If we could only offer one tip for good SAT or ACT scores, it would be this: Practice, practice, practice.
Years of studies have shown that test scores tend to increase with repeated testing, which makes a certain amount of sense—after all, if practice makes us better at playing piano or shooting 3-pointers, why wouldn’t practice make us better at taking tests? In fact, the makers of the ACT have found that repeat test takers have average Composite scores that are 2.9 points higher than single test takers.
There are two main reasons for why practice is a key to good SAT and ACT scores: Practice builds your test-taking skills and encourages retention of information.
When it comes to standardized tests like the SAT and ACT, practice as a means of test prep makes a lot of sense. Good SAT and ACT scores are, at least in part, the result of good test-taking skills. Lots of bright students possess the knowledge necessary to succeed on the SAT or ACT but still earn disappointing scores, and this is often the result of poor test-taking skills. Such students tend to fall prey to testing anxiety or fail to manage their time efficiently. Both of these test-taking weaknesses can be overcome through practice.
Practice tests help you know what to expect
Since the SAT and ACT are standardized tests, taking plenty of practice tests will help you to become familiar with the test format. After all, while the content of the test will change from administration to administration, the test itself remains the same. On the ACT, for example, you know that you’ll see a reading section. You know the reading section will include four passages, one each on natural science, literature, social studies, and humanities; that each passage will have ten questions; and that you’ll have 35 minutes to read the passages and answer the questions. By taking plenty of ACT practice tests, you can build a habit of tackling these passages so that on test day, you know exactly what to expect.
A big part of your success on these tests rests on how quickly you can work through each section in order to beat the clock – if you practice with the test format under timed conditions, you can build up speed so that time management won’t be an issue on test day. Practice SAT and ACT tests let you try out different time management strategies so that you can find the one that works best for you. For example, some students find it easier to get through the reading section if they skim the questions before reading the passage while others prefer to actively read the passage before looking at the questions.
Better retention leads to better test scores
Practice tests don’t just build these test-taking skills—they also help you to retain the knowledge you need to earn good SAT and ACT scores. Studies show that students who test themselves on information retain that information better than those who study using other methods. Robert Bjork, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose research has long focused on learning and memory, says that using our memories to retrieve information changes the way we access that information: “What we recall becomes more recallable in the future. In a sense, you are practicing what you are going to need to do later.”
In other words, in order to retrieve information faster and more accurately, you should practice retrieving it by testing yourself as a part of your study routine. For example, if grammar questions involving modifier errors keep tripping you up, you know you need to review the rules for modifiers; after you review those rules, you can help yourself to remember them by doing practice questions that focus on modifier errors.
Know your goals for practice
When it comes to using practice as a tool for SAT or ACT prep, there’s a caveat: You must use mindful practice. If all you do is take practice test after practice test, you’ll see diminishing returns with each additional test. Your score might go up a little bit, but eventually the miniscule score gains between practice tests won’t be worth the three hours you spent taking them. In other words, don’t just practice for the sake of practice. Practice to build speed, endurance, and skill by making your practice really count!
Helpful practice tips
Here are a few helpful tips to keep in mind as you practice for high SAT or ACT scores:
- Stick with full-length practices tests. Doing a few practice problems here and there or completing test sections in pieces won’t actually provide you with realistic practice. C2 test prep students enjoy access to our full suite of practice tests for the SAT and ACT.
- Time yourself. This falls under the heading of mimicking test day conditions. One of the toughest parts of succeeding on the SAT or ACT is time management. By engaging in timed practice, you can more easily spot the areas where you struggle with time management. Identify sections or specific types of questions that tend to suck up big chunks of time. Then you can strategize ways to tackle the problem. Timed practice will also help you to build up your speed – the more reading passages you read, the faster you’ll get at reading them!
- Take the whole test in one sitting. It can be hard to carve out an entire 3-hour chunk of time, but if you take your practice tests piecemeal, you won’t be building the endurance you need to maintain focus for the entire length of the test.
- Try to take the test in the morning. Your practice is most effective when it mimics test day conditions. On test day, you’ll take the test around 8 am. By practicing at that time of day, you’ll help to train your brain to function well first thing in the morning.
- Carefully review each practice test. Go through your answers with a fine-toothed comb, looking both at the questions you answered correctly and the ones you missed or skipped. If you got it right, make sure you know why you got it right and that it wasn’t just a lucky guess. If you got it wrong, figure out where you made a mistake and make sure you understand why the right answer is the right answer. And if you skipped it, figure out why – was it a time management issue or is this a type of question you struggle with?