No-fail Steps to Prepare for the SAT or ACT

Carol Katarsky Updated on October 7, 2020

The SAT and ACT tests are a key part of your college application. And a stressful one. But there are things you can do to ensure you’re as prepared as possible.

We’ve broken down each step of the process to help you make the most of test day and get the best possible score you’re capable of.

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Studying and preparation

Build on good study habits. There’s no one way to study for any test. For the most part, you know from school-based tests what works best for you. Whether that’s at night, with or without music, etc., make sure you carve out the best time and space for your SAT prep too.

Have a strategy for what you study and when. You don’t want to cram for everything at once – that’s a good way to remember only a little about everything. Focus on the areas where you think you need to improve most. Even small gains there can boost your total score more. 

Review what you got wrong. Look at practice tests to find any patterns in what you get wrong. Did you miss questions in each section because you ran out of time? Make careless errors because stress hurt your concentration? Or maybe you realized you’ve forgotten a lot of grammar rules. Use that to guide your future study strategy. By working on time management or a tricky content area you can give yourself   

Ready for reading

Decide on your answer. When reading sentence completion questions, decide what you think the answer is and then select the answer that comes closest to your first thought.

Use context clues.  Transitional words such as “however“ or “although” and words that reverse meaning such as “not” or “un-“ can guide you to the correct answers.

Read all introductory text for reading selections. They provide information to help you put the selection into better context.

Have a strategy. Some people like to read the entire passage before answering questions, others dig right into the questions and then look for the answers, some skim and then answer. Each has its pros and cons. Try each method on your practice tests to learn which works best for you.

Plan your time. Spend most of your time on the questions, not reading and re-reading the passage. You don’t need to memorize facts from the story. 

Max your math score

Memorize the basics. Knowing important math definitions, formulas and rules will make it a lot easier to quickly solve the questions.

Review fractions and variables. These are notoriously tricky, especially on a timed test where rushing can cause you to misplace a decimal point.

Skip the calculator when you can. Just because it’s allowed in some sections doesn’t mean you need it. Questions you can answer on your own will help keep you sharp and save time.

Writing for the win

Go over grammar rules. Remember that what looks or sounds right in spoken language is often grammatically incorrect. Make sure you memorize the rules about commas, subject-verb agreement and other commonly confused areas of grammar.

Follow directions carefully so you know what you’re being asked to do. You don’t have to get caught up in the content if the question is about punctuation usage.

Don’t fear the “no change needed” option. There will be at least some questions where the target sentence needs no changes in punctuation or grammar. But be aware: if you answer “no change” for more than one out of four questions, you’re probably missing something and should review your responses.

Effective essay ideas

Make the most of your time. You have limited time for the essay.  Spend just a few minutes analyzing the prompt and thinking about what you want to say. Most of your time should be spent writing, followed by about five minutes to review and making any edits. (Grammar counts here, too!)

Stick to the format. Your essay should keep to the traditional five-paragraph format:

  • introduction —  state your thesis and three points that support it
  • the next three paragraphs further explain each point
  • conclusion to restate and summarize your thesis

Keep it simple. Don’t feel pressured to puff up your essay with “fancy” vocabulary or extra words to make it longer. Often, simple wording can be the clearest and most persuasive.

Test day success

Prepare the night before. The last thing you need is to get stressed out that morning looking for a pencil. The night before, lay out anything you’ll need: clothes, your ID, calculator and other supplies. The goal is to be able to get ready quickly, grab your stuff and go so you have plenty of time to settle in and relax before the test begins.

Manage your emotions. This can be a stressful, anxiety-provoking day. Before the test, do whatever relaxes you (listening to music, mini-meditation, reviewing notes, etc.) A good mindset going into the test will set the stage for your best possible performance.

Read the directions carefully. It’s tempting to rush to the finish but reading the directions carefully can help you pace yourself and provide vital information to help you answer the questions.

Do the easiest questions first. Get down as many answers as possible as fast as you can and then go back to more challenging ones.
Note: For some tests, such as the reading comprehension this tactic still works, but it’s more efficient to answer all the questions for one passage before moving on to another.

Don’t skip questions. The SAT no longer penalizes you for guessing. If you truly don’t know the answer, try to eliminate at least one response. You’ll have a better chance of getting it right.

Go with your gut. Even when you’re stumped by a question, your first answer is often the right one. Unless you see an obvious mistake, don’t overthink things and repeatedly change your responses.

Watch the clock.  You don’t want to spend too much time on any one question or subsection of the test. Keep an eye on how many questions (and how many sections) are left, relative to the amount of time left for the test.

Relax! You’ve done your best to prep and now the test is over. Go celebrate. Results come back lower than you were hoping? You can always take it again, this time with more experience. 

Great SAT and ACT test scores can improve your chances of getting accepted to your first-choice school and qualify you for more scholarship opportunities. Check out this list of possible scholarships.

About the Author
Carol Katarsky

Carol Katarsky is a contributing writer for Nitro. She is an award-winning journalist with extensive experience writing about both finance and education. Her corporate and non-profit clients include AIG, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and the Project Management Institute. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband, son, and one cat more than she should. Read more by Carol Katarsky

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