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SAT or ACT: How to help your child get ready

There is no secret trick to getting a high score on the SAT or ACT, but there are ways you can help your child get ready for these tests.

By GreatSchools Staff

Test day is the worst time to learn what kind of questions appear on the test. Your child can become familiar with the test format and decrease his anxiety level on test day by practicing with questions like those he will encounter on the test. But real preparation begins years before. Generally, your child should:

(1) Take challenging courses

Encourage your child to take academically rigorous classes in middle and high school. The SAT is designed to measure reasoning and problem-solving skills. The ACT is designed to measure a wider range of subject matter learned in school. Although they are different tests, each measures skills learned in the years — not weeks — before the test.

(2) Read

The most effective way your child can improve his score on the reading portions of the tests is to improve his vocabulary. The best way to do that is not with flash card drills in the two weeks before the test, but by reading — books, newspapers, magazines, and, yes, textbooks.

(3) Get familiar with the test format

Taking tests is a skill, and you can help your child learn strategies that will help him on this one. For example, there is no penalty for making a wild guess on an ACT test question. On the SAT, your child will get one point for each correct answer to a multiple-choice question, zero points for every unanswered question, and a .25 point deducted for every question answered incorrectly. In other words, wild guesses aren't good strategy. Does that mean he should never guess? No, it means he needs to guess intelligently. Many test experts explain it this way: If your child can eliminate even one of the multiple choices, he probably ought to guess.

(4) Do homework before paying for test prep

Where does your child learn more about the tests? Test preparation is big business, and there's no shortage of resources, from online to group tutoring and one-on-one sessions. But commercial test-preparation services can be expensive. Test experts caution that you should be wary of any that claim your child will increase his score by a specific amount.

You should also note that spending money on test preparation won't be worthwhile unless your student puts in time preparing.

When researching test-prep options, take into account the way your child studies best. Some students benefit more from one-on-one tutoring, particularly if they need work in specific subject areas. Some benefit more from a group setting in the company of other motivated students. Others will quite happily work independently online.

There are many free or low-cost prep classes offered by local universities, community colleges and high schools. Check with your high school guidance counselor to see what resources are available near you.

Use the free online resources provided by the College Board and ACT. Other sites such as also offer free practice tests.

Whether you decide to invest in test preparation is a personal decision. Consumer Reports WebWatch, which assessed online services in 2006, concluded that costlier options are not necessarily better than free ones when it comes to online services.

The WebWatch report also cautioned parents to:

  • Confirm who runs a test-prep service before buying.
  • Make sure it's possible to get a refund if your child can't successfully log in.
  • Make sure your browser, computer and Internet connections are up to date before you enroll, or you risk paying for a frustrating experience for your child.
  • Make sure that during the registration process your child does not accidentally authorize the release of his personal information unless you approve.

Comments from readers

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"I used this article to help do my homework before buying my son any preparatory material for the SAT. The information provided was very helpful, so thank you! My son is just starting to study for the SAT and after trying to find trusted services that were paid for, I ran across a free site that seemed to have their act together. I am not sure how it remains free, but has been very helpful to my son. I would just like to let other people know because rarely do we come across a service that is trustworthy and free."
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"At our high school, we coordinated with Kaplan who offers a SAT vs ACT combo test. This is a four hour test that has section from both test. A week after the test, Kaplan will return with the test results evaluating how your student did on each section. This will help highlight on which test your students does better than the other. In the end, it is a guideline that helps you determine which of the test (SAT or ACT) your child may do better on. You can then focus on preparing for that."
"What is an average SAT Score? Is a High Schools average SAT Score of 1000 OK?"
"I wish I had known how important it is to take a scored practice test of the SAT before signing your kid up to take it in junior year. Once your kid has taken the SAT, there is little you can do to prevent colleges from seeing their score, especially since you will have to send in their SAT subject test scores. Better to have them take a sample ACT and SAT and score them, then choose which is best for your kid. With the ACT, they will send to colleges only those scores that you want them to see. Most colleges that recruit nationwide accept either ACT or SAT, so choose the one your kid does best on."
"I have a child who will score low on psat and sat but she is a B student. Should we still make her take the SAT? What other options are available to help into college?"
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"Parents should check out the FREE online test preparation service Learning Express Library, which many public libraries subscribe to. This lets students take timed practice tests for the ACT, SAT, Advanced placement exams, Catholic High School Admissions test, and many others. The test is graded online, and the student is shown which answers s/he got wrong and why. A terrific, publicly funded benefit for families who can't afford expensive prep services. To see if your local library gets Learning Express, call them or go to the libray's website. To find your library's phone or website, go to"
"The Princeton Review is offering free SAT and ACT tests all across the city on Saturday, April 28, so students can help figure out which test is better for them! Check out"
"My child was having a real hard time preparing for the SAT's. But I found a free informational site that really helped her out and it saved me alot of money (without paying for a tutor.)"
"the SAT is not a test that measures one's intelligance, therefore, why do colleges still require them unless colleges are only interested in how well their future guinea pigs are good at taking ETS tests. Furthermore, it is also noteable that, indeed, the SAT creates barriers for minorities and low-income families. "