Preparing yourself for success on the tests

Getting into the college of your dreams can be stressful, and for many students, the most daunting part of the process is taking the SAT or ACT.   These half-day exams, typically first taken in junior year of high school, often feel like they take an outsized role in the admissions process.
The good news is that you’ve already begun your preparation!  In large part, the SAT and ACT are meant to be tests of what you have learned in high school.  The very best way to prepare for these tests, then, is to take challenging classes and work hard to understand the content.  So ask those questions in geometry, revise that paper for English one more time, and sign up for that AP History class even if it sounds like a lot of work.  Taking your studies seriously, more than any test prep tricks and gimmicks, will ensure that you are primed for success on both the SAT and ACT.
Let’s be upfront though - you can study for the SAT and ACT, and you can improve your score.  There are several steps important steps in the preparation process:

1. Take the PSAT/Aspire

One important practice opportunity for the SAT is the PSAT, offered through most school districts each October.  It contains content that is slightly less complex than the real SAT; however, it allows you to become familiar with the format and types of questions that are ultimately asked on the real SAT.  You can take the PSAT once per year in high school, and scoring in the top 1% of your state in your junior year could also allow you to qualify for prestigious National Merit Scholarships.   On a similar note, the ACT offers the Aspire, a chance to practice with ACT-like content in real test conditions.

2. Use released practice tests to study

At the start of your junior year,  it’s time to focus on the real ACT and/or SAT by taking an official practice test.  Both the SAT and ACT websites offer a free official practice test.  For additional practice, you can access released versions of previous tests inexpensively by purchasing prep books released by the makers of SAT and ACT.
Make sure you treat this practice test seriously, timing yourself and taking it in a quiet place.  This will allow you to see what you would actually score if you took the test, and it will give a benchmark for measuring your progress as you continue your test preparation.

3. Score your test, identify weaknesses, and make a plan

Go back through your results and identify what type of questions you consistently missed.  Was it algebra?  Grammar? Sentence structure?  Did you miss mostly easy questions because you weren’t paying attention, or were there specific content areas where you struggled?  Once you notice patterns of mistakes on a particular type of question or in a particular section of the test, make a plan indicating what you want to cover.  Purchase a book with practice questions and explanations on these topics, or use one of several resources available for free online such as Khan Academy’s SAT prep materials.  Regardless of which resource you use to study, the most important thing is to be targeted, focusing your energy on specific areas of weakness.

4. Track your progress

Start by focusing on improvement within a single section of the test.  When you feel you’ve made substantial progress on preparing for that section (math, for instance), get out a new practice test but only take the math section. Take this practice section of the exam alone and under true test conditions.  Compare the score you achieved on the section to your initial results.  How did it go?  Are you happy with your results?  If so, congratulations - you are ready to move on with your preparation to another section of the test!  When you have put in the necessary time across all sections and are feeling confident, take a new practice test (one you’ve never seen before!) and measure your progress against your initial benchmark.  If you’ve made improvement, then give yourself a pat on the back, because you are well on your way to preparing for success on the SAT and ACT!