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Planning and preparing for the SAT and ACT is tough proposition. Let our experts make it easier for you and your student by reviewing some of the many options available to improve scores, grow scholarship offers, and get into the best college!

Is Your Test Prep Actually Working?

You’re willing to put in the work, but you’re not sure how to tell if your test prep is paying off. Well, there’s no need to worry: college admissions test prep is well-suited to measurement and the tracking of progress.

So long as you are timing your practice tests and keeping records of your progress, you should be able to see improvements — or lack thereof — right before your eyes.

Here’s a list of things you can do to keep track of your test prep progress.

Start with a Practice Test

If you’ve never taken the SAT before, then you need to take a full practice test to establish your baseline—in other words, to see where you’re starting from.

Find a place quiet and free of distractions, set a timer, and then tackle the Reading, Writing, Math and Essay sections in the same amount of time, and with the same number of breaks, that you would on test day. Then score yourself.

Once you see your results, you can use the scoring charts the College Board provides to see what you’d have scored on the SAT. Note this down. Also note down what types of questions you’re getting wrong. Did you struggle with questions about the fiction passage on the Reading test? On questions about the comma on the Writing test? With linear geometry or the Pythagorean theorem on the Math test? Make a list of all your weak spots. Now you have a study checklist.

Use this study checklist to tackle all the underlying content knowledge you need to acquire to eliminate your SAT blind spots. Spend a few hours reviewing your English textbook to master the knowledge of tone and literary technique you might need for the Reading test. Go back over sentence diagramming and the rules of punctuation for the Writing test. Crack open your geometry book and re-learn the rules of right triangles and SOH-CAH-TOA for the Math test. And, as you get a handle on each topic, cross it off your list.

If you do this consistently, over time, you’ll find there’s not a single part of the SAT that you won’t know how to handle. But this isn’t the entire length of the way you need to go to be ready for the test, or to track how you’re doing.

Stay Regular

Take practice tests consistently.

In order to do well on the SAT, you need to learn not just content, but how to take the test, as well. The more practice tests you take, the better you’ll be able to cope with the rigorous time limits for each section, and the more you’ll notice specific types of questions and traps that the test presents, and handle them properly.

With each practice test you complete, keep track of how many questions you get wrong, and use the score chart to see what score you’d get on the SAT. Whether you’re studying for the whole test, or simply a specific part of the test that you need to improve on, you’ll be able to use your practice test score, along with your baseline score, to track how much progress you’ve made.

If you’re studying well, you should see consistent improvement on the test. But, remember a couple of things.

The first is that, from one practice test to another, there’s bound to be some variation in how you do. So, don’t panic or get discouraged if you end up going down a point or two here or there. This is most likely due to the difference between one practice test and another—perhaps one particular test had Reading passages that were more difficult or less enjoyable for you to read, for example. Or you could simply be having an off day. This is an ordinary part of the test prep process and is to be expected. Don’t let that derail your studies.

The second thing to remember is, the better you do, the more difficult it will be to continue accruing points. There are only so many points on the SAT, and, at the highest score levels, the difference between a perfect score and a less-than-perfect score can be one measly question. For even the brightest and most hardworking students, completing a test perfectly, free of errors, is extremely tough. Prepare yourself for that the fact that, no matter how much you study, there are likely to be one or two questions on the test where you’ll slip up or fail to notice something. Don’t be too hard on yourself over it, and don’t go crazy trying to fight something you can’t change. Any score over a 1450 will put you in range for the most competitive Ivy League schools, so it’s not the end of the world if you don’t get a perfect 1600.

Time for a Gut Check

If your test prep is working, you should not only be scoring higher, but also feeling more confident in your abilities.

One of the biggest challenges of test day is fighting the inevitable test-day anxiety. This anxiety can result in a student getting lower scores on the actual test than he or she was getting on practice tests, sometimes by as much as 100 points. So, feeling confident and knowing that you can do it are essential things to aim for in your test prep.

A particular area where boosting your confidence will come in handy is on the Math test. You should get to the point where you feel confident you could do well even without your calculator. The equations and formulas at the start of the test, and all your calculator’s handy functions, are great resources to have on test day, but the confidence that comes from knowing a formula by heart, and being able to complete an inverse function without hitting a button, means you’re super well prepared for the test and will feel confident on exam day.

Get Familiar

Do you feel like you know the test like the back of your hand?

Your test prep is working very well if you start to feel as though you know the test in and out. Can you anticipate exactly the types of questions you’ll see after you finish a Reading passage, and know exactly what kinds of answers the test makers are looking for? Have you begun to notice the test makers’ favorite topics for the history passages (women’s rights and the women’s suffrage movement)? Or the fact that on the Writing test, you’ll always be required, at least twice, to know the difference between “its” and “it’s”? Do you have committed to memory the phrasing of questions—what it means when a question says “infer,” or when it says “according to”? Do you remember how drawing out a right triangle is almost always handy for specific types of Math questions? If so, then your test prep is working!

As said before, test prep is not just about underlying content, but also knowing how to take the test. Almost more than anything else in life, the SAT rewards hard work and consistent effort, so take heart that what you’re doing—even if you’re only improving a point or two at a time—is paying off.

Switch it Up (and Know Your Limits)

What if I get to a certain point and then just stop improving?

Don’t worry, and don’t give up studying. There are a number of things that could be going on.

One is that you need to change your focus. Perhaps you’ve been zeroed in on learning underlying content, and you’ve maxed out what you need to learn. If so, switch gears and focus on completing sections in time, or on picking apart questions to identify and rule out wrong answers. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” If doing things the same old way has stopped working, then switch it up!

If your score is stagnating, another possibility is that you’re getting fatigued. If you’re not bringing your all to test prep because you’re worn out or tired, then listen to your mind and body and give yourself a break. Take a day or two off and relax, or focus on other stuff. But then, get right back to it. There’s a difference between taking a break and giving up! Of course, it’d be nice to take an entire week or month off test prep, but you don’t have that kind of time to spare. You can take your extended vacation after you get that score you’re aiming for.

Yet another possibility is that you’ve moved from one type of practice test to another. At the time, the College Board has released only seven real practice SATs. So after you’ve maxed those out, you’re probably working with practice tests designed and written by test prep companies. Useful and essential as these tests are, they’re not the real thing, and they very well could be easier or harder than the real SAT. So if your score goes down (or goes way up) right after you switch over to these practice tests, take note of that. You might want to use the first practice test from your test prep book as a new baseline, and start measuring your progress from there.

The final possibility is, you’ve worked really hard and you’ve reached a great score for you, and there’s not any room for more improvement. Not everyone is going to get a 1600, so don’t go on a self-destructive, Captain Ahab-like quest for a perfect score if you’re not getting one with a reasonable amount of work. Pat yourself on the back and congratulate yourself for doing everything you could to get your best score possible.

Clay Cooper

Clay has scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT, ACT, PSAT, LSAT, and ISEE, among other standardized tests. He has taught and developed courses for high school, college, and graduate-level standardized tests extensively around the country, and specializes in the field. He has studied law at Georgetown University Law Center and worked in the legal field as well, for attorneys, judges, and the Tennessee Attorney General.