Test Prep Strategies: SAT, ACT, and PSAT/NMSQT

By Peterson's Staff updated on Thursday, April 17, 2014

Standardized tests play an important role in the college admission process and you can get through them! Read on and prepare for test success.

Taking the PSAT

To start out, many students take a practice PSAT/NMSQT during sophomore year, which is optional. Wondering why you would elect to take a test? The more you know about your exams, the more relaxed you'll be on the one that counts. As for the "real" test, you'll take that in October of junior year. (At an "ACT school" you'll take the PLAN during the fall of sophomore year.)


The choice of whether to take the SAT or ACT used to be determined by your school or region. Today, however, most colleges accept both SAT and ACT scores, which means that you can decide for yourself.

Although the tests are similar, there are some key differences. On the SAT, the writing section is required and the essay factors into your overall score. On the ACT, you can choose whether or not to take the writing section. Another difference is the way that the tests are scored. On the SAT, you'll get a small amount deducted for every wrong answer. On the ACT, right answers count and wrong answers don't hurt you — so fill in every bubble. The SAT tests reading comprehension, math, and writing skills, but the ACT also tests science reasoning. Don't worry too much, though — you don't need to know science facts since it really tests your ability to read and interpret scientific information.

Neither the SAT or ACT is easier or better, but by getting to know each, you can decide which suits you. If you're still undecided about which to take, try a practice test for each. If you find one less difficult, you can shape your test prep plan accordingly, and you won't have to take both!

Test prep planning

Once you figure out what you're studying for, it's time to get busy. Sadly, prep through osmosis (placing your book under your pillow) definitely doesn't work, but completing test preparation has been proven to improve scores.

Start getting ready at least six weeks before the test. Books and online courses introduce all the content you need to know, though you'll need to stay motivated to work through it. Classroom courses keep you on track, but you don't have the same flexibility when it comes to scheduling. Choose what works for you — and what you'll stick with.

Free online practice tests can be good test prep resources. You get a good idea of what the tests are like, coupled with knowledge about where you need to develop your own skills. Check out the free practice tests for the SAT, ACT, and PSAT avaiable here at Peterson's to kick off your test prep.

Test preparation strategies

As you prepare, certain test prep strategies can help boost your scores.

Stress is your number one enemy. Don't cram — that will only add to it. If you're not happy with your score, you can retake the test.

Play detective
Even if you're not sure about the correct answer, you can gain points by eliminating the wrong ones. If you're working on a problem and know that answers A and C are not correct, cross them off and guess from the remaining choices.

Avoid variables
"N" and "X" variables can really clutter up a math question. Turn these questions into simple arithmetic problems by making up a number for the variable and then solving the problem. Next time you see an "x" in a question, plug in a 2 instead. Choose the right answer by doing the same thing with each answer choice.

Test prep for writing sections

While many students are less than pleased about the prospect of writing an essay, it's definitely not the end of the world. It's quite possible that your performance on the writing portion of either exam can work in your favor. In other words, don't assume that you'll bomb it. Besides, the writing section only accounts for about a ninth of your SAT score and the optional ACT essay isn't even counted (though certain colleges require it).

About the Author

Peterson's has more than 40 years of experience in higher education, and the expert staff members here are all ready to leverage their considerable knowledge and experience to help you succeed on your educational journey. We have the information, the know-how, and the tools -- now all we need is you!

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