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Test Prep 101: A Complete Guide to ACT and SAT Prep

Whether your child is taking the ACT or SAT, preparing for the test is integral to their success. Learn from professional tutors how to master test prep to achieve the best score possible.

Test Prep for the SAT and ACT Exams - MainLineParent.com

Typically taken in the spring of Junior year, the ACT and SAT tests are a required component for most college applications. These standardized tests require students to demonstrate skills in reading, language arts, writing, and mathematics. While the ACT and SAT differ, the amount of test prep needed for each exam is similar.

SAT and ACT Test Prep

We asked professional tutors around Philadelphia and the Main Line to share some of their best tips and tricks for preparing for the SAT and ACT exams.

They also shared their advice on what to look for when selecting a tutor to help your child with ACT and SAT prep.

When to Start SAT and ACT Prep

Start studying for the ACT and SAT tests at least two to three months prior to the exam date. The more familiar students are with the test content and format, the more successful they will be during the actual exam.

You and your child know that studying for the ACT or SAT is important, but how far in advance should test prep begin? “Start early, and be consistent,” suggests Aaron Lindh, Content Director of High School Programs at The Princeton Review. “Students who put in 30 to 45 minutes a day for three months will achieve far more than those who cram 90 minutes a day for a month.”

“Generally, students take two to three months to achieve their peak scores,” Lindh explains. “Tutoring sessions may be one to two hours long and take place one to three times a week. Meeting more often than three times a week is often counterproductive, as there isn’t enough time for the student to complete homework or practice in between sessions. Similarly, it is the rare high schooler who can focus for more than two hours with a tutor.”

Debra Subar, senior tutor with Advantage Testing of Philadelphia, agrees that early test prep is essential. “We recommend that students start preparing as early as the beginning of the second half of their sophomore year,” she explains. “That typically gives them sufficient time to study and improve prior to their first official test date, without encroaching on their other academic work.”

While starting early is important, one of the keys to being successful is being familiar with the type of test content. Students who have had practice with similar exams may feel more comfortable and confident, thus making test prep easier.

“The preparation timeline for the SAT or ACT varies for each student,” explains Elizabeth Trupkovich, M.Ed., Independent Educational Consultant/College Advisor at Trupkovich Educational Consulting, LLC.  “Length of study time and number of hours needed depends on how familiar a student is with the test content, their score goals and preparation resources available to them.”

When determining a study timeline for your student, Trupkovich suggest that students “work backwards [from the exam date] to target a start date for test preparation. This may be anywhere from two to six months. Start early and aim for a test date in late winter or early spring of 11th grade.”

Test Prep 101 for the SAT and ACT Exams - Test Prep Guide for Parents and Teens - MainLineParent.com

ACT and SAT Prep: What to Do and What Not to Do

Now that a start date for test prep has been established, here are some of the things your child should and should not be doing in preparation for the SAT or ACT exam.

Have a Plan for Studying

Rome wasn’t built in a day nor were the SAT and ACT exams aced after a day of studying. “Students should not attempt to undertake long-term preparation without a concrete plan in place, including timetables, routine practice testing, and evolving benchmarks and goals,” stresses Subar.  

To develop a study plan “use student PSAT, SAT, ACT or a diagnostic assessment score reports to identify strengths and areas of weakness,” suggests Trupkovich. Ultimately, she explains, the study plan should “fit your student’s standardized test score goals and schedule.”

Work Hard and Study Harder

The SAT and ACT exams are comprehensive and, as our tutors reiterated, difficult. “The SAT and ACT are challenging tests that cover a substantial portion of the general high school curriculum,” explains Subar.

Identifying academic areas that need improvement is crucial to success. “As with any test, if you want to do your best on the SAT or ACT, you have to be prepared to study and work hard. You must sharpen your skills with the material you do understand and learn the material you don’t understand,” she says.

“If you have trouble factoring polynomials or calculating arc length, for example, you need to work on those kinds of problems until you are confident that you can solve them efficiently.”

Understand the SAT and ACT Exams Are Different

In addition to the wide variety of subjects covered, the SAT and ACT also test a student’s ability to complete a standardized exam – something that they may or may not be familiar with.

“The SAT and ACT are ultimately tests of a student’s ability to take those exams; as with any skill, test-taking ability is best improved over time with consistent practice,” stresses Lindh.

“Don’t approach the SAT and ACT like you would a school test! Your teachers are interested in whether you’ve learned the material; they can give out as many top grades as they want. The SAT and ACT want to ‘standardize’ you — only about 3 percent of students score at the very top of the range.”

“Be critical when approaching the tests, and use material and tutors geared toward helping you understand and demystify how to achieve your goal score.”

Determine Your Goal Score Ahead of Time

Before sitting down to take the SAT or ACT exam, your student should know what score he is aiming for and work toward that. Many colleges have a minimum score requirement for both application and acceptance. Know what score your college of choice requires.

“Determine the SAT or ACT scores needed for admissions to schools of interest,” Trupkovich emphasizes. “Review your college and score goals with your college consultant or school counselor to determine reasonableness.”

Don’t Try to Cram for the Test

“Students should not try to cram,” stresses Subar. “There is no effective short-term solution for improving scores on these tests. There are no tricks that will help you identify the right answer when you don’t understand the question.”

Test Prep for the SAT and ACT Exams - Test Prep Guide for Parents and Teens - MainLineParent.com

SAT and ACT Test Prep Options

As learning styles vary, so too do test prep study options. From home studying to one-on-one tutors, there are many different ways to go about preparing for the SAT and ACT exams. Finding the one that works best for your child is key.

ACT and SAT Test Prep Books

Go old school and break out the ACT or SAT Study Guides. For students who are visual learners, having a hard copy of a study guide on hand may help them focus and work their plan.

SAT options like the Princeton Review’s Cracking the SAT Premium Edition with 8 Practice Tests, 2019 Edition: The All-in-One Solution for Your Highest Possible Score and The College Board’s The Official SAT Study Guide provide students with practice exams that mimic the actual tests, as well as tips and tricks for achieving their target score.

For the ACT, The Official ACT Prep Guide 2018-2019 from ACT and Princeton Review’s Cracking the ACT Premium Edition with 8 Practice Tests, 2019 offer similar study help and practice test opportunities.

Online SAT and ACT Test Prep Options

If picking up a test prep book after school does not fit with your child’s learning style or schedule, online SAT and ACT Test Prep classes and resources are another option.  

Khan Academy, for example, offers free, personalized, online practice for the SATs that includes interactive lessons, videos, practice questions, full-length practice exams, and instant feedback on progress.

ACT Academy is a similar free, online, interactive resource that helps identify student’s areas of weakness and provides instruction on those topics.

For virtual, real-time classes, options such as Mr. D Math’s SAT and ACT Bootcamps and Princeton Review’s LiveOnline Interactive Classes offer students the flexibility of studying at home while taking advantage of group instruction.

SAT and ACT Tutoring

Face-to-face tutoring for the ACT and SAT exams can occur on an individual or group basis. Private tutoring typically occurs in the student’s home and the instruction is based solely around his or her needs. There’s usually a great deal of flexibility in terms of time and location.

Group tutoring is often a less expensive option than private tutoring, but is often held at learning centers, universities, or schools during the evening and weekend at set times. Scheduling flexibility is usually limited.

What to Look for in a Private Tutor for the SAT and ACT Exams

When searching for the perfect tutor for your child, do your research. “Tutoring is a very personal service — it is the tutor who will be working directly with your child, so you need to be able to trust the tutor,” Lindh recommends. “Look for someone with a track record of success (speak with your friends and neighbors for recommendations!) who makes you comfortable about the process.”

Subar agrees. “Many tutors have outstanding academic credentials, but that doesn’t necessarily make them outstanding teachers. Parents should look to find in their child’s SAT/ACT tutor the same qualities they would hope to find in any great educator: patience, flexibility, enthusiasm, a mastery of the material, and the ability to identify and overcome obstacles to learning, among many others.”

Don’t be afraid to request a meeting to talk with the tutor before hiring him or her. Trupkovich suggests considering the following eight key points when interviewing a potential SAT or ACT tutor:

1. References. Start by contacting tutors and test prep agencies recommended by friends and family.  Did their student connect with the tutor? What was their success story? Ask the tutor for references.  Speaking with other families about their experience with the tutor will provide you good insight on how the tutor creates and delivers a study plan.

2. Tutor experience.  If you are investing in test preparation services, you want to hire an expert. The tutor should have knowledge of both the content and test taking strategies needed for the SAT or ACT.  Find out if your tutor has taken or continues to take the SAT or ACT. How did they score? Ask about their professional background and training in this field and how they stay current on the latest standardized testing trends.

3. Find out who will work with your student.  Will your student be assigned a specific tutor or will the classes be taught by different instructors throughout the assigned time?  Individual tutors get to know your student well, create a supportive rapport and modify preparation as needed. Agencies with a larger pool of tutors can offer flexibility to change tutors if the fit or scheduling needs adjusting. 

4. Assessing your student’s test prep needs.  Identify what type of diagnostic will be administered or used prior to developing a tutoring plan for your student. Will the tutor use past PSAT, SAT or ACT score reports?  Full length SAT or ACT practice tests? A hybrid SAT/ACT assessment?

5. Types of services.  Is test preparation the main services offered?  Or do they offer additional services? Look for a tutor who specializes and focuses on standardized test preparation. 

6. Delivery of instruction. Will instruction be delivered one on one? Small group? A combination of both? Online or via video calls? How often will students be taking full length practice tests? Consider the type of environment that works best for your student.  At home at the kitchen table? Or at a tutoring center where they can be focused only on test preparation?

7. Be upfront.  Discuss learning styles, preferences, differences or disabilities that may impact your student’s success.  You may want to share any accommodations your student currently receives at school. Has the tutor worked with students with similar needs? How will your student be supported throughout test preparation process?

8. Cost.  Ask the tutor how they charge for services.  Do they charge by the hour? Offer packages? It is important to know upfront what the study plan looks like (weekly, bi-weekly, etc.) and the estimated cost for the whole study course. This helps families plan out an appropriate and reasonable study schedule that works within their budget.

“Whether you work independently using a free test preparation tool like Khan Academy or work with a professional tutor, a plan will help you stay on track, focus on content areas and reduce test stress,” Trupkovich reiterates.

Find more information about the SAT testing dates, deadlines, and requirements here.

2019-2020 ACT Testing Dates (National)

February 9, 2019 – registration deadline January 11, 2019

April 13, 2019 – registration deadline March 8, 2019

June 8, 2019 – registration deadline May 3, 2019

July 13, 2019 – registration deadline June 14, 2019

September 14, 2019

October 26, 2019

February 8, 2020

April 4, 2020

June 13, 2020

July 18, 2020

Find more information about the ACT testing dates, deadlines, and requirements here.

Share Your Expertise!

How is your child preparing for the SAT or ACT exams? Share your experience and expertise in the comments below.

Philadelphia and Main Line SAT/ACT Resources

Special thanks to the following ACT/SAT professionals who contributed their expertise to this article. Please visit their websites to learn more about their services and how they are serving students and families around Philadelphia and the Main Line:

Aaron Lindh, Content Director of High School Programs at The Princeton Review

Debra Subar, senior tutor at Advantage Testing of Philadelphia

Elizabeth Trupkovich, M.Ed., Independent Educational Consultant/College Advisor at Trupkovich Educational Consulting, LLC. Visit her on Facebook and Instagram as well.