3 Tips For Every Underclassmen to Boost Their ACT & SAT Scores

Photo of a girl reading a book on the beach.

Source: Flickr user pedrosimoes7.

Every fall, a few eager students approach me, interested in test prep well before junior year. Middle school students, freshmen, and sophomores are often anxious over what’s coming down the road. That means they want to get a jump on the work.

“If I take your course now just for practice, is that ok?” they ask. “I just want to make sure that I’m ready when the time comes.”

I love these students because they are seeking information early. In testing, as in college admissions, if there’s one thing most students need more of, it’s time.

Getting started early is great. That said, these early birds are a little too early to dive into test prep proper. But there are 3 things that these students can do now to set themselves up for success on the ACT and SAT once the time is right to begin preparation and testing.

1. Read…A Lot

The one aspect of test prep that is hardest to teach in an 8-week course is reading. The reason is that you acquire reading skills over time. Also, reading requires continual practice to maintain a level of proficiency, and improvement–as you may imagine–takes serious effort.

Any standardized test is, at its core, a reading test. If you can’t process the questions you’re being presented, you’ll struggle to answer them well.

Building and maintaining strong reading skills is important for testing. But, the benefits of reading don’t stop at improved test scores.

There have been numerous studies that tie reading to myriad benefits, including stronger analytical thinking skills, reduced stress levels, and improved focus. Some studies have even suggested that reading early in life can help stave off Alzheimer’s disease later.

The best part is that it doesn’t matter what you read. It just matters that you read.

So, spice up your bookshelf with anything from comic books to YA novels to non-fiction on subjects you really care about. Set aside 15-30 minutes a day and dive in to expand your mind or have a good laugh.

If you’re lost and need some great book recommendations, be sure to check out Episode 56 of The College Checklist Podcast. While it was created with summer reading in mind, these books are great reads at any time of year.

2. Get Curious

The students who improve the most through ACT and SAT test prep are the ones who more often ask why things are the way they are, rather than how to answer specific questions.

From my vantage point, the students asking why as opposed to how are focused on one of the most important factors for improvement–flexible thinking.

These students understand that no 2 questions will be the same from test to test. They are interested in exploring the underlying mechanics of the question–the strings that ACT, Inc., and College Board are pulling–so that when the question shifts slightly, they will still be equipped to answer it.

Unfortunately, by the time I start to work with students in their late sophomore or early junior year, they’re often so overwhelmed by the things they must get done that they are focused on completing tasks rather than experiencing the journey.

How do we fight this very natural and understandable urge? How do we seek deeper meaning?

We curate curiosity.

That may sound strange, but I assure you that this process doesn’t have to be (and shouldn’t be) boring.

While there are things you can do in your academics that can help you (such as taking time for a detailed review of incorrect answers from homework and tests), the best way to curate curiosity is to simply start asking “why?” more often.

Begin to wonder at the world around you, to ponder historical events, to engage with new people, and to live outside your comfort zone. These are great ways to stoke the fires of curiosity.

So cook a new recipe, volunteer at a retirement community or hospital, plant a garden, visit a museum, watch a documentary, or take a family road trip somewhere interesting.

Ask questions and seek answers. Go deep and keep learning when you’re outside the 4 walls of the classroom.

3. Plug The Holes

I originally had this point labeled “Get Good Grades,” but–in my experience–some students are able to get good grades without truly understanding the subject material.

You may have enough knowledge to get by or to earn a passable grade. But, if it feels like you’re walking a mental tightrope, it’s just a matter of time before you fall off.

So, ask yourself, honestly, what subjects or areas did you not really understand or do you not remember well enough?

Then get help. Plug the holes in your academic boat before those issues compound and create lasting learning gaps.

There are amazing teachers and peer-to-peer tutors at most schools who can offer free, personalized assistance. There are free online options too, such as Khan Academy. And, if you need a little more help, there are tutors available online and in almost every city across the country.

In today’s world there’s no excuse for academic laziness. If you don’t understand something, seek out answers. They’re there if you take the time to look.

It takes hard work now. But, it will set a firm academic foundation that will benefit you not only in testing but, more importantly, for the rest of your life.

4. [BONUS] Set Your Testing Timeline Early

While I don’t encourage getting started with testing & test prep before sophomore year at the earliest, you can make plans for testing as early 8th grade if you’d like.

To figure out the best time for you to take the ACT or SAT, check out Episode 42 of The College Checklist Podcast. In this episode, I walk you through 6 steps that will help you set up your perfect testing timeline.

It’s a great way to make sure you get started with testing at the time that is the best fit for you.

Until then, enjoy reading, get curious, and shore up your academic weaknesses. Fall in love with learning and, when the time comes, the ACT and SAT will be a breeze.

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