Most don’t know where to begin when it comes to the SAT or ACT exam. Test prep is in it’s own complex world. Here, we’ll try to answer the most common and important questions about preparing for the SAT/ACT.
The truth is, universities don’t care which test a student takes. Therefore, I encourage students to take the exam that works best for them. How do you know which test will be the better fit?
One way is to take the PSAT and PLAN exams to get a baseline score. Once you have those scores, you can look at a concordance table and see which test you did better on. If a student does equally well on both exams, choose the one you like best.
The other way is to take free diagnostic exams through companies like Test Rocker. Many private academies, like Huntington or Sylvan, also offer practice exams for a small fee.
However, DON’T take the real SAT or ACT exams to get a baseline score! I see so many school counselors recommend this route, but it’s a bad idea. Many colleges and universities still don’t allow score choice, which means the student will have to send in all of their test scores. You don’t want to send in your score from a test you were unprepared for and hurt your chances of admission later.
Students should take their first official SAT or ACT no later than the fall of their junior year of high school, which means they need to start studying for their exam in the spring or summer before their junior year. This may seem early, but if they do well on their first exam, they’re done with it! If not, they can study more and retake it in the early spring of their junior year.
If you wait and have to take the exam fall of senior year, your application for college will be incomplete until your score is received, which delays admission. Delayed admission means a lower chance of admission and a smaller financial aid offer, depending on the school. To learn more about the whole college timeline, join one of our free webinars where we talk about it in depth. Also, sign up for our email list or like us on Facebook for notifications.
Before I dive into the details of creating a study plan, it is important to note that students should only study for ONE exam, not both. Test prep can be expensive and time intensive, and since the ACT and new SAT are so similar it doesn’t make sense to put resources into both exams. By studying for one exam, your other exam score will also increase if you decide to take both exams.
There are four main study plans to choose from, each with their own pros and cons.
In-person courses are traditional test prep courses, usually offered at academies or by large test-prep companies. Some high schools also offer courses for a fee. In-person courses can be great for students who need that teacher interaction and the accountability of showing up for a class. However, there are many downsides to these courses that often outweigh the good.
First, the in-person courses tend to be much more expensive than the alternatives. These courses also require the student to be somewhere at a specific time, and with the schedules that most students have these days, it can be difficult to fit something else in.
Another big drawback that I see in these programs is that the student’s success relies heavily upon their instructor, and many courses hire teachers that received a high score on the SAT or ACT. The problem with this is receiving a good score on a test doesn’t mean you know how to teach. There is a big difference between someone who does well on tests and someone who can teach others how to do well on tests, and I find most SAT/ACT teachers that are good test takers tend to struggle with teaching.
A third drawback of in-person courses is that they go through a general curriculum, so students don’t receive specialized attention to help them overcome their individual struggles with the exam.
Self studying for the SAT/ACT is definitely the most budget-friendly option. I recommend the Dummies books, Up Your Score (available on Amazon), or Short Course for the New SAT. I have found these books to be the easiest self-study books to use, and they’re manageable to navigate for a student. Self-motivated students who can figure things out on their own can have success using the self-study method. I always recommend meeting with a tutor to go over the difficult questions that will inevitably arise. If you can’t afford a tutor, call the local library; many libraries offer free tutoring support or partner with non-profit agencies who offer free tutoring support.
Paying for a good ACT/SAT tutor can be a great option. Tutors tend to work around the student’s schedule, so it can be an easier time commitment than a regular course, and tutors also tailor the curriculum to the specific needs of the student. Of course, this is the most expensive option. Depending on the quality of tutor and the area you are located in, you should expect to pay $20-$100 an hour for a tutor. You can often hire a local college student with no experience for $20 an hour, or hire someone with curriculum development and extensive test prep experience for $100 an hour. Expect to pay for at least 5-15 hours of tutoring. Try sites like Thumbtack or Care.com to find a tutor in your area. Students should also expect to study on their own outside of their tutoring sessions.
Online courses are my favorite option overall for most students. They provide flexibility, accountability, and expertise for a very reasonable cost. Companies like Test Rocker tailor their curriculum to each student’s individual needs using their diagnostic exam, and they have over 10,000 videos that answer nearly every question you may have. Students are also assigned a coach to hold them accountable and meet with once a week, and study sessions can be broken down into times as short as 15 minutes to accommodate any schedule. You can get a discount for 6 months of access to Test Rocker using the promo code CI6MO or unlimited access for a discount using the code CIUNLTD. A basic Google search will give you a number of options to choose from.
No matter how you choose to study, make sure to give yourself enough time. I recommend students give themselves a minimum of three months to study and to spend 5-10 hours a week preparing. Of course, everyone is different, but students routinely underestimate how big of a time commitment test prep is, and how fast three months can fly by. It takes time to get familiar enough with the material to see improvements, so it’s honestly not worth studying if you aren’t going to put an adequate amount of time in.