By Meri Kock
While students are looking forward to the approaching end of the school year, juniors and some seniors may already be thinking about the fall ACT and SAT tests. Some seniors may have tried both tests during their junior year and want to give it one more try. Juniors need to take the tests in the early fall. Others may find a few hours here and there during the summer, in between some fun and perhaps a summer job, to use a test prep to learn what the tests look like and how questions are asked on these tests.
1. Online registration is the way to go! Both ACT (www.act.org) and the College Board for the SAT (www.collegeboard.com) have fantastic websites to use for registration and so much more. They prefer online registration over the paper forms whenever possible, but you will need to have a credit card, debit card, or fee waiver voucher in order to pay for the test fees ($34 for ACT, $49 for SAT). In addition to registration and registration deadlines their websites allow you to see your scores quickly, order official score reports to be sent to colleges/universities, work on test preparation, order test preparation materials, and more.
2. To write, or not to write? The ACT has an optional writing portion where students are given a prompt and then a specific time period to write an essay based on that prompt. Since it’s optional, who should sign up for it? The answer is it depends. Check with the universities you’re planning to apply to for admission, and if they require it then take it. If they don’t, then why spend the extra $15.50 for the essay?
3. Should you subject yourself to SAT subject tests? The SAT has something called subject-matter tests covering 20 different subject areas. These tests are given on different test dates than the general SAT and have an additional fee of $49 per test. Who should take those? The answer, again, is it depends. Most universities do not require the subject tests, but some highly selective universities do. Additionally, some specific colleges of study within a university may require them. The best thing to do, as mentioned above, is check with your particular university. If they don’t require them, then why spend the extra money? If they do require them, then be certain to take them.
4. The best way to study for the ACT/SAT? Do your homework! If you study for your classes, do the best on your assignments and projects that you can, and really strive for understanding the material and not simply completing the assignments, then you’ve done the best possible preparation for earning high scores on these high stakes exams that you can.
5. But what about all those huge test prep books? Are they worth it? Frankly, yes, but only if you use them correctly. Many of my students invest a bunch of money in one or more copies of test prep books that are available at bookstores, and then use them to decorate their desks or bookcases. If you don’t open the book, it can’t help you. That’s the first mistake. The second mistake is they skip all the boring reading and go straight to the practice tests. Wrong, wrong, wrong. All that boring reading is there for a reason, so read it! The first few chapters will give you the general layout of the test, test taking strategies, information on the types of questions and content to expect, and the rules and regulations that the test administrator will follow. Knowing all of this in advance will help you go into the test from a place of knowledge rather than a place of mystery.
6. Isn’t online the way to go in the modern era? Yes, of course, there are a myriad of online test prep resources. If you purchased one of the behemoth books there was probably a CD or an access code for you to use for online test prep. Look for free resources; there are a bunch of them out there. Just make certain they’re preparing you for the most recent version of the ACT/SAT. I recently took the GRE and spent hours preparing for it through a usually reputable online resource only to find out that the GRE had changed formats a few months prior to my decision to take it and the online resource hadn’t caught up yet. The sections I had worked so hard on were no longer part of the GRE. Be careful, be aware, and be smart.
7. Do those prep courses that cost hundreds of dollars really help? Possibly. What I usually learn after a few of my students go through one of those courses is that the instructors are basically walking students through one of those big test prep books. Sometimes they’re giving them extra tips and test-taking skills, but if the student had enough self-discipline to work through the book themselves they may have learned the same thing. Please understand, I am not saying ALL prep classes are like that, some go much further in depth into subject matter, analysis of reading passages, and develop student’s academic skills farther than they were initially, but not all do that. Ask a lot of questions of the instructors and businesses about their strategies, approaches, materials used, and talk with friends/neighbors/classmates before writing a great big check.
8. Get yourself into the “zone.” Have you ever competed in an athletic event, performed in a recital or production, took a test, completed a project, and you were in the zone? Professional athletes talk about being in the zone quite a bit. You can get yourself into the ACT/SAT zone as well. Just think back to one of those times when you felt strong, confident, self-assured, and whatever you were doing came with ease and you nailed it, whatever “it” was. What things did you do leading up to that extraordinary display of your excellence? Chances are you prepared, practiced, rehearsed until it was second nature. You were rested, ate healthy foods, and took time to get your mind focused. A few deep breaths to relax, a few quiet words of self-encouragement, and an attitude of “look at how awesome I can be,” you were off to the races. Use that same strategy for the ACT/SAT and you’ll have a great start.
9. Know where you’re going before you get there. One of the worst ways to walk into the ACT/SAT is tired, frustrated, and angry because you got lost on the way to the test center. If you are going somewhere new and if you have the time, actually drive to the test location, find the exact building and hopefully the exact room, at least the day before the test. Having this level of familiarity of where you’re going will lower your anxiety level and take away one of the things that might go wrong. If you can do a practice run by the actual test location, be certain to leave significantly early enough to get to the test location on time. Early is better.
10. It’s a cliché for a reason. You know you’ve heard it a million times before, but people still say it because it’s true. Be certain to get plenty of rest, eat a solid breakfast that includes some protein, use the restroom before going into the test, wear very comfortable clothing, and go into the test ready to show off everything you know. Remember, you can take the test more than once, but relax and do your best each time. Things tend to work out in the end.