This past weekend, I received a text from a friend whose daughter had only just found out that her in-school SAT was scheduled to be held in two weeks.
It seems like this shouldn't happen, right? After all, both the ACT and SAT occupy a fairly substantial space in our collective consciousness.
The tests are featured prominently in the news almost weekly. Ask a college-bound student what they're dreading most about the admissions process, they'll probably say taking the ACT or SAT. Ask someone who went to college in the US what her scores were and she likely knows them off the top of her head even if they were held decades ago. She may even remember a funny or harrowing story about that day.
For instance, after taking my second SAT, I had to ask a friend's dad to jump my car because I had left the lights on the entire time. Oops!
With such visibility, it feels like the tests couldn't possibly get lost in the shuffle. But it happens often. A lot more than you'd think.
I've been fielding panicked texts and emails for over a decade now. Whether the counseling office notified you later than you'd like that a test is around the corner, a registration deadline caught you off-guard and now you're scrambling, or some other this-is-just-how-life-goes-sometimes frustration kept you from being in the position to be as prepared as you want to be, I have great news for you.
Here are 7 steps you can take to prepare fast for the ACT or SAT and feel as calm and confident as the kids who started preparing months ago.
Step 1: Get your mind right.
Mindset is a critical piece of the testing process for any student, but students who are caught with less time often torpedo themselves from the outset because they never address the elephant in the room: this situation is less than ideal.
Time is a powerful ally when it comes to testing. But, at the risk of sounding trite, what's done is done.
You will hold yourself back from using the precious little time you have to good effect if you go round and round about what led you to having less time than you may have hoped to or focus on how little time you have.
As I ask my clock-watching students: would you rather spend your mental energy watching the final minutes tick down or use it to answer one or two more questions correctly?
The answer is clear. Control what you can control and leave the rest behind.
So sit for a moment with the fact that you cannot change what has happened, then make like Elsa and let. it. go.
Step 2: Tap into your emotions.
Many students have very emotional reactions to the idea of taking the ACT or SAT. This can be intensified when time is short.
In my experience, there are 3 common ways students react to the exams when they have less time to prepare.
Some students blow the exams out of proportion and become so overwhelmed that they seize up. They spin like tops looking frantically for help but skitter over the surface of what's available never committing to a particular path or absorbing helpful information. Because of their nervous energy, they can't perform to the best of their abilities throughout prep or on test day.
Others have equally frenetic energy, but they pour it into completing 1,001 practice questions. The action of completing the questions makes them feel like they're doing something productive, but they don't glean any new knowledge from the experience because they don't stop long enough to thoroughly review missed questions. These students tend to test somewhat confidently and then end up blindsided by scores that don't match their expectations. While they did do a lot of work, they didn't do the right work, and that results in disappointing scores.
Still others have a negative emotional reaction but, from the outside, it's hard to see. These kinds of students retreat into apathy, covering their overwhelm with cool-as-a-cucumber nonchalance. This behavior keeps their ego safe. If they fall short of their score goals, it's because they didn't care and therefore didn't try. These students tend to do very little to prepare even though the internal pressure is mounting. This can lead to tremendous anxiety swirling just below the calm surface on test day, a recipe for a combative and unpleasant experience in prep and flat scores on the other side of test day.
I've even had a few students who were technically the second kind of student but acted like the third so that they would have plausible deniability if their prep efforts - which were substantial even if they did hide them from their parents - didn't lead to higher scores.
Remember, testing is a mindset game first and foremost. You can't see your greatest score improvements without first addressing the underlying mental and emotional stuff that bubbles up when you pick up that number two pencil.
Acknowledge where you are emotionally right now. Then leverage steps 3-7 to move forward with confidence.
Step 3: Consider the big picture.
The great news is that, no matter how you are wired, a little bit of information goes a long way towards getting back to an even-keeled approach to testing.
Make no mistake: the ACT and SAT are important pieces of the college admissions puzzle. And rightly so. They wield two awesome powers that you can put to work for your benefit: they help you gain admission to your best-fit colleges and they help you earn free tuition dollars.
But we have to keep the importance of these tests in context.
These exams are individual pieces of evidence that are part of a much larger college application. No one score makes you invincible and no one score makes you a failure. They're individual data points, and you are so much more than a number.
While we need to recognize the influence these tests can have on our college and financial prospects, we also need to keep these tests in an appropriately sized container.
They are important. They are not everything. And they do not define you.
These facts will be your ballast and will help you put the appropriate effort into your test.
We're going for the Goldilocks' Zone here: the just right amount of effort that you feel you've done your job to the best of your ability given the circumstances without tipping into the danger zones of too much or too little.
Step 4: Set an informed score goal.
Many students and their families view the tests as black-and-white experiences in which there is some score threshold above which they will have succeeded and below which they will have fallen short.
Unfortunately, this threshold score is often pulled from thin air rather than derived from research.
While you are more than a number to a prospective college, there's no denying that your test scores can help you change your future. Many of my past students have turn their tests scores into cash for college to the tune of tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars. It's incredible. And, no, such awards are not reserved exclusively for 99th percentile scorers. (More on that here.)
But you must identify the scores that the colleges you're interested in find attractive before you test. It does not serve you to find out you were just a few points away from an additional $4,000 in awards per year after you're unable to test again.
The name says it all...Higher Scores! Our son David began his SAT prep just weeks before his final attempt to raise his score. We invested in Lauren's offer and David loved her prep. He raised his score by 60 points! Those 60 points landed David an additional scholarship for $4,000! 5-star service! I'm a believer. Great job Lauren!
- To have the best chance of admission, aim for the top half of the score range your favorite colleges indicate as the averages for their accepted students on the admissions websites.
- To have the best chance of earning merit aid, look at the various scholarships and aid opportunities listed on the college's website. Many schools provide a rubric that will help you identify what a student with your GPA and a particular ACT or SAT score can earn each year.
Create a spreadsheet as you do this research before creating a prep plan. Then write down your ultimate score goal so you can refer back to it.
The delta between the score you currently have and the score you need to optimize your admission and scholarship potential will help you maintain your motivation throughout the prep process, however short or long it may be, and be confident when you proudly put your #2 pencil down for good.
It may seem silly to do this work when you're tight on time, but having clear, informed score goals from day one goes a long way towards helping you find that sweet spot of working just hard enough to get exactly what you want.
Step 5: Review the test's timing and structure.
Before you dive into the specifics of how to approach the ACT or SAT, it's imperative that you consider the bird's eye view of the exams.
Knowing the order in which the subject areas will be tested, having a sense of the time per question that you will have within each section, and knowing when you can expect breaks is imperative to help you feel grounded and calm on test day.
These free, downloadable tests will help you get the 50,000 foot view of the tests so you have a sense of how your test day will flow.
Step 6: Complete a few practice questions.
After you've taken a look at how the test day will flow, you'll want to dive in and take a closer look at the individual questions in each section.
While you can't know the exact particulars of the questions that will be asked on test day (that would defeat the purpose of the test), the ACT and SAT are fairly predictable. The test makers tend to stay on script with the styles of questions that they ask, so you should have a feel for the kinds of questions that are considered fair game.
The best way to do this is to complete a few of the questions from each section without any time pressure at all. Then, once you've completed a handful of questions, check your answers. Note which kinds of questions you tend to answer correctly and the ones that were more of a struggle.
For example, do you tend to answer straightforward punctuation questions correctly but struggle to find the right answer on the editing type questions? Or maybe you felt really confident with percentage questions but can't remember how to correctly use geometry formulas.
In order to improve your score as much as possible in a short amount of time, you'll need to invest your time heavily in the things you're already good at and leave the concepts you struggle with aside until you have more time to sort them out.
Step 7: Forget academics. Focus on strategy.
While having a sense of where you stand academically will help you decide which questions you should focus on, when it comes time to study, you'll want to leave academics alone.
When students attempt academic review on a tight timeframe, they often end up having a weaker sense of the concepts they studied than they did prior to review. I've worked with tons of kids who have gone through bootcamp style prep courses and end up stressed out, burned out, and with lower scores on the other side of all of that frenzied effort.
More is not more.
When you move too quickly and try to change too much at once, you unravel everything in the ensuing confusion and chaos - including what you were already doing well.
If you have to choose whether to study strategies or review academic concepts - as you must when you're on a compressed time schedule - focus on strategy.
- If you have less than an hour to prepare, you can use a free resource like The Insider's Guide to the ACT & SAT to get a jump on the kinds of quick-hit strategies that will help you improve your scores fast.
- If you have at least 4 hours to prepare, you could opt to take either the ACT Quick Prep or SAT Quick Prep course which dive more deeply into the strategies and mindset tactics that will help you in individual sections and throughout the test as a whole.
- If you have 6-12 weeks to prepare, consider a more in-depth program like the ACT Complete Package and SAT Complete Package programs which marry academic review and score-specific test-taking strategies.
Here's the thing: nothing works as well as reviewing both academic concepts and test-taking strategies together, but good courses that teach these side-by-side take more time because they deliver a large amount of information. In order to do this without inducing overwhelm, the work has to be spread out over at least 6 weeks, but ideally 2 or 3 months.
So, if you're short on time, firm up your mindset and commit to a less-is-more approach. Creating a strategic game plan using the free eBook or one of the Quick Prep courses will allow you to layer tried-and-true testing tactics over the academics you already know so you can test confidently on test day.
Less stress. Higher scores. Happy dances for all! 🙂
One additional point to remember is that you can take the ACT and the SAT more than once. While you should pick the better test for you from day 1, you can take that test multiple times. The resources below can help you as you decide how to move forward once you've tackled your next exam.