This article was originally written for FirstGenerationStudent.com, now a part of ImFirst.org.
Which Tests Should I Take?
This is typically a personal choice for each student (although there are a few states that make the choice easier, by requiring students to take the ACT or SAT as a mandatory assessment test). The short answer: If you’re better at vocabulary and reading, the SAT—with its vocabulary-focused questions and complex reading passages—may be the test for you. If you’re better at science and graphical thinking (interpreting charts and pictures), the ACT may play more to your strengths. The best way to find out for sure is to acquire a copy of each test—your guidance office may have some practice tests lying around—and take each one to see how it feels.
Remember that even if your state requires you take one of these tests as an assessment, you are still allowed to take the other one as well in order to submit both sets of scores to the colleges to which you apply.
The SAT II tests are specialized, one-hour-long tests, each of which focus on a specific subject—biology, American history, French, etc. Find out if the schools you’re interested in even require you to submit SAT II scores; not all schools do. Then you can decide which SAT II tests to take, if any.
How Should I Study for the Tests?
You can find practice tests for the SAT and the ACT on the test websites. Complete the practice sets on the website—this will help you to get accustomed to the types of questions that will be asked on the test.“Ask in your guidance office or at a local community organization to find out about free SAT/ACT tutoring.”
Free Test Prep for SAT
The College Board, which administers the SAT, offers several free resources for test preparation; if you qualify for a fee waiver, you also get an additional discount for their paid online SAT course. Go here to check out their free test prep offerings: http://sat.collegeboard.org/practice/.
Free Test Prep for ACT
You can find free practice questions for each subject at http://www.actstudent.org/sampletest/, and a student preparation booklet for the ACT, called “Preparing for the ACT,” at http://www.actstudent.org/testprep/.
For more on-going practice, acquire an SAT or ACT prep guide and do a little bit of consistent work on each section of the test every week—maybe you can borrow or share one with a friend. Set aside some time every week, like on a Saturday or Sunday, to do one section of each part of the test (math, critical reading and writing for the SAT; math, science, English and reading for the ACT).
If you’re taking the SAT, you also will want to spend some serious time studying vocabulary. Make flashcards for your new words, keep adding to your pile, and take the cards with you everywhere you go. Then you can study on the bus when you are going to and from school, during downtime at your job, or between sports practices.
You also should find out whether your school or community center offers SAT tutoring. Many schools offer this program for free and may even give you a free practice guide. Ask in your guidance office or at any local community organization to find out about free SAT tutoring in your area.
What Do I Do If My Scores Are Low?
It’s discouraging to get a lower score than you expected, but this happens to everyone from time to time. Find out which sections of the test gave you the most trouble, and do focused practice on whichever areas were most challenging—vocabulary, reading passages, geometry problems, grammar questions, etc.
Most high school students take the SAT two times, even three, and your guidance office may even have extra fee waivers. If possible, it’s best to take the SAT or ACT once in the spring of your junior year, and once in the fall of your senior year. It’s likely that your score will improve a lot, from your first test to your second, just because now you have more familiarity with the entire process.