Test-Taking Strategies: How to Ace the College Test Prep
Exams like the SAT, ACT, PSAT and AP tests can all seem overwhelming at first. Being asked to complete an academic assessment is already stressful, and it’s even more challenging to perform well under timed conditions when the stakes are high.
The good news is that it’s possible to put most of your test-taking anxieties at ease and ace your college test prep. The secret to performing your best is taking advantage of tried-and-true test-taking strategies that will set every student up for success.
Top 5 General Test-Taking Strategies & Tips
While each college readiness exam has its nuances, there are a handful of test-taking tips and techniques that will benefit every student, regardless of what exam they are taking. These strategies include:
Start Test Preparation Early
The first step you can take towards acing your exam is figuring out when to start preparing for the SAT, ACT, or whatever assessment you’re getting ready for. Many students mistakenly believe that they can cram their prep work into a few weeks leading up to the exam, but it’s actually best to set aside at least six months so that you can get familiar with the test and avoid cramming at the last minute. While most students wait until junior year to take the SAT or ACT, it’s something that you should be thinking about and preparing for by 10th grade ideally. Summer test prep, for example, is a great way for students to get a headstart.
Manage Your Time Wisely
Some test-takers will struggle to finish the exam in the allotted amount of time. If this is what’s holding you back from acing the SAT or ACT, you need to learn how to manage your time strategically. Instead of getting hung up on one question that stumps you, tackle the easier ones first and then return to challenging material later on so that you can maximize the number of questions you answer correctly. It may also be helpful to divide the amount of time allotted for the exam by the number of questions you need to answer so you get an idea of roughly how much time you should spend per question.
Focus On Your Mistakes
Another test-taking strategy that every student should keep in mind is that, when it comes to studying, it’s best to prioritize the material that you find most challenging. If you want to see dramatic performance improvements, figure out what kinds of questions and concepts you struggle with. Review what the correct answers are and pinpoint the recurring mistakes that you tend to make so you can avoid these errors in the future. Generally, mistakes fall into one of four categories: content weakness, time pressure, question comprehension issue, or careless error.
Identify Your Learning Style
We all have different learning preferences and approaches that work best for us. Instead of trying the same studying technique that worked for your friend, take some time to figure out what kind of learner you are. Do you retain information better when you’re listening rather than reading? Do you need to paraphrase the contents of something you’re reading so that you can better understand it? Are you someone who prefers to see pictures, charts, and graphs rather than reading paragraphs of text? Once you answer these questions, you can pinpoint specific test-taking strategies that align with your learning style.
Don’t Do the Questions in Order
Rather than sticking to the order the questions are numbered, tackle the easier questions first so that you can build up some confidence. Then, once you’ve worked through the simple ones, go back and start solving the questions you find most challenging.
SAT Test Taking Strategies
Before diving into exam-specific test-taking strategies, you need to make a big decision: SAT or ACT? While the exams are very similar, there are also a few differences you need to keep in mind during your test preparation process. The SAT is scored out of 1600 (800 for math, 800 for critical reading), and students have 3 hours to finish the exam.
After deciding which college entrance exam to take — the SAT or the ACT, it’s time to start preparing for it. Some tips that are specifically relevant for the SAT include:
Fill In Any Knowledge Gaps First
If you’re struggling in classes like Math or English, you’re going to find SAT questions challenging. Before diving into your test prep, make sure you’ve filled in any existing knowledge gaps first so that you have a strong foundation for success. For example, if you find Math class challenging, prioritize math questions first before anything else.
Have a Plan for Each Section
Another test-taking strategy every student needs to know is that it’s best to go into each section with a plan. Get familiar with the math topics on the SAT and learn how to read SAT passages so you can finetune your approach.
Be Careful With No Change Answers
Test-takers also need to be careful when selecting NO CHANGE answers. Generally, NO CHANGE will only be the answer for 25 percent or less of the questions where it’s an option, so if you notice that you’ve chosen that frequently, you might want to go back and double-check some of your work while keeping pacing strategies in mind as well.
GOOD TO KNOW:
ACT Test Tips
The ACT exam is similar to the SAT in many ways, but the exam is organized a bit differently. Tests are scored out of 36 points, and sections include Reading, English, Math, and Science, as well as an optional essay. If you’re looking for test-taking strategies for the ACT, here’s what you need to keep in mind:
Keep Your Notes and Ideas Organized
It’s important to keep your thoughts organized, especially when taking an exam with multiple subjects in one sitting. Separate any draft paper you’re using for different sections to avoid mixing up Math with Reading, or vice versa.
Know How to Understand the Question
Don’t start answering any questions until you understand exactly what is being asked of you. Begin by determining whether the question is asking you to recall something, come to a conclusion, or infer based on what you’re reading. Eliminate any answers that you know are incorrect and look out for any possible distractors or information that isn’t related to the question. Then, examine the wording of the remaining choices and try to spot any keywords or phrases. You can always try a true or false test with your top choices to help you select the correct answer.
Tailor Your Strategy to Each Section of the ACT
Make sure your test-taking strategies are specific to the portion of the exam you’re studying for. Brush up on best practices for ACT Math, English, Reading, and Science sections so that you’ll feel prepared for every section of the test.
GOOD TO KNOW:
- ACT Math Guide
- ACT English
- ACT Reading Sections
- ACT Science Strategies
- SAT Essay vs ACT Essay: What to Expect on Each
Before tackling the SAT, many students will take another test called the PSAT. This exam is similar to the SAT but designed for students who are earlier on in their high school careers. Unlike the SAT, admissions officers will not evaluate PSAT scores when making decisions. If you’re looking to ace the test, here’s what you need to know:
Eliminate the Wrong Answers
Although there’s no wrong-answer penalty, elimination is still a useful test-taking strategy for the PSAT. If you can determine that one or more answer choices are definitely incorrect, you can increase your odds of getting the answer right. Make sure to read each choice carefully and cross out any obvious no’s right away.
Spend Time Reading
Reading is more than a fun hobby; it’s also an effective test-taking strategy. Students who read a lot will have an advantage on the PSAT, as they will be able to improve their vocabulary and reading comprehension skills. Look for reading materials that you enjoy and practice speed reading skills like using your finger to guide you and focusing on keywords.
GOOD TO KNOW:
AP Test Taking Strategies
AP exams are a great way to demonstrate your in-depth understanding of a subject you excel in and maybe even earn some college credit. While it varies from school to school, many institutions will accept strong AP test performance as a form of college credit. The best test-taking strategies include:
Prepare for Taking the Test Remotely
If you’re taking the AP exam remotely, make sure you understand how online testing will work. Generally, you will need to download the exam, set your device to “Do Not Disturb,” and ensure you have enough storage on your device to complete the exam.
Create a Strategy on How to Study
The best way to perform well on your test is to go into it with an AP exam study plan. Start preparing several months in advance, and don’t forget to review all the notes you’ve taken in the relevant course. Take regular practice exams to familiarize yourself with the material and carve out time to study each week.
GOOD TO KNOW:
Don’t Be Afraid to Find Support
Studying for exams can be stressful, so remember that you’re not alone. Most of your friends are likely going through something similar as they prepare to take their exams. Reach out and support one another so that you can all work towards achieving your best score. Similarly, if you’re looking for personalized guidance, a test preparation tutor can help you make the most of your studying time.
How to Ensure Yourself That You Will Ace Your Tests
If you’re really looking to upgrade your test-taking strategies, working with a private test preparation tutor is a major advantage. By working one-on-one with someone with expertise in the test you’re taking, you’ll be able to develop a personalized study plan to maximize your performance.
Looking for help with your test preparation? IvyWise is here to take your results to the next level with our test prep programs.