Successful students offering tips for high stakes testing

Senior Linda Peng stands on a chair, enthusiastically stretching her arms toward a blue projector screen littered with white text. Her voice is not as small as she is; it does not stretch, it carries easily through the Cedar Falls High School library, and her words are fast but clear as she lectures to a group of students sitting in chairs before her. The word “cringe” appears on the screen in parenthesis more than once.

Peng is lecturing on her tactics and strategies for the American College Testing. It’s more commonly referred to as the ACT, or as Peng refers to it, Anxiety Causing Torture, the popular college entrance exam composed of four test sections — English, math, reading, and science — whose combined scores average to a composite out of 36.

Peng, along with three other Cedar Falls High School students — senior Justin Liu, junior Astoria Chao and senior Xiang Zhou — form a gang of kid-brainiacs armed and ready to help their peers reduce stress and eliminate common misconceptions about the test, resulting in successful scores.

Peng and her team have all received composite scores ranging from 33 to 36 on the test.

“I wanted to do this because I know that my score is considered ‘good,’” said Peng, who received a score of 34. “I have many friends that are also in this score range that are very familiar with the test and that all have skills that have aided in test taking.”

During the 2016-2017 school year, Peng piloted Cedar Falls’ peer tutoring group as a part of the volunteer club, composed of student-tutors who signed themselves up to help with a variety of classes, allowing their peers to receive free tutoring in whichever classes they may need it.

The tutors introduce themselves and begin to help students create a personalized study schedule based on their strengths and weaknesses. “Everyone will be offered a specific study schedule and schedule times to meet with their own personal tutor one on one,” Peng said.

During one of the sessions in early October, Peng asked which section that the students would like to start with, and the answer was overwhelmingly math. She promptly handed out a packet full of math questions from a previous ACT test to each student, and told them they had 15 minutes to complete 18 questions.

On the ACT, and in math especially, the questions get harder as the tests continue, meaning the 18 questions handed out were considered some of the most difficult that appeared on the past test date where they were used.

“The way to get better at math is to just do practice problems over and over.” said Liu, who received a 36 on the math section of the test.

After the 18 minutes was up, the tutors helped students understand why they got or didn’t get questions right, and helped them solve the ones they missed. It was a group effort; both Zhou and Liu work on calculating a particularly tricky algebra problem from the practice test so they can talk through the solution with their peers, while Chao explained matrices, and Peng clarified the premises of a parabola.

“The logistics of the test are quite simple, so once you figure out what you’re doing wrong, that needs to be your focus for practice,” Peng said.

As for the best skills for success on the ACT, Peng emphasized anticipation and preparation. “Start early, know what’s going to be on it, be familiar with the test and use practice tests. On test day, just relax and know there will be no surprises,” Peng said. “It’s really about preparation, and, honestly, in general, we’re also working on reducing the stress about the test, because even those of us with ‘good’ scores have struggled a lot with it.”

For first time ACT-takers, Peng said that taking it more than once should always be the plan, and she reinforced her belief that knowing what will be on the test and how it is asked is a key to success.

“Plan to take it more than once. Start early, keep yourself on track and work with test anxiety and stress,” Peng said. “Once you’re familiar with the test, it will get easier.”

For test veterans, however, targeting weak sections can help increase the composite score. “We will be targeting the sections you don’t do well on, and figuring out exactly what you need to improve to up your score,” Peng said. “Review of sections you’re good on can’t hurt either. Again, keep yourself on track and work with taking tests when you’re stressed.”

Peng’s free tutoring is available for anyone who needs it and wants help to receive the scores on the ACT that they need. Peng also offers PSAT tutoring, and will hold another free ACT seminar Wednesday, Oct. 11 at 3:05 in the high school library. Contact Linda Peng at for more details.

“Students at the high school right now are going to be college applicants pretty soon, and no one graduating soon can avoid the fact that you have to have this test in your college application,” Peng said. “If you can’t beat [fellow applicants’ scores], join them.”

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