12 Tips for Students Taking the ACT/SAT

Here are 12 tips for taking the SAT / ACT.

Source: Flickr user sourabhj.

Most schools will ask you to submit scores from either the ACT or SAT as part of your application. Other schools are going away from using standardized test scores as part of your admissions profile. Make sure you check the requirements at the colleges you’re interested in applying to before deciding which test to take. For students taking the SAT or ACT, here are 12 tips to help you.

1. Pick a test–ACT, SAT, or both

If the schools you are interested in don’t specify that they prefer one test over the other, you get to pick! But aren’t they just about the same? Not really.

Take a look at the breakdown with our ACT section guide and new SAT. They are different. For example, there is an ACT science section. If you really don’t think you’d do well on that, perhaps the SAT would be a better fit. Or, if you want nothing to do with the grid-in answer section on the new SAT math test, then you might prefer the ACT.

Look at your options, and make an informed decision. Which test will best showcase your abilities? I would recommend trying practice tests for each to see which you can score better on. You can try taking the ACT/SAT!

2. Register early

The earlier you sign up for taking the ACT/SAT, the more likely you are to get a seat in your preferred testing location. Shoot for registering 3 months before the test date.

Research shows that students perform better on tests when they are administered in the same environment where the learning takes place. Chances are you’ll also be more comfortable if you get a seat in a testing room in a location you’re familiar with.

I don’t know about you, but driving a long distance, early in the morning, before taking a test would stress me out. That’s a lot of time to psych yourself out on the way to the test. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, but don’t put off registering until the last minute.

3. Take an official practice test before you start studying

If you’re new to the world of college entrance exams, do a practice run to get a feel for what you’re up against.

Make it as realistic as possible–quiet environment, only take breaks when you would on test day, and set a timer for the corresponding time allotted per test section. (Note: Times can be found on the ACT and SAT links under #1 above)

4. Create a study schedule based on your needs

After you’ve taken a practice test, do a bit of a self-assessment. Which areas could you improve the most in? Which do you feel like you really need to study for? Then, create a schedule and set a SMART goal for studying.

S-Specific: What exactly do you want to achieve?

M-Meaningful: Why is it important to you – what’s motivating you?

A-Action Oriented: What steps do you need to take to reach the goal?

R-Realistic: Self-explanatory. Your goal should not be to score a 36 on the ACT (unless you think you are legitimately capable of doing so)

T-Timely: What is your time frame? When do you want to achieve this by?

Example: My goal is to increase my math score on the ACT from a 20 to a 25 in order to increase my composite score. I will do this by studying geometry for 20 minutes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday during my study hall hour for the rest of the semester.

And make sure you’re making your goal reasonable as well. Remember, it is better to study for 15-30 minutes multiple days a week than for 4 hours on Sunday evening.

5. Study the main concepts in each test section

You can find the big “must know” concepts for each test on their respective websites. Here at College Raptor, we have also written up descriptions and lists of big ideas in a variety of articles:



6. Use free resources to help with studying

There are so many test prep resources available. You can take your pick between online, print, one-on-one, classroom, group tutoring, and more. Don’t forget about your teachers either. They’ll go over concepts with you if you ask.

The earlier you start studying, the more options you have available to you.

Many test prep resources are free of charge, but there are even more if you are willing to pay the price. Check out our lists of resources for ACT test prep and SAT test prep.   

7. Take at least two more timed practice tests before test day

After you’ve studied a bit, take a stab at a few more practice tests. The more familiar you are with the format, the fewer surprises there will be come test day.

Many of the online test prep resources found in the links above give you access to authentic test questions. Yes, they are from old test versions, but if you work through these you become better acquainted with the way test makers write questions, and what they’re looking for in terms of answers.

8. Get a good night’s sleep and eat breakfast the morning of test day

This one is pretty self-explanatory and logical. You will do better if you are well-rested. You will also be able to focus better if you are well energized from a good breakfast. I don’t know about you, but it’s game over for me if I get hungry-there is zero concentration. But let’s be real, everyone will do better if they aren’t distracted by your stomach growling 15 minutes into the reading test.

9. Relax and Breathe

With the added stress of high stakes testing, test anxiety is on the rise. If you consider yourself to be an anxious person, or you get yourself all worked up before taking a test, try a few of these strategies and see if any work for you.

10. Don’t waste time on reading instructions

If you’re taking the ACT/SAT again, you’ve heard “now turn the page, read the directions, and begin” about a thousand times, right? You know the drill.

If you haven’t taken one of these tests yet, the directions can be found on the ACT and College Board websites. Read them before you get there so you know what to expect. The time you’re given to work on each section is minimal-don’t waste it reading through instructions!

11. Fill in all the bubbles

Hearing a timer go off and realizing you still have 15 empty bubbles on your answer sheet – that’s a terrible feeling. Fortunately, there’s a simple way to avoid it.

When you know time is almost up, or when you’re given a 5-minute warning, fill in the rest of the bubbles for that test section. Then, as you continue working with the remaining time, erase and correct your answers. 

For the ACT, and the new SAT, there are no penalties for wrong answers. The only influence on your score is the number of questions you answer correctly. So you are better off filling in all of the bubbles towards the end of the test, even if you’re guessing. 

It is better to have a bubble filled in than empty, even if it’s wrong!

12. Have something fun planned for the afternoon when you’re done with the test

I would recommend this for any event in your life that you aren’t exactly looking forward to. If you have something fun planned afterward, the day won’t seem so daunting. Don’t let yourself go home and stew over your performance after taking the ACT/SAT. Go shopping. Go for a bike ride. Go to a movie.

Reward yourself! Enjoy the rest of your Saturday!

6 thoughts on “12 Tips for Students Taking the ACT/SAT”

  1. Ella Wilson says:

    Hey! Ok, so I am taking my ACT’s and SAT’s really early. As in I am still in Middle school. I was literally just informed that I could be taking these early this week. I really want tips, and I really need a good grade. Do you have any tips? Maybe any books that would really help me? I don’t know. I am kind of in freak out mode. If you have anything that would help me, PLEASE do. Thank you!

    1. Allison Wignall says:

      Hello, Ella! College Raptor has a ton of ACT / SAT tips available! Check out the ACT / SAT section of our College Guide here for many articles about test tips, prep advice, and questions you might have about the tests! Hope these help, and good luck!

  2. Deedee Lewis says:

    I really like the tip about doing a practice run test to get a feel for what you’re up against. My little brother, who isn’t so little anymore, is preparing to take the ACT and he’s pretty nervous about it. I will pass these test taking tips to him.

  3. Alice Jones says:

    Thank you for listing all these tips on how to do well while taking the sat. I am trying to help my son get ready to take the sat so I enjoyed reading through your tips. I like how you advise students to take the a practice test. I’ll tell my son to do this and try to make him do it as realistically as possible as you suggested.

  4. Ashley Turns says:

    I like how you suggest using an ACT test prep service that is free since there are so many available online alone. My little brother is going to be taking it soon and is wondering how he can begin to prepare for it. I’ll tell him that he definitely needs to look into ACT test prep services like group tutoring or his teachers.

  5. You have some great tips for these college entrance exams. I had no idea that my son should register for one of these 3 months in advance! It’s a good thing we still have time to do that. Thanks for the advice. I’ll show him the rest of these tips, too.

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