Standardized tests like the SAT and ACT have long been a requirement for college admission, and while they’re far from the most important piece of your application, many colleges do use these tests as a baseline requirement for the students they admit. In most cases, having a perfect score isn’t what’s important; it’s simply important to achieve a score within the range of scores the universities you’re applying to typically admit.
However, all students should strive to do their best, and whether you’re shooting for perfect scores and aiming for Ivy League acceptance or are simply hoping to score in the necessary range for your university of choice, the proper preparation can ensure a much smoother path to the best score possible.
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What is the SAT?
The SAT is a multiple-choice, standardized test required by many colleges and universities for undergraduate applications. The test is meant to measure high school students’ preparation and aptitude in various subjects to determine their readiness for college.
The test is also meant as a common method of evaluation since it provides one objective data point that can be used to compare all applicants. The SAT has changed a bit over the years, with the addition and removal of certain sections, but at the time of this post, it is comprised of a Math section, an Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section, and an optional Essay section, and the test lasts three to four hours, depending on whether you sit for the Essay section or not.
What is the ACT?
The ACT is a similar alternative to the SAT, and most colleges that require these exams accept either or both. Since you aren’t required to send all your scores, it benefits most students to take both tests to determine which one results in a higher score for them, and either send both scores or just send the test with their highest outcome. The difference between the ACT and the SAT is the style of problems and the included sections, as the ACT includes an English, Math, Reading, Science, and optional Writing section, and lasts between three and four hours.
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Get Familiar with the Details
It’s important that students familiarize themselves with the details of each test before entering the live testing environment, especially since these tests are only held on certain dates, so students don’t want to waste an opportunity due to lack of preparation. One important thing to note is which test you’re taking, the sections it includes, and how specifically to study for that test.
When determining which test to take, or which to take first, you should consider the difference in style: the SAT tests students’ reasoning and verbal skills, while the ACT measures what students have learned in their academic subject classes. Therefore, classroom learning and subject matter retention can impact a student’s ACT score, while their SAT should be pretty independent of what a student has learned in school.
The best and most effective way to prepare for the SAT and ACT is to practice with practice tests and sample questions, much of which can be accessed for free online. When it comes to the SAT, you should begin by taking the PSAT, which most students may take through their schools as sophomores and juniors. After taking the PSAT and determining your baseline score, as well as the areas where you require extra study time, you can begin prepping for the real SAT.
You can do this through resources on the College Board website, as well as via SAT tutors and SAT prep books, of which there are many. It’s best if you can simulate a real testing environment when taking these practice tests, which includes timing yourself on each section to ensure you can complete the test in the allotted time. You can also set a target score for yourself, which can be a great motivator as you practice each section. While the ACT doesn’t have a PACT, there are practice questions and sample tests on the ACT’s website, as well as plenty of ACT prep and study books. Running through practice tests as many times as you can, until you’re achieving the scores you aim for on the real tests, is the best form of preparation, and it will likely pay off in your real test scores.
Similar to what we mentioned above with practice tests, you should make a point of reading up on as much prep material as you can. This means getting the study books for either (or both) tests from previous years and working through as many problems as you can. Additionally, reading up on certain subjects can help you in both tests, especially the ACT, so after looking into the prep books, you should also determine in which subjects you require more of a refresher and spend additional time on them.
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Get a Tutor
If you want someone who’s been there, done that to help accelerate your progress, you may opt for a tutor. There are plenty of individual SAT and ACT tutors out there who’ve cracked the code to getting perfect scores on either or both tests, and who have helpful study methods that can quickly catapult your score.
If an individual tutor isn’t a viable option for you, you could look into SAT or ACT prep classes and study groups, and many schools offer these programs as afterschool options for sophomores and juniors. If you want a 360 strategy to attack the test, you could do both individual tutoring and classes or study groups, but this may be overkill, especially for busy students, and for most, one or the other, coupled with individual practice and studying, should be sufficient.
Work Your Memory
Even though much of these tests is based on real-time problem-solving and analytical thinking, the time crunch is a factor, and it will only help you if you have some formulas memorized. In both tests, there will be necessary formulas for the Math sections, and you may not be provided the formulas in your test booklet. The SAT does provide a few formulas, while the ACT does not, and even if the SAT provides formulas, it will be better for you to be prepared with the formulas at your fingertips, from memory, rather than wasting time flipping back and forth and refamiliarizing yourself with the formula during the test.
Increase Your Vocabulary
One method of preparation that will help you both on these tests and in life in general is to read as much as you can and increase your vocabulary. Whether you do this by reading advanced literature or by looking up a list of important SAT or ACT vocabulary words and committing them to memory, this will be key. The last thing you want is to get stumped on simple questions in the Reading section of either test, simply because you don’t know the meaning of an unfamiliar word.
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Use Your Phone (Really)
Let’s be honest: most teens have their phones with them at all times. Additionally, most teens spend their free time scrolling through social media apps, wasting time, or occupying their hands and brain when they’re bored.
As college-bound high school students, especially for those who are just a few months away from their final SAT or ACT, there’s no reason you can’t spend that time more productively. There are apps and online resources that can be accessed from a phone to help you with every aspect of test prep, for both the SAT and the ACT, so make the most of your free time, and study on your phone, when you can.
Standardized tests like the SAT and ACT may be a necessary evil of college applications, but with a solid preparation strategy, there’s no need to fear or dread either test. As students, your brain is already sharp and used to study for your classes and tests, so prioritizing the SATs or ACTs like just another class should be second nature, at this point. The moral of the story is, practice makes as close to perfect as you can get, and that’s the goal with school and standardized testing.
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