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7 ways to get the most out of your SAT/ACT prep
  • Calendar Aug 09, 2019
  • User Jared Wells
  • Category In Uncategorized
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Over the course of working with thousands of students the last 25 years, we’ve learned the  common threads among the students who see significant improvement in their SAT/ACT prep. A student can have the best education, but their success is about what THEY do with it.

What can students do, whatever path they’ve chosen for their test prep, to ensure that they are getting the most from the process, and you aren’t realizing, months later, that what they’ve been doing isn’t working?

Get interested

The stories we tell ourselves have a powerful influence on our perceptions. If one of the stories a student is telling himself is “The SAT/ACT is a pointless obstacle”, then what the student will find as he goes through the test prep process is many reasons he is right! That’s confirmation bias in action.

But students can put confirmation bias to work for them by creating new, positive stories about their test prep. What might a student find out about test prep if these are their stories?

“I’m building the grammar foundation I need to be an effective communicator.”

“I’m finding holes in my math foundation and filling them.”

“I’m learning how asking questions can help me find answers.”

“I’m learning active reading skills.”

“I’m practicing high quality of work.”

“I’m improving my discipline, determination, and grit.”

These are just some of the ways WE see students benefit from the test prep process (is it any wonder that we are so excited about test prep?). What a student who is actively searching for the value in the process finds might be something completely different. There is value in a reading passage and in a math problem beyond “improving SAT scores”: you just have to look for it. And a student who is looking for what is valuable, interesting, relevant, and positive about their test prep will be more active in their learning, will dig deeper, will ask more questions, and will show more determination. All things that lead to greater success on the SAT/ACT (and in life as an adult!)

Ask why, not what

A typical test prep book (or test prep course) follows a familiar pattern:

Student works through problem.

Student gets the incorrect answer.

Student is shown how to get the correct answer (via teacher, video, book, etc).

Student student nods along, and says, “Oh, I get it.” Maybe the student can now work through that problem on his or her own.

The problem with this process: THAT problem is not going to be on their SAT/ACT, so the student’s ability to answer THAT question is irrelevant.

What IS relevant is that student’s ability to demonstrate mastery of the underlying concept. The clearest way to demonstrate this is for a student to teach the concept to someone else.

What does 2^0 equal? (requires memorizing a fact, narrow application)

Why does 2^0 = 1? (requires understanding the underlying principles of exponents, wide application)

What is the correct word: “He gave the ball to [I/me]”? (uses intuition, how it “sounds”, narrow application)

Why do we say “He gave the ball to me” rather than “He gave the ball to I”? (requires understanding subject/object, parts of speech, and pronoun case; wide application)

Students should always strive to demonstrate the level of understanding in the second of these questions, because that level of mastery is needed to be able to apply the concept in a wide variety of problems.

Learn from every mistake, and capture the lesson.

Throughout a study session, a student may review many problems they struggled with. But if you ask that same student, at the end of their study session, “What did you learn?” they will struggle to answer the question. What good was the study session if the student can’t even articulate what they learned from it?

Every missed problem is an opportunity to avoid that error on the test, but if those takeaways are not made explicit and documented, they will be lost. This is especially true for execution errors (also called “careless errors”) Students should make a log of every error they make in their practice, and the lesson(s) they learned from that mistake. There is no mistake so trivial that it does not warrant analysis and documentation. Fail to log, fail to learn!

Have a goal, and work toward that goal every day.

It’s easy for test prep to drop down a list of student priorities. The student has a quiz tomorrow, an essay due on Wednesday, and a presentation on Thursday. The SAT/ACT is months away. Surely it’s fine to put practice off for a few days, right? Days turn into weeks and into months, and before you know it, a semester has been lost, and the student’s options for test dates have been narrowed.

This where goal setting comes in. Before a student begins their test-prep process, they should have a clear idea of:

Their test date, and score goals for that test date

What are the actions that need to be taken on a daily and weekly basis to achieve that goal.

A schedule that is going to ensure that they take those actions on a weekly basis.

A plan for how they will adjust when, inevitably, a week comes along and they they haven’t done the work they intended to do.

The best way to make sure that consistent progress is made is to make test prep a part of a student’s daily (yes, DAILY) routine. Even if, some days, it’s only 30 minutes, making consistent, daily progress prevents SAT prep from retreating from the front of the student’s mind.

High school students have busy schedules. What the student doesn’t schedule will not be done, and what is done will not be done well. Students should schedule their test prep in their planners. Setting a “what” and “when” intention on a daily basis is the key to consistent action.

Follow “I don’t know”s up with “I do know”s

First off, there is absolutely NOTHING wrong with saying “I don’t know”: it’s the correct answer to 99.99% of questions in the universe! It’s a fantastic answer that is at the start of ANY learning or discovery!

The problem is when the result of an “I don’t know” is a student, hands folded in lap, looking at the teacher expectantly, who waits knowledge to rain down on them. Their expectation is that they should know how to do a problem, start to finish, before they even begin. If they don’t, they need to see a teacher to get help.

Any “I don’t know” should be followed up by as many “I do know”s as the student can manage. Write those “I DO know”s down. Our experience is that, even on a problem a student feels completely lost on, the student knows a lot, and, with some encouragement, can often make much more progress than they thought possible.

Build your foundation

While students can improve their scores significantly by looking at their test-taking habits and their problem solving processes, there is no substitute for having a mastery of the tools of math and language they’ll need to use on the test.

Unfortunately, most schools in the US don’t teach grammar fundamentals (ask a high school graduate what an adverb is), they don’t teach HOW to read beyond basic literacy (which is why so many high school graduates have a tough time explaining the main idea of a newspaper article), and they move students on through math classes before students reach mastery of the concepts (if a student got a C on a math test back in 7th grade, for example, can we say that the concepts covered in that test are a strong foundation to build on?)

Every missed question is an opportunity to identify weaknesses in the student’s foundation. Students should not be afraid to “go down the rabbit hole” when they discover, upon asking questions about a problem they missed, that they can’t explain what a pronoun is or what a ratio is. It’s easy for a student to be scared or turned off by a discovery like this, but remember, “I don’t know” is a fantastic answer! “I don’t know” is curiosity, exploration, learning, growth: all fantastic opportunities!

Show your work

Every time we don’t write something down, we are taking a chance that we will forget or make a mistake. Maybe, even without showing our work, we still get it right 19 out of 20 times. Take that 1/20 chance of making a mistake, compounded over multiple steps and and entire test worth of problems, and you have a lot of mistakes that are a result of not showing your work.

Students might say, “Yes, that’s true. But this is a timed test. I don’t have time to show my work on every problem.” Our answers to that are:

  • Showing work SAVES time
  • Practicing showing your work makes you faster and better at it.
  • Showing your work is a great way to start doing something on a problem you are unsure about.
  • Saving a few seconds on an earlier problem by not showing work to gain a few seconds on a much harder problem later in the test is not a good trade-off.
  • Showing your work allows you to learn much more from your mistakes.

There is no such thing as a problem that is so simple that it will not be missed if we don’t give our full attention and effort to it, and showing work is a great way to ensure you are doing just that.


A student who wants to significantly improve their test prep scores has to do more than go through the motions. Too many students prepping for the tests sit in classes and passively let information wash over (and past) them, mechanically work through problems without curiosity and creativity, studies inconsistently and procrastinates, and generally look at test prep practice as a thing to “get over with” so they can move on to the things they’d rather be doing. 

Success requires a student who actively engages with material, gets curious, has grit, practices regularly with consistently high quality, and who believes that the work they are doing is going to make a difference.

Looking to get some guidance about SAT/ACT? Call 858.551.2650 or email to schedule a free test prep consultation.


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