Expert Tips on How to Prepare for the SAT and ACT Tests

Akil Bello

All you ever need to know about SAT and ACT

In my 20+ year career in test preparation, I’ve been asked at least 1000 times “what would you tell a child getting ready for the SAT or ACT?” My response is universally the same: “Prepare.”

This short answer is really the best advice anyone can give anyone getting ready for any test. It’s what we all did for our driving test; its what we did for our weekly spelling test in 3rd grade; its what people do when they defend their dissertations in graduate school.

This test is no different from any other in that preparation results in better scores. That being said, how one prepares for the SAT/ACT is very different than how one prepares for a test in school, so to help you out I’m going to give a bit more clarity to the truism “prepare.”

The short list to the short answer:

  1. Prepare for the environment.
  2. Learn the scoring and content.
  3. (Re)Learn the content.
  4. Learn the tricks

Now for the details:

1. Prepare for the environment. 
Taking the SAT or ACT is a very tough and strange experience for most kids and the PSAT or PLAN are like running a 5k to prepare for a marathon – it’s nice but not enough. To get yourself ready for the SAT/ACT you have to experience it.

Think of it this way: if you were getting ready to perform a Chopin piece in Carnegie Hall would you prepare by playing Do-Re-Me at home? Probably not. You’ve got to simulate the full experience as much as you can. NFL Players will practice with crowd noise blaring in the background to simulate a loud stadium. You should do something similar.

  • Take a full-length proctored practice test in a room with other kids (sniffling, tapping, grunting, and groaning when you are trying to concentrate).
  • Take a full-length practice test with a proctor who doesn’t give a 5 minute warning.

If you prepare for the testing environment you increase you chance of success on the day of the actual test. 

2. Learn the scoring and format.
These tests are generally longer and formatted more weirdly than tests you encounter in school so you should do some additional research.  You have to know how it’s formatted, how it’s scored, and how it’s administered so that you can turn all of that into a strategy to help you do better.

  • Should you guess?
    If you know the SAT takes a quarter point off for wrong answers, you should only guess if you can eliminate at least one choice. However, since the ACT does not take any points off for wrong answers this means you should guess on every question, whether you read it or not.
  • Should you skip questions?
    You should know before test day that the SAT will have one section with 8 problem solving questions and 10 “grid in questions” and that in this section questions 6, 7, and 8 will be hard but 9, 10, 11 will be easy, thus you should skip the harder ones and work on the easier ones first.
    You should know that the ACT is not in order of difficulty so you should skip any question you don’t understand right away and mark it to come back to later. You should be prepared with an action plan for the ACT reading that has identified which of the four types of passages (always: prose fiction, social science, humanities or natural science and always in that order). 

The more you know, the more prepared you are and the easier the test will be. 

3. (Re)Learn the content. 
What makes the SAT and ACT tough is they are an odd combination of the easy and the hard, the general and the specific, and the familiar and the unfamiliar.  You will see general subjects like Algebra, but you should be prepared for questions covering various concepts from the two years of subject material covered in high school.  

The SAT and ACT test you on content from 1st through 11th grade. This insanely large range makes a really tough test to study for. When was the last time you’ve thought about a prime number, an integer, a multiple, a factor, or divisibility? All of these terms from 5 – 7th grade math make the test tougher if you don’t remember them and remember them well.  Testing some of the stuff from 11 different grades might be harder than if they tested it all. To prepare for the SAT/ACT you need to know what to study so you can be efficient and effective.

SAT/ACT Tips: 

  • In math about 90% of the questions are from Arithmetic, Algebra, and Geometry a smaller portion of the content is Algebra II and Trigonometry (the ACT has only 4 of 60 questions on SOHCAHTOA and the SAT has 0). 
  • Get SAT specific books.

4. Learn the tricks.
You’ll hear a bunch about tricks for the test, which are only partially useful. Tricks mean different things to different people so when you are looking for “tricks” to make you a better test taker you have to understand what a trick is and whether it will help you or not.

The most popular SAT/ACT “tricks:” 

  • Plugging in numbers to avoid doing algebra (this one is gold)
  • The word “being” is always wrong in grammar questions (this is diamond, while it’s valuable its rare)
  • Using the addition/subtraction method for simultaneous equations rather than substitution (this is in many math textbooks)
  • Eliminating answer choices that are “obvious” (this one is sketchy because if you can tell its a bad choice, can you not just find the good choice?)
  • Not reading all of a reading comprehension passage (this is great for the SAT not so much for the ACT).

You probably see where this list of tricks is going; it’s a combination of things that may or may not be real “tricks” but it’s important to remember that they are not magic.  They are soundly reasoned strategies that let you take advantage of the quirks and patterns of the test to either do work faster or make a good guess. If you learn the nuances of the test well it becomes predictable, laughable, and much more enjoyable. 

I hope this helps you better understand what to do to prep for these tests. If not drop me a comment and I’ll clarify in later posts! 


Akil Bello is co-founder of Bell Curves, a socially responsible test preparation and educational services company based in New York City. Since its inception, the company has developed a diverse clientele comprised of non-profit organizations, educational institutions, young professionals, and college and graduate school-bound students. For more tips on test prep, check out the Bell Curves Blog

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