First, realize that the ACT and SAT aren’t like any other test you may be used to in school, advises Colin Gruenwald, director of SAT and ACT programs for Kaplan Test Prep.
“A standard high school test, or tests that students have been used to taking since childhood, involves sitting in class for a couple of weeks and listening and doing work, and then taking a test to evaluate whether or not you absorbed certain information. The ACT or SAT is very different from that. It’s a predictive test. It primarily tests how you approach new information,” Gruenwald says.
Second, think of the test as a step to meeting your own personal goals. “Think, ‘This will allow me to move to campus, go to the college I want to attend, get the scholarships I need to attend college,” Gruenwald says. Setting your ACT- or SAT-test prep in that context will keep you motivated with a goal in mind. “Set a goal for yourself, say, making a 27, and work toward that goal.”
Third, don’t waste valuable time by poring over long lists of vocabulary words or studying every trigonometry problem in your math book. Gruenwald points out that, for example, trigonometry questions account for only perhaps 1 total cumulative point on the ACT and there is no way to adequately cover the 1,000s of potential vocabulary words that could be used on either test.
Instead, study by taking practice exams. “Focus on the tests themselves. To prepare for the ACT or SAT, you should take the ACT or SAT,” says Gruenwald. “And make sure you’re taking the detailed practice exams, the type that will give you detailed results from each section, rather than simply your final, cumulative score,” he says.
Taking a practice exam will give you a base score from which to work with: you can see which areas are your highest scoring sections, and where you’re struggling. “You have to look at the results to analyze what they mean,” Gruenwald says. “Are you getting a 25 on the ACT because you’re getting a 25 on all four sections (English, math, reading, and science), or are you getting a 21 in two sections and a 29 in two sections? Those are radically different stories,” he says. And they would affect how—and where—you would focus your studies for the actual test in order to make that goal of getting a 27 (or whatever your own personal goal may be).
Further, at Kaplan test prep courses, instructors work with students to identify even more subtle patterns in their practice test results: are they acing the beginning questions in each section but faltering toward the end? If so, the problem may be pacing.
You can access practice exams through your high school guidance counselor’s office, with workbooks purchased at a bookstore, or through test prep courses like Kaplan’s.
Another important tip: understand the scoring methods for each test, Gruenwald suggests. For the ACT, no points are deducted for a wrong answer, so you should never leave a question blank on the ACT. When in doubt, try to narrow the choices to a seemingly appropriate answer, or even guess if you must.
But on the SAT, wrong responses do count off: there is a 1/4 point reduction for each incorrect response. So, on the SAT, if you truly have no way of narrowing the possible answers to a likely correct response, it may be best to leave that question blank.
Finally, approach every ACT or SAT official test date like it’s the only time you’ll take the exam—even if you know you probably will take it again, Gruenwald advises. It’s all about the mindset, and staying focused on your goal. “Everyone should go into the test thinking, this is the day I get the score I need,” he says.
Read the Kentucky Living February 2014 feature that goes along with this web exclusive, 10 Steps to Acing the College Application Process.