10 Tips for Taking the SAT or ACT

By Sean Guo

Taking a standardized test can seem like a daunting task, but here are some tips that have worked for students prepping at LAS workshops.

Focus first on content, then on process
The first step is to know the content of the test.  90% of the SAT Math section, for example, consists of Algebra I, Algebra II, and Data Analysis questions.  Once the types of questions have been understood and the areas of improvement identified worked on, then the content of the test has been more or less dealt with.

The harder step is then understanding how to master the process of test-taking.  This is more frustrating and is often what separates test-takers. Most test-takers know the content of the SAT and can recite the Pythagorean Theorem or the quadratic formula, but it’s possible and often the case that students can know all the material, yet miss questions for one reason or another.  This category of mistake is a process error and takes many forms that require deep analysis and insight to uncover.  The rewards for mastering the process of a standardized test are immense.

Focus first on accuracy, then on time
There is no point in being fast at a test if you are getting all the questions wrong, so the primary goal at first is to answer questions accurately with an unlimited amount of time.  Once students are answering questions consistently, then we work on speed.

Work on areas of improvement, but don’t forget to strengthen the strengths.
There is definitely benefit in focusing a lot of your studying on areas that need improvement.  However, strengthening a strength on a test can also have many benefits.  For example, if you are scoring a 30 in reading and a 22 in math, it might seem natural to spend most of your time working on math questions.  However, incorporating a healthy amount of reading practice in addition to math can lead to a higher score in reading while boosting confidence for the rest of the test.  You can raise your reading score to a 33 or 34 while giving more of a cushion for the math section. Plus, it will relieve overall test anxiety.

If you are narrowing down to two answers, then one of the answers is probably a distractor.
Many test-takers get stuck between two choices and each choice seems equally compelling.  By knowing the characteristics of what a distractor is, often times you can end up choosing the right answer.  Some characteristics of distractors are answers that are too extreme, too narrow in focus, or incorrectly replace one word that changes the answer.

Spend ample time on error analysis
It might seem more beneficial to do as many practice questions as possible and make that the focus of your preparation, but the greatest gains we have seen occur when students understand the root causes of their errors. Through error analysis, students not only understand the test in a deeper way, but also recognize their own patterns of reasoning. Correcting a mistaken assumption often leads to great gains in content and process knowledge.

Take a pre-test and a post-test
A pre-test establishes a baseline for where you are and taking a post-test after a period of study can show what areas were most helped through your study and can often be a source of encouragement.  My students almost always see gains across the board from the pre-test to the post-test and this allows my students feel confident about their progress and have greater perspective of the impact of their work.

Making a mistake is a golden opportunity
It feels good to answer questions correctly, but the greatest gains occur when questions are answered incorrectly and then understanding why those mistakes were made. By anticipating previously flawed lines of reasoning, students turn mistakes into strengths.

Through this error analysis process, students turn mistakes into strengths as they can anticipate their previous flawed line of reasoning and have a different way of approaching a question, a recircuiting of the brain.

Answer the question!
So many times, I ask my students when they get a question wrong: did you answer the actual question?  Students can recite an entire reading passage and know every point an author makes, but forget a “Not” in the question or choose to answer a question of their choosing rather than the one stated.  This happens often in math as the test often has a specific format that the answer has to be in. 

Focus first on sprints, then entire sections, then transitioning between sections
Focusing on smaller chunks of questions allows for greater examination of thought processes and allows for intense study of individual questions.  As the student grows in content mastery, then the student should take longer and longer chunks of the test to allow for simulation of test dynamics and to work on process errors that often do not show up when just answering questions individually.

Focus first on targeted questions, then on summative questions
By focusing on a specific type of question, just as focusing on a specific exercise, content issues can be examined and students can understand the depth of a particular section of the test.  For example, working on 10 Heart of Algebra questions can allow students to really focus on lines, slope, and systems of equations.  Once students have mastered the content of targeted questions, students should do questions that are summative in nature, consisting of a mix of questions to simulate the actual test. Through summative questions, identifying the topic being tested becomes important.

All of our standardized test prep workshops are based on LAS’s evidence-based approach to learning. For more information about the types of workshops we offer, click here.

Upcoming Crash Course Workshops include:

ACT Crash Course for February 10 ACT
SAT Crash Course March 1 & March 3

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