Ben Mullins

Test Day: a look into SATs and ACTs

March 3, 2019

SATs and ACTs – considered the most important tests students take in high school – are a big determining factor in college admissions. Scores, however, don’t always reflect one’s learning ability or potential as a student, given that they are not the only thing admissions officers look at when accepting students. With the correct preparation and practice, however, achieving one’s desired score can help students gain acceptance into the university of their dreams.

SAT and ACT scores are not the only determining factor when applying to colleges, college admission officers also examine grades, letters of recommendation, personal statements, and interviews. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves: The SAT and ACT matter.

Much like marathoners have to practice and prepare long before race day, SAT and ACT takers must practice consistently before taking the test. With the right preparation, you will be much more likely to achieve your desired score.

In the official SAT statistics published by the ETS (Education Testing Service), the average combined improvement of test-takers is 60 to 70 points, meaning that any improvement over 100 points is very unlikely. Similarly, while improving by 500 points is possible, it is extremely improbable; in fact, improvements of 500 points are so rare that the ETS, (those who score standardized exams), will often examine the answer sheets of students making a 500-point improvement for evidence of cheating.

The absolute best way to prepare for test day is by realistically simulating what the test will be like. Taking practice tests will not only familiarize you with the format of the SAT but also increase your stamina so you can make it through the official exam.

When practicing, therefore, it is beneficial to only use high-quality study materials. Whether that may be taking exams from past years or using online courses, it is essential to use materials that are constantly adapting to the current ways of SAT and ACT tests.

The College Board estimates that on average, students that practice taking these tests for around 20 hours within a span of approximately four weeks, will improve their scores over 115 points. The difference is notable; whereas taking pSATs can improve your score 60 to 70 points, actually studying for the tests will greatly increase your score.

Khan Academy, for example, is one of the many sites that offer free SAT prep for students. The Princeton Review, PrepScholar, and Kaplan, while not free, were the best reviewed SAT and ACT prep courses and books as of 2018, according to Scientific American, an online science newspaper.

Sticking to a study schedule is a good habit to develop. Keeping a regular routine and maintaining consistency when studying will help information become permanent in your brain, as opposed to forgetting it hours after learning it.

“We think of practice tests as a kind of dipstick that we insert into a student’s head, an indicator that tells us how high the level of knowledge has risen in there — when in fact, every time a student calls up knowledge from memory, that memory changes. Its mental representation becomes stronger, more stable, and more accessible,” said Annie Murphy Paul, a writer from Scientific American.

Similarly, for many students, time management is an issue when taking standardized tests. As of 2017, approximately 24% of students left questions unanswered on the SAT test due to struggles with time.

To improve time management, practice with a timer. Simulating the time provided on test-day when practicing will be most beneficial, and will eventually lead to the mastery of time management skills for the exam.

“If you can’t answer a question within 30 seconds, skip it. If you have time, try to go back and answer it as best you can, but otherwise, guess! There is no penalty for wrong answers, so might as well pick an answer choice,” says SAT tutor Alex Gonzalez from Victory Step Education Houston.

Another common problem students face when taking the SAT and ACT is reading the passages way too closely. For instance, students will spend time reading and analyzing unimportant information, which takes away time to answer questions. It is beneficial to simply skim the provided passage. After skimming the passage, go on to answer the questions, and once you see what the questions truly focus on, then go back and closely reread the parts that matter.  

Improving SAT and ACT scores is not an easy process; it is one that requires immense work. With sufficient motivation and perseverance, improvement of your score is extremely likely, and hopefully, acceptance in your aspired university will follow.

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