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Early preparation ideas for the SAT/ACT
  • Calendar Feb 13, 2020
  • User Jared Wells
  • Category In Uncategorized
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“When should my son/daughter prep for the SAT/ACT?”

The best time to prep for the SAT/ACT for most students is summer before Junior year. By then, most students have been exposed to the vast majority of the math they’ll need for the SAT/ACT. Prepping over the summer gives a student 2+ solid months of uninterrupted prep, without the pressures of the school year, with an entire year to continue if needed based on student progress or lofty score goals. 

But I have parents reach out to me all the time asking, “What can my 8th/9th/10th grader be doing now to set themselves up for success on the SAT/ACT?” And yes there are absolutely things that students at these ages can be doing to make sure that they are “in shape” when they start their test prep program.


Some of the biggest difficulties that students have with the SAT is weak/inflexible algebra skills and forgetting skills that were learned long ago.

For students that are currently in Algebra I and II (or Integrated I or II), digging more deeply into the material can help students remember the material longer and use the material in a more flexible manner. It’s often the case that students learn material in their classes just well enough to get past the test, which can sometimes mean memorizing how to get through problems. This leads to confused students when they sit down to take an SAT and struggle with algebra problems

Similarly, it’s also the case that many students who start SAT prep have forgotten arithmetic, percentages, ratios, fractions, and many more topics covered in elementary/middle school. These concepts need to be reviewed and reinforced in order for the students to be successful on the SAT/ACT.

What to do: Here are a few great enrichment resources for students who want solidify their math foundation

ALEKS: ALEKS is a fantastic math assessment software that breaks a math course down into hundreds of math topics, and assesses and re-assesses students to make sure they are learning AND retaining. It’s great for reviewing concepts that students have seen before, and breaks the course down into mouse-bites that a student can do in less than five minutes.

Exeter: Exeter Academy is a school in New Hampshire that has a unique math curriculum, which they make available for free online. In the Exeter math curriculum, students are given a textbook that is nothing but hundreds of challenging word problems, and the student collaborate on and present problems, with support from the teacher. While some students find this method of learning math frustrating, Exeter is a fantastic supplement to a typical math curriculum. Once the student has learned the basic skill, looking at challenging problems and trying to figure out how to apply that skill will help solidify and teach flexibility in problem solving, both of which are vital for the SAT.


Practically every student who comes in to do SAT/ACT prep with us has a very weak grasp of English grammar/mechanics. They don’t know their parts of speech, sentence structure, punctuation rules, etc. This is, unfortunately, just not something taught in middle and high school, leaving students taking the SAT/ACT without the grammar foundation they need to succeed.

What to do: There is no substitute for a structured course of study, especially because this isn’t a review of material that the student is already familiar with: for most students, this is largely brand new material. The key is that it is not enough to read and understand. Student need to practice and solve problems as well. Here are some resources

A Writer’s Reference with Exercises, by Diana Hacker: This is a book that will serve any college-bound student well. There are a few sections that a student who is solely focussed on SAT/ACT can probably skip. This is the textbook that high school students should, but don’t, study.

Barrons “Essentials of English”: This is a less comprehensive, but for the SAT/ACT still very good, treatment of English mechanics. It gives more detail and examples of the English mechanics, though doesn’t cover composition quite so thoroughly. This is the more readable book, in my opinion. This book does not have practice problems. It’s vital that students do more than just read. They need to put what they are learning into practice.

-Students should take notes as they read. Cornell notes work great: name of concept on the left and explanations and examples on the right. These can be later used by the student to test themselves. Examples and explanations should be in the student’s own words, not just copied from the text.

-IXL has is a great source of practice for grammar. For math, I prefer ALEKS, but IXL has hundreds of individual problems/sections dealing with all of the grammar concepts that students will face on the SAT. Students can work through IXL after or while reading one of the above texts, and when stuck, refer to one of the above texts to try to learn the underlying concept. IXL also has other programs, including math, but ALEKS is my preference for math.

-When a concept is learned, have the student grab some text and find that concept used in the text. The student should also write out their own sentences employing that concept.

The key is that the grammar problems the student works on at this learning stage should not be SAT/ACT type problems. Students need to focus on mastering one idea/concept at a time. SAT/ACT problems are for once the student has developed comfort with grammar concepts.


This is the most straightforward: the student needs to read. More than that, they need to improve the quality and speed of reading. Many student have over the years built up detrimental reading habits. Reading something that they aren’t motivated to read, and further, which there is no real consequence (at least immediate) to understanding it well, can just reinforce the unhealthy reading habits. So the focus should be on building better reading habits, and reading shorter passages that are like what they’ll read on the SAT/ACT. Here are some ways to do that.

  1. Newspaper subscription: Newspaper subscriptions are an inexpensive way to bring frequent and various non-fiction reading material into the home. News, science, arts, and editorials are all types of reading they’ll be expected to do on the SAT.
  2. Literary magazines: This is a way to bring in short fiction into the home. Here is an article with some examples.
  3. Reader’s Digest is another resource with short articles and stories on a variety of topics.

Try to schedule family reading time a few times per week (or every day if possible) that is divorced from class materials. Talk with each other about what you read, what you liked and didn’t like about it. I know that it can be tough with schedules, but building a reading habit that lasts a lifetime is worth it (and I bet that you would enjoy creating some time to read with your family as well!)

Students should be encouraged to write in the margins of the articles they are reading, and try to write a sentence or two about the main point(s) of each article. It’s vital that they stay active as they read, and not just passively move their eyes across the page.

In addition, they should be reading articles from a variety of sources, fiction and non-fiction, on a variety of topics. Try to keep it to print (or kindle!) It’s easy to get distracted by computers and tablets.

Writing a journal entry about their opinion or reaction to what they’ve read can also be a good way to clarify what they did and did not understand about the passages they’ve read (and it will encourage them to investigate and think about what they didn’t understand

Final thoughts:

They key is consistency. A student in 9th grade that spends an hour on each of these sections per week is going to head into their SAT prep in Junior year in a much better position than they would have otherwise. But it’s easy for these longer-term objectives to get pushed back as a result of reacting to day-to-day emergencies at school. This is time that needs to be planned and scheduled, just like sports, music, or other extra-curriculars.

If you are looking for someone to support your student in longer-term test prep, give us a call at 858.551.2650 or email!


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