ACT Key Strategies: The 5 Ps

To perform well, students must use the best strategies for tackling questions on the ACT.

In order to perform well on the ACT, not only do students need to learn the material on the exam, but also use the best strategies for tackling each question. There are five key strategies, known as the 5 Ps. By knowing how to use these strategies, students will answer questions confidently and improve their performance. 

The 5 Ps:

  • Pencil on Paper
  • Prediction
  • Process of Elimination
  • Plugging in Options
  • Pacing

Pencil on Paper

When students are taking the ACT, they never want to passively read the information presented, but rather engage and understand it by becoming an active reader. We call this the Pencil on Paper strategy. Students will use their pencil to mark up or add information in their test booklet in the English, reading, science, math or optional writing section of the test. 

This strategy will help students:

  • stay focused
  • understand what you read
  • identify errors in passages while you read
  • make it easy to find ideas in the passage when you refer back to the text
  • visualize a challenging problem
  • determine what is important to solve a problem and organize thoughts to plan an essay.


When students are selecting answers, one of the best ways to increase their accuracy is by using Prediction. Prediction is coming up with an expected answer rather than relying on the given choices. Students may ask themselves open-ended questions:  How would I rewrite this sentence? What number would I arrive at for this calculation? How would I put this reading or science answer in my own words?

Benefits when used consistently:

  • helps students think critically
  • avoids common wrong answers
  • easily anticipate the correct answer

Process of Elimination

The technique of narrowing down the possible answer choices is a great strategy if students are having difficulty predicting answer choices. Students will assess each answer choice carefully and when they know an option is incorrect, they will cross it out with a line or an X in their test booklet. Once they have assessed all of the answer choices, they will compare any that were left open and select the best choice. The biggest part of eliminating answers is recognizing which answers are wrong and why they are wrong. These can fall into one of three categories: irrelevant, confusing, and out-of-scope answers.

Benefits of using this strategy:

  • increase your speed
  • increase accuracy

Plugging in Options

If students are not sure how to approach a multiple choice question because they are given 4 different answer choices, they can always plug in each choice to see which one might work. This may be done in the English, math or reading sections.

Benefits of using this strategy:

  • if students can not say exactly what the error is, their everyday English skills can help them eliminate choices that clearly sound wrong (must be careful not to over rely on this strategy since what sounds right might be technically wrong). 
  • can help students avoid completing long calculations in math.
  • meanings of words in context questions of the reading test can have words subbed back into the original sentence to see which choice works best in context.


There are more questions on the ACT than there are minutes available to answer each one. It is very important that a student move quickly and consider pacing. The challenge of effective pacing is to find the combination of strategies that best allows students to complete the exam with confidence, and accuracy. The best way to get a feel for the pace of the ACT is to develop a conscious pacing strategy that works for each student. Students must do timed practice tests until they begin to get a sense of how it feels to move at the right pace that works for them. 

How does a student develop their pacing for the ACT?

  • set a target pace for each section of the test
  • determine checkpoints: predetermined points where a student will check how much time has elapsed and quickly compare it to their plan 
  • students should remember their checkpoint location and the time that should have elapsed by that point to keep them on track
  • if a student is behind, they can use a time-saving strategy called Pick and Skip - working on questions that are easier for them and leaving the more difficult or time-consuming questions for later or simply making their best guess (use with caution)

Ultimately, the combination of these strategies will allow students to answer each question as accurately as they can without running out of time. If students have the opportunity to practice, learn the different strategies that may affect their pacing and accuracy, they will feel more confident when taking the ACT. 

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