12 Test Prep Tips for SAT and ACT Takers

Josh Moody
·8 min read

Succeed on college entrance exams.

In a whirlwind year for college admissions, the SAT and ACT were among many rites of passage for high school students that were upended in 2020. Health concerns prompted by the coronavirus pandemic led to the cancellation of numerous testing sessions, which in turn caused more colleges to reconsider the importance of the SAT and ACT as part of the application process. Going forward, how colleges will approach these exams -- and how the test-makers themselves will respond to changes -- remains to be seen. But student interest in taking the tests remains high. For students aiming for a high score on either exam, here are 12 tips for top-notch ACT and SAT test prep.

Find out if you can test for free.

Paying for college is an expensive financial journey that often starts before students even enroll. With the SAT and ACT costing more than $50 each, students should look into fee waivers. While some states cover the costs of admissions exams for public school students, that isn't true across the nation. Experts encourage students to check with school counselors about obtaining fee waivers. Eligible students may be able to obtain more than one waiver in order to test twice. "Many would only take the test once, and we know from research that a student should take these tests at least twice to have the best opportunity to increase their scores and access to post-secondary education," Georgette Hardy DeJesus, executive director for Pre-College Programs in Undergraduate Studies at the University of Maryland--College Park, told U.S. News in 2019.

Decide between the SAT and ACT.

While the SAT and ACT are similar, they have a few differences. For example, the ACT includes a science section, but the SAT does not. Before choosing between the two, college applicants should take a practice test for each exam, one test prep expert recommends. Applicants should then focus on studying for the exam on which they scored better. "Your actual ability, how well you do percentile-wise on these tests, is really hard to determine unless you sit down and take a full-length official practice test from both the SAT and ACT," Chris Lele, senior GRE/SAT curriculum manager for Magoosh, a California-based test prep company, told U.S. News in 2020.

Set SAT and ACT goals early.

Setting goals as a high school junior can help keep students on track, advises one test prep professional. Juniors should use the fall to decide on a test date and consider their other academic and personal commitments when choosing when to take the SAT or ACT. Winter break is a great time to zero in on study strategies, especially if a student has already taken an exam and can learn from the results. Spring of junior year is ideal for taking a second test, though students should once again consider their academic and personal commitments when deciding on an exam date.

Register for early testing sessions.

Test prep experts encourage students to take college admissions exams as soon as possible in their junior or senior year of high school. Taking the SAT or ACT early on allows students more opportunities to retest if they are unsatisfied with their initial scores. Though the role of the SAT and ACT has been reduced recently as more colleges go test-optional, knowing where their scores land can help students get a sense of their odds of admission at target schools that still consider these exams when evaluating applicants.

Understand how your test scores will be evaluated.

With multiple testing sessions for both the SAT and ACT canceled due to concerns prompted by the coronavirus, many colleges have reevaluated the role these exams play in their admissions process. Experts advise students to carefully examine college admissions websites to determine school stances on test results. For example, consider whether a school is test-optional or test-blind in admissions. Test-optional means that scores are not required but colleges will still consider exam results if submitted. Test-blind means that scores are neither required nor considered if submitted as part of an application.

Partner with parents.

Parents can be useful study partners and supportive cheerleaders for students preparing to take the SAT or ACT, but they shouldn't try to take over. Experts caution parents not to become overly involved in guiding test prep; to avoid drawing on their own testing experience, considering the exams have changed over the years; and to not obsess over a particular score following a single exam date. Ultimately, parents should be supportive while not putting undue pressure on their child, which will only add more stress to the testing process.

Select the right test prep course.

SAT and ACT test preparation courses can vary in many ways, such as class size and teaching style, as well as face-to-face or virtual options. College applicants should consider how much help they'll need studying for the exam, how much they can pay for a class and what their ideal learning environment is, among other factors, test experts say. They should also consider free alternatives such as Khan Academy, an official test prep partner of the College Board, which offers the SAT. "Not everything has to be paid," Christine Chu, a premier college admissions counselor at IvyWise, a New York-based education consulting company, told U.S. News in 2019. "Khan Academy is wonderful; it has lots of free resources."

Explore other test prep resources.

While test preparation classes are one way to get ready for the SAT or ACT, other options are available that can cost a lot less. Libraries, for example, often stock test prep materials. High school students can also ask for help from their teachers, who may provide feedback on draft essays or recommend practice math problems. Students should ask teachers to identify which test content will be lightly covered or not taught in class; how to find personalized study materials; and how to form study groups with classmates to prepare for college admissions exams.

Ask other test-takers about their experience.

Friends, siblings and classmates who have taken the SAT or ACT can be useful resources. Their experience with the exam gives them firsthand insights and the benefit of hindsight, and they likely have thoughts on what was easy for them and on areas they found to be difficult. Test prep experts encourage students to leverage their peers as resources and to ask them about their challenges on these exams, such as what surprised them most, how they would approach their preparation differently after taking the exam, and what study techniques they found most effective.

Unpack your practice test results.

Following a practice test, students should evaluate their performance and identify areas for improvement, experts say. But don't look at the score alone -- it doesn't tell the whole story. Students should look for patterns in incorrect answers so they can work on mastering content areas where they need improvement; determine whether they are grappling with test anxiety and learn how to combat it; and consider how their schedule fits into their performance. For example, are poor sleep habits or studying at odd hours making test prep harder than it needs to be?

Work on timing during admissions exams.

Knowing the answers isn't enough to excel on the SAT or ACT because there's also a time limit to consider. Dawdling will likely affect the end result, leaving test-takers with unanswered questions and a lower score than they could have earned. Timing advice from test prep experts includes spending no more than 60 seconds on math questions; skimming reading sections for context, looking at the questions and then reading more in-depth as needed; and trusting their instincts when it comes to the language sections of both exams.

Reject myths about standardized tests.

One common myth in college admissions is that a subpar SAT or ACT score can tank a student's chances of getting into his or her dream school. But in reality, test scores are only one part of an application among many other factors that are considered. A 2019 survey of admissions officers conducted by the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that, in the eyes of college admissions officers, test scores tend to matter less than grades in all high school courses, grades in college prep courses and rigor of high school curriculum. "There are many students we've denied with perfect test scores because they didn't have anything else to set them apart," Douglas Christiansen, vice provost for university enrollment affairs and dean of admissions and financial aid at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, told U.S. News in 2020.

Find the school for you.

Get more information about how to choose a college, and check out the complete rankings of the Best Colleges to find the school that's best for you. For more advice and information on selecting a college, connect with U.S. News Education on Twitter and Facebook.

Top tips for taking the SAT and ACT

-- Find out if you can test for free.

-- Decide between the SAT and ACT.

-- Set SAT and ACT goals early.

-- Register for early testing sessions.

-- Understand how your test scores will be evaluated.

-- Partner with parents.

-- Select the right test prep course.

-- Explore other test prep resources.

-- Ask other test-takers about their experience.

-- Unpack your practice test results.

-- Work on timing during admissions exams.

-- Reject myths about standardized tests.