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Go Ask Mom

High School Testing: 10 tips to prepare for ACTs, SATs

Posted February 6

Lots of high schoolers are focused on SAT and ACT prep right now. Many will take the tests as they prepare to complete college applications in the fall.

I checked in with Melissa Rich of Raleigh Tutoring, which offers a host of programs for kids, including test prep. All of the programs are led by certified teachers. Rich is a former Wake County high school teacher.

Here are her top 10 tips for ACT and SAT prep:

1. Practice, practice, and practice. This may seem rather obvious, but practice is perhaps the most important key to success on the SAT and the ACT. We suggest taking a practice test that simulates the actual test conditions. Take a full-length test in a quiet space under timed conditions. Score your test, and read the explanations for the questions that you missed. Identify in which areas you are weakest, and study content and strategies in those areas. Continue to expose yourself to lots of practice questions. The more exposure to the types of questions you will see on the test, the more prepared you will be to tackle any question that comes your way on test day.

2. Know the differences between the tests. The SAT tests three different subject areas: Critical Reading, Writing, and Math. The ACT tests four different subject areas: English, Math, Reading, and Science. Both the SAT and ACT focus on reading skills, but the SAT places greater emphasis than the ACT on vocabulary words and their uses in context. Both the ACT and the SAT cover pre-algebra, algebra I and II, and geometry. The SAT math section will also have a few probability and statistics questions, and the ACT math section will contain four trigonometry questions.

3. Use wise guessing strategies. On the SAT, you receive one point for every correct answer, lose ¼ of a point on each incorrect answer, and receive no points for leaving questions blank. On the SAT, you should guess cautiously on the questions you do not know. If you are able to narrow your answer choices down to two and you are confident that the other answer choices are wrong, it is in your best interest to guess. If a question leaves you completely clueless or you can eliminate only one answer choice, you should omit. On the ACT, you receive one point for every correct answer, and you receive zero points for any incorrect answer or question left blank. It is in your best interest to guess on every ACT question you cannot answer, even if it means a wild guess.

4. Take the test more than once. On average, students take the test more than once. Each time, you become more familiar and comfortable with the testing conditions and test questions. When it comes to the ACT or the SAT, sometimes the third time really is the charm. It’s often that third time where you’ll see the improvement.

5. Be an avid reader. Want to improve both your vocabulary and reading skills at the same time? Then be a reader. Read anything that is well-written. A novel. Sports articles. Political pieces. Find a subject you are interested in and read extensively!

6. Read questions carefully, particularly math questions. Make sure you are answering the question that is being asked. Rephrase questions into your own words to make sure you understand the question. On math questions, often there will be answer choices that contain an answer you arrived at while solving the problem. However, those answer choices will not answer the question being asked. Always go back and make sure you are answering the right question.

7. Don’t necessarily answer the questions in order. Don’t spend too much time on any one question. If a question stumps you, circle it in your test booklet and move on. Come back to your circled questions at the end after you have tried all questions at least once. On the SAT, the Math questions and the Sentence Completion questions are ordered from easiest to hardest. You should expect the questions towards the end to be more challenging and involve more work. Spend your time answering questions and racking up points on the ones you do know. On the rest of the SAT and on all of the ACT, the questions are not ordered from easiest to hardest. Thus, you should never dwell on any one question too long. If you do, you may miss easy questions at the end.

8. Use marking strategies on each section. On the reading sections, mark up the passage to help you stay actively engaged in the reading and also to provide you with a map for locating answers to questions. Underline main ideas, circle key words and phrases, and note sentences and phrases that indicate an author’s opinion. On math questions, circle key words in word problems and underline the question that is asked. If a question describes a diagram, such as a triangle or a rectangle, draw the diagram to help you visualize.

9. Know the directions before the day of the test. Don’t waste valuable time reading the directions the day of the test. Know beforehand what the directions say and know what type of questions you will encounter.

10. Be prepared for the test day. You want the day of the test to be as stress-free and calm as possible. Know how to get to the location before the day of the test. Dress in layers, wear a watch, and bring a snack and bottle of water. Make sure you also bring an approved calculator with fresh batteries, three #2 pencils, and a pencil sharpener. And don’t forget your photo ID and admission ticket!

Consider seeking out professional services to help you with your preparation. Individual tutoring for SAT/ACT classes is available. A well-trained and knowledgeable instructor can help focus your study and help you strengthen your weak areas. Look for an instructor who knows the test thoroughly himself and who is also a good test-taker. He or she should also be able to teach and explain concepts well.

2 Comments

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  • glarg Feb 7, 4:29 p.m.

    This isnt a bad list- usually these articles are lame platitudes like "get a good nights sleep" and "dont stress".

    The most important thing is to Know the Exam. College Board asks certain question certain ways. Make sure to order the QAS to find out which type of questions you are missing and hone your study time on those areas. Its better to take 20 old SATs in the areas you need help on than to do 3 full ones.

    Because the College Board is trying to limit perfect scores to

  • Sassafras Feb 7, 11:04 a.m.

    No, you're absolutely wrong on a few pointers in this article. You say in #7 that questions are not ordered from easiest to hardest on all of the ACT. On the ACT, the math questions are ordered from easiest to hardest. Just look at any and every math section on an ACT to see this. Also, the College Board (makers of the SAT) advises that if students can omit just one answer choice, then they should guess the answer. Your advice on when and how to guess for the SAT (your #3) would be wrong for students and they would lose points on the SAT if they followed your advice. If they can eliminate just one answer choice then they need to know that they should guess the answer for that question! From the College Board website: Take an educated guess by ruling out one or more answer choices for a multiple-choice question as definitely wrong; your chances of guessing correctly among the remaining choices improve. Also, know that there is no penalty for guessing on the SAT grid-in math section