Test Prep

You've Got Test Prep Questions? We've Got Answers

Tamarcus Brown/Unsplash

If you're like most students, you're probably spending significantly more time preparing for the SAT or ACT than you spend actually taking the tests. For that reason, we hear from a lot of students who have questions as they prep for the exams. We've rounded up three of the most common questions we've received recently, and we're sharing them so you can benefit from the answers.


Question 1: What should I read to best prepare for the Reading portion of the SAT or ACT?

Answer: Reading for pleasure will help increase your reading comprehension and your speed, so the more you read, the better prepared you'll be. Abby Marks Beale, a speed reading expert and creator of the Rev It Up Reading Online Course, recommends that you focus on the non-fiction content most appealing to you. "For example, if you are interested in time management for students, choose a book about study skills that teaches this. Or if you enjoy meditation or relaxation techniques, read a book about that."

On the SAT and ACT, most of the Reading questions are based on non-fiction or factual content that is structured with the main idea in the first sentence and related ideas that follow, she notes. "Fictional stories don't follow this model, even though they are sometime easier and more pleasurable to read."

But don't forget: Both the SAT and ACT Reading sections include one reading passage of prose fiction, so don't completely ignore your reading of classic literature, whether it's for class or for fun.

Question 2. Which math classes are recommended before taking the SAT/ACT?

Taking Algebra 1, Algebra 2 and Geometry in school will help you cover the core concepts that are tested on the Math sections of both the SAT and ACT. If your geometry class includes some basic trigonometry, that will also help, since a small percentage of the questions on both the SAT and ACT Math sections do cover basic trig concepts. Having a firm grasp of algebra is especially important, as the College Board website says that the SAT "focuses strongly on algebra."

However, you will have to combine your knowledge from these classes with plenty of time spent on practice questions to get a real understanding of how exactly the above-mentioned math topics will be tested, since this will be different from what you are used to on your classroom math tests. You will need to get used to the way that each test words its questions and how the questions want you to use your math skills.

To give you a more specific idea of what you'll be facing, the College Board website states that the 55 questions of the SAT math section present the following distribution of math concepts:

  • 19 algebra questions that focus on linear equations, systems of linear equations and functions, which will ask you to solve equations and systems of equations, as well as making connections between different representations of linear relationships.
  • 17 problem-solving and data analysis questions including using ratios, percentages and proportional reasoning to solve problems in real-world situations, as well as describing relationships shown graphically and analyzing statistical data.
  • 16 questions that are referred to by the College Board as "Passport to Advanced Math" will require familiarity with more complex equations or functions
  • 6 questions that test your understanding of additional topics, including key concepts from geometry; applications of volume, area, surface area, and coordinate geometry; similarity, which is another instance of proportional reasoning; properties of lines, angles, triangles and other polygons and circles; basic trigonometry; and problems involving the arithmetic of complex numbers.
  • The 60 questions of the ACT Math section cover pre-algebra, elementary algebra, intermediate algebra, coordinate geometry, plane geometry and trigonometry. Trig is the topic with the smallest number of questions (about four or five), while pre-algebra and geometry are the emphasis of the ACT math section, with 14 questions each.

3. What's a good amount of time to spend prepping? Is there such a thing as too much test prep?

You may have heard experts recommend three or four hours of test prep a week for three or four months. Although this could be a perfect plan for you, it completely depends on your starting point and your test score goals. How much test prep time you actually need is based on several factors, including your current grade level, your learning style, your academic strengths and weaknesses, and your comfort level with standardized tests.

"Some people are naturally gifted at these kinds of tests, or have been groomed to take standardized tests from an early age," says Anna Ivey, CEO of Inline, a college application coaching firm. "Other people are starting from scratch and will need to adjust their test prep calendar accordingly."

Think about how you study for midterm exams or end-of-semester tests in your various classes at school. What's your process? What works best for you? How much time do you allocate per day or week to prepare for those tests? Have you successfully used flashcards? Do you study best on weekends or on weekdays after school? You can apply similar strategies to your SAT or ACT test prep.

Also consider how much free time you have before the test. Ivey says that while some students will have "a big chunk of free time, like a month, to focus on prep in a concentrated way, others will need to spread out their prep time schedule over a longer period of time because of other obligations in their lives. In general, most people will need more than a month to see meaningful improvements."

Ivey recommends that you start by taking a timed practice test "as a diagnostic so that you have a baseline score to use as you track your progress. You'll also use that baseline score to compare against the target score you'll need for the kinds of colleges you're most interested in."

This means you'll need to do a little research to look up the median scores for your target schools. Once you know these numbers, you can see if your practice test score is on par with these median scores or if you still need to keep at it.

And yes – you can prep too much. "When you're consistently overshooting your target score, then you can feel pretty confident that you've prepped enough," Ivey says.