Getting the most out of standardized test (SAT, ACT) practice books

1) For the SAT, I prefer the study guide and practice tests published by The College Board (it can be found at Amazon: The Official SAT Study Guide (2016 Edition)) as it contains good scoring guides and is published by the authors of the test. The College Board is now also providing on-line practice test resources, as well as an app for your phone which provides daily practice problems.

2) Most formulas needed to answer SAT questions will be given at the start of the test section.  Overall, it is more important to know how to use a formula than it is to memorize it.  In studying for the SAT, focus on understanding the mathematics instead of memorizing facts or formulas.

3) Always time yourself when taking a practice test.  This will help you develop a sense of when it is time to move on to the next question without having to look at a clock.

4) When taking practice tests, do not write anything in the practice test book – do all of your thinking, doodling, scratch work, and answers on a separate piece of paper.  This will allow you to re-take this same test later (after working on the problems you got wrong) to see how much your score improves.  On the real test, you must do all your work in the question booklet.

5) Write your final answers on a separate piece of paper (as though it was the answer grid).  Just before you write down each answer, put a mark next to your work on the problem that indicates how much confidence you have in your answer.  This will allow you to efficiently prioritize your remaining time when you reach the end of a section.  You should have marks to indicate:
– No need to look at this one again (perhaps a check mark?)
– Double check the answer if there is time (a question mark?)
– Needs work – come back to this after double checking is done (an asterisk?)

6) On the real test, when you are using an answer sheet grid, as you move from problem to answer sheet focus on both the problem number and the answer letter.  Say them both to yourself under your breath, and as you are about to mark the answer sheet, double check that you are about to grid an answer for the correct question number.  This will help avoid gridding errors when you have skipped one or more questions in a section.

7) Be certain you understand a question completely before starting to answer it.  If you spend 25% of your time reading a question, and 75% of your time answering it, you may be rushing through your reading of the question.  It is often faster and easier in the long run to first make sure you understand the question completely.  I prefer to restate or illustrate the facts in the question in my own writing, organizing them in my preferred way as I do so.  Only once I completely understand all of the information they have provided, along with what they are asking, do I begin to work on the math side of the problem.

8) Answer The Question (ATQ)!  Once you have figured out your answer to a problem, re-read the question at the end of the problem to make sure you have answered it.  For example, you may have figured out the number of coins present, but the question may ask for the value of the coins.  This is a very common error, so check that you have answered the question they asked on every question.

9) When time is up, draw a line below the last question you answered “in time”, then keep working on the rest of the questions and write their answers below the line.   When you score the test, calculate your “in time” score as well as your “unlimited time” score.  This will give you a sense of how many points you could gain by working a bit faster.

10) Once you have finished a test section and corrected it, copy all of the question numbers that you either did not answer or got wrong onto a clean piece of paper.  Don’t forget to include either the test number or page number for each question!  Next, work on these questions: figure out why you got them wrong, then learn or review the topics they were asking about.  A few days later, try to answer the questions on this list again to check your understanding.  If you find yourself hesitating at some point during the process of solving them, write the troublesome problem numbers down on another sheet of paper, to be re-done again a few days later.

11) Once you have wrung all you can out of one practice test section, move on to the next one.  Do one section at a time as described above until you have completed two full practice tests, then re-take the first test completely (proving to yourself that each answer is right – don’t just mark down a memorized answer from the first time).  Compare your scores on the same test.  Your score should improve.  Your repeated solving of the same problems will help increase your confidence in working these types of problems, and will probably increase your speed in working them as well.

12) After completing 3 or 4 practice tests, you will probably notice that your scores seem to be approaching or oscillating about a plateau.  This gives you a good idea of your likely score range on the actual test – so don’t worry about it on test day.  You have done a good job practicing, you are now familiar with all the types of questions they will ask, and you should now have a good sense of which problems you get right every time versus those you need to double-check.  Just walk into the testing center and do what you now know you can do.

13) At least several weeks before your test date, try to do a complete practice test (all sections) in one sitting – timing yourself as usual.  This will give you a good sense of how you will feel when taking the real test, as it does test your ability to stay focused for long periods of time.  Compare your score on this test to your scores on tests you completed one section at a time… it will probably be a bit lower.

14) Get a really good night’s sleep for the night or two before taking the test.  All of your practice work should have you feeling confident about the approximate score you are likely to receive.  Stay focused, work diligently, keep track of time, and you will do your best!

By Whit Ford

Math tutor since 1992. Former math teacher, product manager, software developer, research analyst, etc.

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