SAT & ACT Essentials: Study Strategies and Testing Insights

18 Apr 2018

Practice, Practice, Practice

Let’s be honest. Nobody likes taking tests. Well, a few people do, but they’re a little weird, and we’re all secretly jealous of them.

The problem is that standardized tests are really important. They’re like the pre-qualifying rounds that prove what you’ve learned in your gladiator training so that you can get to the final matches in the Colosseum.

But see most people hate them, so they avoid them for as long as possible.

That’s probably not your best strategy. Don’t do that.

Start taking the test your freshman year if you can. Even if you don’t know all the answers, you need to start familiarizing yourself with the material and the structure of the test.

And you don’t always have to take the official tests that cost money either. Both the SAT and the ACT have official prep booklets that include five official practice tests.

In a perfect world, you should be taking a practice test once a month.

But that’s ridiculous! I don’t want to take a massive test every month!

True, but the key is practice, practice, practice.

You’ve probably heard of people taking SAT prep classes over the summer, and they sound awful, right?  (Full disclosure: I did one and mostly they were simply forcing me to study for four hours every Saturday in the Highland High School Library.  It was great to be studying-don’t get me wrong because I probably wouldn’t have done it on my own–but my parents paid a lot of money for forced study time.)  With a bit of preparation and determination, you can save yourself hundreds of dollars by putting together some goals, a study plan, and getting my help with accountability.

What helps most is daily practice (which you can do on your own!).  There are tons of great apps for the SAT and ACT that you can get to test yourself on your weaker subjects. Whenever you have a free moment, just pull out your phone and do five practice problems.

Studying and Testing Game Plan

See, these tests aren’t about memorizing every possible answer imaginable. That would be insane. And impossible. And I would never ask that of you.

These tests are about learning HOW to answer the questions. It’s not really something that can be taught, but it IS something that you can acquire through regular contact with the material and the process. You have to get to know the test so well that, when you read the question, you know exactly what they’re asking you to do, even if you’re not sure what the answer will be.

That’s why you have to start studying now.

But that studying requires a game plan.

In a perfect world, you would take the PSAT your freshman and sophomore year, and you would be finished with the SAT and ACT by the end of your junior year. You would take a practice test every month and do one practice question every day.

That’s not so bad, right?

Ok, so that does sound daunting. But once you get used to doing regular testing, it won’t seem that unusual, and you’ll LOVE watching your scores improve.

Or you could make the whole process more fun by starting a study group with your friends. Quiz each other every day, and compare your scores each time you take it. Compete against each other for the best scores or best improvement. There’s nothing like a little healthy competition to drive you to improve.

How Do I Study? What Do I Study?

The best thing that you can do, first and foremost, is to take a practice SAT and a practice ACT.  Sit down on a Saturday or Sunday morning and take the test from start to finish, timing yourself as though it were a real test.  If you want help, ask your parents to proctor the exam. Or ask me if you can come by the office and I can proctor the test for you.

Now, decide which test you want to concentrate on.  Did you like the ACT or the SAT better? Since schools now take either test, there’s no longer a need to take both.  Keep in mind, however, that if the school requires an SAT II subject test, they often will accept the ACT instead of that subject test.  You can check with me on that and I can give you advice depending on your college list.

Score your test and look at all the answers you got wrong.  Map them out on a chart: for example, if you missed six geometry questions and three trigonometry questions, put that on a chart and try to be specific about the question and why you missed it.  

Why would you go into all of this work?  Well, if you know why you missed a question and can fix that, you won’t miss a similar question in the future.  It’s all about the quality of your studying and if you’re not sure why you’re getting questions wrong, you can’t get them right.

Now you’re going to set up a study schedule.  You’re going to set up a goal score and you’re going to break up how to get there.  So if you’re looking to get a 34 on the ACT English section, you’ll need to be scoring consistently in the 34 range or higher in your practice tests a month before the official test.  Two months before the test, you should be scoring in the 30 range, etc.

Set aside time to study, even if it’s just 15 minutes of UNINTERRUPTED time. No playing on your phone, no text or tweet interruptions, etc. You’ll be able to focus and better absorb the material during that time if you’re not distracted.

For study materials there are a lot of places to start looking. Khan Academy has teamed up with the College Board to offer SAT prep that you can sync up with your practice tests and get a customized study plan.  Their videos are great and it’s all free. Visit or ask me more about this option.

Also, if you’re struggling and need extra help, I highly recommend Lauren of Higher Scores Test Prep,who takes each test every year and scores perfectly on each test (and if she doesn’t, she knows the exact question that she missed).  First and foremost however, I want you to set up your own study plan and take practice tests before investing in an outside program.

What else can I study to help me?  

I highly recommend that you start reading some sort of national newspaper or magazine.  Many of the reading passages for the SAT and the ACT are taken from publications like the Wall Street Journal, Popular Science Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, The New York Times, etc.  The more you read (even if it’s simply an article a day), the more prepared you’re going to be not only for your tests, but for college, admissions interviews, and as a citizen of the United States and of the world.  You’ll be more informed and better prepared for life. It’s a win-win-win. A win cubed.

The Tests

Here’s a little more information on the three major tests you’ll be dealing with:


This test is technically just a practice for the SAT, but it’s a lot more important than most people think. The PSAT is the qualifying test to become a National Merit Scholar. National Merit is a national scholarship program consisting of several qualifying rounds.

The qualifying round for the semi-final is the PSAT. (The minimum qualifying PSAT score changes from year to year depending on the scores of everyone taking the test in that particular year. This article suggests aiming for a 220 in California.)

Then each semi-finalist is required to submit more academic and extracurricular details along with an essay in order to become a finalist. If you become a National Merit Finalist, there are hundreds of schools in the country that are willing to supply full-ride or half-tuition scholarships.

Then, if you pass the finals, you become a National Merit Scholar, which is one of the top academic honors that you can get in high school. (Read an interview with a National Merit Scholar to learn more). It’s extremely impressive to colleges, and you have even more scholarships available to you. Besides just being another practice for the SAT, this test is definitely worth your time.


This is the most well-known of the standardized tests. It covers reading, math (up to Algebra 2), writing and language, and an optional essay. This is usually the test most favored by analytical personalities, typically interested in math and sciences. It’s split up as follows (according to the College Board):

Reading Test

65 minutes

52 questions

Writing and Language Test

35 minutes

44 questions

Math Test

80 minutes

58 questions

It’s based on a 1600-point scale.


This test used to be more popular on the East Coast, whereas the SAT was popular on the West Coast, but that’s not the case now.  Colleges and universities take either test, meaning that you get to choose which test you’re best at to study for.

In my experience, students focused in the humanities are better at this test, but I recommend that everyone try it, just in case you get a better score than the SAT. Anything to help improve your chances of acceptance, right? The ACT covers English, reading, math, science, and writing. (Note that this is the only one that covers science.) It might feel more like the testing you did in elementary school.  The sections are broken down as follows:

Reading Test

35 minutes

40 questions

English Test

45 minutes

75 questions

Math Test

60 minutes

60 questions

Science Test

35 minutes

40 questions

It’s based on a 36-point scale per subject with a composite score of up to 36.

The SAT Subject Tests

Not every school requires these–in fact, most don’t.  However, if you’re considering an engineering or science major or are looking at those top ten schools in the nation (including the Ivy League schools), most of them are going to require the SAT Subject tests.  These are individual tests that test a specific subject on an 800 point scale. You can take them in the following subjects:

Math 1, Math 2, Biology (ecological), Biology (molecular), Chemistry, Physics, Literature, World History, US History, Spanish, Spanish with listening, German, German with listening, French, French with listening, Latin, Chinese with listening, Modern Hebrew, Japanese with listening, Italian, and Korean with listening.

If you’re going into engineering or science, be prepared to take one of the math tests and a science.  

Unfortunately, you can’t take the SAT and the SAT II Subject Tests on the same test date.  You’ll register for one SAT II Subject Test but you’ll have the option to take up to three subject tests on one test date.  The beauty of these are that if you decide you don’t want to take the Physics test (the one you signed up for), you can switch it out for any of the other tests that day.  

These are on an 800 point scale.


And that’s it! Those three are all you need to worry about. If you divide them up, only focusing on the small steps directly ahead of you, just as a gladiator learns how all of the sword positions before learning to fight an opponent, soon you’ll have three completed tests with scores you can be proud of!

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