No matter where you are in your high school career, you likely have questions about how to prepare for the SAT or the ACT. When exactly should you start test prep? What does effective test prep entail? At Command Education, we believe test prep should begin early in your high school career and need not always include working on practice tests. We think you should focus on understanding the content and building the skills that will help you tackle either the SAT or ACT and college-level coursework, rather than focus on learning tricks to get through a standardized test. Here is a comprehensive guide to test prep that will set you up for success on the SAT or ACT and beyond.

How to Study for the SAT or ACT as a Freshman in High School

Your freshman year of high school is not too early to start preparing for the SAT/ACT. That being said, burnout is a serious issue among high school students, and plowing through SAT math and grammar drills as a freshman may leave you more exhausted than prepared by the time your test date rolls around. Unless you plan to take the SAT/ACT during your freshman year, which we do not recommend unless you are extremely confident in your academic abilities and test-taking stamina, it’s best to refrain from cracking open an SAT/ACT prep book until your sophomore year. Instead, we suggest trying the following tips to help you develop the skills and understand the content that these exams test.

1. Read Across Genres

Reading lays at the foundation of the SAT and ACT. Whether you’re dissecting a fiction passage on the SAT or racing through a scientific research summary on the ACT, your reading comprehension skills will be tested throughout these tests — even on the math sections! In fact, many students miss math questions not because they do not know how to solve a problem, but because they misread part of a problem. Given the universality of reading across all sections of these exams, it’s crucial that you work on sharpening your critical reading skills long before you sign up to take these tests.

To effectively develop your reading comprehension skills, you should make sure to read genres outside of your comfort zone — if you love fiction, for instance, you should broaden your reading scope to include varieties of nonfiction as well. Whether you take the SAT or the ACT, you will encounter passages that range from scientific writing, to literary narratives, to historical essays. It’s important that you read with a purpose and approach each type of passage differently. For example, you should focus on reading for argument when reading historical texts, and you should practice reading for tone and narrative when reading literary works.

2. Build a Strong Foundation in English and Math

The SAT and ACT are primarily skill-based tests; however, there are a handful of topics
you need to learn in order to do well on these exams. While you should pay attention in all of your classes, for the SAT and ACT, it’s particularly important that you understand grammar rules and the basics of algebra and geometry, which are often taught in ninth grade English and math classes. These topics make up the vast majority of the content tested on the SAT and ACT, and having a solid grasp of the concepts tested on these exams early in your high school career will save you the headache of having to relearn this content a few months before your test date.

3. Take Challenging Classes

Contrary to popular belief, the content from challenging high school classes does not, for
the most part, overlap with the content tested on the SAT and ACT, meaning that if you’re somehow taking multivariable calculus as a freshman in high school, you don’t necessarily have an edge content-wise on the math section of the SAT/ACT. That being said, taking challenging courses gives you a different kind of advantage on these tests by fostering your critical thinking skills. Challenging classes will push you to think deeply and creatively, connect seemingly disparate pieces of information, and organize your thoughts logically, all of which will be of use on the SAT/ACT.

4. Develop Good Study Habits

Freshman year is the ideal time to get to know yourself as a student, which will help you effectively prepare for the SAT/ACT later on in your high school years. When and where do you study most productively? How do you balance your schoolwork and extracurricular activities? What motivates you to excel in school? Every student will answer these questions differently, and you should work on figuring out your own answers to these questions throughout your first year of high school. If you did not have the best study habits before starting high school, remember that the process of changing habits for the better is a long one, so don’t be discouraged if you’re not able to change your study habits overnight. Ultimately, putting in the work to establish good study habits freshman year will prepare you for when your workload intensifies during your sophomore, junior, and senior years.

5. Work on Your Time Management Skills

For many students, the most challenging part of the SAT/ACT is timing. While freshman year is a little early to start working on test pacing, it’s a fantastic time to develop your time management skills. You should work on completing homework assignments efficiently and not second guessing yourself, both of which are skills that will come in
handy when you suddenly find yourself with a minute (or less) to answer a question on
the SAT or ACT.

How to Study for the SAT or ACT as a Sophomore or Junior in High School

We usually recommend students sit for the SAT or ACT during their sophomore or junior years, so these are the years to ramp up your test prep efforts. Keep in mind that students who work with tutors tend to move through the test prep process more quickly than those who work on their own; however, you can go through the following steps on your own or with an SAT/ACT tutor.

1. Take and Analyze a Diagnostic Test (or Two)

Before diving into content review and practice tests, it’s important to take a timed, full-length diagnostic test. We recommend using an official test from the College Board or the ACT, which you can find here (SAT) and here (ACT). After taking your diagnostic test, you should look beyond your score and carefully analyze your answers in order to determine your strengths and areas that need improvement. If you’re not sure whether to take the SAT or the ACT, you can take both diagnostic tests and consider the differences between the exams.

2. Should I Take the SAT or the ACT?

If you took one SAT and one ACT diagnostic test, your next step is to determine which test to prepare for. When choosing between these tests, you should consider not only your score, but also which test will be easier to improve on. Keep in mind that many students find the SAT verbal section more difficult than its ACT equivalent and the ACT math section more difficult than its SAT equivalent, as it covers more advanced topics. The ACT also gives you less time per question; however, the questions tend to be more straightforward than those on the SAT.

We recommend preparing and sitting for one of these exams rather than both, as preparing for just one of these exams will free up more time for you to engage in activities that interest you. Now that there are no longer SAT II Subject Tests to help you stand out among your peers in the college admissions process, it’s important that you not only score high on the SAT/ACT, but also pursue activities and projects that demonstrate your passions. Focusing on one of these tests instead of both will streamline your test prep process and give you more time to focus on activities that are meaningful to you.

3. SAT vs ACT Scores: Setting Your Goal Score

As you review your diagnostic test, you should also think about where you stand in relation to your goal score. To figure out what your goal score should be, you can research the SAT and ACT percentiles for accepted students at the colleges to which you plan to apply, which are available on colleges’ websites. Your goal score should be at or above the 50th percentile of accepted students’ scores at your top choice colleges. If you don’t have a finalized college list but are thinking of applying to some of the most competitive schools in the country, we recommend aiming for a 750+ on each section of the SAT or the equivalent on the ACT (around a 34+). While receiving a perfect score is not necessary to earn a spot at top colleges in the U.S., it’s important to do as well as possible, especially now that SAT Subject Tests have been cancelled, and there are fewer ways to stand out academically.

4. Create Your Testing Timeline

Once you have your diagnostic test score, an analysis of your strengths and areas for improvement, and your goal score, you should put together a realistic testing timeline that includes a weekly study schedule and concrete test dates. While we generally recommend preparing for two to three months before your first test date, your timeline could vary depending on the number of points by which you aim to improve and how many hours per week you can devote to test prep. With proper preparation, most students take the SAT or ACT two to three times until they reach their goal score. Depending on how prepared you feel, you could plan to take the exam for the first time at the end of sophomore year or at the beginning of junior year.

5. How many times should I take the SAT? How many times should I take the ACT?

We recommend that you register for two to three test dates. The College Board usually administers the SAT seven times throughout the year:
August, October, November, December, March, May, and June. The ACT also typically administers its exam seven times per year: September, October, December, February, April, June, and July. Over the past year, both organizations have canceled and added test dates due to the pandemic; however, it’s not guaranteed that they will keep the same testing schedule in future years. To ensure that you secure a spot at a test center, you should register for two to three SAT or ACT test dates as soon as you determine your testing timeline.

6. Review Content Covered on the SAT/ACT

Many students prepare for the SAT or ACT by taking as many practice tests as possible. While this can be helpful, it’s important to make sure that you’ve mastered the content covered on these tests before jumping into practice tests. You should create a list of topics to review based on your diagnostic test results and also look through the topics covered in SAT/ACT test prep books. After this, you can search for topic explanations and drills online and also use those available in SAT/ACT test prep books.

7. Take and Review Practice Tests

Once you’ve brushed up on the content tested on these exams, it’s time to start taking practice tests. We recommend using a combination of official tests released by the College Board or the ACT and third-party tests such as those created by McGraw Hill. We suggest taking 1-2 practice tests per week for at least one month and then taking 2-3 practice tests per week in the weeks leading up to your test date.

How to Mentally Prepare for Test Day

A major part of mentally preparing for an important test like the SAT or ACT is creating and sticking to your test prep timeline; however, here are a few additional tips to help you be mentally ready for the SAT or ACT as your test day approaches.

1. Review the SAT or ACT Test Day Checklist

Both the College Board and the ACT have published checklists of what you should and should not bring to the test center on test day. The SAT checklist is available here, and the ACT checklist is available here. Be sure to read through the appropriate checklist at least a day before your exam and gather the materials you will need to bring to the test center.

2. Visualize Success

Another strategy to mentally prepare yourself for test day is to visualize yourself succeeding on the exam. Try to be as detailed as possible. You could envision yourself entering the test center, seeing the test questions and feeling confident in your ability to answer them correctly, and completing the test within the time limits. Visualizing success will help you remain calm and boost your confidence as your test day approaches.

3. Get Enough Sleep In The Weeks Before Your Exam

You should make sure to get enough sleep for (ideally) a few weeks before test day. With adequate sleep, you will be better prepared to think clearly and calmly while taking the test. A recent study found that only getting a good night’s sleep the night before the exam is not necessarily enough to make a significant impact on your test performance; you’ll need a few weeks of adequate sleep to see tangible results.

How Many Times Should I Take the SAT or ACT?

In the several month-long frenzy leading up to submitting your college applications, you might be wondering whether or not you should try to retake standardized tests. There are a few obvious benefits to doing so (the primary one being the potential to get a higher score), but there are some drawbacks as well. Here are the questions you should ask yourself before cracking open those review books again.

1. How much time do I have to prepare for the SAT or ACT?

It can be tempting to try to squeeze in a second or third attempt at a standardized test in the summer or fall prior to submitting applications. Before you register, however, consider both how much time you have to prepare. If you know that you’re going to be swamped with extracurriculars or coursework, or if you feel burned out from previous testing attempts, then it’s a good idea to reassess whether or not a retake is a worthwhile investment of your time and money.

2. How much improvement can I really expect?

Be realistic about your previous testing attempts, and consider how much room for improvement you actually have. If, for example, you were sick on test day but routinely score much higher on practice tests, then you might want to seriously consider a retake. If, on the other hand, you scored well previously and have yet to substantially improve your score (even with the help of test prep), then it might not be reasonable to expect a substantial point increase.

3. Will a higher test score substantially improve my chances?

The short answer is, it depends. Candidates who are on-target for their top choice colleges but have test scores below the mean of admitted students could probably benefit from a retake (given that there is time to properly study). However, a better standardized test score will not magically enable students who are otherwise uncompetitive to gain admission to their dream school. Additionally, keep in mind that small increases (up to 50 points) will rarely, if ever, be the determining factor in admissions.

4. Should I focus my attention elsewhere?

If it’s September or early October, you know you want to apply to a school early, and your test scores are already within range of admitted students at your top choice college, your time is probably better spent polishing up essays and preparing for alumni interviews. There are many facets of a college application, and it is unwise to fixate on one at the expense of all the others. In general, focus on those aspects of the process that are still within your control; you should be sure to put your best, most polished foot forward in all of the subjective components of your application.

Test Prep Plan
Early Start
  • Read across genres
  • Build a strong foundation in English and Math
  • Take challenging classes
  • Develop good study habits
  • Work on your time management skills
  • Core Testing
    Sophomore and/or Junior
  • Take one SAT and one ACT diagnostic test
  • Decide on a test and create a testing timeline
  • Review content
  • Take practice tests
  • Take the SAT or ACT
  • Score Optimization
  • Consider retaking the SAT or ACT
  • You may also like

    How can I prepare for medical school while in college?

    What if I can’t pick a major?