Your Guide to Preparing for College Entrance Exams in 2021

By: Judi Robinovitz | Last Updated: May 26, 2021

We get it. The mere mention of standardized tests might make you cringe and shudder. You’ve got enough to do with schoolwork and extracurricular activities – how will you find time to prepare for college entrance exams that may determine your future?

Take a deep breath, wipe the sweat off your brow, and let us reassure you that you can do it with a solid preparation plan – and successfully achieve your goals. While no two students are alike, you can find a path and process that will prepare you to do your best.

In this guide, you’ll find the best advice and tips compiled from our test experts and tutors who have helped thousands of students. They know what works when it comes to effectively preparing for college entrance exams and steadily improving your scores.

One note before we dive in: don’t be lured by the fantasy of “test optional” college applications that’s making the rounds. If we learned anything in 2020, the dramatic rise in application numbers has made it even more important to show a competitive test score to your top-choice colleges. There’s really no avoiding it – you’ll need to prepare for and take the PSAT, SAT or ACT tests.

Here are some vital tips to set you up for success in your college entrance exam test preparation.

Step 1: It’s (Almost) Never Too Early to Start

Students often wonder when they should begin preparing. The aim is to be ready to take your college entrance exams during your junior year. Ideally, you should try to take the SAT or ACT test in the fall or winter of junior year to avoid conflicts with AP exams in the spring. Are you a rising junior? This schedule gives you plenty of time to retest as needed and improve your score. Here’s a testing calendar that gives you an idea about planning for your test-taking as a junior.

Since junior year is a notoriously brutal time, it behooves you to get as much of your test prep done in the months before junior year starts. Again, every student is unique, so the first rule is to know yourself and be honest about your study habits. Do you prefer a lighter schedule spread out over more months, or more compact, intensive study? At minimum, we suggest prepping two to three months ahead of your first college entrance exam, then, of course, continuing as needed.

While our experts say it is never too early to begin prepping, there is one caveat. Since the SAT covers math up to Algebra 2 and the ACT math goes up to Trigonometry, you should have completed at least one semester of Algebra 2 before launching formal preparation. It helps to learn the basic concepts in the classroom before tackling the questions on the tests.

Student Studying

Step 2: Get to Know the Tests

One of the biggest keys in preparation is familiarizing yourself with the different college entrance exams and it’s truly never too early to begin that process. “The concepts are not the hardest parts of the tests. Students have covered all the material in school. The tricky part is how the questions are worded and just knowing what to expect,” says Score at the Top tutor Michelle Taepakdee. “There are patterns and tips and tricks, but you can only recognize the patterns and utilize strategies after you’ve seen plenty of tests.”

You can start getting to know the tests as early as freshman year. There are plenty of online resources and you can purchase an official SAT test prep book or ACT test prep book. Other things you can do early on in your high school career include:

  • Focusing on reading, writing, and vocabulary
  • Saving your math tests and notes so you can refresh your knowledge closer to the test
  • Getting familiar with resources, such as CollegeBoard, ACT, test prep apps, simulation tests, group and private tutoring in your area

By mid-sophomore year, you should be preparing for college entrance exams more seriously. The following steps will help you navigate, plan, and strategize a course of action that is right for you.

Step 3: Determine Your Goal

First things first. Developing a strategy for test prep will come easier if you know what you’re aiming for. Are you hoping to get into an Ivy League school or have your heart set on a state school? While your exact list doesn’t have to be finalized at this point, pick a few of the schools you’re hoping to attend, then research the average range of scores for their accepted students. Your goal score should fall around the middle to high end of the range.

Having a goal in mind at the outset helps you set a realistic plan for yourself. Aiming for a perfect score? You will probably want to give yourself plenty of time and consider working with a test prep tutor. On the other hand, if you know you need a score that is pretty easily attainable for you, you might be fine with a couple months of practice and preparing for your college entrance exams.

Need a test prep tutor?

Call (844) 438-1600 to get started today.

Step 4: Start Practicing

Now that you have your goal, find out where you’re starting out and how far you have to go to achieve your desired score. The best way to do that: take a practice test. See our blog for tips on taking practice tests. You can take a practice test on your own or sign up for a proctored simulation that we offer.

Whatever you do, don’t use a real national test administration as a way to get your base score. There are many reasons you should never take the SAT or ACT without studying.

Once you’ve got your first practice scores, don’t panic. “Students sometimes get overwhelmed when they get their first scores and it seems so far from what they’re hoping to get,” Taepakdee says. “But they shouldn’t get disheartened. It’s valuable information that helps you learn where you need to focus. It’s a step-by-step process.”

She advises that you don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to conquer every aspect of the college entrance exams all at once. Instead, spend time focusing on studying one section at a time.

Step 5: Choose a Test: ACT or SAT

Most students prefer one college entrance exam over the other, and since colleges don’t favor either the SAT or ACT, it certainly helps to put your attention and time toward the one that works best for you. How do you know which one that is? Know the differences between and tests and, again, know thyself! For instance, the ACT questions are more straightforward while the SAT questions are designed to be a bit confusing. The ACT gives you less time to complete each section, but it also requires you to know a higher level of math than the SAT. We've covered the differences between the ACT and SAT tests in a previous post.

Still confused? By taking an assessment that compares and analyzes your performance and strengths on each test, you’ll have a great way to determine on which test you would perform best.

Step 6: Learn the Strategies

As mentioned, preparing for college entrance exams and doing well on these tests takes more than conquering basic academic concepts. Ideally, the resources you use to study, along with group programs or tutors, will help you learn tips and tricks for understanding what’s being asked, for making educated guesses, what to work on first, etc. We’ve outlined some of the best strategies here:

Step 7: Put in the Time

TIME! It may have the most impact on your outcome. Whether you’re working with a tutor or on your own, our experts recommend spending about 3 to 5 hours per week practicing and studying. That could include a full practice test, which takes about 3½ hours.

While that may sound a lot of time, you can mold it to fit your schedule and style. Maybe you study 45 minutes a day or choose to do it all in one day over the weekend. Consistent practice over time is key. According to Taepakdee, an average student can figure that if she or he puts in the time, significant improvement should result (by 100 points on SAT, or 3-4 points on ACT) in about 8-10 weeks.

Student Studying Late at Night

Step 8: Assess Your Practice Tests

You only improve by learning from your successes and mistakes. It’s not enough to check the answer key and calculate your score. Pay attention to the types of questions you have erred on and analyze what tripped you up. Was it just an oversight on your part or was it asking about a concept you need to understand better? Look for patterns as well. If you are consistently missing more questions that involve reading comprehension, use your prep time to focus on improving in that area. Again, don’t overwhelm yourself. Our tutors advise taking it one section at a time to hone your skills in a particular area before moving on. If you do find yourself overwhelmed, practice easing your test anxiety.

Step 9: Don’t Go It Alone

Test prep is not meant to be a solo endeavor. Collaborate with peers, join a prep class, or work with a tutor to alleviate a lot of the struggle and stress, and – dare we say – even make it fun. While a group class or tutor can offer you the benefit of learning from experts with substantial experience, the option may not be in everyone’s budget. If this is your case, think about starting a study group with friends and setting a schedule for prepping and taking practice tests. You can utilize online tools such as the Khan Academy’s Official SAT Practice to review concepts and learn test-taking tips.

Step 10: Reward Yourself Along the Way

Think of this process like training for a marathon. Even first-time marathoners have to accumulate 500-600 miles of running before race day. With consistent practice and commitment, you will improve and be ready to perform your best on test day. It’s important to recognize your progress along the way and reward yourself. Set it up so that you’re doing something you enjoy right after a study session. Maybe after doing a practice test with friends, have a dance party or head to the beach. Think about what brings you joy, and be sure to make time for those joys as part of your preparation plan. That will keep you going when you might not feel like it.

We’re Here to Help!

If you need help in any stage of preparing for college entrance exams, give us a call. We can help guide you to the resources that support your success.

Ready to take the first step?

Call (844) 438-1600 to start preparing for your college entrance exams.


Topics: ACT Test-Prep PSAT SAT

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