Why A Practice Test Is Step One in Any Successful SAT or ACT Prep Program

Think about all the work involved in preparing for a road trip to your dream destination. 

You need to check the gas level in your car’s tank, make sure you packed snacks, and consult a GPS app or map for the best route. And all that is before you even get underway! Without this preparation, you risk getting lost, finding yourself on a lonely roadway with an empty tank, and maybe never reaching your destination. 

Your approach to preparing for the SAT or ACT shouldn’t be any different than for a big trip. A diagnostic or “practice” test is the starting-off point as simulating test-day conditions will help you decide which test best suits you. A small investment of just a few hours to answer important planning questions could yield serious dividends!


Which Test Should I Take?

The SAT and ACT are weighed equally by most college admissions staff, but they are very different tests. 

The SAT offers more time per question, but often presents more complex or historical reading passages (including U.S. History) or advanced math subjects. If precalculus is one of your strengths, then the SAT might be the test for you.

The ACT, on the other hand, is a faster-paced test that lends itself to students who enjoy contemporary reading passages or quickly recognize patterns in math equations. There is more geometry, with no precalculus. 

With these differences, it’s up to each student to choose the test that best highlights their strengths. A side-by-side comparison of practice test results should help determine which test is most likely to yield the highest score and effectively demonstrate college readiness. Students should also choose the exam that is most likely to hold their interest and reinforce their confidence. 


What Are My Strengths and Weaknesses? 

It’s not enough to take a practice test; you need to analyze the results carefully. Here are a few questions to ask yourself before you devise a study plan: 

  • Do I have content gaps? 

Did you find a particular section or subject matter in your practice session particularly tricky? Remember, time is your most precious resource when you’re writing a test. Write a “red light, yellow light, green light” list of topics that totally stump you, those that require a little tweaking, and those that feel easy.

  • Which types of questions do I find particularly challenging?

Maybe complex math calculations make you break out in hives, but analyzing reading passages feels like smooth sailing. The good news about standardized tests is that they are, by definition, basically the same every time. You can predict the number, difficulty, and type of questions you’ll encounter, and prepare strategies to tackle your shortcomings. 

  • Did I pace myself for the best results? 

If you rushed through the test and made careless mistakes, or scrambled to bubble in the last ten answers, that’s an indication you need to work on time management and improve your familiarity with the test. It doesn’t matter how well you know the content if you don’t have the time to get the answers down on paper.

  • How did I feel while taking the test?

Students should sit down and consider the level of anxiety that each test creates. For many, the ACT and SAT are a tremendous source of anxiety, and no one learns effectively under stressful conditions. Parents should work with students to minimize stress, whether it’s building downtime into the test prep process, offering much-needed perspective, or encouraging mindfulness exercises. 


When Should I Take the Test?

The SAT and ACT are each offered seven times per year. This schedule gives you a great deal of freedom if you don’t feel that you are ready to take the test. 

Be realistic when considering the aforementioned “red light” topics. If your practice test results fall short of your goals, you may want to give yourself a longer runway to pick up foundational knowledge or build new test-taking skills. If, on the other hand, you just need a few tweaks, find a closer test date and avoid the stress that accompanies over-studying. 


What’s My Study Plan and How Does It Fit My Goals and Budget? 

Once you pick a date, work backward to build your prep plan. Be honest with yourself, evaluating both your motivation level, your other commitments, and the distance between your initial scores and your goal. Commit to a plan on paper and block specific times on your calendar, whether it’s 20-minutes daily or 90-minutes twice a week. Be intentional about what you want to accomplish during each studying block. And decide how you want to prep. 

There are multiple individual or group options, online or in person, at varying price points. One of note was created by the SAT itself. For example, following criticism of elitism, the College Board worked with Khan Academy to create a free online prep course. On average, most students should take at least three months to study for the SAT or ACT.


Take a Practice Test With Us!

We believe practice tests are so crucial for success that we offer free diagnostic SAT and ACT prep tests in our D.C. office most weekends. After the test, we give students receive a detailed results report. We are happy to follow that with a phone consultation to answer any questions. Check out our schedule of practice tests here. And if you are looking for SAT or ACT tutors in the Washington, DC area, we’d be delighted to help.

Would you like to check out our guide to comparing SAT and ACT results? Sign up for our newsletter, and we’ll send it to you!

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