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How to study for the ACT or SAT

College entrance exam checklist and study tips to improve your score

Last Updated 9/7/17
by Jami Barnett, Ph.D. ConsumerAffairs Research Team
Multiple choice test sheet with pencil

College entrance exams

Most colleges require prospective students to take either the ACT or SAT. These college entrance exams, along with your high school GPA, impact your eligibility for scholarships and admission to your desired schools.

These tests are meant to provide colleges with an unbiased picture of how prepared you are for college. They help admissions officers gauge the differences between you and other applicants.

By learning about these exams and preparing for them, you’re already taking action to get the scores you want. Keep reading for a checklist of tasks to complete before taking the SAT or ACT, some general study tips and quick answers to common questions.

Student with tutor

Checklist

Acing the ACTs and SATs is as much about being prepared as it is about intelligence. To prepare, you’ll need to do these five things.

1. Learn about the tests

Before you study for either the ACT or SAT, figure out which one you should take. Talk to your high school’s guidance counselor, and visit the admissions website for colleges you’re considering to find out which test they accept. Once you know which one to take, read about the types of questions and subjects covered on that test.

2. Sign up for a test date

You have to sign up to take both the SAT and ACT several weeks in advance. Visit the SAT website or the ACT website, and sign up to take the test online. You’ll have to pay between $42.50 and $62.50, depending on which test you take and whether you take the writing exams as well. Once you sign up, the test company will let you know what time to arrive and what to bring.

3. Take a practice test

Take a practice test to figure out which areas you need to study the most. You can find free practice exams online, or you can purchase practice tests from a variety of test prep companies and tutors. Try to do this well before you take the actual exam so you’ll have time to brush up on your lower scoring sections.

4. Use prep tools

There are hundreds of apps, websites and books that offer ACT and SAT prep. Apps quiz you with questions, websites provide study schedules and reminders via email and books include general advice and lots of practice questions. Khan Academy and the College Board, which administers the SAT, have partnered up to offer free lessons and practice tests. Figure out which method works best for you, and then commit to using these tools to study.

5. Get a tutor

After a few weeks of studying, take another practice test. From this, you should have a good sense of which areas you’re struggling with. If you still lack an understanding of the material, hire a tutor. You could use a local tutoring company or look for a student you know who does well in the subject you’re having problems with. A few tutoring sessions could make a big difference on test day.

Girl studying on park bench

General tips

Familiarize yourself with the test

Make sure you understand the kind of content you’ll be tested on so you can review material you haven’t studied in a while. For example, an all-star math student might not have taken algebra since middle school, and the bulk of math questions on both the ACT and SAT are algebra. Review material that is more basic to you now for the best chance at acing that section.

Prep over summer break

Use your summer break to study for a test in the early fall. You forget a lot of the things you learned during the previous school year over the summer, so using the months you’re off school can help keep your brain sharp. You’ll likely have more time during the summer too, so you won’t have to choose between doing your homework or preparing for your college entrance exams.

Prepare for the element of time

Timed tests present unique challenges because you have to recall material quickly. Use a timer each time you take a practice test, and work towards being able to answer more questions every time. Incorrect answers don’t hurt your score on either the SAT or ACT. If you’re running out of time, start filling in circles in hopes of randomly providing correct answers. If you're filling in answers to avoid leaving blanks, guess the same letter every time. Statistically, you’re likely to get more right answers if you guess the same answer every time.

Study a little at a time, but stick to a schedule

You’re more likely to retain information if you study in smaller blocks of time. For example, set aside three thirty-minute blocks four days a week, instead of one six-hour block once a week. Once you’ve created a schedule, stick to it! The more often you skip a study session, the easier it will be to skip the next one.

Simulate test conditions

When you take practice tests, simulate the conditions of the test as much as you can. This will reduce your anxiety on test day because the situation will feel familiar. Most of these exams are held on Saturday mornings. To prepare yourself to do well, take a couple practice tests on Saturday mornings. Go to the library or somewhere that’s quiet to take the tests. Take a practice test on paper; online versions are easier to grade, but they’re not what you’ll have on test day. It will take longer to fill in the circles than to click a button. Taking the paper test is the best way to simulate the test-day experience fully.

Student taking multiple choice exam

FAQ

Should I take the PSAT or PreACT?

Most high school students take the PSAT, an official preliminary SAT, or the PreACT during their sophomore year of high school. You can use your scores from these tests to figure out which subjects you need to spend the most time studying before you take the ACT or SAT. Standardized tests can feel overwhelming. Taking one of these preliminary tests can make the whole process more familiar. High scores on the PSAT can also qualify you for a National Merit Scholarship.

How many times should I take the test?

Most students’ scores improve when they take the ACT or SAT a second time, and most people test two or three times. If you take the exam early in your junior year, you can retake it the next spring. Then, if necessary, you can study over summer and take it again in September and get your scores before you miss any college application or scholarship deadlines.

Should I enroll in a prep course?

Many test prep and tutoring companies hold prep classes for the ACT and SAT. These classes range from about $300 to $1,000. Your high school may offer free classes, and local community colleges may have less expensive classes as well. Consistently studying for these tests using good prep materials can significantly help scores. However, working with a private tutor or taking a course won’t necessarily make a difference if you’re not determined to study. You’re probably better off spending the money on a tutor to help you with difficult subject areas than shelling out hundreds of dollars for a general prep course.

When should I take the test the first time?

Many students take the ACT or SAT the first time during the fall of their junior year. These exams are only offered a few times a year, so you should take the test early in your junior year so you have time to review your scores, study your weak subjects and retake the exam before college applications are due.

What are good ACT and SAT scores?

ACT scores range between 1 and 36, and SAT scores range from 400 to 1600. In both cases, the higher the score, the better you did. A “good” score is one that will get you into the college you want. At many colleges, you need a higher ACT or SAT score if you’re ranked lower in your high school class. For example, Texas Tech has no minimum ACT or SAT score for students in the top 10 percent of their class, but the minimum score for the bottom third of a graduating class is 27 for the ACT or 1290 for the SAT. The average ACT score is 20, so if you score 28, you’ll have done better than about 90 percent of other test takers. The average SAT score is about 1080, and if you score a 1340 you’ll be in 90th percentile.

Will the scores for each test I take be sent to colleges?

You select which scores are sent to colleges; you can take the tests multiple times and only send the highest scores to colleges. However, you can only send scores for free when you register for or take the exam. If you choose not to have scores sent to colleges until after you see them, you’ll usually have to pay about $15 per college.

Students taking exam

Conclusion

The SAT and ACT will influence your college admissions, but don’t get too intimidated by these tests. If you stick to a study plan, you’ll be well ahead of the game.

If you don’t end up with the scores you want, don’t worry; you’re not doomed to a life of failure. There are many colleges with less rigorous admission requirements. You can attend one of these schools for a year, study for the ACT or SAT and re-apply to your dream school the following year. You may get much better scholarship offers at those schools, and you may even realize your second (or third) choice school was the right place for you after all.

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Jami Barnett, Ph.D., is an experienced researcher, and she believes consumers have a right to clear and honest information about products. In her role at ConsumerAffairs, she thoroughly researches products and companies by interviewing experts, reviewing research studies, reading governmental regulations and investigating customer service responses. Her work gives consumers the information they need to make smart purchasing decisions.

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