A beginner’s guide to mastering the SAT and ACT

Does the thought of taking one of those all-important college-entrance exams make your head spin and your stress level rise? After all, so much hinges on how well you do—not only gaining admission to your top-choice schools but also consideration for numerous financial awards and scholarships.

So, yes, it’s true that there’s a lot at stake. But keep your eyes on the prize, take a deep breath, and remember that how well you score on the SAT or ACT is not the only factor colleges and universities use to make admission and financial award decisions. And for those coming from a homeschooled environment, the good news is that nowadays colleges and universities recognize that homeschoolers make great candidates for admission because they tend to demonstrate exceptional academic performance as well as well-rounded extracurricular activities.

Bottom line: With some good planning, steady focus, and perseverance, you can do what it takes to get the best score possible—and increase your chances of getting accepted into the schools of your dreams.

To get you started, here are six tips to prep for success on your college-entrance exam:

1. Build a strong foundation

The best way to ensure success on your college-entrance exam is to do well in school long before you take the test. This means consistently studying hard and pushing yourself in English, math, science, and social studies. Studies show that students who read and write as much as possible—and stretch themselves outside of the classroom—generally do well on both the SAT and the ACT. The key is building up a body of knowledge that will serve you well when test time rolls around.

2. Figure out which test you need to take—and when to take it

Find out which tests are more important in the area of the country where you want to go to college. While many schools accept both the SAT and ACT, some prefer one over the other. We’d suggest contacting the admissions offices of the colleges you’re interested in to find out what their requirements are. For those who haven’t decided on a specific college yet, you may want to go ahead and take both the SAT and ACT—and then choose the one that most favorably reflects your abilities when applying. Both the SAT and ACT are typically taken during the spring of your junior year or fall of your senior year—or both, if you want a practice run.

3. Know the differences between the tests

Since entrance exams are used to determine potential for academic achievement and success at the collegiate level, it’s important to know how the format for each test differs so that you are not surprised on test day.

PSAT/NMSQT: While not used to determine college admissions, the PSAT is a shorter version of the SAT—with the same format—and is taken during the junior year as preparation for the SAT. Students who do well on the PSAT—and meet additional academic requirements—may also qualify for the National Merit Scholarship Program. The PSAT tests for verbal and mathematical reasoning and is divided into three sections—reading, writing, and math. Here, students have 60 minutes to answer 47 reading questions, 35 minutes to answer 44 writing questions/tasks, and 70 minutes for the 48 math questions. There’s no penalty for wrong answers—meaning it won’t hurt to guess on answers if you need to.

ACT/ACT Plus: Traditionally taken by students in the Midwest and South, the ACT is a three-hour exam with 215 questions measuring achievement in English, math (up to trigonometry), reading, and science. There is also an optional 40-minute writing test included in the ACT Plus test. Scores from each section are averaged to create a composite score ranging from one to 36—with 36 being a perfect score.  Administered six times annually, the ACT does not penalize for wrong answers and harder questions are worth the same amount as easier ones—meaning that students should complete the easier ones first and then focus on the more difficult ones later.

SAT: Nowadays, the SAT consists of two components—the SAT Reasoning Test and up to five SAT Subject Tests (formerly known as the SAT II). While some colleges use the SAT Subject Tests for course placement, others do not. There is also an optional SAT Essay test administered with the Reasoning Test that separately reports scores on three dimensions—reading, analysis, and writing.

Given seven times yearly, the SAT Reasoning Test evaluates three areas of knowledge—writing, critical reading, and math (up to ninth grade basic geometry and algebra II). Like the other tests, it does not penalize for wrong answers and scores range on a scale from 200 to 800 for each area—for a maximum total score of 2400. You have 65 minutes to answer 52 reading questions, 35 minutes to answer 44 writing questions/tasks, 80 minutes on 58 math questions, and 50 minutes to take the optional essay test.

SAT Subject Tests: Designed to assess mastery in a specific field of study, SAT offers five one-hour subject tests in English, Math, History, Science, and Foreign Language. Depending on the college, up to three SAT Subject Tests can be required for admission—with each score based on an 800-point scale. While most students take the SAT Reasoning Test in the Fall of their senior year, the subject tests can be taken as soon as you have finished the relevant course work—as early as the freshman or sophomore year.

4. Start prepping early

Once you’ve zeroed in on which college-entrance exam to take, you should start preparing as early as possible. This means becoming familiar with the test between one and two years before you plan on taking it, and then ramping up your study schedule one year in advance. Along the way, you should research score results from recently accepted applicants at the schools on your application list to determine what scores you need to be an above average applicant.

And in terms of specific study tips, experts recommend setting aside a dedicated block of time each week to systematically build skills in subject areas covered on the exams—and then sticking to it. This includes not only studying regularly in groups to increase your understanding of the test and learn new ways to approach problems, but also writing plenty of practice essays to develop vocabulary and grammar, critical thinking, and a solid understanding of English syntax—skills that will translate into higher scores on other test sections.

Finally, for those subject areas where you find yourself continually struggling, don’t be afraid to hire a tutor to help. It may only take a few sessions to see real improvement on your practice tests.

5. Take lots of practice tests (and maybe even a prep course)

As the old saying goes, practice makes perfect. And this goes for achieving success on college-entrance exams, too. Fortunately, there are many free practice exams available online—for both the ACT and the SAT, as well as the PSAT/NMSQT. As you complete the practice tests, you will learn which areas you excel in—and those where you are weak—so that you can focus on the subjects that need improvement. And don’t forget to time yourself while taking the practice tests so that you can experience real test-day conditions.

In addition, there are many prep books available at your local library and bookstore—or online—that will help you become familiar with the types of questions and format you can expect to encounter on test day. Don’t wait until the last minute to dive in to these resources. They’ll give you more confidence and save valuable time during the exam. Finally, if your practice scores aren’t where you want them to be, don’t hesitate to use a test prep service to supplement your prep efforts. It’s best to sign up at least six months before the exam.

6. Don’t forget these important, last-minute tips

Finish strong! After putting in up to two years of hard work preparing to take your college-entrance exam, don’t stumble over the finish line by neglecting to take these last-minute steps:

  • Be sure to get a good night’s sleep the before the exam: This means setting out your admission ticket, identification, acceptable calculator, No. 2 pencils and erasers before going to bed. It also means getting up early enough to have time for a good breakfast that will fuel up to four hours of intense work as you take the test.
  • Know where your test center is located: Print out and review the directions beforehand so that you won’t get confused or stressed getting to the test site. And be sure to leave early and allow extra time in case there are unexpected delays.
  • Bring a snack: Eating during breaks will help you stay focused and sharp.
  • Be confident: Remember that you’ve studied hard and done the necessary work to do well.

Conclusion

While preparing for college can be strenuous at times, keeping these six tips in mind as you follow through with an organized, common-sense approach will ensure that all the effort was worth it when you get accepted to your top choice schools. Remember—you’ve got this!

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