Sat/Act Survival Guide

Sat/Act Survival Guide

Jaclyn Lieber

Boost your scores by being prepared. Here’s the scoop on what to expect from the big tests.

Your hand quivers as you clutch your No. 2 pencil. Sweat pours down your temple. And then, before you’ve filled in a single bubble, you hear the two most dreaded words of your high I school career: “Time’s up.” As the season of standardized testing approaches, you may be a victim of this recurring nightmare. The only real cure is to know the enemy inside and out. By getting informed, you can face your fears and ace the exam.

Why Must These Tests Torture Me?

College entrance tests were not created solely to haunt you throughout your junior and senior years. SAT and ACT scores allow college admission officers to judge all prospective students on the same scale and help them determine how prepared applicants are to do college-level work.

“With growing concern about grade inflation [in high schools], there is certainly a great continuing interest in the use of the SAT,” says Bill Kolb, director of admission at the University of Florida, Gainesville. That’s not to say the admission tests haven’t stirred up their share of controversy. (See “SAT Under Fire,” next page.)

Although test scores are clearly important, remember that, they’re just one piece of the application package. “It’s one test on one day,” says Marc Camille, dean of admission at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. “A high school transcript is an accumulation of effort over a four-year period. We certainly look at SAT/ACT scores, but they’re not the end all that often times they’re made out to be.”

Another reason not to panic: You can always take the test again. More than half of SAT test-takers repeat the test, and nearly two-thirds of them see their scores rise, according to the College Board. (The average change between spring of junior year and fall of senior year is 12 to 14 points on verbal and 14 to 16 points on math.) ACT reports that about a third of its test-takers tackle the exam more than once, but increases of more than 2 or 3 points are rare.


Historically, the SAT was taken predominantly by students on the East and West Coasts, while the ACT was more popular in the Midwest and South. These days, the vast majority of colleges accept scores from either exam, but check to see if they have a preference. (For a list of test dates, see page 6.)

Test experts say students typically perform better on one of the exams, so it’s in your best interest to rake a practice version of each test under actual timed conditions and compare your scores. Your guidance counselor should have a chart showing how scores on the two tests equate. If you opt to take both exams, colleges count the higher score.

“I wasn’t doing so well on the SAT the first two times, so I thought, why not take the ACT?” says Sarah McMordie, 19, of Westfield, Massachusetts. “I scored in the 99th percentile on the ACT, but only the 80-something percentile on the SAT.”

Even if one exam is more popular in your area, you should have no problem taking the other exam. Check with your guidance counselor to find the nearest test site.

Ready, Set… Prep!

Experts recommend that you start preparing seriously about six to eight weeks before the test. Depending on how disciplined you are, you might set up your own system, join a free school study group, or pay for training.

Resources abound for those who want to set up their own personal study routines. You’ll find practice SATs in guidebooks, software programs, high school guidance offices, and on the Internet. Students who register for the SAT I receive a free copy of Taking the SAT I, a booklet containing a real past exam with an answer key and an extensive array of tips. Additional past exams are available online at the College Board Web site and in SAT guidebooks. The only book that has actual past ACT exams is Getting Into the ACT (Harcourt Brace), but your guidance office should have additional copies of past exams.

Vanya Filipovic, a recent graduate of Woodstock Union High School in Barnard, Vermont, formed an SAT study group with friends. “We all had our own study methods,” she says. “One of my friends had computer software, another had a huge book, and we got practice tests from the counseling office. It was nice to have that group of friends to experience it with.”

For students who need an extra push, a test-prep class or private tutor may fir the bill. Andrew Lipson, 19, of the Bronx, New York, had a tutor who came to his house once a week. “If I didn’t have a guy who I knew my mom was paying to make me study, I wouldn’t have done it,” says Lipson.

Test-prep classes, such as those offered by Kaplan and Princeton Review, can cost $1,000 for a 6- to 12-week course. For that amount, you get up to 36 hours of class time, plus time devoted to taking practice tests. The major test-prep companies also provide courses that can be taken entirely online and can cost half the price of a regular class.

The College Board and ACT suggest that students look for courses with substantial academic content as opposed to just “insider” tricks. Ask counselors and older students which test-prep programs they recommend.


Jeff Rubenstein, author of Crash Course for the SAT (Princeton Review), offers five essential steps for any test-prep strategy.

1. Review the basics. The math section of the SAT tests arithmetic, algebra, and geometry. For the ACT, you’ll also need to know some basic trigonometry. While both exams test reading comprehension, the ACT stresses grammar and the SAT tests vocabulary. Boost your vocabulary by reading regularly and looking up words you don’t know.

2. Learn test-specific techniques. Even if you tend to do well in math class, you may need to learn good test-taking techniques. Refer to test-prep books or Web sites.

3. Apply the techniques. Take timed practice tests and then analyze your answers to help you evaluate your strengths and weaknesses. Figure out the best order in which to approach the questions.

4. Study in a comfortable environment. This will boost your discipline and make the test seem less intimidating.

5. Stick to a serious study plan. Set up a consistent schedule that allows you to study in small weekly bursts. Treat your study time as you would any appointment, such as soccer practice or a date.

Jaclyn Lieber is a former editor at CAREERS & COLLEGES.


The University of California made headlines last year when its president, Richard C. Atkinson, proposed abandoning the school’s SAT requirement. The SAT, he says, places an emphasis on improving test-taking skills rather than learning subject matter. Atkinson suggested that new tests be developed that reflect material learned in college prep classes. FairTest, a group that urges colleges to rely less on testing, has identified 280 test-optional schools. Still, the majority of four-year colleges do require the SAT or ACT. Some colleges even consider admission test scores when doling out scholarship dollars.


One Week Before

* Gradually taper off your studying, but review your areas of strength to boost your confidence.

* Eat healthy and get at least eight hours of sleep a night.

One Day Before

* Don’t study. Cramming is unlikely to help you.

* Rent can tackle the test with a clear mind.

* Put enough gas in the car to get to the test site.

* Set out everything you’ll need to bring to the test:

* admission ticket

* photo identification

* three No. 2 pencils with good erasers

* calculator with fresh batteries

* watch

* directions to test site

Test Day

* Wake up early enough to get there without rushing.

* Eat a healthy breakfast.

* Wear comfortable clothing and dress in layers.


SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test)

WHAT IT ;IS: A three-hour, mostly multiple-choice exam that tests math, vocabulary, critical reading, and reasoning skills.

FORMAT: Seven section-three math, three verbal, and one experimental, either math or verbal, which doesn’t count toward your final score.

SCORING: Verbal and math sections are scored on a scale of 200 to 800; highest possible combined score: 1600; 2000 average verbal score: 505; average math score: 514.

WHEN TO TAKE IT: Most students take it at the end of junior year; some students opt to re-test at the beginning of senior year.

TO REGISTER: Pick up a registration booklet at your guidance office, order one by calling the Educational Testing Service (ETS) at 609-921-9000, or register online at

COST: $24

ACT (The ACT Assessment)

WHAT IT ; IS: A four-hour multiple-choice exam that tests academic ability in four high school curriculum areas.

FORMAT: Four sections-math, English, reading, and science.

SCORING: Scale of 1 to 36 for each section; final score is an average of the four scores; 2000 average composite score: 21.

WHEN TO TAKE IT: Spring of junior or fall of senior year.

TO REGISTER: Pick up a registration booklet at your guidance office, order one by calling the ACT at 319-337-1270 or register at

COST: $23

COPYRIGHT 2001 EM Guild, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group