The High Schooler’s Guide to SAT and ACT Prep

A good score on the SAT or ACT is a ticket to more than just your college degree — it can help you access scholarships and grants that will help you save cash in the long run. But before you start feeling the pressure, there are plenty of ways to improve your scores and save time and money throughout the test prep process. This guide will provide an insider's perspective on the best tricks and tools on the web.

Before you head to the library to crack open your books, you may be surprised to know that old-fashioned study sessions aren't as important to mastering standardized tests as most people think. Unless you know the specific methodology that test-makers employ, you'll never get a perfect score. Here are a few important characteristics to consider in the quest to become that ‘perfect test-taker':

Guess Wisely

The SAT is scored as such: a correct answer earns the test-taker one raw point, while a wrong answer removes .25 from the raw score. If the test-taker randomly guesses he or she will have a 20 percent chance —- not great odds. So, you are better off eliminating at least one of the answers through the process of elimination. By eliminating one possible answer you've cut your choices down to four, and you should get one question right for every three you get wrong — in theory.

Unlike the SAT, there isn't a penalty for guessing on the ACT. Every test-taker should make an educated guess when the answer isn't clear. Always eliminate as many answers you know are wrong, and then guess among the remaining options.

Bring a Game Plan to your Essay

Remember: you don't have time to be brilliant in 25 minutes, and the ACT and SAT essay folks aren't expecting brilliance. A good essay will be on-topic, coherent, and clearly state a position with well thought-out examples to back-up claims. Don't try to do anything fancy — just make sure its clear, simple, and easy to understand.

The Goal for Vocab

While the new SAT represents a departure from the traditional emphasis on vocabulary, studying can pay dividends on your final score. Regardless of how much you study, you'll never be able to memorize every word on the test — but cramming words won't help either, so be sure to give yourself enough time to at least become familiar with most of the list. Vocabulary-building exercises will also help you on the critical reading and writing sections. Many vocab lists include the top 100-250 words for both the SAT and the ACT; other helpful tools include this game using the College Board list.

Retake to Boost Scores?

Research indicates that retaking the SAT actually generates significant boosts in scores. According to Collegeboard 55% of high school juniors who retake the test as seniors improved their combined critical reading, mathematics and writing scores by an average of 40 points. And a small group of students, around 1 in 25, make major score improvements of 100 points or more.

Students can retake the ACT up to 12 times. Of the students who took the test more than once:

  • 57% increased their Composite score
  • 21% had no change in their Composite score
  • 22% decreased their Composite score

Value of Test Prep Services

It has been estimated that 1.5 million students annually spend more than $530 million on SAT tutoring and test prep services every year; this results in an average score increase of 10-20 points in math and 5-10 points in critical reading. Using test prep services, students are paying an average of $11.78 to raise their score one point. For some students, that boost probably doesn't seem high enough — especially considering how many free or low-cost options there are for sample tests, self-scoring, and CollegeBoard prep materials.

The Internet is full of strategies and resources for SAT and ACT test prep. This guide will direct you to the best sites to help you build your vocab and math skills, optimize your essay-writing abilities, and prepare for the unexpected when test day arrives.

Test Registration

The most important sites to bookmark are the SAT College Board registration page and the ACT registration page. You'll find information on dates, locations, and costs nationwide. U.S. citizens can get a waiver for the $52.50 ACT test fee through high school counselors.

An SAT waiver is also available for the $51 test through a high school counselor or an authorized community-based organization. Eligible waivers are often awarded to those in programs such as the Federal Free and Reduced Price Lunch program (FRPL) or federal, state, or local programs that aid students from low-income families.

Test Prep

There is no ‘perfect' way to study for a standardized test, and it will likely take some trial and error before you figure out which strategy works best for you. The following links will help you maximize your test prep sessions:

  • The College Board site has provides a wide range of study tips and tools, many of which are free. The customizable study plan is a great tool to start out as it allows students to prioritize their studies according to the number of months prior to the test. The free guide also includes test-taking tips and an official practice test.
  • SparkNotes has a great guide for both ACT and SAT test-takers. Details on scoring and test organization will give you the facts on the ins and outs of the exams. The SAT site also features vocabulary lists and games. Both study tip sections list strategies that are comprehensive, and designed to help ease your nerves as you hit the books and prepare for test day!
  • U.S. News & World Report lists a number of test prep options, including smartphone apps. All available options cost less than $20, and many are free.
  • Smart Money lists the 10 Things That Test Prep Services Won't Tell You — a good read before you take out your wallet.
  • The Princeton Review has a great SAT information resource, including a Can I Get In? function that allows students to search the scores necessary for admittance in certain schools. The site also has a timeline on registration and score return to help schedule your exam around application deadlines.

The Most Important SAT Strategy: Stay Calm

When text anxiety creeps in, try to remember that a single standardized test score is not going to define your academic or professional future. It's not worth your time to stress. In fact, a growing number of college programs no longer require SAT or ACT scores on their applications. So relax, study hard, and focus on giving your best shot on test day — it'll be better for both your score and your well-being.