Everything You Need To Know About Test Prep

Matt Larriva
Jul 28, 2023
Home » Everything You Need To Know About Test Prep

This article comes from my presentation at the College Workshop Week (a big thanks to Penny Reeves for hosting!).

Consider it your ultimate guide to ACT and SAT prep.

The State of the Tests: 2021 

Testing Optional is Fully Adopted 

Our analysis: While most schools have made testing optional for 2020-2021, we  expect most to settle into a ‘testing recommended’ policy. Such a policy would  encourage students who could reasonably be expected to test to do so.

Similarly,  the schools would not expect students to test if it would present an unreasonable  burden.  

The University of California system pledges to go Test Blind by 2024 

Our analysis: This was a hasty decision done in the name of social equality, but with equally concerning ethical questions.

The UC’s own report states they’re unsure how to fairly compare students who submit scores to students who don’t submit scores.

We expect the UC to either walk back this decision or to introduce its own test which will bear a striking resemblance to the SAT and ACT. 

Visit UC Admissions Requirements & How To Make Your UC Application Stand Out for more information.

SAT Subject Tests are Cancelled 

Our analysis: While abrupt, the permanent cancellation of the SAT Subject Tests was not a surprise.

The SAT is prioritizing its AP exams in place of the Subject Tests.

We expect an uptick in AP test-taking.

READ MORE | SAT Subject Tests:

Testing Optional: Do You Need to Take a Test? 

In short: If you can test and do comparatively well (for your target school) without your GPA falling or overburdening yourself, then you should. 

Use our infographic to determine if you need to take the SAT or ACT.

Do take an SAT or ACT if you… 

  • Are targeting a selective school like the Ivy League (<15% admission rate) 
  • Have a background that indicates resources for extracurricular activities (i.e., if you took piano lessons throughout your youth, it will be hard to suggest you do not have the  resources to prepare for the SAT/ACT) 
  • Have a weak GPA and are looking to strengthen your application by showing a strong  SAT/ACT score 
  • Are targeting a non-testing-optional school

Do not take an SAT or ACT if you… 

  • Have extenuating circumstances such that test-prep and or test-taking would be too expensive or too time-consuming for you 
  • Are targeting a testing-optional school that has a low selectivity and an SAT or ACT score  would not help your chances of admissions such as a school in the UC system
  • You come from a very underrepresented minority or socioeconomic status or background

Testing Optional: More Details 

Many schools are going, ‘testing-optional’. What does this mean for students exactly?

  • This means the school will look at your application even if you don’t have an SAT or  ACT score 
  • It does not mean a higher chance of admissions

Remember, you will lose out to a candidate with a similar profile who does submit even an average score.

Whom Does Testing-Optional Benefit? 

Strong GPA students who didn’t have time/resources to prepare for tests.

What Kinds of Schools are Testing-Optional?

list of schools that are testing optional

Choosing the Right Test

Here is a helpful infographic designed to help students choose the best test for them and their goals.

act vs sat infographic

Share this infographic on your site:

Find Your Baseline SAT or ACT Score

 Self-Administer a Free SAT or ACT 

Practice tests are freely available. Grab the SAT practice tests from the link below or check out ACT.org

Do not register for an official proctored SAT or ACT to find your baseline score.

Download free CollegeBoard SAT Practice Tests here:

Make Sure Your Score is Realistic

To make sure your practice test scores are realistic follow these four best practices when taking either a practice SAT or ACT test: 

  1. Take the test at 8AM 
  2. Complete the test all at once 
  3. Find a location outside the home to take the practice test
  4. Do not use your cell phone

Find Your Target Score

average test scores of ivy league universities

Use your unweighted GPA and coursework to lead you to your school tier.

  • ≥3.8 GPA in the most rigorous coursework = Tier 1 School 
  • 3.3-3.7 GPA, 2-3 AP Courses = Tier 2 School
    • Examples: UCLA, UVA, UCSD, etc. Top Tier public schools, middle-tier private schools
    • Scores required: 1300-1450 SAT, 27-33 ACT
  • <3.3 GPA, no AP courses = Tier 3 Schools 
    • Examples: Cal-State schools, lower-middle tier private schools, non-academic-primary  institutions (religious institutions, art institutions, conservatories) 
    • Scores required: 1000 SAT, 20 ACT (national average) 

There are schools with 100% admission that have even lower requirements. Other schools are ‘testing optional’.

How Long Will It Take To Get From Your Starting Score To Your Target Score?

The average student preps for about 3-months, but it all depends on how  many points you want. Powerful Prep averages 0.3 points per week on the ACT and 17 points per week on the SAT.  

  • For example, a gain of 170 points would, on average, take 10 weeks.  
  • If your starting score on the ACT was 20 and you wanted to achieve a 25 you would need about 16 weeks 

Some things that may delay that: 

  • High school demands that limit your time 
  • Test stress or test anxiety 

Remember, starting early is best!

For a full analysis on the optimal timeframe, and for help on deciding when to take the SAT and ACT, please review our articles:

The Basics Of Test-Prep: Prepping Alone Or With Help

You can prep alone…but you can also serve as your own lawyer…

One-on-one, Tutor, Small-Group, or Solo? 

In order of effectiveness:

  • one-on-one
  • small-group
  • solo 

Who benefits most from solo prep? 

Students who have unlimited time and have high GPAs.

Who benefits most from small-group prep? 

Students who have 3-4 months, need medium point gains, and are looking for a low-cost option.

Who benefits most from one-on-one prep? 

  • Students who need large point gains, in small amounts of time and are not resource-constrained.
  • Students who are in specialized situations: targeting perfect scores or have only one more chance.

The Basics Of Test-Prep: Math

Good news, math is one of the easier sections to improve on.

► SAT Math

  • Covers way more material and in greater depth
  • Includes a no-calculator section 
  • Better for students who did well in all math classes ever 

WATCH: How To Solve The Math SAT Practice Test 1 – Problems 1-20 (No Calculator)

► ACT Math:

  • Less tricky, less material (but changing) 
  • Better for students who did really well in either Algebra or Geometry 

How To Prep For ACT/SAT Math

  • Do as many problems as possible 
  • Brush up on topics you’re weak on 
  • Repeat 

The Basics Of Test-Prep: English 

English is the easiest section to improve in on the SAT and ACT tests. Plus, the SAT and ACT cover the same material 

How To Prep For ACT/SAT English

  • You need to learn about 14 rules of grammar, and then you’re set
    • Examples: subject-verb agreement, pronoun-antecedent agreement. (You will not have learned these in school.)
  • Take tests 
  • Focus on your weak areas 

Helpful Books For Studying ACT/SAT English

Please see our full guide on the best SAT prep book here.

Also consider:

The Basics Of Test-Prep: Science

Science is the hardest section to improve in. The SAT has a very minimal amount of science, while the ACT has a lot. This section doesn’t require outside science knowledge, but it helps.

How To Prep For ACT/SAT Science

  • Use common sense
  • Don’t overcomplicate
  • The first 4 questions are easy
  • The last 2 are very difficult
  • Budget your time wisely
  • Practice writing questions

Helpful Books For Studying ACT/SAT Science

The Basics Of Test-Prep: Reading

Reading is the second-hardest section to improve in (or first-hardest on the SAT). The ACT is more reading-heavy of the two tests.

How To Prep For ACT/SAT Reading

  • Skim first
  • Then questions
  • Realize the test’s answers generally fall into 4 categories
  • Remember there can be no interpretation or assumption

Helpful Books For Studying ACT/SAT Science

Test Prep Timeline Planning

Balancing It All

High-School is a balancing act. It’s hard to know where to focus your efforts!

  • From Freshman through Junior year, focus primarily on your GPA.
    • Prep for the tests during the summer
  • During Senior year, focus almost exclusively on test prep
    • Your GPA is fixed, but a bump in your SAT or ACT score could go a long way.
    • Would you admit a 3.92GPA with a 1400 SAT score or 3.90 GPA with a 1500 SAT score?
effect of a single grade drop in a given semester on cumulative GPA

Hot Gossip: ACT/SAT Test Prep Edition

  • January 2020
  • February 2020
    • Sentencing from the Varsity Blues scandal
    • Desperate Housewife actress does time
  • May 2020

In Summary

  • Choose which test is best for you, using our infographic from above.
  • Find your baseline score using the free tests on The College Board or the ACT.org
  • Find your target score by using your GPA and coursework as a guide
  • Decide whether you will prep in small-group or with a tutor
  • Work through the sections, finding your weaknesses and practicing them until they become strengths
  • Plan your test dates (probably Fall of your Junior and Senior years)
  • Focus on test prep intensely during your senior year
  • Succeed!

And of course—contact Powerful Prep with any questions.