For now, standardized testing is a bit of a necessary evil for college admissions. Despite a few colleges beginning to waive SAT or ACT scores, it’s still the reality for most high school students aiming to gain admission to a college or university. But fear not. While the test can be a tough annoyance, we’ve got five tips to help improve your scores for both tests and increase your odds of acceptance at some of your top college choices.
Know what’s on the test
The first thing you should do in preparing for either the SAT or ACT is to figure out exactly what is on the test — and what’s not. Students often waste time and effort learning or stressing about topics, techniques, and problem types that aren’t even on the test they’re taking. For instance, you don’t need to know log rules on the SAT (but you do on the ACT). You don’t need to know calculus on either test. You should be thoroughly versed in punctuation rules before you show up to take either test, but you’ll never be asked to name the tense of a verb. Being aware of slight differences like these can save you time and make your studying more efficient.
Study what shows up most
Also, make sure that you get very good at bread-and-butter topics before you waste a lot of time studying obscure topics. For instance, my students often want to learn how to tackle trigonometry questions or how to analyze confusing geometric figures. These topics do show up on the test, and they are interesting — but most students should be more focused on other subjects. Why? Because linear equations, for example, are far, far more common than trigonometry questions on the SAT — they show up at a ratio of no less than ten to one. In other words, you really have no business stressing about trigonometry questions until you consistently answer all or nearly all linear equation questions correctly. Keep your priorities in order based on what actually shows up on the test and how often.
Test, Analyze, Study, Repeat
Another important general principle to follow is to test, analyze, study, and repeat. This three-step process is the best way to make sure your prep is efficient. Here’s how it works: start by taking a realistic, official practice test under strictly-timed conditions. Mimic the actual conditions of taking the test as closely as possible. Once you’ve finished it, analyze your results. The important point here is not the score you made — so resist stressing about it. Instead, you want to know what you’re bad at.
This is where analysis comes in: study your missed questions closely and try to identify any patterns you can. Are there particular topics, question types, or concepts that you struggle with? If you can identify those, you’re in great shape. That’s how you improve your score — find weak areas and fix them. Fixing them requires studying, and the process is complete. Again: test yourself realistically. Analyze your results to find out what you’re bad at. Study the concepts you have the most room for improvement on. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
Get Help from an Expert
There really is no substitute for getting the help of an expert when you are trying to learn anything new. Test prep is no different. The students whose scores improve most — and most efficiently — make use of experts in the field. Think about it. These tests are weird, right? They aren’t exactly like high school classes; they’re more literal, more stressful, idiosyncratic, and confusing. They seem to have their own language and it can be hard to decipher. However, there are people who are naturally suited to this style of learning and testing — test prep nerds. So use them! Get them to translate the weirdness of the SAT and ACT into terms you’re familiar with. That’s what they’re best at.
Finally, studying for the SAT and ACT is not enjoyable for most people. It’s a slog, a long, tedious, frustrating process that many people never see through to the end. Avoid becoming one of those people yourself by creating some kind of system of accountability for yourself. You can have a friend or family member serve as an accountability buddy (one of my favorite systems) by creating a study schedule and sharing it with them. Have them ask you weekly or daily whether you hit your study goals. Make sure that those goals are framed in terms of effort, for instance, hours studied, rather than in terms of results — for example, points gained. You can’t directly control how much your performance improves, but you can directly control how hard you work, and that is the metric you should aim for accountability on.
Clay Cooper is the Senior Director of Test Prep at Prep Expert Test Preparation. Clay is a four-time perfect scorer, with two perfect 1600s on the SAT, a perfect 36 on the ACT, and a perfect selection score index on the PSAT. Clay has also achieved 99th percentile scores on the ISEE, GMAT, GRE, and LSAT. He has taught and developed courses for high school, college, and graduate-level standardized tests extensively around the country, and specializes in the field. He has studied law at Georgetown University Law Center and worked in the legal field as well, for attorneys, judges, and the Tennessee Attorney General.