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Tips for Taking the ACT and SAT Tests

Updated on December 18, 2013
College campus in spring
College campus in spring | Source

How to Get the Scores You Need

Trying to get into the university that you want can be a daunting task for any high school student. Taking the ACT and SAT adds even more stress and angst onto that burden. The effect these tests can have on college acceptance strikes fear into the hearts of countless students. However, by studying and preparing for them beforehand, every student can get a satisfactory score and receive that all important college acceptance letter.

1. Commit to Good Study Habits

If one truly wants to do well on these tests, the most important thing to do is to work hard in school. These tests are designed to assess your knowledge on the topics you have studied throughout high school. If you have payed attention and done well in school in the past few years, then you have already won half the battle. If not, you are a little bit behind, but there is still time to recover.

Preparing for these tests takes commitment. You can't just set aside a weekend for light-hearted studying and expect to ace these tests. These are comprehensive assessments designed to see what you have learned in high school. It didn't take you a weekend to learn this material in the first place, so it is going to take more than a weekend to study it. My advice would be to start planning out your study schedule a couple months before you plan on taking the test. Having a plan set up as the test date draws nearer will reduce your anxiety and prevent extreme last minute cramming. When you have developed your plan, you are ready to begin preparing.

Endless books that you hopefully don't have to read
Endless books that you hopefully don't have to read | Source

2. Find the Right Study Books

When you start preparing for the test, you need to have a book from which to review old lessons and take practice tests. I would recommend buying two different books to serve each of these different purposes. If you are preparing for the SAT, the first book you buy should be The Official SAT Study Guide from College Board, the makers of the SAT test. This book has 10 practice tests. If you are going to take the ACT, then buy The Real ACT Prep Guide, which has 5 practice tests and is written buy the organization that runs the ACT.

You have several more options when it comes to choosing a review book. Picking a book is largely down to personal preference. I chose to buy the Sparknotes Guide to the SAT and PSAT and the Sparknotes Guide to the ACT. There are many other options available however. Some other popular books include Barron's SAT, Kaplan SAT, and Cracking the ACT.

I wouldn't recommend using the practice tests offered in your review books, regardless of which you choose. These tests are often either easier or more difficult than the real thing and result in not being properly prepared for the actual ACT/SAT. Using the practice tests offered by the writers of the tests themselves will provide the most consistency between the practice tests and the assessment you have chosen to take.

3. Read the Review Books

Once you have all of your books, your predetermined plan goes into action. This part can be very difficult to do without proper self-control. Your plan should have dates laid out for when certain sections of the book needs to be read. It is critical to stick to these deadlines. Not following your plan can lead to not having enough time to take all of the practice tests.

In addition, delve into what you are reading. If you believe that you already have mastery of a section, then just skip to the end and do the practice problems. If you can do them correctly, then move on and save time for what you don't know. Otherwise, read back over that section until you have a good understanding of the material covered. Also, make sure to pay attention to the tips and tricks described in the book. Especially for the SAT, the test makers try to trick you into picking an incorrect answer. It's kind of unfair, but you can prepare for it. Reading the advice offered in your review book will help you to avoid these pitfalls and improve your score.

Multiple choice bubble sheets - a student's least favorite thing
Multiple choice bubble sheets - a student's least favorite thing | Source

4. Take All the Practice Tests

When you have finished reading your review books, you should still have at least a couple months until your test date. This will give you plenty of time to take your practice tests. The best way to deal with taking these time consuming assessments is to have a consistent schedule of testing times. For example, when I studied for the SAT, I chose to take a practice test every Sunday leading up to test day. Having a schedule made it easier for me to ration my time and ensure that I completed everything. Trying to rush several practice tests the week before the real thing is extremely boring and can kill your motivation.

When actually taking the practice tests, your testing conditions have a great effect upon the accuracy of your preparations. Do all of your work in a quiet area without any outside distractions. Don't let anything tempt you into leaving the test unfinished. Your Xbox will still be there when you are done. The practice test also should be taken at a table in a regular chair. Sitting in bed or on a comfy sofa is not anything like where you will be sitting during the actual test. Also, make sure you keep to the time limits. If you only have 25 minutes to write your essay, then only allow yourself to work on that section for 25 minutes. Giving yourself a few extra minutes is not realistic and prevents you from learning to ration out the time that you will be given for the real thing.

Make sure you are able to complete as many total practice tests as possible. If you can, do them all. This will maximize your exposure to real testing conditions and give you more opportunities to practice using your knowledge. However, make sure to give yourself a break after each practice test. Sitting at a desk for several hours is challenging and you have earned a treat. Reward yourself.

5. Analyze Your Test Results

After completing each practice test, you need to go over your results. This is much more extensive than just grading. When you know which questions you got wrong, make sure that you go over the correct answers. Since the explanations for the SAT practice questions are not in the book, here is a link. Just follow the instructions and log into your College Board account and you will be good to go. Fortunately, the ACT explanations are in the book itself.

Be sure to record the explanations for every question you got wrong. When you have finished, try to combine those explanations into general concepts that you didn't know or tips for finding the correct answer next time. This sheet will become your study guide. Before each practice test you take, go over this guide. After the test, record any new information that needs to be studied. By the time you have finished all of the practice tests, you should have an extensive study guide covering all of the concepts you have struggled with.

This is your heaven in college
This is your heaven in college | Source

6. Prepare the Night Before

It's the night before the big test. Time to cram all of your studying into a few hours. Wrong! If you followed the plan you made months earlier, you should have completed all of your studying and be ready for the test. Don't stress yourself out over the little things. You have worked hard for several months and are as prepared as you will ever be.

The night before is all about gathering what you need for the next day. It is required that you have two #2 pencils, an eraser, photo ID, and your admissions ticket. The pencils absolutely cannot be mechanical, so you will have to find ordinary wooden ones. Some other things that are recommended to bring includes a calculator, a snack, a drink, and extras of everything. An extra calculator is also recommended in case of a malfunction or loss of power. In addition, there are restrictions on the type of calculators that can be used. A complete list of the calculators not allowed can be found on each testing company's website. Also, ensure that you know how to get to your testing center. If you have never been there before, make sure that you have a map and directions and go over it beforehand.

Once everything has been gathered, get to bed as quickly as possible. Getting enough sleep is a huge part of successful test taking. It would be a shame to spend months studying and then fall asleep half-way through the assessment. Get enough sleep.

7. Morning of Test Day

Wake up bright and early on testing day. Make sure you have plenty of time and don't have to rush around. Eat a quality and filling breakfast. Before you leave for your testing center, look over your study guide one last time. These are the topics you are weakest on and you want them to be as fresh in your mind as possible.

Plan to arrive a half hour before testing is supposed to start. This will make sure that you get there on time, even if you encounter problems on the way. This will also help secure you a good parking spot, which gets more difficult to find in the middle of the school year. This is because of seniors attempting to boost their scores at the last second and juniors beginning to take the tests for the first time. You don't want to end up driving around the place for 5 minutes trying to find a parking spot and walking into the room last. This happened to me the second time I took the SAT, and I was nearly late.

Bring more than two pencils if at all possible - rather be safe than sorry
Bring more than two pencils if at all possible - rather be safe than sorry | Source

8. Take the Test

When you finally get to start the test, don't panic. You have been preparing for this moment for months; you will do fine. Just take it one question at a time. If you can't get an answer, then skip it. There is no point wasting time on a question you can't answer. If you do have time at the end of a section, go back over the ones that you skipped. Remember that the SAT takes off one quarter of a point for every wrong answer, so don't blindly guess. If you are able to eliminate at least one choice though, the odds are in your favor and you should guess. Luckily on the ACT, you can guess without any penalties.

During approved breaks, make sure to eat your snack and stay hydrated. Not doing so could serve as a bad distraction in the middle of a section. The time limits for sections can be an issue, especially for the essay, so don't waste time staring off into space. Take a few minutes to figure out what you will say, and then start writing. You will need all of the time that you get. Throughout the test, just stay calm and work your way through at a fairly brisk pace. When you have finished, take a deep breath. It's over.

9. Relax and Enjoy Being Finished

When you finally get to leave the testing center, celebrate. Treat yourself to a nice lunch, watch a movie, do anything. You have worked diligently for months and deserve a reward for your hard work. Also, be proud of what you have accomplished. Being able to stay focused on a single test for a period of several months is a remarkable achievement. Regardless of what your scores are, you should be proud. The skills you have learned will serve you well throughout the rest of high school and college.



Following these steps are a very good way to reach your testing goals. I myself took the SAT three times and the ACT two times. After following these steps, I raised my score 130 points on the SAT, and 1 point on the ACT. With enough perseverance and hard work, you can do the same. What you get out of your effort relies solely on how much you put into it.

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