When to take the SAT or the ACT

One of the biggest mistakes juniors make is to take the SAT or ACT in the winter or the early spring –when they’re not truly prepared — just because they (or their parents) have decided they should be done by a certain time. While this certainly does work for some people, the reality is that many others will need to complete most of their junior year in order to really be ready. The skills that the SAT tests cannot be acquired overnight, or even in a month or two for most people, and if you need some extra time to really feel like you know what you’re doing, take it and don’t look back.

My general rule is that you shouldn’t take the test for real until you have already scored in your target range on a full-length, timed practice test. Your score will probably not just magically shoot up on the actual test, and even with score choice, you may still be required to submit it to certain schools. Every one of my students that decided to take the test earlier than planned “just to get a score” was unhappy with the results. The ones that waited, on the other hand, never regretted doing so.

Furthermore, taking the test before you’re ready and ending up with a score you don’t want can create a dangerous cycle of anxiety. I’ve had a number of students who took either the ACT or the SAT repeatedly before coming to me, and they spent so much time psyching themselves out that my biggest challenge was simply to persuade them that they could actually do well!

So if you originally intended to take the test and January or March but don’t end up feeling that you’re ready by then, do not take the test “just to get it over with.” If you are signed up for the May test but feel like you need an extra month to study, wait and take the test in June. I know you have finals and AP/IB exams and it sucks to still be studying that late when all of your friends have their scores already, but trust me, it pays to take the time, work on the areas you need to work on, and then take the test when you feel you’re finally in control.

Cross out the entire answer

This is one of those tiny tips that can make a big difference. Whenever you eliminate an answer, draw a line through the whole thing — don’t just cross out the letter, and don’t just put an “x” next to it. Otherwise, it’s very easy for your eye to get distracted. You end up going back and looking at answers that you’ve already gotten rid of. You think you’ve eliminated them, but subconsciously you haven’t done so completely, and consequently there’s a much higher likelihood that sooner or later you’ll accidentally fill in a wrong answer.

There’s also a psychological aspect. While working through a question, I find it a relief to be able to eliminate an answer thoroughly. Out of sight, of mind — it’s just one less thing to deal with. It shows you in a very concrete way that you’re making progress, and that tends to boost your motivation.

Besides, it can be very satisfying psychologically to cross something out so completely — it’s like saying, “Take that, you stupid test!”