Written by Lily McIntyre
Hi everyone! I hope you’ve all been taking good care of yourselves amidst the great change and upheaval going on in our country right now. I've been worrying about the world a lot lately, but my mom always tells me to focus on the stuff I can control instead of worrying about things I can’t. If you’re in high school and planning on taking the SAT or ACT sometime soon, something you can control is getting ahead on standardized test prep (...as terrible as that sounds). If you don’t have any idea where to start or are looking for resources, we’re here to help. Today’s blog post features an interview with Ben C., a top ACT and SAT tutor for a boutique tutoring company called MyGuru. Ben and I talked about study mistakes, tips, test prep resources, and information on standardized tests that might help give you all a leg up in this process!
I started off by asking Ben what kind of student would be a better fit for the ACT versus the SAT; I was confused myself when I was going through this process just a couple of years ago! According to Ben, “The ACT tends to be well suited for students who make a lot of distinctions between things they know, i.e. analytically minded students, where the SAT tends to be suited for students who reason well, or synthesize different kinds of information.” The tests themselves have gotten more similar over the years, so it’s not the end of the world if you’re not sure which test best suits you! Ben also notes that colleges don’t prefer one test over the other, so your decision can be completely based on which test you feel more comfortable taking.
Then, we discussed the prep period before taking the test. Personally, I started prepping for the ACT 6 months before I took it because I was freaked out about it. Ben says that if you’re comfortable with tests, you can start prepping 6-8 weeks before you take it. But for people who get nervous with tests (like myself), Ben agrees with beginning test prep around 6 months in advance. When you’ve started studying and are looking for online resources, Ben recommends test-specific materials. Specifically, “...most tests have numerous official copies that have been uploaded by HS programs and others who gain access to official ACT/SAT tests. It is always a better idea to practice with official materials than a secondary company if possible.” In the weeks leading up to the test, Ben recommends studying 2 hours a week with a tutor, spending 2 hours doing practice questions, plus 4 hours scattered throughout the week doing study work like flash cards, reading, etc.. However, you might have a different time frame and schedule that works for you! Studying for standardized tests is an individualized process; different methods work for different people.
When you’re studying, though, Ben warns against studying “too hard” in order to relieve test anxiety. It is just as important to rest while studying as well! In the weeks leading up to the test, Ben notes that there are certain types of problems that consistently appear on each test, and that there is usually a conventional “right way” to solve it. If grasping that one process is challenging for you, get creative! In Ben’s words, “The ‘wrong way’ can be easier [and] faster, and the test isn’t checking your work. See if you can make up a way to solve the problem that works for you.”
Ben and I also discussed the actual test-taking process. When asked about the biggest test-taking mistakes they see students make, Ben says, “Something I always preach is that we should always choose our own way through the test. Following the sequence of questions as offered… leads to a tendency to get stuck on questions or easily tripped up.” I agreed and reflected on my own experience of being stuck on some math questions while taking the ACT and inevitably wasting more time on those few problems rather than tackling the questions I immediately knew first. In our interview, I also asked Ben about how many times students should take the ACT or SAT. I remember talking to some of my high school peers who took the SAT seven times. Is this actually your best bet? According to Ben, “Taking the test is never fun, so the true ideal is 1 time, so prepare well and hit that mark on the first go. In my experience, though, the experience of taking the test is an essential teacher, and so usually the second or third time will be substantially higher. After the 4th it’s less and less likely, so you definitely don’t want to overdo it.” Similarly, I was satisfied with my score after my third time taking the ACT.
Finally, I really wanted to get a tutor’s insight on the new test-optional policy many universities have been adopting due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In Ben’s eyes, “The college application is a process that incorporates an array of information in the service of determining whether a student would be a good fit for a given school… It does make sense and feels fair to make the test optional in so many places this year, given that many students are not able to go to great lengths to take it under the pandemic - requiring it would unfairly benefit students with access to more resources.” Given this, Ben still believes that taking the test and getting a high score can positively affect your application. Looking to the future, Ben is excited to see how standardized tests will transform, whether there will be new kinds of tests or new ways to do testing at home, or something we can’t imagine right now. We hope that Ben’s insight has given you some guidance, and hopefully some relief, on the big, bad standardized test process! Find out more about Ben and MyGuru’s services below:
Ben C. is a top ACT and SAT tutor for a boutique tutoring company called MyGuru. They specialize in connecting students with experienced (at least 3 years) and impressive (at least 95th percentile test scores and bachelor's degrees) backgrounds at an affordable cost. They also stress the importance of mindset, strategy, confidence, effective study habits, and time management and organization skills in achieving superior performance in school and on standardized tests. Visit them there for more information on their ACT and SAT tutoring approach.
We get this question a lot - should we be preparing for the ACT or SAT exams earlier on in high school as opposed to waiting until Junior year to take a test prep class? Well, that depends. Some students decide to take their PSAT exam as their first indication of what to do in preparation for other standardized tests that will be a more important factor in their college applications. That means waiting until sophomore or junior year to get a baseline. And, for most students, this is the right path. Many students are busy with keeping their grades up, time management between activities and academics, and it makes sense to push this until later. If you know your student has generally tested well on standardized tests in the past, this may make the most sense.
However, if you are worried about the student as a test taker, we suggest taking a diagnostic practice test during or just after 9th grade to see whether the additional practice, earlier, would make sense. This might mean sitting down for the Khan Academy SAT test offered free or the many resources and practice exams that are likely found at your local library. The diagnostic practice test will help indicate if there's a need for additional tutoring/test prep studies that need to occur outside of the usual school work preparation.
For all students, consider the following:
You can definitely utilize technology to help you through the standardized test prep process - it’ll literally be at your fingertips during any down time that you may have. The first question we usually get is whether a student should take the ACT or the SAT. The best way to check this is to go through several questions of each section of both exams so that the student can get a feel for which they prefer. Most people can easily come to a conclusion on which exam "speaks to them" more. Then, I'd go all in! After all, study for 2 exams?? In some cases we may suggest a swap to the other exam if the practice scores aren't quite matching the academic rigor achieved at school.
Generally, my first recommendation is go to to Khan Academy, they work directly with the college board on SAT test prep. However, there are tons of apps out there as well that are interactive and give you lots of opportunities to practice test questions. We've done a bit of sleuthing for you to weed out the apps that don't have much usage or are poorly put together. I'm an android, so these are all through the Google Play Store. Hopefully a few of these will work out for your needs.
Note of caution - apps are a great way to get breadth. However, once you spot a weakness, you'll need to drill down to really understand how to solve the problems that you're most commonly getting wrong. These apps sometimes do not allow for you to do that in the most productive way.
Nervousness and anxiety when it comes to standardized testing is pretty common - so, you're not alone. The anxiety or fear is actually a sign that your body is ready to focus on the task ahead, all that remains is how your harness that energy. Here are some tactics to keep cool and calm so that you perform your best on test day.
Months/weeks leading to the test:
College, Graduate School, and Career Coaching.