The SAT and ACT are standardized tests designed to gauge your high school learning and your readiness for college. The best preparation for the SAT and ACT is working hard in your high school courses, yet most students can improve their test results by becoming familiar with the test categories, taking practice tests, understanding how questions are scored, and refreshing their memory on key topics.
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You’ll want to start preparing for these tests early, and it’s a good idea to schedule your first test early enough that you have time to retake it. Here are some things you can be doing to get ready for the test, starting in your sophomore year.
Think About Which Test you Want to Take
Many colleges will accept either ACT or SAT test scores, and will weigh them equally for admissions purposes. However, public high school students in NC are required to take the ACT in their junior year, with few exceptions. Students usually take one or the other—although you can take both—and either exam can be taken multiple times. It’s a good idea to check which test your prospective colleges prefer or if there are alternatives such as a portfolio.
Although the two tests are similar in many ways, there are some differences.
- The ACT gives you only one score, and it’s averaged, while the SAT shows Reading and Math scores separately, and combines them for the final score.
- The ACT has a dedicated Science section, while the SAT does not.
This might be a benefit if you’re going into one of the STEM majors or are strong in science. The SAT does test certain skills that are useful in science, like ability to read charts and draw conclusions from premises, but it doesn’t test your knowledge of things like chemistry or biology.
- The Writing Section of the ACT is optional while on the SAT it’s mandatory and part of the Reading and Writing score.
Taking the ACT without that section could help you if your writing skills aren’t stellar, but you’ll want to make sure the colleges you’re applying to don’t require it. The SAT has an optional essay portion in addition to its writing test, so you could choose that if you’re a strong writer. Some colleges require certain sections, so make sure to check before you decide.
Take Practice Tests
Practice tests are invaluable tools, and taking them should be one of your first steps in preparing for the SAT or ACT. An initial practice test will give you a feel for what the tests are like, show your strengths, highlight areas where you need to improve, and provide guidance on what to study. Taking both the ACT and SAT practice tests can also help you decide which test you’d rather take.
You’ll want to take practice tests later on, too, both to test your ability as you study and to give you experience taking these tests under a time constraint. Remember, the more practice you get at taking these under pressure, the better you’ll do when the real test day comes along.
Consider Taking the Preliminary SAT (PSAT)
The PSAT is a preliminary version of the SAT administered by the College Board—the not-for-profit organization behind the SAT test and the Advanced Placement program. The PSAT is basically a timed practice run for the real SAT test and doesn’t count toward college admissions. The tests are usually given through your high school or school district.
Not everyone takes the PSAT, but there are advantages to it. First, it gives you a baseline test score, so you can get an idea of your abilities and see where you might need to improve. Second, it’s a very good simulation of the real test, so you can see how you function under pressure. Finally, scoring high on the PSAT makes you eligible to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship, so doing well could help you win money to go to school. Students usually take the PSAT in their sophomore or junior year.
Find Test Prep Resources and Study
There’s a whole industry built around helping students prepare for the SAT and ACT, but you don’t have to spend a fortune to do well. Start with the free test prep tools and materials available from ACT, the College Board (creators of the SAT), and other non-profit organizations. Talk with your school counselor about your school’s resources, and maybe buy a test prep book or software to keep the ball rolling. As you progress, you may want to join a study group or even take a test prep class, if you feel it will help.
Set aside time to study regularly, and remember that practice really does help when it comes to overcoming nerves and testing well. Whichever way you choose to prepare (books, classes, online), just make sure you stick with it, so you’re at your best when the test comes around.
Schedule and Take the Test
The SAT and ACT are each administered on six or seven dates throughout the year. You’ll need to register in advance, and there are fees for taking the tests, between $40 and $60. If you cannot afford the test fees, talk to your school counselor about the possibility of fee waivers. All North Carolina students who attend a public school will take the ACT at no cost during their junior year. Students usually take the tests in junior or early senior year—but it’s better to take it early, so you have time to retest if necessary.
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