ACT / SAT Preparation

Getting Ready for the ACT and SAT

Millions of high school students take the SAT, the ACT or both standardized college admissions tests each year. They help students and their parents make decisions about where to apply and they help college admissions officers decide about who to offer admission. Subject area tests also help determine eligibility for advanced placement courses.

ACT scores for the class of 2022 hit a 30-year low with an average composite score of 19.8 out of 36, down from 20.3 for the class of 2021. SAT scores also saw a drop. The class of 2022 averaged a 1050 out of 1600 compared to 1060 for the class of 2021. The average SAT score for students admitted to the most selective universities may be over 1500.

Because of their importance to gaining admission to “elite” Ivy League and many other highly selective institutions, there has been much criticism of these tests as being unfair to the socially disadvantaged. There is also considerable misinformation perpetuated about them. Reasons for the criticism of a flourishing test preparation industry include their high cost and poorly substantiated claims that their training courses can dramatically boost a student’s scores.

Among the factors associated with low test scores are low parental wealth, minority racial/ethnic status, low social status and substandard schools. These factors, that may unfairly handicap the socially and economically disadvantaged, plus lack of access to test prep courses by those too poor to afford them, led to a number of institutions eliminating consideration of standardized test or making them optional.

However, many of these same institutions are reversing that decision and once again requiring the SAT or ACT. They found that in an era of grade inflation, and college entrance essays written by consultants, it was increasingly difficult to asess which students would thrive at their institution.

So what do the SAT and ACT measure and do they predict success in educational accomplishment and later life?
Although not claimed by the tests, some scholars believe there is good evidence that test scores are substantially correlated with cognitive ability, i.e. intelligence. If innate ability is being measured, this may be a reason it is difficult to greatly boost scores with training. There is also evidence that high scores at least to some extent predict higher grades and greater economic success in later life.

So how can we be fair to those disadvantaged by inequalities? One school of thought is to eliminate testing but another gaining ground is to recognize that testing can identify students with high potential who do relatively well on the tests in spite of their background and environment and give them a chance in the best schools.

One scholar studying college entrance exams suggests that we keep in mind that one reason the SAT was originally used in admissions decisions was to allow scholarship candidates to apply for admission to Harvard without attending an elite preparatory school.

Furthermore, admissions officers should consider that other cognitive and personal traits not measured by the SAT are likely to influence the effective cognitive performance necessary to be successful in academic settings. Research demonstrates that conscientiousness, study habits, attitudes and grit are important for the prediction of academic achievement.

According to one scholar, “If we fail to acknowledge what the SAT measures, we give rise to the claims that it measures privilege or test-taking ability or preparation, instead of the important, complex thinking required to do well in college. If we are willing to accept that the SAT measures intelligence relatively well, and that intelligence is useful in college, then we are able to continue to use the assessment as part of an admissions process that identifies individuals who have a good chance of college success, even if they come from underperforming high schools with comparatively weak curricula. As an added benefit, we may begin to rein in the claims of test preparation companies who have made considerable profits from the widely held but erroneous belief that large increases in scores are likely with costly instruction.”

So can test preparation help boost scores?
The research on the effectiveness of test preparation on SAT and ACT scores is mixed. While some studies have found that test preparation activities can lead to higher scores, others have found no significant difference in scores between students who participate in test preparation activities and those who do not.  

One study analyzed data from over 2 million SAT test takers and found that students who used test preparation resources, such as books, online courses, and tutoring, scored only an average of 33 points higher on the SAT than those who did not participate in any test preparation activities.

Another study found that the favorable impact of test preparation programs was greater for students from lower-income families and for students who had lower initial test scores.

A study by the American Educational Research Association used a meta-analytic design to synthesize the results of multiple previous studies on the impact of tutoring on student outcomes. This study found that students who received tutoring in specific subject areas showed significant improvement in those subjects, including a boost in scores on related standardized tests. The study also found that the impact of tutoring was greater for students who received one-on-one tutoring compared to group tutoring.

Another study conducted by the Princeton Review, a test preparation company, surveyed over 10,000 students who took the SAT and found that those who participated in test preparation activities, such as classes and tutoring, scored an average of 100 points higher on the SAT than those who did not participate in any test preparation activities.  

A Khan Academy study found that students who used Khan Academy's free online SAT prep resources for 20 hours or more showed an average score improvement of 120 points on the SAT. However, it is important to note that the Princeton and Kahn studies had some limitations and may not generalize to other test preparation methods or materials. 

In conclusion, studies show that test preparation can often at least modestly improve student scores on the SAT or ACT. Still, it is important to remember that test preparation is just one of many factors that can influence SAT and ACT scores and for some students test anxiety, lack of familiarity with the test formats, or bad decisions on use of time during the test may impair test performance.

How to get the best scores
Marymount University suggests the following steps that can be considered to improve chances of getting the best possible score:

  1. Take a practice test.
    By taking a practice test either after your sophomore year or in the early months of your junior year in high school, you’ll learn where you need to improve. This will save time when preparing for the test. You can decide between the SAT and ACT by taking practice tests for each. While the SAT and ACT are similar, they have a few differences. For example, the ACT includes a science section, but the SAT does not. The ACT also includes questions about geometry, while the SAT typically doesn't.
  2. Create a study schedule.
    Create a study schedule at least three months prior to the test and stick to it, either on your own or when enrolled in a SAT or ACT prep class.
  3. Know the SAT or ACT test format.
    For the SAT, there are two sections with 800 possible points — Math, and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing. For the ACT, you receive a composite score between 1 and 36 after completing four tests in English, Mathematics, Reading and Science. Understanding a little bit of the test’s format will help you mentally prepare for how to navigate it. And don’t neglect to study formulas and grammar rules — the better you know them, the more quickly you’ll be able to move through the test.
  4. Study vocabulary formulas and grammar rules.
    Many sources will suggest you learn thousands of new words for the SAT or ACT. Instead, we suggest making a SAT word list and shuffling through (and using) 10 new words a day. You’ll be able to work through reading comprehension on the test with greater ease by understanding these words in different contexts. Reading is a great way to improve vocabulary so skip TV and read more.
  5. Learn SAT or ACT test strategies.
    Time management, guessing skills, process of elimination, and knowing when to skip a question are important strategies for increasing your score. Preparing to take the SAT or ACT can be a stressful process — but the more prepared you are, the more at ease you will be. Once you decide to sign up for the standardized test, take the steps necessary to set yourself up for standardized test success!
The Princeton Review makes the following suggestions about how to prepare for college entrance exams.
  • Start test prep early.
    Like most aspects of the college planning process, the earlier students start preparing for the SAT and ACT the better. This allows students to get the most amount of practice time before they take the test, which can help ease test anxiety, says Jolyn Brand, founder of Brand College Consulting. “The easiest way, although it might not be the favorite for students, is to do a lot of prep," she says. "The more prep they have, the less surprised they’ll be and the less nervous they’ll feel about what to expect."

  • Decide between the SAT and ACT by taking practice tests.
    While the SAT and ACT are similar, they have a few differences. For example, the ACT includes a science section, but the SAT does not. The ACT also includes questions about geometry, while the SAT typically doesn't, says Ginger Fay, director of global partnerships for Georgia-based Applerouth Tutoring. Before choosing between the two, college applicants should take a practice test for each exam, some experts suggest. Applicants can then focus on studying for the exam on which they scored better. Gaining exposure to both tests can help students know what to expect, Fay says.

    Experts advise students to check college admissions websites to determine whether a school is test-optional or test-blind. Test-optional means that scores are not required but colleges will still consider exam results if submitted. Test-blind means that test scores will not be considered, even if you submit them. "Take the test and then decide whether or not you want to submit your scores based on the schools you decide you want to apply to. Parents can be useful study partners and supportive cheerleaders for students preparing to take the SAT or ACT, but they shouldn't try to take over. Experts caution parents not to become overly involved in guiding test prep; to avoid drawing on their own testing experience, considering the exams have changed over the years; and to not obsess over a particular score following a single exam date. "These exams are simply not a true indicator of how smart or intelligent a student is," says Christopher Rim, CEO and founder of Command Education, an admissions consulting company. "Parents should create an environment that encourages growth and should refrain from comparing their child to other students." Select the right test prep course.

  • Consider SAT and ACT test preparation courses.
    SAT and ACT test preparation courses can vary in many ways, such as class size and teaching style, as well as face-to-face or virtual options. College applicants should consider how much help they'll need studying for the exam, how much they can pay for a class and what their ideal learning environment is, among other factors, test experts say. They should also consider free alternatives such as Khan Academy, an official test prep partner of the College Board, which administers the SAT. "Not everything has to be paid," says Christine Chu, a premier college admissions counselor at IvyWise, a New York-based education consulting company. "Khan Academy is wonderful; it has lots of free resources.

  • Explore other test prep resources.
    While test preparation classes are one way to get ready for the SAT or ACT, other options are available that can cost a lot less. Libraries, for example, often stock test prep materials. High school students can also ask for help from their teachers, who may provide feedback on draft essays or recommend practice math problems. Students should ask teachers to identify which test content will be lightly covered or not taught in class; how to find personalized study materials; and how to form study groups with classmates to prepare for college admissions exams.

  • Unpack your practice test results.
    Following a practice test, students should evaluate their performance and identify areas for improvement, experts say. But don't look at the score alone – it doesn't tell the whole story. Students should look for patterns in incorrect answers so they can work on mastering content areas where they need improvement. Those who take the PSAT will often get their test booklets back along with their score, and should highlight questions they got wrong so they know what to review for the SAT, says Sara Williams, a school counselor at Briggs High School in Columbus, Ohio. PSAT takers can also link their College Board account to Khan Academy to get free personalized diagnostic practice assignments and practice tests that work on specific areas where students need improvement.

  • Work on time management.
    Knowing the answers isn't enough to excel on the SAT or ACT because there's also a time limit to consider. Dawdling will likely affect the end result, leaving test-takers with unanswered questions and a lower score. Timing advice from test prep experts includes spending no more than 60 seconds on math questions; skimming reading sections for context; looking at the questions and then reading more in-depth as needed; and trusting their instincts when it comes to the language sections of both exams. Taking the PSAT, as well as at-home timed practice tests, can give students a feel for the testing environment and the time pressure it brings.

  • Manage stress with mindfulness.
    There's a lot of pressure on high school students when it comes to standardized testing. Even preparing for the tests can produce stress. While studying the content is vital, it's equally important that students use their prep time to develop stress management practices that could help come test day. Activities that require focus, like a breathing exercise, counting down from 10 or reciting the alphabet backwards can help students take their mind off the stress momentarily and recenter, Fay says. Students should also make sure they're getting regular exercise and consider mixing meditation into their daily rhythms, says Sal Khan, founder and CEO of Khan Academy. “A frantic mind is not the natural state of the human mind," he says. "The natural state of the human mind is actually an empty mind, a still mind, a relaxed mind."

  • Reject myths about standardized tests.
    One common myth in college admissions is that a subpar SAT or ACT score can tank students' chances of getting into their dream school. But in reality, test scores are only one part of an application among many other factors that are considered. A 2019 survey of admissions officers conducted by the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that, in the eyes of college admissions officers, test scores tend to matter less than grades in all high school courses, grades in college prep courses and rigor of high school curriculum.
    "There are many students we've denied with perfect test scores because they didn't have anything else to set them apart," says Douglas Christiansen, vice provost for university enrollment affairs and dean of admissions and financial aid at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.

  • Top tips for taking the SAT and ACT

    • Find out if you can test for free.
    • Start test prep early.
    • Decide between the SAT and ACT by taking practice tests.
    • Set goals and test dates early.
    • Understand how your test scores will be evaluated.
    • Partner with parents.
    • Select the right test prep course.
    • Explore other test prep resources.
    • Get advice from experienced sources.
    • Unpack your practice test results.
    • Work on time management.
    • Reject myths about standardized tests

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