- Generally, it doesn’t really matter which test you choose. Often, we recommend taking both of them, seeing which one you did better on, then working to improve that score.
- You need to study and prepare for the test.
- If you take the test once and then do not study, it is unlikely that your score will improve. Improvement happens only when you study and work to strengthen your weak areas.
There are plenty of resources out there that exist to help you do well on the SAT or ACT. If you are taking the SAT, I recommend checking out KHAN Academy. There is test prep for the SAT, and there are video tutorials to walk you through the different types of questions. It really is impressive, and the best part is, it’s entirely free. If you are taking the ACT, check out McGraw-Hill's site. They offer practice tests and videos that explain key concepts tested on the test. (They also offer SAT support, too.) Another resource that offers solid support is Number2. It is not the most exciting website to work through, but it does the job! Number2 has resources for the SAT and the ACT.
Another resource I think you will enjoy is an app for your iPad or iPhone. It’s called SAT Up and ACT Up, apps created by Score Beyond. There is a paid version of the app, but the free version is great and worth checking out. You begin by taking a diagnostic test, then the app gives you a quick test (called a “workout”) to take each day, complete with a reminder for you. You can also quiz yourself on vocabulary using flashcards on the app.
Finally, you may want to check out this list of 92 words put together by Sparknotes. You will find no shortage of vocabulary word lists out there, but this one is nice because it’s only 92 words and it has vocabulary that has shown up most often on SAT tests. I recommend creating your own flashcards with these words and referencing them daily.
The information above will get you started on your test prep, but I want to give you more information about writing the essay for the SAT or the ACT.
Five Facts about the SAT and ACT Essay
- The SAT essay is required; the ACT essay is optional. However, you should do the essay for the ACT!
- You have a short amount of time to write your essay: 25 minutes for the SAT, and 30 minutes for the ACT.
- Two readers read and score the essay.
- Readers spend about 2-3 minutes on your essay. That’s it!
- Each reader gives your essay a score between 1 and 6.
10 Quick Tips for Writing the SAT or ACT Essay
- Make your essay visually attractive. Write neatly and have clear structure by indenting your paragraphs.
- Focus on the prompt or question and answer it (and only it!) in your response.
- Choose a side and stick to it.
- Length matters. Use all of the space provided. (Note that you don’t receive extra paper, though.)
- Use strong vocabulary.
- Follow good writing practice, such as using transitions, sentence variety, and active rather than passive voice; and make sure to use correct spelling, mechanics, and grammar.
- A clear thesis or position is a must.
- A descriptive focus or motive (the sentence or two leading up to your thesis) is just as important as a strong thesis.
- For each paragraph, have 2-3 examples to support your topic sentence. Examples can be from literature, history, current events, science, and your own life experience. Explain them well.
- Follow basic essay structure: Include an introduction, body paragraphs that support the thesis, and a conclusion.
Remember, you can practice and prepare for the essay just like you can practice and prepare for anything in life! Just because you don’t feel like you are a strong writer doesn’t mean you can’t write a solid essay. Furthermore, even if you’ve done well on English essays in the past, it’s important to realize that the standardized test essay is different.
One way to prepare for your essay is to sit down and come up with a list of topics you feel comfortable writing about. You should consider:
- Literature: Choose books you feel comfortable writing about. The books can be classics, contemporary (if sophisticated), poetry, or nonfiction. For each, provide the title, author, basic plot elements, and at least one key quotation.
- History: Choose historical events that you feel comfortable writing about. For each, give the event, the key people, where it happened, details about it, and the lesson you can draw from it.
- Current Events or Other Interests: Choose current events or other academic interests you feel comfortable writing about. These may come from politics, technology, art, humanitarian concerns, natural disasters, medicine, science, music, etc. For each, give the event, three details you know about it, and the theme or lesson you can draw from it.
- Life Experience: Give life lessons you feel comfortable writing about. These should be mature, meaningful experiences in your life. They could come from any point in your life, but should matter to you now. For each, give at least three details about the experience, and then explain the theme or lesson you can draw from it.
Take the time to think through these! The more time you prepare for the essay beforehand, the stronger your essay will be.
Luckily, Collegeboard has given a number of sample essays to check out. Follow the steps below.
- Step 1: Go to the following site: http://sat.collegeboard.org/scores/sat-essay-scoring-guide
- Step 2: Read through the page and read the sample essays. Pay attention to the paragraph at the bottom of each sample essay explaining the score.
- Step 3: Choose one essay. Copy and paste it into a document and print it. Read the sample essay and complete #1-10 with it (below).
- Identify the hook of the introduction. Put a star next to it.
- What is the focus or motive in the introduction? Underline it.
- Highlight the thesis statement. Underline the clear position the student takes.
- Read the two body paragraphs and highlight the sentence support.
- Read through the essay and circle strong vocabulary.
- Find the shortest and longest sentences. Draw a squiggly line under them.
- Put a box around the transition in the second body paragraph.
- Look at how each sentence begins. Make a tally of the following: A. Sentences that begin with a noun or pronoun; B. Sentences that begin with a phrase. Look for prepositions such as through or with or participles, those words ending in –ing or –ed. Also, look for groups of groups of words that are followed by a comma; C. Sentences that begin with a transition. D. Sentences that begin in a way not mentioned above.
- Underline the first sentence in the conclusion. Notice how it connects to the intro.
- Double-underline the call to action (conclusion) in the last paragraph.
Once you've studied and prepared, find a sample prompt (simply search Sample SAT/ACT Prompt), sit down, and write for 25 minutes. Do these a few times in preparation for your essay. Finally, schedule a time for you to take a whole practice test. Click here to download a full SAT practice test, and here to download a full ACT practice test. Make it feel like the real thing! At the end of the day, it will be worth it if your scores help you get into the college of your dreams.