Preparation is vital no matter which standardized test you choose. Read on for eight universal tips to optimize your performance on both the ACT and SAT.
TIP 1: Make a plan that fits your learning style
After nearly 20 years of preparing students for the ACT and SAT, I can say that there’s no definitive number of hours everyone needs to prepare. I’ve had students with whom I worked who were ready in three weeks. I’ve had students who studied for five months, and I had one student who raised her ACT score 5 points in 5 days because she studied for 15 hours a day. It really comes down to how much time you have and on what you need to focus.
tip 2: Revisit foundations
A huge part of studying for these exams is reviewing concepts you first learned in middle school. You have to review fundamental math, and you have to know grammar rules. The only students I’ve ever tutored who didn’t need explicit instruction in grammar rules were students whose parents hounded them at home from an early age and for whom correct grammar became second nature. But that situation is rare, and 99% of students preparing for these exams need explicit instruction on the foundational content tested. If you need some advice about what concepts come up frequently on the exams, then see What is tested on the ACT and SAT?
tip 3: Remember mindfulness
College test preparation is stressful. It causes anxiety for teens and for their families and can create a tough dynamic at home. Regardless of your chosen approach, please remember to be mindful and to take care of yourself. Remember to prioritize sleep, eat nutritious food, and aim for balance throughout the process. Planning ahead and spacing out review can lower anxiety. Another way to feel more comfortable about the exams is to see them as tests of four skills rather than an indication of intelligence.
tip 4: Review mistakes
I cannot impress enough how important it is to review mistakes; it is how you will learn. Mistakes are not an indication of a lack of intelligence; they are simply an indication of an opportunity to learn and grow. Embrace mistakes. Then, when you do understand the concept, explain it to someone else; tell your sister, tell your parent, tell your friend, tell whomever, and explain what you have learned. That’s how you reinforce the content.
tip 5: Take advantage of “special” test dates
On certain test dates, you have the option to pay a nominal fee to receive a copy of the test and your answers. The ACT offers “Test Information Release” for $20 on its December, April, and June exams. The SAT offers its “Question-and-Answer-Service” for $18 on its October, March, and May exams. Take advantage of those dates because the opportunity to review your real test with your answers in the real testing situation is invaluable.
tip 6: Choose the right resources for you
No two students learn the same. What might work best for your best friend, might not be the best approach for you. Do your research, learn the differences, understand how your personality fits in, and then decide. For more detail on the options to prepare for standardized tests, see Secrets of ACT and SAT Prep: Pros and Cons.
tip 7: Practice with real tests
This next point is really important. No matter what you do for your prep, my number one recommendation is that all materials you use must be real past exams! That’s the only way you can be sure the materials aren’t harder or easier than what you’ll see on test day. On top of that, be sure to always do practice tests while bubbling a scantron. It might seem silly, but you have to practice your bubbling: (1) because it takes time and (2) because it’s easy to make mistakes by skipping lines or bubbling the incorrect answer choice.
tip 8: Enhance your reading skills
The tests are designed to be challenging to finish in the time allowed. Students I’ve assessed who do exceptionally well without any test prep are voracious readers: they read quickly, remember what they read, and where they read it. Bottom line: if you need to take a break from studying, don’t watch TV. Read a book. It really does help.
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