Taking the ACT: there’s more to me than just a number


Bailey Boerman

As if maintaining a stellar GPA, balancing involvement in sports and extracurriculars and filling out college applications weren’t enough, the state of Michigan has another way to fill my stomach with dread, make my heart skip a few beats and pile the pressure on my chest: the American College Test (ACT). When it was developed, it was meant to be a test that college-bound students showed up for on a Saturday morning and took, without any preparation. Now, it’s the icing on the cake of the ideal college application, that should include a high GPA, involvement in extracurriculars, volunteer work, glowing letters of recommendation and more. It’s also a high school graduation requirement, meaning all students must take it whether they plan to attend college or not.

I am among those who wants to go to college, and I need a good ACT score to make that dream come true. I also tend to get test anxiety and perform poorly on high-stakes standardized tests. Over the summer, I took a 30-hour ACT prep class through Princeton Review. We met for three hours a day, two times a week. On most days we would go through practice ACT questions as our instructor gave us helpful hints on how to solve them. On other days we would take practice tests that were formatted exactly like the actual test. I always dreaded going to class because in all reality, who would want to spend their summer doing these banal activities that seemed to have little bearing on how much I’ve actually learned in high school?

In addition, my teachers this year have provided practice questions and talked about how to succeed on the test. Take notes in the margin, underline key terms, circle shifting transition words, use the process of elimination, don’t choose the exact answer phrasing as used the text, avoid extreme words like always and never, if you don’t know the answer choose B, include a counter-argument and rebuttal in your essay and so on. As time passed, it seemed I’d fall asleep at night trying to remember test-taking strategies instead of what happened in the book for English or what formula to use for a certain problem in math.

Before I knew it, it was March 3, the day that all juniors across Michigan’s futures are determined for them — at least that’s how it feels. You know, the age old, “get a high ACT score, get good grades, get into a good college, have a good career and live happily ever after.” This line of thinking weighed heavily on me as I threw on my comfiest sweats, ate a protein-filled breakfast of eggs and bacon and drove to school.

I found my assigned classroom and as the proctor placed dropped that thick booklet on my desk, panic began to set in. Even though this would be the third time I took the test and I knew exactly what was coming, the numbers on the TV clock began to tick away at me menacingly. At the point where I was instructed to break the test booklet seal, read the directions and begin, my mind grasped for those test-taking strategies like feathers in the wind.

Don’t get me wrong, taking a prep class and several practice tests does help. It removes an element of test familiarity and likely saves time. But it doesn’t make it possible to magically get an awesome ACT score. So there I was … heart pounding, chest clenched tight, palms sweating while that clock viciously blinked at me as I filled in 75 bubbles about English (in only 45 minutes), 60 bubbles about math (in only 60 minutes), 40 questions about reading (in only 35 minutes), 40 questions about science (in only 35 minutes), and outline and constructed an essay (in only 30 minutes). 215 bubbles + 1 essay + 3 hours and 25 minutes = My future. My only hope is that my score is high enough to get into Hope, Calvin or Butler.

These days, the ACT is a far cry from its origin of a once-and-done test. It’s a multi-million dollar scam of prep courses, books and tutors. It makes me wonder who loses in this current system? What about those who can’t afford to pay for classes, tutors and test books? It seems the current system only fosters an unfair playing field, where the richer can get into the best colleges. While I’m fortunate to have had the practice I did, I know not everyone in that test room with me was in the same boat. In six weeks we’ll all hear the number that plays far too big of a role in our futures. The icing on the cake.

In 12 weeks, we’ll be sitting down at computers to take the M-Step and do this process all over again. My only solace is knowing that the M-Step won’t be timed, but instead has approximate time windows for each section: two hours apiece for English and math and 50 minutes apiece for science and social studies. Luckily, the results of the M-Step carry less weight.