I had a weird path to getting a 35 on the ACT.
I didn't buy any study guides or prep books, and I didn't look up stuff online.
Instead, I had a secret test-taking weapon: I started early.
My First ACT Exam
I took the ACT for the first time at the end of 6th grade.
Mom signed me up and told me this test could help me get into an "advanced kids" program online (NUMATS for those who know what that is), but told me not to worry and just to my best because it's not very important right now.
I listened to her advice and didn't worry. At all.
I did no studying or prep, and the only advantage I had going into the test was that I was taking Algebra 1 for math which put me ahead of the average by 2 or 3 years.
On the day of the exam I woke up early, went to the testing center, and sat with all the "smart kids" who were there to take the exam.
This tells you something about my area because they had a special room reserved for middle school students taking the test! Would you believe it?
Anyway, I did my best as any other hard-working and people-pleasing 6th grader would, but the science section completely stumped me.
I didn't realize that it was all just basic graph understanding and that I didn't need to know science at all to get a good score on it.
I don't remember what my score was, but even with that blunder I got a 24 or a 26.
The Next Couple Years
I continued my real life exam practice by taking either the SAT or the ACT once a year up until my sophomore year of high school.
I even took both of them in the same year a couple times. Crazy, right?
All of these exams combined with the SAT subject tests I took, the AP exams I took, and the random exams that schools have to administer prepared me for the exam that actually mattered.
To be honest I stopped trying very hard sometime during my freshman year because my score was good enough at about a 31. However, I knew that if I wanted to get into a good college I would have to get a better score (I was hoping to get into Stanford).
So I treated the exams as practice, and with every passing year I got less and less nervous every time I had to take them and more and more confident in my abilities.
Test proctors are talking? Whatever. I bubbled in the front of the test in the 5 minutes I was sitting here. Might as well meditate before the exam.
Different testing center? Great! I can get used to a different testing environment.
Constantly sniffling kid sitting behind me? Practice laser-like focus for the first half of the test and then give him a tissue during break.
All of this led to the final exam I had to take my junior year that would determine my fate (or so I thought.)
My Last Exam
I went into this exam confident that I would succeed. By this time I finished all of the math courses my school had to offer, and even though I haven't had algebra in more than 4 years, my stats knowledge was solid and I knew I could do everything I needed to do algebra wise with a calculator and some simple manipulations.
The science didn't worry me because I realized it was simple graphs and graph analysis, and while I wasn't as ready for the other two sections, I was glad that I wasn't taking the SAT because of their stupid vocab section. (Who cares what the meaning of diseastereotitis is? Seriously.)
Anyway, when the scores came I was surprised by my 35, but I was also frustrated because I actually thought I got a 36!
Overachiever problems, right?
So why did I do so well on the exam?
I obviously had the advantage starting out. I knew more math than the average student and I was in a highly-competitive school district with great teachers.
However, the rest comes from how I "prepared" for the exam.
Instead of taking tons of practice exams right before, I ended up taking 10+ "practice exams" that were exactly like the real thing (because they were the real thing) before the important one.
That helped me get used to the format of the exam, the way everything works, and I got practice with real ACT questions and not ones that are made up to be like the real thing.
This also helped me avoid nervousness and anxiety that many students associate with exams because after taking them a dozen times it all just gets kind of old.
So what's my advice for you?
Should you take the ACT/SAT over and over starting from a young age?
If you have the option to, my answer is a definitive yes!
Sure, it's expensive, but I think it's a better way of preparing than buying a bunch of books and hoping that you do well on them.