Much as I’ve tried to cut back on tutoring to work on my seemingly endless SAT book revisions, I somehow haven’t been able to escape entirely. In fact, I somehow ended up with no fewer than five (!) students taking the ACT this Saturday. It’s therefore entirely unsurprising that I’ve had the same set of conversations repeatedly over the last couple of weeks. (It’s also entirely unsurprising that I can no longer remember which conversation I’ve had with whom and am therefore reduced to constantly asking the student in front of me whether we’ve already discussed a particular rule, or whether I actually gave the explanation to someone. Although actually I’ve been doing that for a while now.)

Perhaps not unexpectedly at this point in the year, almost all of my students were “second rounders” — people who had worked with other tutors, for months in some cases, before finding their way to me. And that meant that there was the inevitable psychological baggage that accumulates when someone has already taken the test a couple of times without reaching their goals. As a result, I’ve been paying just as much attention to how people work through the test. When I work with a student who actually does have most of the skills they need but can’t quite seem to apply them when it counts, that’s basically a given.

It’s interesting — I’ve never really bought into a lot of the whole “test anxiety” thing, but more and more, I find myself dealing with the psychological aspects of test taking. (But rest assured, I don’t talk about scented candles or relaxation exercises).

Anyway, over the last few weeks, I’ve found myself paying an awful lot of attention to just what people who are scoring in the mid-20s on ACT English and trying to get to 30+ do when they sit down with a test. I’m pretty good at managing the psychological games that people play with themselves, particularly when they involve second-guessing, but I’ve never spent so much time thinking about those games specifically in terms of ACT English before.

Well, there’s a first time for everything.

If there’s one salient feature that characterizes the ACT English test, it’s probably the straightforward, almost folksy Midwestern style. There’s an occasional question that really makes you think, but for the most part, what you see is what you get. A lot of wrong answers are really wrong, almost to the point of absurdity.

As I worked with my ACT students, I noticed something interesting: when the original version of a sentence (that is, the version in the passage) didn’t make sense, the student would get confused and reread the sentence or section of the passage again. And when they still didn’t understand, they’d reread it again. And sometimes a third time.

The issue wasn’t so much that they were running out of time, but rather that they were wasting huge amounts of energy trying to make sense of things that couldn’t be made sense out of because they thought they were missing something. Then they were getting confused and panicking and second-guessing themselves.

So although it might sound obvious, I think this bears saying: if you are working through an ACT English section and find that you just cannot make sense out of a phrase or sentence in the passage, that version of the phrase or sentence is wrong. Do not try to wrap your head around it by reading it again and again. You can’t make sense out of it because it doesn’t make sense. In other words, it’s not you — it’s the test.

Even if you don’t know what the right answer is, you do know what the answer is not: NO CHANGE. Pick up your pencil, put a line through A or F, and start plugging in the other options.

You might not know quite what you’re looking for, but at least that way you’re doing something constructive, not just freaking yourself out.