Test Prep

Four Tips to Help You Prepare for the SAT or ACT

Elizabeth French

There are certainly plenty of ways to prepare for the SAT or ACT. You can buy the study guides, practice online, hire a tutor or sign up for an intensive test prep course. But there are also a few bigger picture things you should keep in mind as you begin to organize your test prep efforts – and while you're deep in study mode. Here are some of our favorite SAT and ACT tips to make sure you haven't left anything to chance.


Try Both Tests

Taking a timed practice test before you begin your test prep efforts is important – this gives you a baseline score to use as you track your progress and to compare to scores for admitted students at your target schools. But it's a good idea to take a practice SAT and a practice ACT to see if one of these tests "plays more to your strengths," says Anna Ivey, CEO of Inline, a college application coaching firm. If you naturally do better on one test, then you can start focusing your test prep efforts on that test. However, if you find that your scores for the SAT and ACT are similar, Ivey recommends going with the ACT "because it's been more stable than the SAT. The SAT has gone through a lot of changes, whereas with the ACT, you have a bigger archive of older tests you can use for practice that will still be relevant to the current ACT you'll end up taking."

Know Your Roots

Did you know that Latin and Greek are at the root of over 60 percent of English words, either directly or indirectly? By knowing certain Greek and Latin word roots, you can figure out the meaning of many words in English that are new to you, including the vocabulary-in-context questions that the SAT uses to test your reading comprehension. While you might be focused on memorizing a limited list of vocabulary words and definitions for the SAT or the ACT, finding time to learn Latin and Greek word roots is actually a long-term investment, so start learning today by reading anything and everything you can get your hands on! Don't forget that you should also pay attention to any prefix or suffix attached to the root word – those few letters can really shift the root's original meaning and entirely transform the definition of the word. Start brushing up on prefixes and suffixes with this list.

Pay Attention in Class

Much of what you learn during the first few years of high school will prepare you for what you will find on the SAT and ACT. As Brad Hoffman explains, "One of the most important ways that students can prepare for college entrance exams is by recognizing that daily classroom lessons are already preparing you. You will encounter terms, concepts and ideas every day that will help you when it's time to take those tests. Those 'boring' basics are vital to your future success." You should regard freshman year as an important year during which you can establish effective study habits that will carry you through the rest of your high school career – and also help you when it's time for SAT and ACT test prep.

Relax on Test Day

It's been proven that our performance increases with physiological or mental stress -- but only up to a point. When levels of anxiety become too high, our performance takes a nosedive. Stress and anxiety don't cause us to choose wrong answers. At first, they help us to focus, heightening our senses. But once a threshold is reached, a whole series of physical and emotional processes kick in. Which is why it's important to keep that stress in check. Here are some tips to help you relax on test day from Hilary Jackendoff, a Los Angeles-based meditation teacher and test anxiety specialist who runs MeditationChick.com:

  • Wake up 60 to 90 minutes before you need to leave the house. Assuming you got a decent night's sleep, adrenaline will ensure that you're not tired during the test, and you'll have enough time to prepare properly.
  • While you're in the shower, practice a couple simple breathing techniques. Using the breath is the simplest way to get yourself out of your head and into your body. As you shower (hot or cold!) and wake up, take ten deep breaths. For each breath, count to five as you slowly breathe in, hold each breath for five seconds, and then slowly breathe out, again, counting to five as you exhale.
  • Get the blood flowing with a few squats, jumping jacks, push-ups, yoga, walking the dog, a few laps in the pool, jogging in place or just jumping up and down. No need to break a sweat, but just get your heart pumping a bit. This is also the time to practice some yoga or meditation to help yourself feel focused.

If you feel yourself getting distracted or overwhelmed during the test, practice tensing and releasing your muscles. This helps get you out of your head and ground yourself in your body through your breath. If your mind starts to wander and go to negative thoughts, focused doodling for 20 to 30 seconds can occupy it just enough to change your energy and state of mind.