How to Study for the SAT/ACT

Anyone who has ever been a college-bound high school student has his or her own memory of the application process. Every college application requires an SAT/ACT score. While GPA is definitely important, it may be inflated; some high schools may be tougher than others. Therefore, the SAT/ACT score is a way for colleges to “verify” the intellectual qualification of the candidate and be able to screen through thousands of applications.

The SAT focuses on mathematical and English skills whereas the ACT is a more well-rounded exam that also includes a Science section. Taking these exams cost both time and money and while no one likes to take “extra” exams, we recommend that you consider taking both the SAT and ACT. You may possibly score better in one of them (which will increase your chance of college admissions). Do note that the SAT is more widely accepted (not every school accepts an ACT score). Thus, be sure to check what your programs would accept or prefer.

So… how exactly do you prepare for one of the biggest exams blocking your way to higher education?

Prepare for the Critical Reading
Read a book. Pick up any book among your favorite genres. Read everyday. Once you enjoy the process, try to select classical works. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter has a lot of vocabulary typically used in entrance exams. Jane Austen is another good author to pick up. If novels aren’t your thing, you can pick up “Best Essays…” books. Also read the news, particularly The New York Times and The Atlantic.

Prepare for Math
Khan Academy has an excellent lecture series: Click here and start practicing Math! The key is to practice, practice, practice. You need to be able to start recognizing patterns so you can arrive at the answer faster. Remember, it’s a timed test.

Prepare for Writing (optional for ACT)
In order to write timed essays well, the first step is to form an outline. Read the entire prompt thoroughly to develop your interpretation of the question. Write a skeleton of the essay so you don’t lose focus of what you are trying to accomplish. An essay should always be clear and concise with a guiding thesis and strong supporting paragraphs. Conclude your essay by rewording the thesis and briefly restating your supported claims. Click here for some example essay prompts! A guide with tips on effective writing is forthcoming. Meanwhile, we are happy to provide feedback on your writing prompts’ responses.

Prepare for Science (ACT only)
Again, we refer you to Khan Academy for fundamental knowledge in Biology, Chemistry, and Physics.

Practice Full-Length Exams
Make sure you take at least three full-length exams before taking the real thing! It is ideal to study and take the practice exam the same time as your registered exam. This way, you are wiring your brain to be more alert and focused at a certain hour of the day. Be sure to mimic the testing environment – no noise, no distraction. Take a test before you begin your preparations to see where you are at “baseline” and identify areas that need the most improvement. Equally important is to understand the rationale behind every answer.

Here are sites with free practice SAT exams: 4Tests | College Board | Kaplan | Princeton Review | Number2

Here are sites with free practice ACT exams: 4Tests | Kaplan | Princeton Review | Number2 | ACT practice questions

Prepare Physically
The exam takes four hours. You bet it will be mentally draining! Make sure you give your body sufficient rest and nutrition. Do not study, review, or take a practice exam the night before. Just sleep. On the day of the exam, drink apple juice instead of water to give yourself an energy/glucose boost. Stay away from coffee unless that’s your everyday routine (don’t change life habits on the day of). Eat an orange before taking your exam. Oranges are a great source of folate, which boosts recall and information processing. Vitamin C in oranges also reduces your stress hormones so you won’t be as nervous. Breathe deeply. Take a moment to do relaxation exercises if you need it.

We Say
You will do well! Best of luck!

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3 comments

  1. Hey guys! Thanks for this post, as I am currently going through all this. :) I will be sure to take all of these tips and check out the links. I may end up coming to you for a free “consultation” sometime too. ;) I took my SAT back in March, and going to take the ACT and subject tests in June. I’ll be using the summer to study more for retakes in the fall. I’m hoping to increase my SAT score by 200 points. I would like to go to University of Virginia or George Washington University, but right now they are reaches. I have two main questions:

    Which study books have you used that you would recommend? Of course, I already have the College Board blue book, but what others would you recommend for different things? I.e. test taking strategies, practice, and subject tests (I’m planning on taking the Literature and Math 1 tests).

    Also, what is your take on Kaplan and Princeton Review’s prep courses? I’m contemplating taking one, but thinking it’s probably not necessary or worth it for me. The general consensus I’ve heard is that it works more if you aren’t self-motivated and disciplined enough to study yourself, which I think I am, especially since I’ll be free over the summer and won’t have the stress of my classes as well. I think it may be better (and financially practical) to put together a study plan and instead buy a few good prep books for different purposes to study and practice from. I would like to hear if either of you have had any experiences with prep courses.

    Sorry this is a rather long comment, but you two seem very helpful and experienced and I’d love the input. Thanks!

    P.S. I’m enjoying the blog! Haven’t been able to follow and comment actively like I used to since I’m generally pretty busy these days but I’m catching up. :)

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    1. Thanks for reading our blog Iris! Glad this particular post was helpful for you. :)

      To be honest, we were very naive when we took the ACT. We did not study, took it once, and applied to college. (Not only that, we also applied to only one college, leaving us with no backup plan.) Today, college admission has gotten a whole lot more competitive. It seems you are indeed doing what it takes to enroll in your dream school. To address your specific questions:

      1) As confessed above, neither of us read any preparatory books. For the GRE, however, I relied on multiple sources. While I appreciated the Princeton’s vocabulary section (particularly how it grouped words with similar meanings so you learn in groups and by association, which is much easier than learning individual words), I found their Math to be a joke. Was it written for Elementary students!? The Kaplan does a nice job outlining the requirements to a good essay. As a whole, I liked the Baron best – it was particularly good with Math. Now, their GRE books may differ a lot compared to SAT/ACT. My advice is to go to your local bookstore and peruse through the majority of the books before deciding to buy. Surprisingly, though, I did most of my preparation with number2. I accessed this free website for daily drills and it adjusts my study plan according to my performance. Check it out. :)

      2) You’re right that these expensive courses work best when you don’t have the motivation to study on your own. You don’t lack the motivation. Why waste money? Learning in a group setting is also time consuming because it isn’t tailored to you and won’t be at your own pace. One good thing about these courses is that you will get individualized feedback on your essays. But, we offer that free. ;) We are happy to give you feedback on your essays. We are very serious about writing and will reply timely. :)

      Good luck with your preparations! I recommend that you share your study plan with someone you trust and they can help keep you on track. :)

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    2. PS: The best tip I got when I took the GRE was how to prepare for it physically. Do follow everything I wrote under that section. You can only perform your best when you’re alert, focused, and energized.

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