Students face two huge obstacles as they get ready for the SAT or ACT. The toughest is finding the time. They’re busy and their schedules are extremely full already. Blocking out an hour or two a day to focus on a test that won’t have an immediate impact on their grades is tough when that English essay or U.S. History project is due the next day.
The most important obstacle to overcome, however, is how to prepare in the first place. I’ve worked with thousands of students to help them prepare. Here’s the process we go through to come up with the plan that will work for them.
- Figure out which test to focus on
- Find the test dates that are right for you
- Determine the score you need
- Start preparing
- Take your first test
- Decide on a second test date
- Take your second test
- Research any additional scholarship opportunities
Figure out which test to focus on
Before the SAT was revised, the advice was to take both tests once, get the scores back, and see which score is better. That was great advice before so many official tests were available online. In addition, the revision of the SAT has brought the scores much more in line. Most of the students we talk with these days have comparable scores.
You don’t have to wait on an official test date. You can get a copy of an officially released SAT here and get a copy of an officially released ACT here. Take each one using the time limits provided in the test. Score the test and compare your scores. You can use our score comparison webpage to get recommendations on which test is better for you.
Each test will take you about 3 1/2 hours. Plan on doing each in a single sitting, so you’ll probably need to set aside an afternoon and the summer is a great time to do it. Otherwise, you’re probably looking at consecutive Sundays, but you want to get the scores at relatively close times in order to see how you’re doing now.
Find the test dates that are right for you
The biggest factor affecting how you’ll do on the test is when you complete Algebra II. If it is your sophomore year or earlier, you should take your first test in the Fall of your Junior year. If you’ll take the class as a Junior or later, take your first test in the Spring. College Board and ACT give the tests at about the same time every year, so you can look at what dates will fit your schedule.
Some things to consider include what extracurricular activities you’re involved in as well as how tough your academic classes will be. If you’re planning on taking a lot of AP tests, you want to stay away from the April ACT and May SAT. Plan around your busy season for extracurricular activities, too.
Determine the score you need
Colleges will primarily use your test score to give your GPA some context. They’ll use it to get a feel for what that GPA means you can do. The debate about the fairness of that is for another article, but that’s the system we’re in.
Your GPA will be the most important factor in your admissions, especially how well you did in college prep classes. By a long way. You need to do some research into the schools that will accept you given your GPA and/or class rank. Here’s the news your counselor won’t tell you because it will hurt your feelings. You’re not getting into Duke with a 3.0 GPA. Not unless your family can commit a 7-figure donation to their programs before you graduate. The “let’s see what happens” approach will waste your time.
Create a list of 7-10 schools that you’re likely to get accepted to based on your GPA and that you’d like to go to. From there, use a resource like College Navigator to find out what the 50th percentile score is. Scores in the 25th to 50th percentile are from populations that the university is working to recruit: 1st generation college students, historically underrepresented groups, economically disadvantaged.
If you’re not in one of those groups, you’re going to have to be 50th percentile or above to be competitive.
Thanks to step 1, you’ve got good test scores to use as a starting point. Working with a reputable program, you can count on 150-200 point improvements on your SAT and 3-5 point improvements on your ACT, maybe more. We’ve worked with students who have improved 300 points in just 4 weeks. They’re rare, but it happens.
Once you know what score you need, you’ll know how much work is ahead of you.
You should start preparing today. Like right now. Start an account with Khan Academy or ACT Academy for free. They’ll create a practice plan for you to follow and assess which skills you need to focus on the most. Set up a preparation schedule where you dedicate time each day to practicing. Look at your schedule and figure out when that time will be. You can also use our Test Prep Planning App to get concrete recommendations on a test prep plan that’s right for you.
As your test date gets closer, maybe 6-8 weeks ahead of your test date, get serious about your prep. You might take a class like our Test Prep Boot Camp that gives you focused practice related to the test, or you might schedule 1:1 tutorials with an experienced test prep coach. Test prep is a “use it or lose it” proposition, so you want to be doing the guided practice leading right up to your test date.
Take your first test
Hopefully, it’s your only test. If you’ve done the preparation, you could get a score that means you can quit worrying about these tests at all. Most students take the test twice, so the first test is an extension of your preparation. Do well. Get comfortable with the testing situation. Learn to manage your time and your environment. Then knock the socks off the test!
Decide on a second test date
For most of the tests, it will take 10 days to 2 weeks to get your scores back (the June SAT is an exception). Once the scores are back, compare them to what you need. If you need to take the test again, look at your preparation options. If you still haven’t taken a class, start with that. If you’ve taken a class, consider 1:1 tutorials. At a minimum, make sure you’re using Khan Academy or ACT Academy as free resources.
Take your second test
The problem with the tests is they are snapshots of what you’re capable of. Again, we can debate the fairness of the situation, but they will assess what you do on a single day at a test center as opposed to what you’ve accomplished in high school or what you’re capable of. Even worse, some things, like the difficulty of the test, will remain out of your control. Just ask anyone who took the June 2018 SAT. The more you practice, the more in control you will feel on test day. Put in the time so you control the things you can.
Research any additional scholarship opportunities
After you get your second test score back, you’re probably pretty close to the score you’re likely to get. If you’ve put in the sort of time we talked about above, you’ve prepared yourself. The only value in additional prep relates to the financial incentive some colleges offer. Schools like Baylor, Alabama, and Arkansas offer significant breaks on tuition related to your GPA and test scores. Research the schools you’re looking at to see if this applies to them. If so, gauge the value of a few more points against how much it will cost to do additional prep and take the test again. If it will pay off, go for it.