Tips to overcoming the “college defining” tests

It’s springtime, which, for lots of high school juniors, means it’s time to think about college. While also trying to stay on top of their classes and take part in extracurriculars, juniors most likely will take the ACT or  SAT. From two seniors, here is our advice on how to get through this dreaded test. 


SAT Tips by Lucie Martikan:

Beginning to study for the SAT can be daunting. You may not know where to start, and it can become overwhelming pretty quickly. The number one thing I recommend is taking advantage of the PSATs and practice SATs at school. 

This may not seem very appealing at first, but don’t worry. You don’t have to study. Not even a little bit. In fact, it’s probably better if you don’t. This way, the score you achieve is the most accurate representation of your skills at the time. Your score probably won’t be very good. Mine sure wasn’t. Don’t let it get to you! This is the foundation to work up from, and you have a lot of room to grow.

In six to eight weeks, you should get your scores back from the College Board. Take a look at how you did. What section did you do better in? How did you do in the sub categories? After taking a look at your scores, make a Khan Academy account. It’s free! 

You can actually input your score into it and it will develop a specialized plan for you, creating practice problems based on your missed questions on the math section, the english section, and even the essay. Begin working on problems. Check out the practice problems, and see which ones you can test out of immediately, and which ones still need work. 

Just get a feel for the program and check out all the features. Then take a break! This doesn’t need to all happen in a day, it’s a good idea to spread this out so you don’t get burnt out immediately. 

Now that you have a personalized study tool, the most important skill to master in prepping for the SAT is time management. You need to get a feel for how long it takes you to complete different types of questions. 

For math, you need to analyze which types of questions stump you more, and for English, determine if you are a slower reader. Personally, geometry problems took me longer than every other problem in the math section. 

Because I was a precalculus student when I was taking the test, I was pretty rusty on my geometry. I always took care to allot extra time to the geometry equations. Your weaknesses don’t mean you’re going to fail, but you need to account for them in order to divide your time up efficiently between each section. 

Along with practice questions, there are also practice tests on Khan Academy. Take these! Time yourself for each section, and log your times down somewhere. This way, later on, you can see your improvement. Aside from these tips, all that there’s really left to do is study.

 Keep in mind, cramming doesn’t serve you well. Try to spread out your study sessions as much as possible, ideally over a couple of months. The more flex time you have, the less impossible learning all the content will feel. And keep in mind that you know all or most of these concepts already! The majority of this process is review.

Lastly,  RETAKE THE TEST. You’re not going to want to. You’re gonna want to take it once and never look at it again. But trust me, you should. The likelihood that your score will go up is far greater than the likelihood that it will go down or stay the same. I took it twice, but I would recommend taking it three times. After that, I think your score will be about the same if you took a fourth or fifth test. However, if you think you want to take it more than three times, and you are convinced you’ll do better, then go for it! You have nothing really to lose.

Good luck, and happy studying!


ACT Tips by Sarah Barsky:

What makes the ACT the most different from the SAT is not only the science section, but the time. Each section is extremely short. Therefore, most questions need to be completed in under a minute.

When you open the test booklet, the first section is English. There are about 15 questions per passage. However, you don’t need to read the passage before answering the questions. Start with the questions that are grammar based and skip the questions with actual directions because they take more time. Then, after you’re done with the grammar questions in the passage, you can go back and answer the questions you’ve left blank. The grammar questions are faster to answer and usually easier to answer. If you run out of time, you’re going to have more of the “easier” questions answered. This will help ensure you get more right.  

Additionally, if you run out of time or are stuck on a question, pick one letter to always choose if you’re stuck. For example, whenever you don’t know the answer, always choose C or a different letter of your choice. 

Next is the math section. I don’t have any particular tips for this section because everyone does math differently. However, there are a couple things you can focus on. Typically, the first 40 questions are easier than the last 20. Therefore, it’s important to focus on those and get them right. You should be spending about 1 minute on each question. If you don’t know the answer or if the question is taking too long, you can make an educated guess by process of elimination or choosing the answer that seems the least likely to be wrong. Remember, for every section, if you are stuck, you can just skip it and choose your guess letter.

Regarding the reading section, it’s important not to spend too much time analyzing each passage. Skim over it, pick out the main ideas, and then move onto the questions. I typically started with the questions that referenced certain lines. For example, a question might say “according to line 3…” or “in lines 13-17…”. These tend to be easier to answer, so it’s best to start with these then move onto the others. Additionally, some passages might have a lot of line references making it unnecessary to read the passage. Read the questions first and then you can choose whether or not to read the passage.

The last section is science. Like math, there aren’t any specific tactics to help. However, there are some ways to make it a little easier, as for many people this is the hardest section. Reading the passages isn’t necessary unless the question is clearly asking about the way the experiment is set up. This section is not about completely understanding the material. If you spend all your time trying to understand each specific passage or question, you will waste a lot of valuable time. Instead, pick out the information you need from the graphs or tables and answer the questions. Additionally, as for most sections, start with the questions specifically referencing the pictures as those tend to be faster to answer.  Lastly, it’s best to just skip questions that seem too confusing. Starting with the easiest passages and questions will help you manage your time and get the most correct answers.

The best tip of all is practice. There are many tests offered online and in books, which makes taking many practice tests a great way to study. Additionally, being in a test setting, such as taking a practice ACT with a local high school, helps prepare you for what the real test will be like. Practice is the most important part of studying. It helps you understand what sections and questions are harder for you. You will be able to manage the test better if you know what takes you the most time.

 This test can be stressful, but the most important part is to stay relaxed. Don’t cram all your studying in the week before the test, spread it out. Getting poor scores can be discouraging. However, with consistent practice you will keep improving until you’re happy with your score.