No matter how many times your parents have repeated it to you, it never quite sinks in – If you fail to plan you plan to fail. While this feels a bit dramatic, in a test like the SAT or ACT it is important to realize that preparation can have a significant benefit on your score and on opportunities that stem from this such as college admission and scholarships. While many students have performed well in high school, standardized admissions tests can be a limiting factor because students often fall into a few common traps, such as the idea that being a good student translates directly into a high performing standardized test taker. While this may be true for some students, it often is not the case. College admissions exams often require knowledge on how to study for and take a standardized exam. The best way to overcome this hurdle is by creating a study schedule and planning for test day ahead of time.
Step #1: Set Your Target Score
While it can be daunting to make a list of schools this early in the process of college applications, this will make setting a goal much easier. The advice I typically give to students is to create a list of schools with three categories – dream schools or reach schools, mid-tier schools, and safety schools. It is also important to look at what each school is available to offer based on your desired career path or the ability to explore if you are unsure at this stage of your life. After establishing your list, use the internet to find published SAT and ACT scores for each school. I recommend looking at the seventy-fifth percentile and the twenty-fifth percentile of each school. Your goal score should be the highest seventy-fifth percentile score among schools on your list. In doing so, you’ve placed yourself in the top twenty-five percent of applicants for standardized testing scores. This is the score that would likely allow your college application to be reviewed at any school on your list. It is also important to note whether your school requires the essay portion as this will impact your testing registration. Although, I strongly advise taking the essay portion of the exam whether it is required or not as it is another easy opportunity to evidence your strong scholastic abilities.
Step #2: Take a Practice Exam
Taking a practice exam will allow you to determine your baseline SAT or ACT performance. This will help determine how much time you will need in test preparation. It is also an opportunity to familiarize yourself with the test prior to taking the real SAT or ACT. Both tests have official published practice exams that are arguably the closest to the official exam in terms of test questions and structure. When taking your practice exam, it is crucial to try to recreate the testing environment as closely as possible. This means taking the test under timed conditions, at a similar time of day as the real test, no electronic use during or in between sections, and finding a quiet location. This will allow you to obtain the most useful diagnostic score and to set goals for your test preparation.
After taking your practice exam, compare your target score to your baseline exam score. Determine the point difference between these two scores. Do not get discouraged by this portion of test preparation, the SAT and ACT are both tests that you can learn to take. A lot of the preparation for the SAT and ACT requires understanding how the test is set up and being comfortable with the timing of the test. The SAT is split into Reading (52 questions in 65 minutes), Writing and Language (44 questions in 35 minutes), Math (58 questions in 80 minutes), and the optional essay (one essay in 50 minutes). The ACT is composed of five sections: English (75 questions in 45 minutes), Mathematics (60 questions in 60 minutes), Reading (40 questions in 35 minutes), Science (40 questions in 35 minutes), and Writing (1 essay in 40 minutes). As you can see, these sections are short, and it is imperative to know how much time to spend on each question in order to complete the section within the allotted time frame.
Step #3: Pick a Date
Most students will schedule the SAT or ACT for the spring of their junior year so that there is time to retake the test the following fall if needed. There are a number of factors that go into picking a date. First and foremost, you should determine the latest date that allows you to have a score prior to submitting your application to schools. This should be your last chance date, the date that you need to take your test by in order to apply for college. Some students take the SAT or ACT a second time to see a score increase. If adequately prepared, you likely will not need to take the test again barring any events like getting sick or have another emergency come up around your test date.
Another factor to consider is how much time you will need to prepare in order to attain enough knowledge and practice to achieve your target score. For a student who needs to improve their score by 0 – 100 points you may need about 30 hours of preparation. Whereas a student who has a larger improvement in the range of 100-300 points may need closer to 100 hours of preparation. It is important to be realistic about your schedule as a student and other commitments. For example, if you are in band during marching season, this might not be the best time to schedule the SAT or ACT because most of your weeknights and weekends are occupied with extracurricular activities. The best way to determine how much time you have to study for the SAT and ACT is to write out a typical schedule for the week of your mandatory school activities, extracurricular activities, job, time needed to study for class, or any other commitments. The remaining time that is left on your schedule, beyond sleeping and eating could feasibly go towards your SAT or ACT preparation. However, it is important to balance your schedule. Working too many hours on academic pursuits could lead to exhaustion that will impact your test performance.
After taking these factors into consideration, it is important to go online and schedule your exam early. This will keep your testing costs to a minimum and ensure that a spot is reserved for you on test day.
Step #4: Find Study Materials That Work for You
In preparing for the SAT or ACT, reflect back on the methods that lead you to score well on exams in the past. Did you do well in a big study group? Using practice exams provided by a teacher or that you found online? Do you enjoy studying with outlines or flash cards? A number of study resources have been published for the SAT and ACT. Blog articles written by reputable sites can even provide helpful and free tips, like this one from Brainly about effective SAT essay strategies. These resources range in application and work differently for each student. The best study resource is the one you will actually use and even enjoy at times. It is crucial to take many practice passages and exams to gain familiarity with the test itself. It is also important to spend time reviewing these passages and tests. This is where you will find the common patterns and mistakes you’re making and allow yourself the greatest room for improvement. This is the single biggest mistake I have seen amongst all standardized test takers that is so easily corrected.
Step #5: Setting a Schedule
After selecting your study resource, it is time to sit down with a calendar and divide up your workload for your study period. It is important that you work consistently towards your goal, taking a break once or twice a week as needed. This will build up your stamina for test day. When you divide up your work set realistic goals on how many pages you can read or passages you can take in the amount of time you have each day to work on your SAT or ACT. Establish goals throughout your test preparation for score improvements so that you can assess whether you are set to achieve your goal. These checkpoints will give you an idea of whether you need to reschedule your exam and will keep you from cramming for the exam.
When setting up your schedule, it can be tempting to only focus on the sections that you find are weakest based on your diagnostic exam. While you should spend more time on these sections if there is a significant difference in your section scores, it is important that you have a balanced score among your sections on your exam. Make sure that you allot time to study all sections of the exam as a balanced score is often reflective of an academically well rounded student.
Step #6: Take the Exam
Now that you have studied hard, it is time to take your exam. Make sure you are well rested the week leading up to your exam. Trust the hard work you have put into this process and enjoy the challenge. Best of luck!