When a Tutor Takes the ACT

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While I’ve tutored the ACT for six years, my April 13 ACT gave me a whole new appreciation for what my students go through. It was a humbling reminder of how daunting these tests can be. The test doesn't impact any of my upcoming life decisions. I've already gone to college. I spent three years in the Navy, for goodness sake. All I really have to worry about is bragging rights around the PrepMatters office. Still, it felt very high stakes.

The entire experience was a case of “do as I say, not as I do.” I forgot to bring a watch, despite the fact that I tell my students how important it is for pacing. No problem at all, though: I have as good a sense of time as a slug has ability on a pogo-stick. Luckily, the proctor put a clock at the front of the room: a classic analog clock with microscopic numbers and tick marks. I got a little too engrossed on the first English passage, and by the time I looked up at the clock, almost 15 minutes had passed. I knew I had to pick up the pace to be able to fit in the other four passages.

I experienced an overwhelming sense that THE CLOCK IS TICKING. I know how bad it is to rush – I tell my students all the time that these tests are sneaky and full of traps – but it's hard not to be crushed by the sense that TIME IS RUNNING OUT. The whole room feels it. I often wondered if I should spend another minute making sure this is right or move on to the next one. So many decisions! The experience was a reminder of how important timed sections and practice tests are – you need to have a sense of how long 9 minutes (or whatever your pacing plan is) feels. Even if you have a watch, it doesn't make sense to look at it every 10 seconds. You want to know going in what it feels like to be on pace.

I tell my students to be awake for 2 hours before test time so that their brain is fully awake. This meant waking up at 6am - WAY before my tutor life typically requires. I'd like to say that I got my body used to getting up at that hour so that I wouldn't be sleep-deprived during the test, because I tell my students how important it is to be well-rested, but ... let's just say I'm not a morning person. The sleep-deprivation really hit me on the Science section. My mood vacillated between panic and the desire to just go home for a nap. Thoughts crept in that seem irrational in retrospect. "I got my Master's in Science! I'm supposed to be good at this!" (Ego threat.) "The pattern of my answers on the bubble sheet looks weird." (Irrelevant.) "Did the person in front of me really finish already??" (Maybe they gave up. Maybe they got everything wrong.) "Couldn't this question be phrased a little more clearly?" (Actually, that last one is rational.)

After leaving, I realized that this was the first time in a while that I'd looked at an ACT question without already knowing the answer. As a tutor, I‘ve worked through our workbook and practice tests thousands of times. It's easy to think, "Of course the answer is C! Otherwise you've got a comma splice!" The problem looks a lot different when you don't know the answer going in – the right answer doesn't jump up and grab you. Except for some Math problems and certain questions on the Reading, it's important to look at each answer choice. You don't know what the right answer is until you've read through all of them. You're not looking for The Right Answer; you're looking for the best of those presented.

Overall, I am reminded of the importance of taking practice tests and of going in with a strategy. Are there people who go into an SAT or ACT cold and get the score they want? Sure! There are also people who pick the right lottery numbers. It's awesome if it happens, but you can't count on it. No matter how clever you are, go into your ACT or SAT with a plan – a plan that you have practiced. I know I will…next time.