The Highlands Company Blog

Speed, Accuracy or Both? How to Improve ACT Scores Based on Natural Abilities

While more colleges are becoming test optional, standardized test scores still matter. Many admissions officers and experts agree that a high ACT/SAT score helps a student’s application stand out in the pool of other applicants, gain admittance into more competitive universities and earn higher-paying scholarships.

Perfect test scores don’t happen by accident. Why do some test-takers fare better than others?

Smart ACT Study Strategies Pay Off

In the eight years I’ve worked in the test prep industry, I’ve repeatedly observed that competitive test-takers are usually active and methodical learners. These students don’t just study hard; they study smart. They’ve identified the learning strategies that work for them, and, just as importantly, disregarded the strategies that don’t. This efficient approach has served these students well in high school and will give them a distinct advantage when it comes time to take the ACT/SAT.

As a Highlands Consultant and ACT Test Prep Tutor, I use the Highlands Ability Battery (HAB) to help students identify which learning strategies work best for them. By leveraging their natural abilities, students can discover and refine which test-taking skills they can rely on to increase their ACT scores.

Related Video: Hear How Odyssey College Prep Helped Ibrahim Increase His ACT Score from a 23 to a 31 – and get into his first-choice college!

While the HAB measures several abilities that impact the way students perform on the ACT, this article focuses on two that often go hand in hand: Visual Speed and Visual Accuracy.

Visual Proficiency: Visual Speed + Visual Accuracy

As its name implies, Visual Proficiency (measured by the work sample below) influences an individual’s ability to process numbers and text. Comprised of Visual Speed and Visual Accuracy, Visual Proficiency can impact a student’s performance on just about every task done at their desk or on their computer.

According to the Highlands Student Career Exploration Report, the stronger a student’s Visual Speed and Visual Accuracy, the easier it is for them to check the accuracy of written material, including scanning tables of numbers, symbols or characters.

Students can score in the high, mid or low range for both Visual Speed and Visual Accuracy, or at opposite ends of the continuum for one or the other. The following sections address scores in the high and low ranges for each of these abilities as they relate to performance on the ACT.

Low Visual Speed

As we emphasize with students who take the Highlands Ability Battery™, no score is inherently “bad” or “good.” In this case, students who score lower in Visual Speed are more likely to notice grammatical or problem-solving errors instead of passing over them. Additionally, they can learn test-taking strategies to supplement their slower reading speed.

Potential Challenges:

Perhaps the biggest challenge for students with low Visual Speed will be completing certain tests within the allotted time. In the test prep world, we refer to this as a pacing issue. As a result of pacing issues, students with low visual speed are likely to struggle with the following sections of the ACT:

  • English: May take more time to answer longer, wordier question
  • Math: May take more time to solve longer word problems
  • Reading: Completing this section will likely be difficult
  • Science: May find it difficult to complete text-heavy passages on time 

Helpful Strategies:

Students with low visual speed are often insecure about how slowly they read. Some of this insecurity springs from noticing that their classmates finish reading text-heavy assignments before they do. These students need to recognize that speed is not a sign of diminished intelligence! It just means that reading or processing columns of numbers often take more time for them. I’ve worked with several students with low Visual Speed that scored a 30+ on the ACT.

Students with low Visual Speed who take the ACT might find these strategies helpful:

  • Identify and carefully read only the text that is essential to answering the question or solving the problem
  • Skip or skim passages that aren’t necessary to answer the test question correctly
  • Prioritize completing parts of the test they’re most likely to perform best (e.g., complete the reading passages students historically score higher on first, then move on to others)

High Visual Speed

For students with high Visual Speed, leveraging how quickly they read is key. Unsurprisingly, finishing the ACT on time usually won’t be an issue. This will be particularly useful on the Reading and Science sections of the ACT.

However, a high score in Visual Speed can bring its own challenges. Thus, even for students who enjoy the quick processing speed, that speed may have weaknesses the ACT will exploit.

Potential Challenges:

  • General: May be more likely to miss key details in text heavy questions
  • Math: May be more likely to make problem-solving (or “careless”) errors
  • Reading: May need to read something multiple times to catch all details necessary to answer questions correctly

Helpful Strategies:

In tutoring students with high Visual Speed, I’ve found that awareness is half the battle. If a disciplined student is made aware of the kinds of text they should look for on the test, they can usually develop effective strategies to shore up their weaknesses.

Other strategies that I’ve found to be helpful for students with high Visual Speed include:

  • Assume text-heavy questions may need to be read multiple times to gain full meaning
  • Consider annotating key words and clues in text heavy questions as tool reminder to slow down, especially on the English and Science tests
  • Double check longer, complicated math questions, especially those that are text-heavy

Low Visual Accuracy

Visual Accuracy governs students’ ability to “catch” textual and written problem-solving errors. Because the ACT is a text-based test, this ability impacts almost every single question in every section of the exam. Accordingly, improving Visual Accuracy plays a pivotal role in test prep.

Students with low Visual Accuracy should expect to experience some initial frustration when they start ACT prep. Often, as they check their answers, students with low Visual Accuracy say, “How did I miss that?!”

Potential Challenges:

  • English: May overlook grammatical errors, especially punctuation
  • Math: May often overlook preventable problem-solving errors
  • Reading:  Will likely struggle to find the answer to questions that require them to search through large bodies of text 
  • Science: Are more likely to overlook relevant data on tables

Helpful Strategies:

Students with low Visual Accuracy may find that they miss clues that in hindsight should have easily given them the answer. However, any low ability can be offset by developing a strong compensatory skill.  For students with low Visual Accuracy, this is particularly important. In fact, one essential strategy that can dramatically improve performance on standardized tests like the ACT is:

  • Use noticeable annotations
  • Use noticeable annotations
  • Use noticeable annotations

That wasn’t a typo. I hope that repeating this strategy three times emphasizes its importance. Since a student with low Visual Accuracy is much more likely to overlook the clues they need to answer the corresponding questions, they need to take an active (rather than passive) approach to their reading. Annotating remains a reliable way to actively read. Annotating the key textual clues on each passage and question is key.

For example, on the reading portion of the ACT, names, dates and locations in the passages often come up in subsequent questions. If a student marks those relevant items, they’re essentially laying breadcrumbs to find them again when they answer the questions corresponding to that passage.

Notice, however, that I recommended using “noticeable annotations.” In my experience, underlining is the least effective annotation to use on the ACT because it’s so easy to overlook.

Instead, I recommend that students with low Visual Accuracy use noticeable annotations like circles, squares, or brackets. In the interest of maximizing the allotted time, shapes don’t need to be perfect or symmetrical, just easy to spot!

This strategy often gets pushback in test prep sessions, but when students use it, they realize that annotating paves a path for them to find and remember the clues they need to improve their scores.

High Visual Accuracy

Students with high Visual Accuracy can find it to be an advantage when taking the ACT; however, this ability doesn’t guarantee a high test score. While a student with high Visual Accuracy typically has an easier time processing and catching errors, it is critical that they know which errors to look for.

Potential Challenges:

  • All tests: Will often prioritize accuracy over speed, which may lead to pacing issues
  • English: May often pick the answer that “sounds the best” and not the grammatically correct answer
  • Reading: May overly rely on intuition and not on ACT strategies to pick the correct answer

Helpful Strategies:

Students with high Visual Accuracy should focus on mastering the content of the test. Doing so will help them spot clues around which tactics they’ll need to answer the question correctly.

  • Learn to identify which question category a question falls under
  • Memorize the strategies needed to answer the question type correctly
  • Rely on accuracy when scanning large amounts of text to avoid falling behind

Learning what the test wants is a priority for students with high Visual Accuracy. A student who is more familiar with the test will be in a better position to leverage their natural abilities to improve their score.

To better help your child increase their ACT score, schedule an appointment with us. Together, we’ll combine your student’s natural abilities with our customized tutoring to get them into their dream school.

Marc Gray, College Planning and Test Prep Expert is the Director of Education and founder of Odyssey College Prep

“I take a holistic approach to college planning with the end in mind. I don’t just want to get students into a competitive college; I want them to be successful and happy professionals years after they graduate. Having worked in college planning for ten years, I offer students and their families a wide range of college prep services, from helping high school students prepare for the ACT to college students choosing their majors, internships and more.”

Marc Gray,