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Put to the Test: Preparing for the SAT/ACT

By — National Association for College Admission Counseling
Updated on Nov 12, 2009

You come across an unfamiliar word in your history book and actually look it up. You find yourself talking in analogies. While watching "Lost," you wonder how to figure out the length of your television screen if you knew the height. You're hoarding no. 2 pencils.

It must be time for the SAT or ACT.

It's Not as Bad as You Think

Standardized tests can be intimidating. And all the hype about test scores doesn't help. By the time you finish talking to your friends and reading about the tests, it may feel like those little ovals will determine your future.

True-test scores are important. But they're not nearly as important as many students think. Different colleges use test scores differently, but no colleges make admission decisions based solely on test scores. In fact, your academic record—the courses you've taken and the grades you've received—is looked at much more closely than your test scores.

"The transcript is the number one indicator of a student's potential for success at Alfred, with all other credentials used to support this," says Mary E. Lindner, assistant director of admission at Alfred University (NY). "I would rather go to bat for a student who is a hard worker and has done well in high school, but scored lower than we would like on the SAT, than a student who has done just what he had to do in high school and scores better on the SATs."

A Proven Way to Boost Your Score!

There's no way to get around it—the best ways to prepare for the SAT or ACT are to study hard and read as much as you can.

The testing companies themselves agree. "The best preparation is to take challenging courses in high school," says Kristin Crouse from ACT. "That prepares students best for college, and that's what the ACT measures."

Reading is another great way to prepare. No, you don't have to plow through Moby Dick (though that wouldn't hurt!). Choose books, magazines, and newspapers that you enjoy—everything from Harry Potter to the New York Times can strengthen your reading comprehension and vocabulary.

Practicing writing is also important in your preparation. Whether you're writing a research paper for history or working on your own short stories, it's a great way to get ready for these tests.

Unfortunately, there is no quick way to make up for taking easy classes and avoiding the library. But you can make the commitment now to read for at least 15 minutes a day. By the time the next testing date comes up, you'll feel more prepared.

Test-Taking Strategies

Test-taking skills can be learned through practice. Try a few of these strategies to improve your performance on standardized tests.

  • Take the practice test in the materials you receive from the SAT or ACT.
  • Find practice tests online or in books (check your guidance office or library).
  • After taking a practice test, look carefully at the questions you get wrong. Read the explanations of the right answers.
  • If you find that certain types of questions or certain topics stump you, get some help from a teacher in those areas. For example, a math teacher can recommend a good book to review the basics of geometry or algebra.
  • Learn from every test you take. Take the opportunity to see the answers for the questions you got wrong, if the testing service offers this service. Don't just study the answers themselves—look at the reasoning behind each answer. Then, if you decide to take the test again, you'll be better prepared.

The Big Day

"A good night's rest and nutritious snacks are still high on my list" of test-taking strategies, says Mary E. Lindner, assistant director of admission at Alfred University (NY). In other words, don't stay up late cramming-or worrying. Here are some other do's and don'ts.

The night before:

  • Do set out everything you'll need (including your no. 2 pencil!). Then you won't have to run around early the next morning.
  • Don't schedule a huge social event.
  • Do plan to do something that relaxes you—reading a favorite book, watching TV, talking on the phone (but not about the test!), taking a walk.
  • Don't stay up late to catch Letterman.
  • Do go to bed early—you'll think better if you're well-rested.

The morning of:

  • Do plan to arrive at the testing center early.
  • Don't skip breakfast. When you're hungry, it's harder to concentrate—and you'll feel more sleepy.
  • Do bring a snack. If a full breakfast is too much for you first thing in the morning, eat an apple on the way to the test center. And bring a snack to munch on during the break.

Finally…

A pep talk from Jonathan Burdick, associate dean at the University of Southern California: "Stop worrying about it so much. [Tests are] supposed to be a guideline, not a new way of life. If a college is going to admit or deny you based on your test score, you don't want to be there anyway, and it's their loss. Go to some place that's prepared to appreciate you for who you really are."

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