It’s the day before you are scheduled to take the SAT or ACT. Understandably, you might feel nervous. You might feel unprepared. You might feel like the SAT or ACT just isn’t for you, and you just want to get it over with. These are all perfectly normal and common feelings among high school students who are preparing to take a standardized test, especially those who are getting ready to take the test for the first time.
What is the proper approach to have going in to these tests? First of all, taking a prep course or going in for individual tutoring a few months before the test (such as our many offerings at 5PP!) is a great option for many students. I remember taking a prep course at a local high school when I was a high school student. The main thing that I took away from that class was just an increased comfort level that comes from working these problems and going through different strategies. The problems on both the SAT and ACT, while they change ever year, follow certain patterns, and familiarizing yourself with what you are likely to see on these tests will go a long way toward easing your mind and increasing your confidence going in to test day.
For whatever reason, students are sometimes unable to take a prep class before taking the test. You can find SAT or ACT prep books at most bookstores. There are several different publishers that offer good test prep books; the ACT and SAT themselves both publish books with practice problems and solutions, as well as companies such as Barron’s and The Princeton Review. Look for a book with detailed answers and explanations sections. Work practice problems in both timed and untimed environments, and then go through and evaluate how you did. What types of problems did you do well on? Which do you still need work on or not understand? The more practice problems you are able to work through, the more familiar you will be with what to expect, and your confidence will likely increase as you see your scores improve with practice.
Finally, some students—myself included—tend to procrastinate and put things off until the last minute. Let’s say that it’s a few days before the test, and you haven’t prepared at all. What should you do? People have different ideas about how to use your time most efficiently. My view is this: what you know now is more or less what you are going to know on test day. This late in the game it is impractical for you to teach yourself vast amounts of new material that you are unfamiliar with. Sure, you might review the concepts that will be covered on the test and formulas or skills that you will need. I would still strongly suggest that you work a few practice tests and go over the answers, as this will increase your familiarity and confidence level going in to the test.
Most importantly, you need to have a strategy for attacking the test and commit yourself to executing this strategy on test day. For example, maybe you are generally strong at math, but very weak in a particular area, such as solving logarithms. Working these problems on the test will probably not be an efficient use of your time, and it is likely in your best interest to skip these problems to achieve the best possible score that you can. Take stock of your strengths and weaknesses in different areas, and develop a feel for the pace that works for your personally, in other words, the pace that allows you to work as many problems as you can as accurately as you can. Try to come up with a strategy for working different types of problems, so that when you see one on the test you will know what to do. On that math section in particular, remember that you can also try to work backwards from your answer choices. You may get a question that involves concepts that you have never heard of, but you can eliminate three of your answer choices immediately just based on the information that you are given.
The more prepared you are with what you will see on test day, the more likely you are to maximize your score. Even if you do happen to be unprepared, however, don’t just go through the motions. Give the test your best effort and your full attention, and go in to the test with a mindset of working strategically to get the best score that you can given your current knowledge of the material covered on the test. You may just surprise yourself with how well you end up doing.