How to maximize your test score

Today’s students usually take the SAT and/or ACT more than once. Some decide that

they’re just going to take the tests over and over until they get the score they want. Most students will maximize their scores by about the 3rd test they take, especially if they’re doing structured preparation between the tests. Students who follow the steps we lay out often cut that down to just one test.

How test scores are used

It’s important to remember the function of your test score as a part of your college application. GPA is

still the most important piece of data the schools will look at. Your test score gives them context for your GPA. It allows them to understand how your GPA compares to students in your area and across the country.

If you’ve done your research about the scores the schools your considering typically accept, you know the score you need. Getting above that score won’t make it any more likely you’ll get accepted based on how much higher than that 50th percentile score you go. If the 50th percentile score is a 1240 and you get a 1280, you don’t gain a big advantage for admissions when you score a 1360.

That’s not to say a higher score isn’t valuable. At some schools, a higher score can help you qualify for more merit-based aid. For example, Oklahoma State University offers an $10,000 per year scholarship for students with a 1160-1190 SAT and a 3.0 GPA. They also offer an $12,000 for a 1260-1350 and the same GPA. If you made an 1190 on your first SAT, you’re likely to get in. Some structured practice could move you from an 1190 to above a 1290, and it would mean a savings of $8,000 over 4 years. If you only improved 50 points, you’d still save $4,000 over 4 years.

How to improve your score

If you were able to take your first test on a Question and Answer Service (QAS) date, you now have a powerful tool at your disposal. Dive into the questions that you missed and study them carefully. Each section takes a slightly different approach.

For Reading questions, the right and wrong answers often come down to just one or two words in an answer choice. Identify the one or two words that made an answer right and the one or two words that made your answer wrong. On Writing questions, pay attention to the types of questions you’re missing. Are they punctuation rules or verb and pronoun questions? Maybe you need to look more closely at the instructions in the question.

Math is often more straightforward. If you’re missing Level I questions (1-5 & 16 on no calculator, 1-10 & 31-32 on calculator), look for simple mistakes you might be making. Level II questions (6-10, 17 & 18 on no calculator, 11-20, 33-35 on calculator) are usually more difficult just because they have additional steps. That will also be true of the Level III questions, although you’re also going to see some advanced concepts like using the discriminant from the quadratic formula or understanding the laws of complementary angles.

Whether your first test was a QAS or not, the next step is more practice, and the best resources are practice tests. We’ve also talked about other third party material we recommend. Set up a structured practice plan and start practicing.

An effective practice plan

One of the best things you can do to prepare for a future test is to take old tests. As much as possible, stick to officially released material from College Board (The Official SAT Study Guide aka “the blue book”) and ACT (The Official ACT Prep Guide aka “the red book”). Their official study guides provide you several tests you can go through.

A couple of caveats on those study guides. For the most accurate SAT results, use tests 5-10 in the blue book. Those were official tests that went out to students and have a fairly reliable curve. The red book has a few quirks to it. A couple of the tests were pieced together from different tests. This can affect the reliability of the score; however, for most students the scores will still be pretty reliable

Another good thing about the study guides is that they give answer explanations for each question. If you’re working on your own, these are extremely reliable. Occasionally they will tell you that answer A is right because B, C, and D are wrong, which isn’t particularly helpful. Most of the time they’ll give you the information you need even if they’re not showing you the most efficient way to get the right answer.

You can also go back to your test prep plan and look at your prep options. If you’ve completed a class, one of the best options will be to work 1:1 with a test prep professional.

Need a customized prep plan? Check out our test prep planning app. Answer a few critical questions and get a test prep plan that is right for you.