SAT and ACT Study Tips

Tyson Schritter

The SAT and ACT are more similar than you might think. There are minor differences between the two tests; the ACT has a science section and the SAT has a math section that doesn’t allow the use of a calculator. But with the update of the SAT in 2016, the tests are more similar than ever.

General Study Tips

  1. Take a practice exam. One of the best ways to understand these two tests, what they’ll be like, and which test is best for you is to take a practice test. With subtle differences, you’ll find that one test is less stressful or easier for you than the other. The ACT is known for being time rigorous and organized while the SAT is a bit more ponderous, offering more time to answer each question. Be sure to take an official practice exam that has questions from previous exams.
  2. You only gain points. If there’s a question that you find particularly stressful or difficult, SKIP IT! On both the SAT and the ACT, you gain points for correct answers but are not penalized for incorrect or blank answers. If you’re not sure, don’t waste time, just guess and move on.
  3. Be aware of difficulty. In the math section on the SAT and ACT, the questions get more difficult as you work through the section. But remember, the difficult problems are not worth more points. Your time is better spent making sure the majority of the problems are solved correctly than trying to figure out the answer to the last few, most difficult problems.
  4. Don’t waste time. Yes, yes, we know this is obvious advice, but every single second counts on these tests. Every moment is another question answered. Try to not waste time daydreaming, reading directions, doodling, and of course, make it back from breaks on time. Just remember, on the ACT reading section, you get 52 seconds per problem. That minute you were late, yeah, that’s one problem not answered and points not gained.
  5. Get rid of obviously incorrect answers. The more practice questions you read, the more obvious the incorrect answers will become. By eliminating one or more incorrect answers, you improve your chances of choosing or guessing the correct answer.
  6. Read carefully. Test question writers are not purposefully out to get you, but they do know that time-pressure can make readers hasty and aren’t above exploiting that. Make sure to read each word carefully and to fully understand the question being asked.
  7. Practice your weakest area. Though you should practice test questions from all areas of the test, it’s important to not ignore your weakest area. There are likely easy ways to learn a new skill that will significantly improve your score.
  8. Buy a study guide. Study guides can be extremely useful when preparing for these tests. Before purchasing, be sure that the guide you’re buying is reputable. If you’re not sure, stick with the official guide.
  9. Understand your mistakes. Taking a practice test will help you to learn about the test and get a baseline score, but you can take it a step further. If you review the answers you missed, you’ll start to see patterns. You may notice certain areas where you’re less knowledgeable and need to study. You might also be able to identify certain types of mistakes. Analyze each missed question to identify your mistakes. Did you misunderstand the question because you read too quickly? Were you careless in marking your answer? Did you get tripped up by time pressure? Once you understand your mistakes, you can guard against them.
  10. Don’t ignore instructions. As you work to make the most of every second, it can be easy to skip over the instructions. Don’t do this—the instructions contain information that you’ll need. Be sure to at least skim them, especially in the reading section. The instructions may contain information that sets the scene, introduces the author, or could help you to answer a question.
  11. Underline. To improve comprehension, don’t be afraid to mark on your test. When reading passages and test questions, underline the most important words and phrases.

ACT-specific Study Tips

  1. Monitor your time. This is important on both the SAT and ACT, but is most important on the ACT, which has more questions packed into the same amount of time as the SAT. On the english section, you get 36 seconds per problem; on the math section, you get 60 seconds per problem; and on the reading section, you get 52 seconds per problem. That’s not a lot of time per problem, and it’s important to stay on top of answering questions efficiently.
  2. Skip hard questions. As we’ve mentioned, time is especially important on the ACT. If you’re stuck on a hard question, move on. You can always make a guess as there’s no penalty for incorrect answers or unanswered questions, but don’t spend too much time.

SAT-specific Study Tips

  1. Use surrounding questions to check answers. The new SAT includes questions in the reading section that require you to defend your answer. The question asks you to choose the passage that best supports your answer in the previous question. This will help you to check your answers and also to find the correct answer if you’re not certain.
  2. Have a strategy for reading passages. For most test takers, reading the passages in full is not the best option as there is a lot of material to read. Consider using a strategy such as skimming the passage or going straight to the questions and then back to the passage to speed up your test taking.
  3. Answer every question. There is no penalty for incorrect answers, so it is to your benefit to answer every question. When time is running low, go ahead and fill in the bubbles for unanswered questions.

We hope that these tips are helpful to you as you begin studying for the big test, whether you’ve chosen the SAT or ACT, or both. Don’t forget, you do have the option to take both tests and see which one gives you a more competitive score.

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Do you feel prepared? Let us know in the comments!

More Helpful Resources:

High School Checklist: Freshmen through Senior Year

FREE College Readiness SAT/ACT Test Prep Resources

When You Should Take the SAT & ACT

Why You Should Take the ACT More than Once

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