High school students have been studying for and taking the SAT and ACT exams for years, but that doesn’t stop the same questions on how to prepare from cropping up each year. As a new set of students approach this stressful exam time they can find themselves missing important details and wondering how best to study for such a comprehensive exam.
Breaking the process down into planning stages and highlighting important key steps helps keep students on track and ensures they don’t miss a deadline or forget an important tool on the morning of the test. Start with the basics and work your way down into the important details (from what kind of pencil you need to how to study for your weakest topic). Getting a firm grasp on one step will make the rest of the decisions easier to focus on.
Decide Which Exam to Take
The SAT used to reign supreme across much of the country, but the ACT overtook it in popularity in 2012. These days most colleges are used to evaluating either exam when considering admission.
You guidance counselor should be able to help you decide which exam to take, but be sure to also check the requirements of any colleges or universities you’re applying too. Some schools have a preference and may even share the average exam score of their freshman class. This will give you a good gauge of how well you’ll need to do on the SAT or ACT to land a spot at your dream school. Some prominent schools have begun doing away with the test requirement for admission. Take the time to carefully evaluate the requirements of your top schools before deciding on your exam course of action.
Some states require all graduating high school students to take the ACT or SAT as a school exit exam (including Connecticut, Colorado, Minnesota, Michigan and Washington D.C.). In these cases, unless a university specifically requests the other exam or you feel you may do better on the other one, the decision of which test to take is easy.
Know the Important Dates
Both the SAT and ACT is offered multiple times during the year and require pre-registration. Keeping an eye on these dates not only makes sure you don’t miss your chance to take the SAT or ACT, but also gives you the advantage of choosing which date works best for you. If you take the exam during one of the earlier sessions you also have a chance to retake it if you’re not happy with your score.
The SAT is offered in October, November, December, January, March, May and June. Registration deadlines are typically about a month before the exam, however, you can register late for an additional fee.
The ACT is offered in September, October, December, February, April and June. The regular registration deadline for the ACT is also roughly a month before your chosen exam date with a select window for late registration, also requiring a fee.
If you plan on taking both the ACT and SAT select your exam dates carefully so you don’t get overwhelmed and have enough time to appropriately study for each test.
Study, study, study
More than 80% of college admission teams rank grades in college prep courses (essentially any course a college may look at) as having “considerable importance” to college acceptance, according to a survey by National Association for College Admission Counseling. SAT and ACT test scores are considerably important to 58.3% of those surveyed. Doing well in prep classes and on college admissions tests is important to college acceptance.
While you can take the SAT and ACT more than once, doing the best you can is important to getting into the college of your choice. Some universities require you to submit all SAT and ACT test scores, even if you retested to get a better score. The better you do the first time, the better you’ll look to an admissions counselor.
Investing in an ACT or SAT prep course will keep you focused on your studies and help you prepare for the material and format of the exam. If you struggle with a particular subject area, such as Algebra 2, spend extra time focusing on that topic with drill down courses, lessons and practice tests. This is particularly important if you plan on taking any SAT Subject Tests, which the College Board notes are “an additional opportunity to show colleges what you know and what you know you can do.”
Create a Day-of Checklist
The SAT and ACT organizations are extremely strict on what can and can’t be brought into testing environments. For instance, cellphones, tablets, laptops and iPods aren’t allowed into SAT testing rooms and must be turned off and out of reach when taking the ACT – so don’t plan on listening to music during the exam. If you want to keep track of time you’ll need to wear a wrist watch. If you have a smartwatch leave it at home and opt for a more traditional alternative.
To take either exam you’ll need at least two soft lead No. 2 pencils. Soft lead generally means a pencil that you have to sharpen, not a mechanical pencil. The ACT specifically prohibits mechanical pencils. You’ll also need your printed exam ticket and a valid photo ID.
Review the exact requirements the week before your exam date so you can plan according and buy or borrow any tools you might need. Once you know what you can and can’t bring, make a list and lay out everything the night before so you’re not stressed the morning of the exam.