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The Best Way to Prepare for the ACT or SAT Might Surprise - and Calm - You

sat and act prepWhat is the best way to prepare for the ACT or SAT?

Well, it’s true arriving at a useful answer to this question does depend a lot on your timing and the context. If you are a junior with average grades, but aspire to get a high SAT score, and you take the SAT in 30 days, this article should be able to help adopt the right mindset and bring some calm and confidence to exam day. But practically, with only 30 days until the exam, you should be considering online SAT tutoring or an SAT crash course to get the best SAT score you possibly can. SAT tutoring and courses can and will help you get a higher score.

But let’s assume you are the concerned parent of a sophomore or a freshman. Or, you are the freshman or sophomore yourself. And you are trying to get your head around the college admissions process and the ACT / SAT prep process that is a key element of that picture. There is something important you should know.

The best way to prepare for standardized tests like the SAT and ACT (but also, the GRE, GMAT, LSAT, and more) is to study hard and apply yourself in a wide range of academic disciplines in high school during your freshman and sophomore year.

What concepts are tested on the ACT and SAT?

A majority of the skills you’ll need on the ACT and SAT are developed as you work through your classes in high school. In that sense, your general academic performance will, in many cases, predict your performance on standardized tests. In fact, the latest version of the SAT was intended to move from a focus on general reasoning and vocabulary skills to a test that measures more concrete knowledge and skills you would have built in high school and will need to perform well in college.

Let’s quickly explore what is on the ACT and SAT.

The ACT contains four multiple-choice sections:

  • English - puts a student in the position of a writer deciding how to revise and edit short texts and essays.
  • Mathematics- assesses skills typically acquired through grade 11. The material covered is intended to reflect the prerequisites to successful performance in beginning college mathematics classes. Students need to know basic formulas and have basic computational skills, but recall of complex formulas and extensive computation are not required.
  • Reading - measures a student’s ability to read closely, think logically about texts using given facts and reasonable assumptions, and integrate information from various sources.
  • Science – requires little to no actual scientific knowledge. Instead, this section measures the interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and general and critical thinking skills required in the natural sciences.
  • An optional writing test measures writing skills taught in high school English classes and early college composition classes.

Now, let’s take a look at the SAT:

  • Evidence-Based Reading and Writing
    • Reading Test – you will be asked to answer questions will encounter questions like those asked in a “thoughtful evidence-based discussion”
    • Writing and Language Test - asks you to be an editor and improve passages written specifically for SAT —and which include purposeful errors. You may be asked about sentence structure, punctuation, or how to improve the way a passage develops an idea.
  • Math - covers a range of math concepts, including problem solving, modeling, using tools and understanding algebraic structure. One part allows a calculator, and one does not. Concepts covered include: algebra, including linear equations and systems, problem solving and data analysis, and “passport to advanced math” which requires you to manipulate more complex equations. Topics here get more advanced, and can explore quadratic functions, exponents, function notation, and more. Knowledge of calculus or statistics is not required.
  • Essay (optional) – The optional SAT Essay is similar to a college writing assignment in which you must analyze a text. You’ll read a passage, and then be asked to explain how the author structures and develops his perspective or argument.

The SAT and ACT are designed to measure skills that are most important for success in postsecondary education and that are acquired in secondary education. There is nothing mysterious about what will be on them, and they are not “IQ test-like” in nature at all.

Of course, if your general academic performance has been poor, you can “catch up” by studying hard for the test at hand and address gaps in your skill set, and that’s great news. But if you’re been working hard in school earning Bs and As, you should have a good foundation to do well either the SAT or ACT.

What do the ACT and SAT measure?

The answer is not “how smart you are” or your IQ.

To understand why, let’s start with an exploration of what you’ll find on a typical standardized exam.

Most standardized tests follow a similar pattern to what we saw above for the ACT and SAT, with quantitative, verbal, and writing sections. However, the ACT, SAT, GMAT, MCAT, and LSAT all contain additional unique elements that don’t fit neatly into one of these categories. The important point is that 80% or more of the content on any of these standardized tests is material you will have already learned in school. However, because the test’s writers don’t want to measure your memorization skills or give an advantage to students who were recently exposed to any given topic, they take relatively basic or foundational concepts and make you apply them in ways that can seem tricky. But really, they are just testing your problem solving and critical thinking using concepts you should know well.

Also, remember that the topics on these tests are almost always there because that topic, concept, or type of thinking will be required to do well in the school or program to which you are applying. These tests are used because they predict success, not because they explicitly measure your intelligence.

So what is the best way to prepare for the SAT or ACT?

“The best preparation for standardized tests is to take challenging, college preparatory courses in high school and study hard. That advice should be printed in 500-point type and underlined about 20 times.”

  • Jenny Oren Krugman, former Vice President, Southern Region, of the College Board, which administers the SAT test.

Studying explicitly for a standardized test using a course or an SAT tutor is the second-best way to prepare. Krugman articulates the best way: taking difficult classes and working hard in school over the long term.

Basically, Krugman is saying, “Don’t worry about studying explicitly for the SAT. Just take difficult classes and study hard from first grade to 11th grade, and you’ll excel on the SAT.” This is powerful advice.

However, there are some unique aspects to standardized tests that make it necessary to spend a good amount of time studying explicitly for them with class or tutors. Those aspects include:

  • Oddly worded questions intended to separate top performers from good performers.
  • Advanced vocabulary words you don’t often hear.
  • Questions that required only basic conceptual knowledge, but which are nonetheless difficult to reason your way through.
  • Slightly different or uniquely applied—but not necessarily more advanced—math topics that seem different than what you experience in school.
  • Multiple answer choices that all seem correct.
  • Lots of time pressure, requiring you to work quickly.

Why are standardized tests like the SAT and ACT constructed like this? We touched on this already, but the answer is that the writers of standardized tests need to ensure that test results do two things: 1) Reflect whether a student can excel in college (or graduate school) and 2) Create some variation between students, so admissions committees can understand just how much better one applicant performed when compared with another.

To do this, the writer of a standardized test can’t just go overboard with completely obscure vocabulary words or highly advanced math topics that most people have never been exposed to. This would create artificial variation in the results because the test wouldn’t be measuring mathematics ability as much as determining who happened to take a particular math course. Plus, colleges want to understand how well students think critically and solve ambiguous problems, and simply knowing the formula for an advanced math problem doesn’t necessarily accomplish that.

Therefore, difficult test questions need to be defined by how much creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving they ask of the test taker. Lots of practice using official SAT and ACT materials (such as the SAT prep available on Kahn Academy), taking an SAT prep class, or working with a private SAT tutor can help you get a higher ACT or SAT score, but may not be as necessary for the average student seeking an average or above average score. Because, again, paying attention and trying your best in school can go a very long way towards success on the ACT and SAT.