Preparing for Standardized Tests: SAT and ACT Tips for US Students

Standardized tests like the SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test) and ACT (American College Testing) are significant milestones for high school students in the United States, often playing a critical role in college admissions. These exams assess a student’s readiness for college-level work and are used by many colleges and universities as part of their admission criteria. Proper preparation is key to achieving the best possible scores on these tests. In this article, we will provide valuable tips and strategies to help US students prepare effectively for the SAT and ACT.

Understand the Test Structure

Before delving into specific preparation strategies, it’s essential to understand the structure of the SAT and ACT:


  • Sections: The SAT consists of three main sections: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW), Math, and an optional Essay section.
  • Scoring: The SAT is scored on a scale of 400-1600, combining test results from the EBRW and Math sections. The optional Essay is scored separately.
  • Duration: The SAT (without the Essay) takes 3 hours, while the SAT with Essay takes an additional 50 minutes.


  • Sections: The ACT has four sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science. There is an optional Writing (Essay) section.
  • Scoring: Each of the four main sections is scored on a scale of 1-36. The Writing (Essay) section is scored separately.
  • Duration: The ACT (without the Writing section) takes about 2 hours and 55 minutes. With the Writing section, it takes around 3 hours and 35 minutes.

Create a Study Schedule

Effective test preparation requires careful planning and time management. Here’s how to create a study schedule:

  1. Assess Your Starting Point: Take a practice test for both the SAT and ACT to gauge your baseline scores. This will help you identify areas that need improvement.
  2. Set a Target Score: Determine your target score for each test based on the admission requirements of the colleges you’re interested in. Research the average scores of admitted students to these institutions.
  3. Allocate Study Time: Divide your study time between the different sections of the SAT and ACT. Focus more on areas where you need improvement.
  4. Regular Practice: Consistency is key. Dedicate a specific amount of time each day or week to test preparation. Create a study schedule that suits your other commitments.

Choose the Right Study Materials

Selecting the right study materials is essential for effective preparation. Here are some resources to consider:

Official SAT and ACT Guides:

  • The College Board, which administers the SAT, and ACT, Inc. offer official guides that contain practice tests, sample questions, and test-taking strategies.

Test Prep Books:

  • Many publishers, such as The Princeton Review, Kaplan, and Barron’s, offer test prep books specifically designed for the SAT and ACT. Look for books that include practice tests, explanations, and review content.

Online Resources:

  • Numerous websites and apps provide free or paid SAT and ACT practice materials. Some popular online resources include Khan Academy (SAT),, and Magoosh.

Tutoring and Classes:

  • Consider enrolling in test prep classes or working with a tutor, either in-person or online. This personalized approach can be highly effective for some students.

Master Test-Taking Strategies

Effective test-taking strategies can significantly improve your SAT and ACT scores. Here are some essential strategies:

Time Management:

  • Both the SAT and ACT have time constraints for each section. Practice time management by setting time limits when taking practice tests and stick to them.

Skip and Return:

  • If you encounter a challenging question, don’t dwell on it for too long. Skip it, answer easier questions, and return to the challenging one if time allows.

Process of Elimination:

  • Use the process of elimination to narrow down answer choices, increasing the likelihood of selecting the correct answer.

Essay Planning:

  • For the SAT and ACT Essays, create a clear thesis statement, develop a structured argument, and provide examples and evidence to support your points.

No Penalty for Guessing:

  • Both tests do not penalize you for incorrect answers, so it’s better to make an educated guess than leave a question blank.

Review Your Work:

  • If time allows, review your answers in each section. Check for errors, missing questions, or skipped items.

Take Practice Tests

Practice tests are an essential part of SAT and ACT preparation. They help you become familiar with the test format, pacing, and content. Here’s how to effectively use practice tests:

  1. Start Early: Begin taking practice tests well in advance of your test date to identify areas that need improvement.
  2. Simulate Test Conditions: When taking practice tests, mimic the actual test conditions as closely as possible. Use a quiet space, time yourself, and avoid distractions.
  3. Review Mistakes: After completing a practice test, thoroughly review your mistakes. Understand why you got a question wrong and learn from your errors.
  4. Track Progress: Keep a record of your scores for each practice test. This will help you monitor your progress and identify areas where you’re improving and where you need more work.
  5. Take Full-Length Tests: Occasionally, take full-length practice tests to build endurance and simulate the test day experience.

Focus on Weak Areas

Identify your weaknesses and allocate extra time to improve in those areas. For example:

  • If your math skills need work, dedicate more time to math practice questions and study resources.
  • If you struggle with reading comprehension, practice reading and answering questions about complex texts.
  • If time management is an issue, practice pacing yourself during practice tests to finish each section within the allotted time.

Stay Healthy and Manage Stress

Proper physical and mental health can significantly impact your test performance. Here are some tips for staying healthy and managing stress:

  • Get adequate sleep in the days leading up to the test.
  • Eat a balanced diet to fuel your brain and body.
  • Stay hydrated on test day.
  • Practice relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, to manage test anxiety.
  • Arrive at the test center well-rested and with plenty of time to spare.

Register for the Test and Plan Test Day Logistics

Once you feel confident in your preparation, it’s time to register for the SAT or ACT and plan the logistics for test day:

  • Register for the test well in advance, as test centers may have limited availability.
  • Familiarize yourself with the test center’s location and plan your transportation.
  • Prepare everything you’ll need

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