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SAT/ACT Test-Taking Tips: Your Ultimate Guide

May 12, 2024 :: Admissionado Team

Preparing for the SAT or ACT can be a daunting task, but with the right strategies and mindset, you can tackle these exams with confidence. Test-taking is its own kind of skill. Whether you’re preparing for a school quiz or aiming for a perfect score on the SAT or ACT, effective test-taking strategies can significantly improve your performance. This article will provide you with essential tips to help you excel in your SAT/ACT exams.

Effective Study Methods

Before diving into specific test-taking strategies, it’s important to address your basic needs. Ensure you get a full night’s sleep, eat a nutritious breakfast, and make yourself physically comfortable on test day. If you experience test anxiety, practice diaphragmatic breathing to calm your nerves. Meeting these fundamental needs can enhance your focus and performance.

Develop a Study Plan

Create a long-term study plan that allows you to approach the material in different formats. Spend time each night preparing and review the material out of order. Rewriting your notes, explaining concepts to others, and completing practice problems can help reinforce your learning.

Avoid Last-Minute Cramming

Cramming for a test the night prior isn’t particularly helpful, but if you can’t avoid it, ensure you go about it in the best way. Plan to leave yourself at least six hours of sleep before the test — any less, and your performance may suffer. Don’t worry about studying too much in the morning; waking up refreshed from your rest helps you retain the information better, and you don’t want to risk oversleeping. Move to a location that limits distractions, like a coffee shop or a library. Focus on learning the big concepts, and fill in the details only if you have time; use the methods from above to help yourself really learn the content rather than just memorizing your notes. Finally, make sure to take regularly scheduled breaks to help avoid burnout.

Use Multiple Resources

Utilize various study resources such as prep books, mobile apps, and free online materials from sources like Khan Academy. Diverse study methods can help you retain information better and apply it in different scenarios.

Focus on Weak Areas 

Identify your weak areas by analyzing your performance on practice tests. Spend extra time reviewing and practicing those topics to build your confidence and improve your scores. Use study apps and flashcards to reinforce your understanding of challenging concepts.

Practice Under Real Conditions

Simulate test day conditions by taking timed practice tests in a quiet environment. This helps you get used to the pressure and time constraints of the actual exam. Review your answers thoroughly and identify areas where you can improve your speed and accuracy.

Take Care of Your Mental Health 

Preparing for standardized tests can be stressful, so it’s essential to take care of your mental well-being. Incorporate relaxation techniques, such as meditation or yoga, into your study routine. Taking breaks, staying active, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle can help reduce stress and improve your overall performance.

Maximizing Your Time on Test Day

1. Arrive Early: Give yourself enough time to relax and ensure you have everything you need for the test. Familiarize yourself with the test structure and instructions to save time during the exam.

2. Manage Your Time Wisely: Read through the entire test to understand its layout. Skip difficult questions initially and return to them later. If you have extra time, review your answers to catch any careless mistakes.

3. Bring a Watch: This might seem obvious, but it will help you to manage your time if you know how long you’ve spent on a problem and how much time you have left to complete the section. Even if the testing location has a clock, you may not be able to see it from your seat, so consider taking a watch.

Specific Test-Taking Tips for SAT and ACT

SAT Tips

1. Get Familiar with the Test: Check out practice tests so you understand the structure and instructions on the test beforehand. Make sure you know how to grid in your answers, where formulas are located, how much time you are allowed for each section, and what you are allowed to bring with you to the test. This way, you can use the time you would have otherwise spent reading instructions or looking for formulas to double-check work or think through more difficult problems.

2. Practice for Efficiency: Use one practice test to assess your comfort with different types of math questions; then, spend a week or two reviewing the concepts you had trouble with before you take other practice exams. Treat all practice exams as if they were the real test; time yourself and complete them as quickly as you can without looking up answers. Take practice tests until you can regularly finish them with time to spare.

3. Review Incorrect Answers: Use any practice test questions you missed to study from. Look up the correct answer to each one you got wrong, but don’t look up the solution just yet. Simply resolve the problem yourself until you can get the correct answer on your own. This method will help you train for thinking through the problem; simply reading through the correct solution is asking yourself to rely on memory rather than skills on test day.

4. Skip: Always remember, you can skip a question and come back to it if you’re having trouble focusing on it or remembering how exactly to approach it. And because there is no longer a penalty for answering a question incorrectly, it doesn’t hurt to guess. Another great feature of the new SAT is that there are now only four answer choices, instead of five. So if you can eliminate two choices you have a 50/50 chance of getting it right!

ACT Tips

1. Skip and Return: The ACT math section is designed to order questions from easiest to hardest. However, the difficulty of a question is subjective and varies based on individual strengths. If you encounter a difficult question, skip it and return to it later. This strategy prevents you from wasting valuable time on a single problem and allows you to maximize your score by answering the questions you find easier first. Start by quickly scanning through the section to identify and answer the questions you find easiest. This ensures you secure those points early on. 

2. Avoid Leaving Answers Blank: The ACT does not penalize incorrect answers, so it’s crucial to attempt every question, even if you’re unsure of the correct answer. Making educated guesses increases your chances of earning additional points. For questions you’re uncertain about, try to eliminate one or more incorrect answers. This improves the odds of selecting the correct answer from the remaining choices. If you have no idea about the answer, choose a consistent guessing strategy, such as always selecting the same letter. Statistically, this increases your chances of guessing correctly over random guessing. Ensure you leave a few minutes at the end of the section to fill in any unanswered questions, as it’s better to guess than to leave a question blank.

3. Translate Word Problems: Word problems can be tricky because they often contain extra information or require multiple steps to solve. Translating these problems into equations or diagrams can make them easier to understand and solve. Read the problem carefully and identify the key information, writing down the important numbers and variables. Draw diagrams, charts, or simple sketches to visualize the problem, which can help you see the relationships between different elements of the problem. Convert the words into mathematical equations, as this step often clarifies what the problem is asking you to find. Pay attention to units of measurement and ensure consistency throughout your calculations.

4. Read and write carefully: Careless mistakes can significantly impact your score. Reading and writing carefully helps you avoid these errors. Thoroughly read the instructions for each section and each problem, ensuring you understand what is being asked before you start solving the problem. Pay attention to keywords such as “not,” “except,” “greater than,” and “least,” as these words can change the meaning of the question entirely. Ensure any diagrams provided are labeled correctly and used appropriately in your calculations. 

5. Know important formulas: Unlike the SAT, the ACT does not provide a list of formulas at the beginning of the math section. Memorizing and understanding key formulas is essential. For example, know the quadratic formula, and understand when to use it. Memorize formulas for the area and perimeter of common shapes (triangles, circles, rectangles), as well as volume formulas for solids (cylinders, spheres, cones). Familiarize yourself with basic trigonometric ratios (sine, cosine, tangent) and the Pythagorean theorem.

Conclusion: The Power of Preparation

Preparing for the SAT or ACT involves more than just studying the material. It requires effective test-taking strategies, time management, and meeting your basic needs to perform at your best. By following these tips and practicing regularly, you can approach your test day with confidence and achieve the score you desire.