“My son got a full-tuition scholarship to college because he ate a protein bar during the ten-minute break of the ACT.” It’s true! There are many ways to help your child improve ACT scores. In this article, you’ll hear from Test Prep Mom about how a simple protein bar helped her son raise his ACT scores. And you’ll learn how to help your child do the same.
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How to Improve ACT Scores
On the nights that I couldn’t rest, THIS is the one thought that plagued my sleep. Of all that we did, all that we tried, and all that we practiced, it was this ridiculous protein bar that put him over the top.
I had first been introduced to the concept of “standardized test prep” in 2010 at the Great Homeschool Convention in Cincinnati, OH. I came to understand that students could get all or most of their college paid for it they could score high enough on the ACT, PSAT, or SAT.
From that point on, I was all in. My oldest son and I studied all three of these tests. Ultimately, it was his score on the ACT that secured the $60,000 scholarship that paid for all 4 years of his tuition at Lee University. It took some effort for him to improve his ACT scores, but it was well worth it!
If I’m making this incredible accomplishment appear overly simple, trust me, it wasn’t. In high school, I surely would have said that I “wasn’t a good test taker.” I got a 23 on the one-and-only ACT that I took in 1986. Yet, it was good enough to usher in some of the best days of my life at the University of Kentucky.
While college was expensive in those days, my tuition was about $1000 a semester—a far cry from the thousands of dollars it can be today. Both of my parents were teachers. My dad was a high school football coach and my mom taught English. I married an elementary school teacher. It was natural for me to want to be around people who wanted to make other people’s lives better. While the most important people in my life all were passionate about their professions, none of them were going to be rich in this life.
My husband and I had always tried to live within our means. We have lived in our 1000 square ft. house for 25 years. Three bedrooms and one bath made for some great stories when we had three teenagers in the house. But times have changed on the college front since we bought that house 25 years ago. Today, if a student wants to attend college and live on campus, it is well over $100,000 for the four-year college experience.
Which brings us back again to the concept of test prep, improving ACT scores, and that ridiculous protein bar.
How a Protein Bar Led My Son to Improve His ACT Score and Earn a College Scholarship
From his freshman year on, my son knew that we were going to be studying tests. Our singular focus was the hope that scholarships would take the place of student loans. He had already raised his ACT score significantly—from a 24 to a 29—in the years that we had been studying the test. In the state of Kentucky, there are some state schools that will pay for all a student’s tuition with a 28 on the ACT. We were so thankful that he had those options on the table.
However, he wanted some more opportunities, and it seemed that the SCIENCE section of the ACT was what was holding him back. His English, math, and reading scores were all well above 30. Yet, science—the final section of the test– hung heavy at a 24.
He had taken the test four times at this point, and his science score had never changed. He had scored 24 four times in a row. Every time it was the same story: he was running out of time and guessing on the last 10 science questions.
We were doing all I knew to do: take past tests, study past tests, review past tests. Still, with all that work on the front end, nothing was changing on the back end. I decided we needed a tutor. He got on a waitlist for an ACT tutor in Lexington.
When my son showed up for tutoring, the young tutor was working from a test prep book written by Kaplan. I didn’t know it at the time, but students ONLY want to work from tests written by the ACT. Test Prep companies cannot copy past ACT tests because of copyright laws, so any practice ACT test in a Kaplan prep book will have been written by KAPLAN, not the ACT. This is a crucial point when it comes to understanding test prep.
Regardless, my son continued private tutoring for 8 weeks. He was doing all that he could to hit his goal score on the June test. The summer test happened to fall on the week we were going on a beach vacation with my extended family. Not to be thwarted, we scheduled his ACT test at a small town in Elizabethton, North Carolina– 2.5 hours from the beach.
In our hotel room the night before the test, we reviewed everything. We had a nice dinner. We laid everything out for the morning. This was his fourth test. We hoped it would be his last.
However, after the test–on our drive back to our family at the beach– he said that he still had trouble finishing the science section. The ACT is a long test. It’s a fast test. It’s an exhausting test.
When scores came out 10 days later, nothing had changed. In spite of the additional tutoring, the travel, and the preparation, his cumulative score was still a 29. However, his science score was no longer a 24. It was now a 22. Eight weeks of tutoring with tests written by test prep companies had rendered his score even lower than before.
It was June 2014: the summer before his senior year. His five cumulative ACT scores to this point were as follows: 24, 28, 29, 28, 29. No matter what we did, it didn’t seem that he could break into the 30s. It was also obvious that the 22 in science was pulling him down.
Quite honestly, I was ready to be done. He could get free tuition from Western KY University, Eastern KY University, and Morehead State University. A 28 on the ACT still guarantees full tuition to those three state schools in Kentucky.
However, my son wanted to continue. I had never been more shocked when he said, “Mom, I think I should take the ACT as many times as I can my senior year.” It was his way of saying that he wanted more college options on the table.
He went away to camp for the summer and I decided to get my act together. This had been my crazy idea in the first place. Surely, I could muster the courage to finish the race.
I had done everything I knew to do. I had spent hundreds of dollars on different online ACT classes. I had bought just about every ACT prep book on the market. I had spent hours during the week taking these ridiculous tests trying to “crack the code.”
And then, as if by divine intervention, a friend at church casually told me about an ACT tutor who had helped her daughter. She was a retired school teacher.
“She’s really great and all the kids love her,” she suggested.
So, I called this dear lady, not aware that this would be a critical step in our journey.
“We have been studying this crazy test for 4 years,” I began, “trying to get a full scholarship to college. It seems that my son is stuck on the science section. He is struggling to finish the test.”
We talked on the phone for 45 minutes about the ACT. I had found my soul sister. I look back now and think about how gracious it was that this tutor gave me so much of her precious time.
“Bring me your son,” she said. “As soon as he gets back from camp, bring him to me and we will figure this out.”
We made an appointment for mid-august.
I was bouncing off the walls with excitement as I shared this great news with my son when he returned from camp.
“I think I have found someone who can help us. She helped your friend Lauren from church.”
My son didn’t seem too excited about starting the adventure all over with another tutor, but I persisted.
“We have to do everything in our power to learn new things, try new things, and not waste any opportunity that comes our way,” I exhorted. “I really feel like this lady can help us,” I continued.
He reluctantly agreed, and off we went. It had been four long years of crazy ideas: different online classes, different tutors, practice tests on Saturdays while eating Cane’s Chicken and Five Guys Fries. He knew that I was committed to doing whatever it took and that we had come too far to stop now.
Strangely enough, the retired school teacher actually lived just a few blocks away from my house in our older neighborhood of small, single-family homes.
As we approached the house, a teenage girl was walking out. “That’s good,” I thought. “This tutor must be busy. She must know what she is doing.”
We approached her small porch and knocked on the door. My son and I are both quite tall. He is easily 6′ 2″ and I am an even 6 feet tall (even though for the longest time I tried to convince others that I was actually 5’10”, lol).
We knocked. We waited. The door opened.
We saw a little woman in front of us, made even more dramatic by the two of us standing on her slightly elevated porch.
I remember feeling awkward and tall, but his little lady didn’t miss a beat. She opened her door, threw her arms around my introverted son’s waist, and exclaimed, “You must be Brennan!” She squeezed his waist even tighter. “You just come on into my house, sit down on my couch, and you are gonna call me ‘Mama.’”
Somewhat taken aback, my son looked up at me blankly over Mama’s small frame. She was still hugging his waist, and her head came to the middle of his chest.
“MOMMMM?!?” he mouthed as he looked at me over Mama’s head.
“Be Niiiiiice,” I mouthed back, as I shot him that Mom look that says I know this is weird, but just go with it.
We walked into Mama’s living room and sat down on her couch. I handed her a printout with Brennan’s five different ACT scores.
“Well this is ridiculous,” Mama announced. “You should not have a 34 in reading and a 22 in science. A student’s reading and science scores should be no more than one point apart because they test the same skill. If you have the ability in reading, you have the ability in science,” she continued flamboyantly.
Then Mama asked him a very strange question. She looked at him directly.
“What are you eating at the break?”
There was a slight pause.
“Nothing?” he replied sheepishly.
Mama shot me a pointed glance. She looked at me like I was a terrible mother.
“I asked him if he wanted anything to eat and he said no,” I quickly added in my defense.
Mama shook her head and walked over to the side of her living room. She started rubbing her temples as if she were trying to ward off a migraine. “Why do I even work with these people?” I imagined her thinking.
Then she silently disappeared into her kitchen. When she returned, she was holding a Met-Rx Protein Bar: 32 grams of protein.
“He needs to eat this bar and drink either a full water bottle or a half water bottle at the ten-minute break.”
I started writing it all down like it was a prescription: Full or half water at the break.
She handed the bar to my son. “Eat it,” she commanded.
“I’m not really hungry,” he offered in return.
“Eat it.” Mama’s voice was steadfast and stern.
My son’s gaze was fixed on me as he unwrapped the protein bar. He was not amused, and our time was almost up.
It seemed as if students were coming to Mama’s house at the top of every hour. The next student was already on the porch, signaling that his tutoring session was over. We had been there for one hour and we hadn’t even opened the ACT. We walked back to my car in silence.
He had one more session with Mama before the September ACT. This time he went by himself. When he came home, I asked, “What did you do with Mama?”
“She made me eat a different flavor protein bar,” he replied blithely. “Then we did some science passages.”
That was it. It was now time for the next test.
We went to Kroger’s and found these protein bars in the pharmacy section of the store. We had to buy a box of 4. We purchased a water bottle, and off he went.
When I picked him up from the test, I asked him the all-important question, “Did you finish the test?
“Actually, Mom, I did,” he answered.
“WHAT???” I exclaimed.
“Don’t get too excited yet,” he countered. “Let’s just wait and see what happens.”
Well here’s what happened.
Because he had enough ENERGY to finish the test and answer the final 10 questions, his 22 in science went to a 31– moving his cumulative score from a 29 to a 31.
I can see now that he had been telling me that there was a problem, but I just wasn’t hearing him. He would say things like this:
“When I get to the science section of the test, I am just exhausted. I hate the ACT, and I don’t want to do it anymore.” It had never occurred to me that I could equip him with more energy.
I was sharing this story at a high school in KY, and the principal was sitting in the back of the room. He raised his hand.
“Yes?” I asked.
“You know it is so funny that you would share that story,” he said. “My friends and I run triathlons on the weekends and that is the exact protein bar that we eat for energy to finish the race.
I have since shared this story with thousands of high school students who have attended my in-person ACT classes. A homeschooled student in Florida got a perfect 36 on the test after coming to one of my classes and working through the program. When he first came to class, he had a 30. He took the test a few more times before getting a perfect 36 in every single section of the test. His mother kept in touch with me via email as he was working toward this incredible goal.
On one of his attempts, he forgot his protein bar. His mom emailed me with his lower scores and said, “We are now definite believers in the protein bar!”
And (don’t you know) when he did hit that 36 in each sub-section of the test, he was eating a Met-Rx protein bar at the ten-minute break of the test.
As for my own son, he took the test two more times. The school he attended was giving a $14,000 scholarship for kids who scored between a 27-31 on the test. They were giving a $60,000 scholarship to students who scored 32-36.
On December of 2014, my son got a 32 on the ACT, up 8 points from where he had started. I was stunned. He had done it. We had done it. His tuition was paid for because we saw an opportunity and took it.
Yet, as I thought about all that we had done to prepare, all that I had tried that didn’t work, and all that I had tried that did, I kept coming back to this one singular thought:
My son got a full-tuition scholarship to college because he ate a protein bar during the ten-minute break of the ACT.
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More Information About Test Prep Mom (and Her Hubby)
Keith and Kati Johnson founded The ACT Mom (Test Prep Mom site) during the summer of 2015. What had been a private undertaking became public when Kati started sharing the story of her family’s 5-year preparation for the ACT. Her oldest son had just scored in the 98th percentile of all test takers and was awarded a full-tuition merit scholarship to college.
For the next five years, Kati started teaching small groups of classes– as well as her other two children still at home–including one whom she homeschooled. During that 5-year period, she personally taught over 3000 students in 250 classes. Her two children at home also scored in the 97th and 99th percentile of all test takers, resulting in over $200,000 in merit scholarships for her three children.
In March of 2020, the coronavirus pandemic brought in-person classes to a sudden halt. After being challenged by KY educators to use this time of shut down to develop an online program, Keith and Kati developed a 13-hour online class that is currently being used all over the country.
Keith manages the online class, the online registration program, and the website. Kati speaks, teaches, encourages, and counsels. Keith has a Master’s Degree in Ministry from Moody Bible Institute and is currently working on his Ph.D. in Educational Leadership from Columbia International University. Kati has a Master’s Degree in Counseling from Asbury Theological Seminary.
As undergraduates, they attended Birmingham Southern College (ΣΝ) and The University of KY (ΧΩ) respectively. They live in Lexington, KY in the same little house that has been their home for 23 years.