put in — much more confident. I also kept my goals for improvement realistic — I was aiming for a two-point total score increase, which would have earned me a 24. With a 4.2 GPA (AP classes gave me an extra bump), my high school counselor assured me that this would make me a competitive applicant for the schools on my list.

When my results arrived, I was proud to discover that I’d exceeded every goal I’d set for myself — even for the math section. This time, my score was 26, which is just over five points above the average score in Kentucky. Not only had I increased my likelihood of getting college acceptances, I’d also opened up doors for scholarship opportunities, which were critical for my ability to afford higher education.

I didn’t discover some sort of magic formula. It was really just a matter of putting in the time, both in terms of background research and preparation. My improvement also gave me something I needed before entering college: self-confidence. If I could exceed my goals for the ACT test — something that caused me a lot of stress — through a habitual study plan, then I’d surely be able to handle the challenges of college, no matter how daunting they might sometimes seem.

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The interview for this article was conducted in 2017.