Don’t let your teen wait until the day of the test to discover what’s covered and what the questions are like. Your child can decrease test-day anxiety by becoming familiar with the test format and answering practice questions. But real test prep can begin years in advance. Generally, your child should:
Take challenging courses
Encourage your child to take academically rigorous classes in high school. Both the SAT and ACT are designed to test students on the topics they’re expected to learn through regular instruction in school. The more your child masters her fundamental coursework, the better prepared she will be for college admissions tests. Despite their differences, the SAT and ACT both measure skills learned in the years — not weeks — before test day.
Strong reading skills are perhaps the most helpful way to improve your student’s score on all sections of the ACT and SAT. Both tests have designated sections to test your teen’s reading skills, but being able to read quickly and analyze challenging text will help students improve their scores on the SAT math section and the ACT science section, too.
Get familiar with the test format
Taking tests is a skill. Developing test-taking strategies and having test-taking experience can boost students’ scores. Since both tests are timed, proper test-taking strategies can help your child make the most of every minute. For example, if your child doesn’t know the answer to a question, it’s best to eliminate as many of the wrong answers as they can and make an educated guess based on the process of elimination. If your child runs out of time on a section, they should make sure to bubble in a random answer for each remaining question. On both tests, guessing can only help: unlike in years past, an incorrect guess no longer results in penalties on the SAT.
Take advantage of free test prep options
Fortunately, high-quality test prep resources are increasingly available for free online. The College Board, which provides the SAT, partnered with Khan Academy to offer free personalized SAT test prep online. Khan Academy can help your child create a personalized SAT study plan targeting the areas your child needs to work on that includes video lessons, practice questions, and full-length SAT practice tests. Students can even use the service to study on the go by downloading an app to their smartphones or tablets.
ACT offers free resources including a study guide and sample questions, which students can access by creating an ACT Profile or reviewing free questions and content descriptions for each ACT section: English, math, reading, science, and writing. More free online practice — including full ACT and SAT practice tests — is available through Kaplan Test Prep.
You can also check to see if there are any free test prep classes or proctored practice tests in your community. Many libraries, universities, community colleges, and high schools offer free or inexpensive test prep programs. You can learn about local opportunities from your student’s high school guidance counselor or at the local library.
Do homework before paying for SAT or ACT prep
Test preparation is big business, and there’s no shortage of options. (Related: Read Cracking the code on college admissions tests.) Students can receive one-on-one tutoring in person or online and/or enroll in traditional test prep classes. Since commercial test preparation services can be expensive, it’s important to research their potential to help your child before you sign up.
When thinking about test prep options, consider how your child studies best. While free online options help some students increase their scores, others benefit from the structure of in-person instruction. One-on-one tutoring can be particularly beneficial for students who need to work on specific subject areas. Alternatively, group classes provide a comprehensive overview of the test, with personal assistance when needed.
If you decide to pay for test prep, make sure you are getting the most for your money. Test prep companies Kaplan and Princeton Review offer money-back guarantees if your child’s score doesn’t increase after taking their classes. However, neither company guarantees that your child’s score will increase by a certain number of points. You should also note that spending money on test preparation won’t be worthwhile unless your student puts in the time and effort to study.
Find out how colleges weigh tests
Test scores are just one part of your child’s college applications. College admissions officers emphasize that they holistically evaluate each applicant. That means they focus on factors beyond test scores, including high school grades, extracurricular activities, an applicant’s personal statement, and recommendations from teachers and counselors. An increasing number of colleges are even becoming “test flexible,” which means students can submit alternatives to the SAT or ACT. Other schools are “test optional,” which means they do not require standardized test scores at all. A full list of test-flexible and test-optional schools is available on FairTest.org.
Colleges also differ in the way they use test results in making admissions decisions. Some colleges, for example, will look at an applicant’s highest math and reading scores even if the student earned them in two different test-taking sessions. Others will average the scores if a student takes a test more than once or look only at the highest score earned in a single session.
Make a test timetable
Students usually start by taking the PSAT and/or PreACT in their sophomore or junior years. (Read more about deciding if/when your child should take the PSAT.) These tests, administered by your child’s high school, don’t count for college admission, though juniors who score well on the PSAT can qualify for college scholarships. Instead, taking these tests can help your child become familiar with the nature of the tests and develop a study plan.
Students typically take the SAT or ACT in the spring of their junior year of high school. By then, they have completed most of the coursework that will help them on the test, and they can still retake the tests in the fall of their senior year if they feel they can improve their scores.
When scheduling a test date, consider when your child will have time to prepare and whether results will be available before college applications are due. You should also check to see if any colleges on your student’s list require SAT Subject Tests. These tests measure a student’s knowledge in specific subjects, such as English, math, biology, or a foreign language. They cannot be taken on the same day as the main SAT test, which you’ll need to account for when developing your child’s testing timetable.
If your child takes the SAT or ACT more than once, they can choose which test scores to send to colleges. Many admissions officers say they only look at the test with the highest score. You can learn about the policies at different colleges by asking your child’s guidance counselor, checking college websites, or asking an admissions officer.
Research shows that students can often — but not always — improve their scores by retaking college admissions tests a second or even a third time. (Related: Read Why your teen should retake the SAT or ACT.) Taking the time to study before retaking either test will improve your child’s chances of getting a higher score. But experts also caution against taking the test over and over unless a student has a solid reason to believe they can significantly improve their results. In addition to being expensive, test prep and testing take time a student might otherwise invest in improving other elements of their college application, like their college essays, extracurricular involvement, and grades.