SAT and ACT preparation: Is there a best way to study?

By Nina Berler
05/29/2015
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Over the last few years, I have been increasingly called upon to provide SAT and ACT guidance to my students, even if those students did not originally come to me for that purpose.  While I have mixed feelings about standardized testing it surely adds to a student’s burden during the roughest times in high school ? I believe it can also be a valuable learning tool and confidence builder. So given that the SAT and ACT are part of students lives, how can they best prepare for these tests?

First, I recommend starting with materials offered by the testing organization, that is, the College Board and the ACT, Inc. True, there are many choices on the (virtual) shelves, and some are very good. However, why use another vendor or publisher when the real deal is available? I always advise my students to get the College Board’s blue books, available for both the SAT and the SAT Subject Tests. Students who are taking the ACT should get the The Real ACT Prep Guide. Only when these resources have been exhausted would I advise students to supplement with books from various publishers. (The College Board’s thick SAT book unfortunately does not come with answer explanations, but the Subject Tests guides do.)

There are more great sources available. Students taking the PSAT get their original booklet back, so why not use it as a study tool? For those taking the SAT and ACT more than once, the College Board and ACT both allow students to get their test booklets from certain test administrations. Also, both organizations make some available for free, so see those respective websites. (I am a huge fan of the SAT and ACT Questions of the Day.)

What about online resources and iPad apps? These can be very good as well. (I recently advised a 15-year-old creator of a vocab app whom I believe has a really solid chance of success.) They should rarely be used as a first resource, however, because the student does not get the look and feel of the actual test, especially since he or she cannot write all over the test. (I urge all my students, especially the brainy ones who tend to do so many math questions in their heads, to mark up their test booklet. I believe it gets them actively involved in the process. In Critical Reading, writing in the test booklet is important as well so that students can identify main and supporting ideas and make links between the text and questions.)

Depending on the student, some sections warrant more prep that others. In the case of ACT Science, for example, a student needs to run through at least one complete sample section to become comfortable with it and get a sense of the timing. The SAT and ACT essays are very doable, but I encourage students to have an inventory of leaders, favorite books, movies and TV shows before the test. Why struggle under the pressure of the clock?

Unlike the ACT, the SAT includes vocabulary in context (i.e., sentence completions) prior to the Reading Comprehension sections. I recommend that my students get Charles Gulotta’s 500 Words for the SAT and How to Remember Them Forever! Whether or not they like Gulotta’s methodology, he has a winning word list. To study, they should break the book into manageable components rather than trying to study it all at the same time. Experts tell us that is how we learn most effectively. (I often suggest to rising juniors and seniors that they take the book along on vacations and long flights.) If time permits, writing context sentences is better than memorizing the definition in a one off fashion. (That’s also the way they appear on the SAT.)

There is no student who will not benefit from preparing to some degree. Some need one-on-one help, while others can be very successful just by working on their own. Students shouldn’t cram, nor should they expect to master test taking at the busiest time of year (e.g., junior year). Rather, they should ease into the process, start early, and use summers wisely. The trick is not to make SAT and ACT prep feel like studying. In fact, I often use SAT questions in one-on-one sessions with younger students; they get experience and don’t fear the test when they are older.

Remember, SATs and ACTs are important but are just one component of the overall college admissions package, which means students and parents alike should keep the tests in perspective.  Using some of these prep tips, students will begin to think like the test maker  rather than the test taker!

Nina Berler is a College Counselor and the founder of  unCommon Apps. She has over 10 years of experience in helping students navigate the college admissions process. Nina Berler on Unigo

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