The Most Effective Ways to Prepare for the SAT or ACT

By: Jason Robinovitz | Last Updated: June 3, 2019

alarm clock adrien-robert-505048-unsplashThe most effective way to prepare for the SAT (and the ACT, for that matter) is to start early because doing so opens up opportunities that diminish and disappear as time passes. An early start gives you time to take multiple SAT practice tests; identify areas of weakness and what, in particular, to study in order to improve; and to take multiple actual SATs (see below for why we suggest at least three) on a convenient schedule that’s unavailable to late-starters.

The best way to start early: take the PSAT in the 9th and 10th grades. In addition to acclimating yourself to the SAT’s format and content, and, thus, becoming more comfortable with the SAT, your exposure to the PSAT is likely to result in SAT score gains. A College Board/Khan Academy study of 250,000 students in 2017  showed an average 60-point gain from PSAT to SAT for students who did not complete Khan’s online prep (although they may have done other prep). And taking the pre-ACT can have a similar effect on your future ACT score. Because there’s easily an 80% overlap in content between SAT and ACT, familiarity with one can also serve as a good foundation to improve performance on the other.

PSAT results also provide benchmark scores and identify areas in which you need to improve in order to do well on the SAT. That can be greatly facilitated if you open a Khan Academy account, link it to your College Board account, and then import the results of the PSAT directly into Khan Academy’s Official SAT Practice Website. Then, the Khan Academy site assesses where you need the most help, and provides detailed study plans based on its assessment. The site can also do those things based on the results of its SAT diagnostic test or an actual SAT test, so students who didn’t/won’t/don’t take the PSAT can also benefit from the College Board/Khan alliance. In addition, our skilled test-prep tutors can perform a similar analysis to identify areas where you need the most help, then create an individualized tutoring plan focused on those areas.

Once you have benchmark scores, you’ll be able to proceed to the next important step: setting a long-term goal based on the colleges where you’d like to go. That’s not to suggest that you can’t improve your test score without a specific score goals, but according to a research study titled Goal setting and task performance: 1969–1980 that appeared in an American Psychological Association blog, 

Results from a review of laboratory and field studies on the effects of goal setting on performance show that in 90% of the studies, specific and challenging goals led to higher performance than easy goals, "do your best" goals, or no goals. Goals affect performance by directing attention, mobilizing effort, increasing persistence, and motivating strategy development.

SAT goals should be challenging, but reasonably achievable, and it’s best if you write them down and share them with others. Additional information about establishing effective goals and the best practices for reaching them can be found in a blog titled Goal-Setting Is Linked to Higher Achievement.

When considering score goals, students often wonder what a “good SAT or ACT score” is. Answer: whatever score gives you the best odds of gaining admission to the schools you want to attend. Virtually all schools publish data on their admitted students’ mid-50% SAT and ACT score ranges, as shown below:

 SAT Scores for college entrance

For example, 50% of Drexel’s admitted students scored between 1170 and 1390 (inclusive) on the SAT; 1280 is the mid-point of that range. So, any score above 1280 is likely to enhance a Drexel applicant’s chances of admission, and a score at least in the mid-1300s would be a good goal if Drexel is the target. (A more detailed explanation of mid-50% ranges, along with additional examples, can be found at a blog titled Are Your SAT Scores Good Enough?)

organized - rawpixel-633847-unsplashThe next step in effectively preparing for the SAT or ACT is to create a study and practice-test schedule, both dependent on how much time you have to study, and how many practice tests you plan to take, and how many actual test administrations you plan to sit for. Because “lots” is the most advantageous answer for the first two of those – and we believe that “three” is the best answer to the third one – we’re cycling back to our advice: start preparing for the SAT as early as reasonably possible.

It’s not possible to take too many practice SAT tests, just as it’s not possible to practice driving too much when you’re learning to drive. In both cases, every exposure increases familiarity – and, thus, comfort with the task – and every exposure can identify areas you may be able to improve.

In a December 11, 2018 blog post titled New Research on Admissions Testing and Test Preparation, our colleague Jed Applerouth summarized some findings:

Our analysis found that score gains which appear to derive from early start times must be partially attributed to the greater distribution of sessions, increase in contact hours, greater homework completion and more practice and official SAT tests. So it’s not the early start time that matters, it’s what students do with the extra time that matters: more preparation, more practice, more official tests… The model [used in the study] demonstrated the importance of spreading tutoring sessions out over time and the benefits of starting SAT prep earlier in the junior year.

In yet another blog post, this one on February 13, 2019 and titled No Advantage Found for Senior-Year SAT and ACT Testing, he wrote,

the data reveal the importance of taking the SAT and ACT multiple times…The average gain between the second and third official SAT was 47 points for the early finishers [those who started and finished the process earlier in high school] and 40 points for the late finishers,..The third test matters.… It does not appear to matter whether a student’s third test takes place during the junior year or during the senior year: the third test is the charm,

So, the data clearly indicate that three official tests are important for score gains. Keep in mind that many schools superscore the SAT and ACT, so a third test is nearly riskless. And if you become convinced that you’ve done poorly on a third ACT, you can make that score vanish (contact us for information on how to do that).

Three other things of note:

First, find one or more study partners with whom to share strategies and resources. It’ll lift spirits, and can be extremely beneficial and prevent you from feeling like you’re going it alone.

Second, the questions that you answer incorrectly on all but your last official SAT test are absolutely precious because they’re the key to what you don’t know. Our experienced SAT tutors and ACT tutors can help you identify specific areas needing strengthening, and patterns from the types of the questions that are giving you problems. You can then focus on those during study and tutoring sessions.  

Third, and returning to Applerouth’s December 11, 2018 blog post, his study findings show that “...1-1 tutoring hours yielded 60% higher score returns over group tutoring hours.”

This fairly broad information touches only “the high spots” of the labyrinthine topic of effective ways to prepare for the SAT. Did you know that we’ve been successfully preparing students for the SAT test for 35+ years? We’re here to help you find your way through the maze. So call us at 844-GET-1600 if you’re a student – or the parent of a student – who’s planning to take the SAT or ACT.

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