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How to Study for the ACT and SAT

Sometime early in the college application process, students start to think about the ACT and SAT. They want a score that represents them well and maybe even lands them some scholarship funds at the schools they’re considering, but many students aren’t sure how to actually go about achieving their target score. The goal of this post is to lay out a few simple things that students can do to maximize their study time and get an ACT or SAT score that matches their abilities.

Start with a Practice Test

It’s difficult to know how to study if you don’t know where you’re starting. A full-length practice test can tell you a great deal about your natural strengths and weaknesses, your time-management skills, and how well you can put test-taking strategies into action on an exam. There are a number of good sources of full-length ACT and SAT practice tests, but two of the best are the practice tests produced by the ACT and SAT themselves. Plus, they’re free! Here are links:

Time each section just like you would if you were taking the real exam, and when you’re done, you’ll have a great feel for your starting point and where you can improve.

As a side note, it’s fairly common to take an actual, live ACT or SAT as a starting point to your study. That’s not a terrible idea, and some students appreciate getting used to the exam setting before they take the test again for their applications. However, it’s also a bit unnecessary. Besides the cost and hassle of signing up and attending the exam, it also adds an extra element of pressure to a test that’s really intended just to see where you are.

Work Lots of Practice Problems

Doing large amounts of practice does three things. First, when you figure out how to answer a new type of problem, you directly help yourself grow. Take it from a full-time tutor, there are certain things that are best learned by working through a question yourself. Second, continuing to work through problem types you’ve seen before radically improves your speed. The more quickly you can work through material you know well, the more time you have left to work through more difficult and time-consuming questions elsewhere in the test. Third, working practice problems flushes out the problem areas where you need to get extra help. It’s very hard to know where your struggle points are unless you’re actively bumping up against them in practice. They also change over time, and continued success in a former weakness can let you know it’s safe to move on to attack another problem spot.

When you work through practice material, perhaps the most helpful thing you can do is stop to analyze your mistakes. If you don’t know why you missed a problem, you’ll continue to repeat the same mistake again and again. When I work with students one-on-one or in a group, I try not to let any incorrect problems go to waste, because some of the most significant growth that occurs is when a student sees their mistake, learns from it, and adjusts.

Mix in Learning Experiences

Learning experiences, whether watching videos, reading a textbook, or doing a quick web search for a missing topic, should be blended in side-by-side with copious practice. This can be a spot where hiring a qualified tutor can help a student take off, because they can bring in the right material at the right time to help a student grow. Finding the right resources can take time, so be patient. Also, this shouldn’t be the only component of your studies. If you find yourself watching video after video but not working many questions, you may need to reallocate your study time.

As you’re deciding what areas to study from week to week, make sure that you’re giving attention to both your strengths and your weaknesses. Students often assume that their main opportunities for growth are in the places where they struggle, but I have often found with my students that the opposite can be true. For many, the quickest gains come in the areas of their natural giftedness, and progress in a weakness, while necessary, can be more time-consuming.

Track Your Progress

Every so often, it helps to work in another full-length practice test to see how your studies are coming along. This doesn’t have to be every week, but it does need to happen from time to time. This gives you an opportunity to reassess and see where the next focus of your study time should be. As you work through different concepts, you will undoubtably find that the things that once required your attention no longer do, and that you can move on to other areas for growth.

Continuing to track your progress can also help you target specific test dates to sit for the actual exam. I outlined some considerations for picking out test dates in this post (such as planning to take it twice), and your study progress is certainly part of that picture. You may find that things are coming along quickly, and you can revise your goal score up to match your progress. Alternatively, you might find that it is taking longer than anticipated to hit your target, and you need to give yourself more time before you sit for the exam.

Hopefully these practical steps clear up some of the mystery around how to set up a plan for success on the ACT and SAT. If you start with a practice test, blend together plenty of practice and study time, and consistently track your progress, you’ll be well on your way toward achieving a great score! As always, check in here for more tips on how to succeed with test prep.

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