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Tips to Ace the SAT and ACT: Develop an Effective Test-Taking Strategy

Even as a growing number of colleges in the US are becoming test-optional, in most cases, SAT and ACT scores are necessary in order to be competitive in the college admissions process. While a perfect standardized test score isn’t a ticket to a best-fit college, it is one of the many components that admissions officers consider, so it’s in a student’s best interest to perform well.

In order to have a competitive SAT or ACT score, preparation and planning is necessary. It’s rare that a student will be able to ace a standardized test on the first try with minimal preparation beforehand, so it’s important for students and parents to understand the admissions process and what needs to be done in order to create an effective standardized test prep strategy.

Start Early
As with anything in college admissions, starting early is crucial. Standardized tests are marathons, not sprints. Students should take at least one practice test by the spring of sophomore year in order to become familiar with the testing format, material, and the mental exercise that can come with such a long test.

With the changes coming to the SAT in 2016, high school freshmen and sophomores especially need to be aware of how the new test will affect them and prepare early accordingly. There are bound to be growing pains with this new test, so it’s essential that students’ start preparing early in order to effectively assess their performance and test-prep needs.

Choose the Best-Fit Test
Just like in choosing the best-fit colleges to apply to, it’s crucial for students and counselors to identify and prepare for the best-fit test. While each test may seem very similar on the surface, they’re actually very different in format, scoring, timing, and content.

Become familiar with the similarities and differences in each test, and how each may play into a student’s strengths. For example, the ACT offers a science section, so if basic scientific reasoning is difficult for a student, it might be best to consider taking the SAT.

The only way to know for sure which test is right for a student, however, is to take a practice test for each and determine which might be a better fit.

Assess Abilities
Taking practice tests under timed, test-like conditions not only prepares students for what to expect, they can also be used to gauge a student’s strengths and weaknesses in certain subject areas. This is critical for developing an effective test-prep strategy.

By knowing what material a student is struggling with, he or she can seek out help from appropriate instructors or tutors in order to improve. Depending on how weak a student may be in a particular skill or subject area, an assessment can also give families an idea of how long they need to prepare – whether it’s just a few weeks to master a section, or a month or two to build a stronger academic foundation in a problem area.

Set Goals
After assessing the student’s abilities and practice test results, families should consult their student’s college counselor to set score goals. Depending on where the student is interested in going to college, a counselor can suggest a score range that the student should fall within. This is critical, as setting a solid score goal will give the student and any tutors or instructors a solid foundation upon which to build a test-prep timeline.

Within that score goal, also set mini-score goals for each section. For example, a student may have an almost perfect score in math, but a poor score in critical reading. By setting a goal to maintain the math score, but improve the critical reading score by a set number of points, a student will have a better idea of what he or she needs to do to improve.

Develop a Timeline
All of the previous steps lead to the ultimate strategy: Developing a timeline. If a student is planning on taking the November SAT, but is struggling with math material, a month might not be a sufficient amount of time to prepare and improve. Students should plan to take eight practice tests under timed conditions before sitting for the real test. Cramming all of that into a short month can leave a student feeling drained and burnt out.

Space out practice tests and test-prep sessions, so students are learning and improving, but not interfering with their regular course work. Consider developing a timeline that gives your student at least two to three months to prepare and practice. Again, test prep is not a sprint – take time and be strategic.

Adjust If Scores Fall Short
Sometimes even after all the preparing, practicing, and studying, students can still fall short of their score goals. That’s ok! If this happens, examine the score report to see where your student may have struggled and adjust your test-prep timeline and strategy to meet those needs. If it was an issue of not having enough time to finish, focus on test-taking strategies that can help maximize his or her time on the test. If he or she continued to struggle in previous problem areas, find new ways to study the material or seek the help of an experienced tutor.

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