Your Comprehensive Guide to Prepping for the Test

Preparing to take the SAT or ACT can be a stressful time in a young person’s life. The scores students receive for these tests can directly influence which schools accept them and also whether or not they are eligible for significant scholarship awards.

Because the SAT and ACT have such a powerful impact on students’ futures, preparing for test day can be daunting without a solid strategy in place. The good news is that by developing a strategic test prep plan, students can improve their understanding of the material while also building test-taking confidence, two factors that increase the likelihood of obtaining a satisfactory score.

If you’re a student hoping to make your ACT and/or SAT study strategy as effective as possible, here are some tips to help you out:
Take an Official SAT or ACT Practice Test to Establish a Baseline Score
Most likely, you are already aware of which subjects you naturally excel in and which ones you have to work a bit harder to grasp. Developing your study strategy in a way that prioritizes the areas that need the most work is a great place to start.

If you want to get more specific with how your strengths and weaknesses correlate to the material covered on the official tests, taking an officially proctored ACT or SAT practice test can be a great way to establish a baseline score and assess which areas you should devote the most of your study time on.

You may know that you do well in math-related subjects, but a practice test can narrow down if your algebra skills are fine-tuned but your graph comprehension skills could use a little work. Personalized feedback is often included in officially proctored practice tests, and most providers are professionals who have in-depth expertise on how the ACT and SAT operates, making their advice a valuable tool with which to shape your study strategy.

Re-Evaluate Priorities as Needed

A study strategy doesn’t have to be stagnant. In fact, you’ll fare much better if you adapt your test prep priorities to correspond with your progress. Taking practice tests incrementally can be a good way to evaluate your current needs. If you don’t want to go through an official channel every time, there are study materials and online resources where you can take practice tests and complete exercises to get a rough sense of what subjects are seeing improvement and where you need to increase your study. You may have mastered the grammar rules you’ve been working on, allowing you to move it down the list of importance. By keeping an eye on where you’re at and shifting priorities as needed, you should be able to ensure that you are putting your focus on where it will benefit you most.

Practice Under Conditions That Mimic the Real Test Experience

Another reason SAT and/or ACT practice tests are so beneficial is that they can be done in a way that mimics the conditions of the real test in terms of the timing constraints and the overall test format. Understanding the material is the foundation of doing well, but learning to budget your time is important to ensure that you are able to finish each section. Studying in a way that resembles the real experience will help you be prepared and know what to expect. An officially proctored practice test will generally be given in a way that reflects the real test’s pacing, but you can also time yourself or have someone else time you as well. You can find the time breakdowns for each section of the SAT here and the ACT here.

Additionally, if you plan to take the SAT, keep in mind that a calculator is only allowed for a portion of the math section. it would be advantageous to practice for the math section without a calculator to prepare for this.

For both the SAT and ACT, make sure that the calculator you are using for practice is one that is approved for the test that you plan to take, and try to practice with the same one (or model) that you will also use for the real test. This way you will be familiar with how it functions and won’t need to waste time getting familiar with a different set-up.

When taking the SAT and ACT, the proctor will give periodic reminders regarding how much time is remaining during each section, but many students find that taking a watch helps them to better pace themselves. Neither test allows watches with alarms or those that can connect to the internet, so be sure to take one that meets the requirements.

Start Prepping for the SAT/ACT Early and Consistently

Cramming for a test may be common among high school and college students, but for a test like the SAT and ACT that covers a variety of subjects, you will fare much better and feel far less stressed if you don’t wait until the last minute to begin studying. The earlier you begin, the more time you will have to identify areas of need as well as to access resources that will help you with your test prep goals. The time that it will take to get your skills to the point where you feel ready to tackle your test will depend in part on how close or far away your baseline score is from the score you hope to obtain.

Generally speaking, however, sophomore year in high school is a good time to start prepping. This way, students have ample time to take the test more than once and fine-tune any weaknesses, which increases the odds of being able to obtain an ideal score. If you’re a senior, you can still take advantage of the time you have between now and your test registration date by assessing your progress through practice tests and beginning your test prep as early as possible.

Familiarize Yourself with Proven Test-Taking Tips

While you’ll maximize your odds at achieving your ideal score by doing what you can to understand the material, there are also proven test strategies that can help you be more accurate on questions that are worded in a confusing way; ones that seem like multiple answers could be correct; or ones that you simply do not know.

While there are many test taking tips you can familiarize yourself with, here are a few to get you on the right track:

  • On multiple choice questions, more than one answer can often appear correct. If you need to assume that other, unstated conditions are in place in order for an option to be correct, it is most likely wrong. You should be able to identify the right answer based solely on the information in front of you.
  • If you’re unsure of the correct answer, eliminate the choices you know to be obviously wrong. This will narrow down your options, and the remaining answers may give more context to the question. There is no guessing penalty, so the more that you are able to narrow down your choices, the higher the likelihood that you will guess the right option.
  • For true/false questions, if any part of the question is false, it indicates that the answer is false. The entire question must be true in order for the answer to be true.
  • Don’t get stuck on difficult questions. Instead, answering the ones you know and coming back to the ones that you are uncertain about will help ensure that you don’t run out of time. However, be sure that if you do skip any questions, you continue to fill in the number on your answer sheet that corresponds to the number of the question that you are answering.
  • If more than one answer is correct for a question where all-of-the-above is an option, it is most likely the right answer, unless the question is asking you to select the best or most applicable choice.
  • If you’re unsure of how to complete a math question, try plugging the various answers into the problem. Working backwards can help you discover the correct option.
  • Don’t overlook the directions. This may sound obvious, but skimming over the written instructions can lead to careless errors.
  • Read every answer choice carefully, even if you think you spot the correct answer right away.
  • Pay attention to words or phrases that alter the context of a sentence, such as double negatives or absolutes (words like ‘never’ or ‘always’). These can make the difference between whether or not you grasp the question or answer option as it’s intended.

Reach Out for Help

If you find yourself struggling to stay focused, comprehend the material, or finish sections of the practice tests within the allotted time limits, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. High schools and public libraries often offer free test prep help, so do some research to see what resources are available in your community. Additionally, official test prep services are always a solid option if you are looking for SAT/ACT classes where you can learn alongside other students or one-on-one instruction that is tailored more specifically to your unique needs. Remember that if you feel that you are struggling, asking for help is always a smart decision.

Closing Up

Hopefully this information offers you some insight into how to make your SAT and/or ACT study strategy as effective as possible. If you study early and consistently, practice in a format that mimics the real test, and utilize all available resources that you have access to, your determination to do well should translate to success once your test-day arrives. Good luck with your studying!

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