Keys to ACT/SAT Preparation
So you already have a few ideas for your application essay. Your grades are good and you even know which teachers you’re going to ask to write your recommendations. The only thing you’re not so sure about? The ACT/SAT tests.
Don’t worry — you’re not alone! Unlike your performance in the classroom which you’ve been practicing since kindergarten the ACT and SAT are a whole new ballgame — not just for you but for all of your peers — complete with new rules and ways to prepare.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t master them. Before you let testing anxiety get the best of you” read on to learn more about those three-letter words that could potentially make or break your admission application.
A Weighty Matter
Despite what you might think of them” standardized tests are important. Though more schools are making the tests optional the majority of four-year colleges and universities in the United States require applicants to take either the SAT or ACT. Admission committees place a lot of weight on test scores. In fact test scores and GPA combined are the biggest factors taken into account by most admission offices. Many times an applicant will be accepted or denied based on these factors alone. However many doesn’t mean all and very often other factors such as activities, essays and recommendations can push a decision one way or the other.
Which Test Should I Take?
The first thing to keep in mind is that all four-year schools accept either the ACT or SAT. So ultimately, the key is to decide which test you’ll perform better on.
According to Scott Johns, Product Manager at Peterson’s, “Neither the SAT nor ACT is inherently easier or better but by getting to know each you can decide which fits your skill-set and test-taking style.”
“I don’t advise taking both tests,” says John Katzman, chairman and CEO at The Princeton Review. “Take a practice test for each and see for yourself which one you perform better on. ” The ACT is a three-hour exam that encompasses a wide range of classroom-based information. There are four sections to the test: English math reading and science plus a 30-minute writing portion that many colleges require. Unlike the SAT anything you have learned in school up to grade 12 is fair game for a test question. Each section of the test is scored and then averaged for a composite score ranging from 1 to 36.
English + Math + Reading + Science = ACT
“Every day a student goes to school participates in class and does [his or her] homework [he or she] is preparing for the ACT because it is based on what students learn in high school,” says Jon Erickson, vice president of educational services at ACT. “The harder a student works and the more challenging classes that [he or she] takes the better prepared [he or she] will be.”
When taking the ACT Erickson offers the following advice: “Read [the] instructions and questions carefully; pace yourself; answer easy questions first; make educated guesses on difficult questions because there is no penalty for guessing; [and] review your work.”
The SAT is a three-hour-and-45-minute exam composed of critical reading math and writing sections. Each section is scored on a 200- to 800-point scale with 2400 being the highest possible score. Test-taking strategy is more important for the SAT than the ACT. For example while the ACT doesn’t penalize you for wrong answers the SAT does (at least for multiple-choice questions). So on the SAT if you really don’t know the answer it’s probably better to leave a question blank than to guess. Still if you can rule out one or more answers for multiple-choice questions you have a better chance of guessing correctly.
Critical Reading + Math + Writing = SAT
A good rule of thumb? Answer the easy questions first and mark questions in your booklet that you want to go back to later if you have time.
While ACT score reports have never been cumulative — colleges will only see the scores you send to them — only recently has the College Board adopted this policy for the SAT. Beginning with the March 2009 test students who take the SAT multiple times will now be able to decide how many and which scores colleges will see. Because many if not most seniors will have applied to and heard back from colleges by March 2009 the new rule will mainly benefit 2010 and later graduates.
As you weigh your testing options ask yourself if you’d do better on an “aptitude” test (SAT) or a test that covers your knowledge or achievement of special subject matters (ACT).
When Should I Take the ACT/SAT? How Many Times Should I Take It?
If the PSAT is offered at your school in the fall of your junior year be sure to take it advises Kristen Campbell, national director of college test programs at Kaplan Test Prep.
It’s probably wise to start preparing for either test in the fall of your junior year though Mark Greenstein, the owner of Ivy Bound Test Prep encourages student to start even earlier in the summer.
“Take the test in the winter or spring of your junior year,” Campbell says. “That way you have the opportunity to take it again in the fall of your senior year if you need to.”
You should take the SAT or ACT again if you think you can improve your score significantly (for example at least 50 points per section for the SAT). Most students do improve assuming they study again.
“No college holds a second or third SAT against you,” Greenstein says.
However if you score high enough the first time to comfortably get into the school(s) you’re most interested in it might not pay to put the time and effort into retaking the test.
Prep Like a Pro
You’ll have to develop your own style and method of preparing for the SAT or ACT. While some students may respond better to a review or prep course others may prefer to study on their own with study guides and books; still others may need private tutoring though that can be expensive.
Greenstein of Ivy Bound offers this simple advice for sophomores: “During the summer read! Too few kids read for pleasure and it hurts when it comes time to take the verbal section of the SAT.” Reading more will also help you on the English portion of the ACT.
No matter your style ACT or SAT preparation should involve taking as many practice exams as you can until you feel confident enough to sit for the real thing.
The best practice exams are actual old tests. Only a few books contain questions from genuine tests though so be sure you’re getting the real thing. Old SATs are only published by the College Board and old ACTs are only published by Harcourt Brace and the ACT. Some students also take SAT/ACT prep courses which are offered in most high schools and through test preparation companies. These courses usually consist of six to eight weeks of group classes or private tutoring sessions.
According to Emily Clough, a private SAT tutor short-term preparation and long-term preparation yield very different results. While preparing for even a few weeks can be helpful she says only long-term preparation will create real improvement in performance. “The good news is that starting early doesn’t necessarily mean putting much more total time into the process,” Clough says. “Spreading the same number of studying hours over a few months is more effective than packing those hours into a few weeks.”
If you suffer from testing anxiety taking a practice test — in a timed realistic environment — will help give you the confidence you need to alleviate your worries and doubts.
Brian O’Reilly executive director of SAT program relations for the College Board recommends that students take a proactive approach to test preparation early on by taking a rigorous course load. That means for example that if you’re thinking about taking regular Algebra II but you did really well in Algebra I you should consider challenging yourself with Algebra II Honors instead.
One of the biggest obstacles that most students must overcome is stress. If test-prep anxiety begins to overwhelm you try not to be too hard on yourself. When taking a practice exam don’t beat yourself up over a wrong answer — that’s why they call it practice!
“Take this test seriously enough that you put time and effort into studying but don’t take it more seriously than that,” Clough says. “Recognize that college admission committees are looking for much more than good test scores so a difference of 10 points or 20 points won’t singlehandedly make or break your application success.”
As you narrow down the list of schools you plan to apply to it’ll be useful to have a general idea of your score range (another reason why practice tests are so important). While researching the colleges you’re interested in find out what the average test score and GPA range of last year’s accepted applicants were. These numbers indicate whether or not you have a realistic shot of getting into that school. (But remember in a close case your activities essays and recommendations could make up for below-average test scores.)
For some schools your score may be right on target while for others your scores may need a little work. You don’t have to hit the bull’s-eye but it’s important to be in the ballpark especially in borderline cases and for more selective schools.
As you prep for the Big Test remember that it’s only one factor of many in your admission packet. And on the morning of testing day don’t forget to eat a good breakfast relax and just do your best.
Kate Bennett is a freelance writer living in New York.