Avoiding Errors

Labeling and Obsession with ‘East vs. West’

In my years as a tutor, I’ve heard one sentence more than almost any other:

“I didn’t really get that question wrong – I just made a silly mistake.”

Students believe that there’s a difference between getting a question wrong and making a careless error – that, because their error was avoidable and silly, “it won’t happen again next time.” But there is an enormous problem with this belief:

When you take your actual ACT, the test cannot tell the difference between a “silly mistake” and a problem that you actually didn’t know how to solve. A wrong answer is a wrong answer.

If you miss 17 problems on your ACT science section, it’s not going to make you feel better to know that 11 of them were just “silly mistakes” – you’re still going to get a very low score. You need to treat your careless errors as big deals, and you need to do everything in your power to eliminate them.

Many students don’t train this way. They let their careless errors slide. As a result, they get into the habit of making mistakes. And old habits die hard. If you think that you can routinely make careless errors during your practice sessions, but that you’ll miraculously avoid making them when you take the actual ACT, you’re in big trouble. You need to have flawless, careless-error-free sessions when you practice so that you’ll replicate those results when you take the real thing.

“Practice doesn’t make perfect – perfect practice makes perfect.”
-Vince Lombardi, legendary football coach

Careless errors can show up on every section of the ACT. You can make them on reading, English, and math. But there’s a reason that I’m devoting an entire section of my ACT science guide to this issue:

The ACT science section is INTENTIONALLY DESIGNED to force you into careless errors, or what I call “directional errors.”

If you’ve ever worked on the ACT science section before, you’re probably well aware of this phenomenon.

“Oh my gosh – the PH level was increasing, not decreasing!”

“Ugh – that graph wasn’t going from bottom to top, it was going from top to bottom.”

“Oh – it says that the factory was nine miles east of the river, not that the river was nine miles east of the factory.”

You get the idea. On almost every single ACT science problem, the concept of “direction” will rear its ugly head. Are the numbers going up or down? Is something below or above something else? How is the Z axis relating to the Y axis? Are the numbers there negative or positive? Is the sun moving toward the satellite, or away from it?

Here’s a little insight into how ACT answer choices are formed:

The ACT will give you every possible opportunity to screw up the direction of your answer. They will NEVER let you off the hook for this. If there’s any possible way that they can confuse you into picking the wrong direction or making a careless error, they’ll do it.

This isn’t because they’re evil. It’s just because they’re testing your ability to analyze information, and the direction and orientation of information is half the issue when it comes to analyzing it!

You’ll never just see this answer:

A)  Yes, because the chlorophyll rates are going up over time.

You’ll see these FOUR answers:

A)  Yes, because the chlorophyll rates are going up over time.
B)  Yes, because the chlorophyll rates are going down over time.
C)  No, because the chlorophyll rates are going up over time.
D)  No, because the chlorophyll rates are going down over time.

You’ll never just see this:

A)  The satellite was moving faster as it moved from East to West.

You’ll see these FOUR answers:

A)  The satellite was moving faster as it moved from East to West.
B)  The satellite was moving faster as it moved from West to East.
C)  The satellite was moving slower as it moved from East to West.
D)  The satellite was moving slower as it moved from West to East.

If you pick the wrong answer, it’s not a “silly mistake” – it is a fundamental error in your process that needs to be corrected. You need to obsess over the “direction” of the data that you read and set it in stone, paying ludicrously close attention to the particulars. If you don’t, this section will massacre you. If you do, then you’ve just won half the battle.

So what do you do about it?

Hopefully, I’ve made my point clear: you need to pay ridiculously close attention to detail on the ACT science section, making sure that you never make directional mistakes during your training. Is this easier said than done?

Actually, in this case, it’s just as easily said and done so long as you follow one rule:

Label everything like a MADMAN

If you want to avoid directional mistakes on the ACT science section, you need to start acting like a crazy person. You need to do it while you’re forming your own answers and while you’re killing the answer choices provided. Physically draw labels on EVERYTHING when you’re taking the ACT science section, talk to yourself, and MARK UP THE ENTIRE TEST.

If a question asks you what’s happening to chlorophyll as temperatures change, and you notice that they’re inversely related, you should write:



In the answer choices, replicate those drawings, and compare them to your drawing. If they don’t match up, kill them. You want to act like a three-year-old kid, or a caveman:

“Chor is down – temp is down. No – opposite. Down not with down – down with up. Bad.”

“Temp is up, chlor is up – no. Up should be down. Bad.”

“Temp is down, chlor is up – yes, opposite good.”

And so on and so forth.

Starting today, when you practice your ACT science section, you want to start labeling everything that you possibly can. Keep doing so until you’ve noticed your careless-errors-per-section drop to zero. Once you hit that mark, keep doing this. All of my students continue this process indefinitely. By actively labeling the directionality of every single piece of information, question, and answer choice on ACT science, you’ll be killing about 90% of the potential errors lurking within the section.

You can do this for the “reading” science passage, too.

As you go through the “reading” passage of the ACT science section, I recommend that you “caveman label” everything in a similar way.

For instance, if you read that student one feels that air is rising out of chimneys because it’s hot, and because hot air is less dense and then rises, you might write this underneath that scientist’s paragraph:

“Air go (up arrow). Hot go (up arrow). Density low (down arrow). Because density (down arrow), air rise (up arrow).

And so on and so forth.

This tiny little effort will make a HUGE difference in your score. By labeling the directionality of everything you read, you keep your ducks in a row and eliminate the possibility of making any directionality answers.

If you want a full, step-by-step process on how to label every type of passage, question type, and arrow choice, I provide it in my online ACT system, Green Test Prep. However, even a rudimentary attempt at doing this will give you a dramatic reduction in your “unforced errors.”

Now that we know how to approach this section more strategically, and how to get rid of the tiny mistakes that are plaguing your score, let’s move on to the final frontier: timing.

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