30 Tips for ACT and SAT Standardized Test Prep

For the last 25 years, through a partnership between CEHD, Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, and a host of other organizations, I’ve conducted ACT and SAT preparation classes for under-represented high school students. Over that time, I’ve learned a lot about the best standardized test prep strategies, what works and what doesn’t.

Standardized tests like the ACT and SAT can often be stressful for students, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Through standardized test prep courses like the one I direct, students benefit from time-tested test-taking strategies that allow them to stop worrying about the testing process and start demonstrating the knowledge they possess.

What follows is a list of 30 tips for more effectively taking the ACT or SAT. These simple standardized test prep strategies are a proven way to improve a student’s chances of achieving higher scores and – most importantly – being as prepared and calm about the testing process as possible.

  1. Use a test manual. Get a test taking manual for the test you will be taking and then read the material and work the practice tests. We’ve used manuals by Barron’s and the Princeton Review in our course.
  2. Learn in advance. Before the test learn all of the critical definitions, formulas, and concepts that appear in common questions.
  3. Practice test taking. Taking practice tests help to decrease test anxiety, help with pacing on timed tests, let you experience the different instructions for different sections of the tests, and give you experience with the question types you will face on the test.
  4. Make use of online resources. Visit the websites for both the ACT and SAT. They have tips for addressing questions of the type that are on their test.
  5. Be prepared and organized. Create a schedule that allows you enough time to prepare for the test in a continuous manner but will not be a time burden. Being well prepared is the best way to reduce test anxiety.
  6. Come equipped. On the day before the test you should gather everything you’ll need: the admission ticket, a valid form of photo identification, several #2 pencils, a calculator with fresh batteries, a watch and a high-protein snack. Knowing that your materials are ready will give you a sense of calm and allow you to sleep better.
  7. Don’t cram the night before the test. The best thing to do the evening before the test is to get a good night’s sleep. It’s time to get in test mode — calm, rested, confident, and ready. Pulling an “all-nighter” will prevent you from performing at your best. If you’ve maintained a reasonable test preparation schedule, you already have the knowledge you need.
  8. Dress in layers. The climate in test centers can vary from sauna-like to frigid. Be prepared for both extremes and everything in-between. You need to be comfortable to do your best.
  9. Arrive early. You may want to scope out your test location before test day to ensure that you know where you’re going. Getting to the test should be the least of your concerns.
  10. Read and follow directions. It is important to follow directions. One thing we emphasize in our test preparation course is knowing the instructions for each section of the test. You should not be seeing them for the first time on the actual test day.
  11. Relax. Your attitude and outlook are crucial to your test-day performance. Be confident.
  12. Preview the exam. After the test begins, spend some time to take note of questions which seem easier, setting time limits for yourself and getting settled.
  13. Set goals for time, and pace yourself accordingly. Always bring a watch and allocate time according to the relative worth of questions. For instance, if there are 60 questions and you have one hour, you have one minute per question. Adjust your speed continuously as you work to ensure finishing. Try to save a few minutes at the end for review and revision. Test practice under timed conditions will help you with pacing.
  14. Start with questions you can answer readily. Don’t waste time laboring over troublesome questions at the start. Play to your strengths and be sure to get credit for items you know well. It is your strengths that will get you the majority of your points. As the great basketball coach John Wooden once said, “Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.”
  15. Read each question carefully; twice if necessary. Avoid jumping to conclusions about what you think the question asks and be sure to read all of the alternatives. Answer “A” may be correct, but it may not be the “best” answer. If you read hastily, you may also read the question incorrectly. Carefully reading a subsequent alternative answer may help you see your error.
  16. Plan the essay. Do some planning before writing the essay; you will be instructed to do your prewriting in your Writing Test booklet. You can refer to these notes as you write the essay on the lined pages in your answer folder. Organization is important; an outline may be useful.
  17. Don’t waste time. You have a limited time to attempt to answer every question. Avoid distractions and stay focused on the task at hand.
  18. Manage anxiety. If you begin to feel anxious take deep breathes. If you are prone to test anxiety, you may wish to learn stress reducing techniques in advance.
  19. Don’t spend too much time on one question. Each question is worth the same number of points. If a question is confusing or too time-consuming, don’t lose your cool. Instead, move on to greener pastures. You can come back to hard questions if you have time at the end of a section.
  20. Guess aggressively. If you don’t know an answer, don’t leave the question blank or guess randomly. Eliminate the choices you know are wrong, then make an educated guess from the remaining options (the SAT will eliminate its penalty for guessing starting in March 2016).
  21. Be careful filling out the answers grid. Make sure you’re filling in answers next to the right numbers and do so completely and neatly, while staying in the bubble. Note that the ACT helps you stay on track by varying the response set (A-E vs. F-K [omitting I]). Correct “bubbling-in” the answer should be practiced. Watch for stray marks, incomplete erasures, damaged answer sheets, bubbles in the wrong place, etc. In a small study for just one test, we found at least one bubbling error in 20% of the tests we scored.
  22. Detailed calculations are generally not needed. Don’t get carried away with detailed calculations. If the question seems time consuming, look for a trick or a shortcut. If it takes too long, you are not solving the problem optimally. None of the questions measure your ability to calculate.
  23. Be conscious of question wording. Items may be worded in unfamiliar ways: colloquially, technically, by example or by analogy. The difficulty of a test is often influenced by vocabulary. Try your best not to be thrown off by obscure words, overly technical terms or secondary meanings.
  24. Attractive foils/common errors. You still need to be cautious even when your answer is given as one of the alternatives. A good foil is often based on common misconceptions and/or common errors. Thus, if you are wrong, your response might still be there. In contrast, strange incorrect answers are not usually included with the responses. A person with a strange answer may have an opportunity to try again, since the response they generated is not listed suggests that it is wrong. In our SAT and ACT prep classes, we give students resources for common English errors – the Word Smart manual and a link to this very helpful website.
  25. Beware “catch all” categories. If two of the alternatives are opposites, at least one of them is wrong – and the “catch-all” categories of “all of the above” or “none of the above” are usually also wrong.
  26. Translate double negative statements into positive ones. Reduce confusion by changing examples like “Not lacking” or “not none” to “having” and “some”. Note that these statements are often partly in the stem and partly in the choices of a particular question.
  27. Don’t get caught up on the details. When reading, don’t waste time memorizing details.
  28. Recycle through the test. After you’ve answered the questions that were easier, try the questions you could not do on the first attempt. Sometimes the answer will occur to you simply because you are more relaxed after having answered other questions. Sometimes, a previous question and/or your answer to it provides a clue to the answer of another.
  29. Don’t be afraid to change answers, but do so carefully. Remember: Your first answer may not always be the best Don’t hesitate to change answers, but only if you have a good reason for doing so.
  30. Don’t be distracted by other students finishing. Don’t let the fact that others finish before you affect your performance. Work at your own pace and use all the allotted time if necessary.
Ernest Davenport, Ph.D.

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Ernest Davenport, Ph.D.

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