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Plan Your Test Prep From Start to Finish – And Know When Enough Is Enough

By IvyWise Master Tutor

The two most commonly asked questions by students regarding ACT or SAT test prep are: “When is it too early to begin test prep?” and “How much prep is too much prep?” While the answers to these questions vary per student based on college admissions goals, academic and extracurricular priorities, and personal SAT or ACT test goals, it’s important to keep a couple of key points in mind so that students are spending their time in the best way possible and not overdoing test prep.

Wait? You’re saying it is possible to prep too much? While practice does make perfect, every student has a limit. This is why it’s important to start early and plan ahead when preparing for the SAT or ACT, and recognize when a student’s performance is plateauing.

First, Take a Diagnostic
I can’t stress this enough. A diagnostic is the first step toward determining which test to prep for and how much test prep a student will need in order to achieve his or her goal score. At IvyWise we recommend students take full length diagnostic of both the SAT and ACT by the end of sophomore year. A diagnostic will help students determine which test is the best for their abilities, what aspects they need to improve upon in order to reach their goal score, and how much time they should allot for test prep based on their areas of weakness. This is first step toward developing a comprehensive test prep plan and will set the pace for the rest of students’ preparation moving forward.

Pick a Date
Next, after identifying the appropriate test to prep for, students must decide which test date to register for. The SAT and ACT offer multiple test dates throughout the academic school year between August and June. Deciding when to take the test for the first time can be a difficult decision, however, because most students plan on taking the SAT or ACT during junior year and junior year is often times the most challenging and academically rigorous school year. This is why it’s crucial to plan ahead. Make a calendar, allotting ideally three or four months in advance from beginning of test prep to the first official test date, that takes into consideration both your test prep and the demands of your regular academic schedule. For example, don’t plan to take the SAT the same week as your finals.

Get to Know the Tests and Their Scoring
Know the ins and outs of each test! The ACT, for example, is made up of five separate sections: English, Mathematics, Reading, Science, and an optional Essay. The SAT is split between a Reading/Writing and Math with an optional Essay. While knowing the text content is critical, so is understanding how those sections are scored and how you can use those results to adjust your test prep if necessary. Students generally fare better on certain sections over others on any given test sitting – this is quite normal! Students should use these section scores as a guide for test preparation following their first official test sitting – in other words, focus test prep work on the sections that need more work than the other sections.

Prepare for Multiple Sittings
Which brings up the next and most important tip, which is that students should prepare to take the ACT or SAT multiple times from the moment they begin making test preparation plans. There is no penalty for taking the test multiple times; on the contrary, taking the test multiple times may be the best strategy to ensure that a student can achieve his or her best possible score in each section. Many colleges will superscore when looking at students’ SAT, and sometimes ACT, scores, meaning they will take the highest score for each section across multiple testing dates and calculate a new composite score based on those results. However, it is important to keep in mind that just because you can take the test multiple times doesn’t mean you should sit for every offering. There is an upper limit – students can only take a test so many times before their scores start to plateau. Also, only go into a test if you’re 100% prepared. While some colleges honor Score Choice, meaning you can choose which test dates to send to colleges, others will want to see all your scores from every sitting. If you’ve taken the SAT or ACT multiple times and performed poorly on a few of those sittings because you didn’t prepare, colleges will see that.

Know When Enough Is Enough
Test goals vary from student to student, but they should generally be based on college admission goals, academic priorities, extracurricular commitments, and the broader time span that has a student has to work with. For example, if a student has started test prep late and only has a month to prepare for his or her first ACT or SAT, the preparation options and opportunities for multiple test sittings are limited. On the other hand, if a student allots six months to take the test two or three times, this can give a student the best shot at securing his or her highest section scores possible.

But even the most well prepared students can hit a wall. At IvyWise we recommend that students sit for SAT or ACT no more than two or three times, as scores tend to level off, especially after the third attempt. This can be difficult for many students to grasp, especially if they haven’t achieved their goal score yet. While good SAT or ACT scores are important, they are not the most important. If excessive test prep is getting in the way of regular coursework, activities, and other school commitments, it might be time to take a step back. If your scores are not improving even after adjusting your test prep strategy and working with a tutor, then you should reevaluate your goals and maybe consider some test-optional colleges.

The key to a successful test prep plan is to start early and be realistic. Give yourself at least several months to study for and take more than one official test sitting. Rather than asking what is a ‘good’ score, figure out what scores are necessary to reach for your specific college admission goals. At IvyWise our expert tutors work with students to help them identify those test prep goals and develop a comprehensive plan to carry them through from start to finish. To learn more about IvyWise’s SAT and ACT test prep services, fill out the form below!