Why Your Actual Score is Lower Than Your Practice Scores (And How to Fix It!)

I love hearing from students and parents who have questions about test prep and the college process, and sometimes I have a chance to answer them on the blog. To send one in, contact me here


Hi, Kristina,

I'm having a freak-out. I'm a junior, and I've been studying for the ACT for the past few months, and thought everything was going well. My diagnostic ACT was only a 23 (English 19, Math 23, Reading 28, Science 21), but I've been doing tons of work every week with my tutors to get my score up to what I need: a 28. 

I've learned all the grammar rules, math content, and have finally found the right reading and science strategies for me. My tutors have had me take multiple practice sections, and I've been getting around 30-31 in all the sections.

However, I just got my October ACT scores back, and I can't believe how terrible they are! I only got a 25 (English 25, Math 23, Reading 25, Science 25)! I feel like such a failure and don't understand HOW I'm going to get my scores to a 28. I seriously can't even tell my tutors, because I feel so embarrassed and think they'll be mad at me.

Please help! Why are my actual ACT scores lower than my practice scores??

What can I do?


Shocked and Devastated



Dear Shocked,

I'm so sorry to hear about how disappointed you are! Your feelings are completely reasonable. You have a goal, you've been doing the work, you've been learning the content and strategies you need—if that's not bringing the results you want, what else will?

But Shocked, I have some news for you: with the SAT and ACT, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It's more than just learning the content and knowing what to do; you have to have your SAT/ACT performance down to a well-honed craft. Let me explain.

If you were a famous actor—if you were Darren Criss, for instance—would you just memorize your Hedwig and the Angry Inch lines with your acting coach in your dressing room and then expect to give an amazing performance in front of hundreds of audience members on Broadway? Systematically rehearse each song and scene separately and then expect to win a Tony for your performance? Would you expect to give the performance of your life without ever running it through with hair, makeup, and costume changes?

No. Of course not.

Taking a standardized test like the ACT and SAT is a lot like giving the performance of your life. What you've told me so far is that you've reviewed and learned all the actual knowledge on the test, as well as strategies for navigating the passages (i.e. "learning your lines"), and you've gotten very high scores on practice sections (i.e. "rehearsing whole scenes in the play").

But what I haven’t heard from you is that you've done a full run-through (i.e. taking a whole practice test in one sitting). And even more important than that, you haven't had a dress rehearsal with full hair and makeup, costume changes, lighting, scene changes, and a few people in the audience to give you jitters. So, how do you accomplish that, my friend?

Mock testing. Mock testing is your dress rehearsal. It's not the real show yet, but it puts you in the position to learn how to block out all these distractions and logistical nightmares to concentrate on answering the questions. You may come in feeling stressed because you couldn't find the room. The proctor may have forgotten to give you a 5-minute warning. The pencil scratching sounds from the kid next to you may seem 10 times as loud as a normal pencil. Your calculator battery might die. You may get hungry between Reading and Science on the ACT, or between sections 3 and 4 on the SAT. You may have had a brain fart and forgotten the formula for arc lengths, shaking your confidence for the rest of the test.

You see, it isn't enough to know all your formulas and process-of-elimination tricks. You have to be able to access all of these tips, knowledge and strategies as needed, under pressure, with distractions.

Here's my 2-step strategy for how you can get your real ACT score to be as high as your practice scores:

Step 1) Take 2 or 3 practice tests.

Set aside 4 hours of your time on a weekend day to take a practice ACT, timing each section. It's okay to time yourself with your iPhone timer, at your dining room table. Take the test in order. Do not take breaks in the middle of a section. Do not take a break longer than 5 minutes between sections. Do it all in one sitting.

Practice tests are the equivalent of doing a run-through of a play. You're practicing recalling very different parts of your brain in quick succession. You're learning to switch gears. You're learning to get comfortable physically sitting in a chair for 4 hours. You're building stamina to keep your mind as fresh on the essay as it was on the English section a few hours before.

But you're not done...

Step 2) Take at least 4 mock tests in the 6 weeks before your real ACT or SAT date.

What this means is that you need to either go to a testing center and pay for a mock test, or perhaps get a few friends together in a foreign environment (like an empty room at a nearby university or the conference room at one of your parents' offices) and have a parent or tutor actually time you. You will emulate real testing conditions: no cell phones, no beeping watches, no breaks except at designated times, no talking to anyone else. The adult who's timing you will read the boring pages that a proctor actually reads before the real test. You will fill out your name on a bubble sheet.

You have to do enough of these to work out all the kinks, which are really about how you respond to unpredictable and uncomfortable conditions. By the time you take the actual ACT or SAT, you should feel bored by the test, because you're sooooo used to giving a thorough performance that the conditions just don’t throw you anymore.

Now that you know how to make your actual ACT scores as high as your practice scores, I want to bring your attention to something important: you are doing INCREDIBLY WELL, Shocked. You have already seen remarkable improvement in two different sections of the ACT, and locked in a lot of your gains! I have no doubt that if you follow my practice test and mock test strategy, you will continue to improve your score and reach your target.

Remember, no one takes the ACT or the SAT only once and gets their target score. Or rather, it's mostly a fluke when that happens. Taking the October ACT your junior year is already ahead of the curve, and you have enough sittings left to retake the test a few times if you need it. But you probably won't!