SAT and ACT Test Prep Strategies

on July 21, 2017

Students should consider factors that they can and cannot control when choosing how to prepare for the SAT and ACT tests.


Test-Prep Factors You Can’t Control


Here is one of the ugly truths about the SAT and ACT:


Some of the factors that can lead to great scores are out of a teenager’s control.


For instance, teenagers whose parents are college educated and wealthy typically will score better than those who live in a low-income household and are the first in their families to attend college.


In fact, one reason why the standardized tests attract critics is because test results are highly correlated with income. On average, the wealthier the family, the higher the test scores will be. Obviously, teenagers have no control over this reality. 


Here is an illustration of this phenomenon:


In 2016, test takers who came from families with incomes of $20,000 or less earned an average SAT score of 1314 out of 2400. In contrast, students with parents earning more than $200,000 received an average score of 1717. That’s a 403-point difference.


As you can see from the chart below, which is based on the College Board’s 2016 Total Group Profile Report, the score differences are present up and down the income scale.


2016 College-Bound Seniors SAT Scores by Family Income

Family Income





Less than $20,000





$20,000 to $40,000





$40,001 to $60,000





$60,001 to $80,000





$80,001 to $100,000





$100,001 to $140,000





$140,001 to $200,000





More than $200,000







A study conducted by Brenda Hannon, a psychology professor at Texas A&M University suggested that the differences in parental education could account for 14 percent to 34 percent of the SAT score differences among different ethnic groups.


Test-Prep Factors You Can Control


Regardless of their backgrounds, however, students shouldn’t assume that they will be stuck with a predetermined SAT score.


Here is a rundown of some factors that teenagers can control when aiming for the highest SAT score possible:


Control Your Stress


“Researchers have found that test anxiety is an independent predictor of SAT performance,” said Jed Applerouth, founder of Applerouth, a test-prep firm headquartered in Georgia. “Students with a greater degree of test anxiety have diminished SAT performance.”


Stress can represent a major reason why girls — who consistently outscore boys with their grade point averages in high school and college — underperform boys on the math portion of the SAT. Applerouth, who co-wrote a paper published in the journal College and University this year, reached that conclusion after reviewing a significant body of research on gender and the SAT and ACT and, in particular, the math section.


Hannon’s research suggested that higher test anxiety, as well as a greater reluctance among girls to guess on the SAT, accounted for all significant gender differences on the test. Girls were more likely to avoid guessing when they didn’t know an answer. This behavior is less likely to be an issue since the SAT no longer imposes a guessing penalty. Students can still use a smart guessing strategy that eliminates one or more wrong answers before guessing to improve their test scores.


It’s obviously important to address a child’s anxieties long before they head off to take the test. Taking practice tests can help reduce test anxiety by increasing familiarity with the test format.


Understand the Most Effective Resources


After reviewing the literature on standardized testing, Applerouth and co-author Karen Zabrucky, a professor at Georgia State University, noted that the different types of SAT preparation vary in effectiveness.  Numerous researchers have concluded that individual and small-group instruction is more effective than classroom instruction. These settings allow for more feedback and questions.


However teenagers prepare for the SAT, they should take full advantage of the opportunity.  That’s why a child’s motivation in studying for this high-stakes test is so crucial.


Don’t Procrastinate


Research suggests that cramming for the SAT is a bad idea. A study conducted by Audrey Devine-Eller, a professor at Grinnell College, suggested that teenagers who postpone studying for the SAT until their senior year in high school will not do as well as students who start studying earlier. Another study that Applerouth conducted with Zabrucky in 2015 observed that beginning preparation in the junior year in high school had a positive impact on SAT scores.


Take Practice Tests


Not surprisingly, research shows that teenagers will benefit from taking practice tests.


“Retrieving information during a test acts as a powerful memory enhancer, strengthening the memory of learned material for future retrieval events,” Applerouth said.


“Taking full-length practice SATs helps students assimilate strategies, improve mental endurance, enhance familiarity with the material and gain confidence.”


Applerouth said his 2015 research found that students preparing for the SAT improved their score by an average or 22.62 points for every official SAT they took.


Two years ago, the College Board determined that almost two-thirds (64 percent) of a sample of 150,377 test takers earned their highest SAT score on their last try.


Be Smart About Retaking the SAT


One way to reduce your anxiety about the testing is to know when it’s time to stop.


It’s not surprising when parents and teenager argue about retaking the SAT or ACT. There is a way, however, to end the argument. Consult a college’s net price calculator.


A net price calculator is designed to estimate what a college will cost your child after any scholarships and/or grants from federal and state governments, as well as the college itself is deducted. If it’s a good calculator and the university offers merit awards, the tool will ask for your child’s grade point average and ACT/SAT scores.


You can determine if a higher test score would improve an award by first running the calculator using your child’s actual test scores and then trying it again using better hypothetical scores. If the award the second time is higher, the case for your child to take the test again is much stronger. 


You also can use the Cappex What Are My Chances tool to evaluate the impact of higher test scores on the odds of admissions.


Find an Ideal Testing Location


Taking the SAT can be stressful enough without having to deal with a noisy, uncomfortable room. Debbie Stier, the author of The Perfect Score Project and the creator of a website with the same name, suggests that you take the SAT at a location where you will be sitting in a classroom rather than a gym or cafeteria. The College Board only requires that desks have a writing surface of 12 by 15 inches, but it’s preferable to have a larger writing surface. Bring your own watch and sit in the front row to minimize visual distractions.


Lynn O’Shaughnessy is a best-selling author, speaker and journalist. Her book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, is available on

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