Sometimes your test score reflects more than just what you know about the material.  Knowing how to take the test, and how to prepare, can be just as important. If you’re planning to take (or re-take) a standardized test, you’ll find this guide extra helpful.

Know your strengths

It is important to know what types of questions you can rock and what type of questions rock you. By this, I do not mean “math questions” versus “reading questions.”  Are you better at questions that require inferences? Or, are literal questions easier? Problem solving math questions or equation based math? Vocabulary in the text or random definitions?  As you take practice tests, look to see if there is a question type that you consistently rock or consistently miss.  Keep in mind, question types can go across subject matter. Look at the deeper similarities and differences in questions. Pro tip: The question word can often be a clue. Do you miss more questions that start with “How” than “What”?  Use those clues to determine your strengths and weaknesses in question types.

Key takeaway: figure out what kinds of questions are easiest for you.

Play the odds

Once you know your strengths, you can play the odds. Whatever question type you are stronger with, focus on those questions first. This is most important when you can answer questions in any order. Since timing is everything, you can play the odds to your advantage.

It is better to spend more time on questions that you are most likely to get right. Take two minutes to rock that inference question than five minutes furiously hunting for that literal question you are weakest at. Leave answering your weakest questions until the end -- even if it ends up being a guess (but don’t guess on the SAT!), those questions would be ones where you would probably end up guessing on anyways.

Key takeaway: answer the kinds of questions you’re good at first.

Remember: timing is everything

The SAT and ACT are timed precisely to make it difficult. Be careful what you spend precious minutes on. While there are some questions that take more time to answer, there are also easy questions that are designed to take 30 seconds or less. Try to identify the short, easy ones right away and secure those points.

Before you start any section, skim the test. Any questions you can answer right off the bat without much hassle, do those first. These questions should be your strength questions. Then, start working through. Skip questions that hold you up. More than likely, there are a few time wasting questions designed to take precious minutes away, but they are worth the same points as a thirty second question. At the end, work through those time-wasting questions that you are weaker on. If you don’t get to all of them, that’s ok. It is better to get many easy points than just a few hard ones.

Key takeaway: answer easy questions first and come back for the tough ones.

Test reading is different

Tests typically don’t care about your opinions on a text. They want to know if you understand what it means. So, read with a purpose: read the questions first. See if you can answer any vocabulary questions without even reading them. Quickly label the reading questions on the question type -- vocabulary, literal, inference, etc. This will help you figure out what to use to find the answer.

After you know the questions,  read to answer them. These passages are not great works of literary brilliance, they’re passages selected so you can answer specific questions. If a question tells you that an answer or quotation is found on a certain line, circle the line. As you read, pause and answer the questions when you find the answers. Typically, there will be one or two inference questions about the main point of the passage or what could come next. Be sure to keep those in mind as you read.

Key takeaway: Read the questions about the text before you read the text.

Don’t focus on score calculation

For those anxious folks out there, it can be easy to do the math and realize that you can only miss an average of so many questions per section to get the score you want. Do not do this. The tests are scored on a modified curve, so you cannot budget your “misses.” Know how the test is scored so you can strategize well, but do not get hung up on it.

For example, the ACT does not penalize you for guessing, but the SAT does. On the ACT, you either get a point for a correct answer or zero if it is wrong. For the SAT, you get a point if it is right, zero if it’s left blank or negative quarter point if you guess incorrectly. So, there are different strategies based on the scoring.

Mathematically, on the ACT, you should answer every single question, even if it is a random bubbling. Save a few minutes at the end to do this. In contrast, on the SAT, you should not do this. If you can narrow it down to two choices, then guess. If not, leave it blank. This is opposite what you’ve been taught on most tests, but it’s true for the SAT.

Key takeaway: how the test is scored only matters for your strategy.

Write for an educated idiot

On the writing portion, assume that your reader is educated and can understand big words, but he or she is an idiot on the particular topic. Explain your reasoning, use specific details. Do not assume that your reader can make a logical leap like you can. That said, your reader is not a five year old. Use a reasonably complex argument and words you normally would. If you are not sure what a word means, do not use it. Your reader most likely knows what it actually means and will know if it’s wrong.

In your essay, take time to do these things:

  1. Outline your argument beforehand

  2. Create a clear thesis -- your reader knows to look for it

  3. Answer the question asked, not what you want to write about it

  4. Acknowledge the other side of the argument, then discredit it or show why it’s not convincing

  5. If they ask for specifics, give a specific quotation or example

  6. Edit your essay at the end to make sure your grammar is correct and it makes sense.

Key takeaway: take your time and show off your skills on the essay.

Take a practice test … or two

As they say, practice makes perfect. The only way to determine what your strengths are is to take a test or two. While you can take tests divided up by section, it is worth it to practice taking a full length test at least once. Yes, it will take multiple hours. Yes, that’s not the ideal way to spend an evening or a Saturday, but it is really the only way to develop the test taking stamina you will need to complete the ACT or SAT successfully on the big day.

As you take the practice tests, highlight the questions you guessed on so you know if you got it right (or wrong) on merit or luck. For the first practice test, try to answer everything and score yourself. Then, on another day, step back and analyze your results. What went wrong? What panicked you the most? Work on those things.

During your second practice test, try to take it for real. Skip the questions you would normally skip. Take the full time and see what happens as if it was real. See if there is any improvement on the areas your worked on. If there is, then do the same process again with a different area. If there isn’t, try to ask a teacher or a tutor for some detailed help on those questions types.

Key takeaway: practice, practice, practice.

Make sure you know the formula sheet

For the math questions, you will be able to use a formula sheet. This formula sheet varies by test, and it is an incredibly useful tool if used correctly. The formula sheet should encompass any formula dependent question. The test makers want to know if you can use the formula in the correct situation, not if you have them memorized. Use this to your advantage.

Do not spend any study time memorizing formulas. Instead, look at the formula sheet and work backwards. If they put the cos/tan/sin formulas on the sheet, then make sure you know when to use the different trigonometric functions. If they don’t, then don’t worry about it.  

Most importantly, make sure you know when to use the formulas on the formula sheet. Know how to use the conversions that they give you in a word problem. Know how to find the radius of a sphere in a geometry problem to find the overall volume. The formula sheet is a gift. Use it wisely.

Key takeaway: knowing when and how to use the formulas is the most important.

Study purposefully and not too much

There is no sense in pulling all-nighters to “study” for the ACT and SAT.  It is much better to spend smaller chunks of time studying smarter, not harder. Half of the battle is understanding the test format and familiarizing yourself with the lingo. Spend time practicing and overcoming test anxiety, not memorizing all possible test content.

Because both tests are written to be aptitude tests, they want to know how you can apply the skills and knowledge you have gained in the past eleven years of school to solve and answer their questions. There is room for some studying, like vocabulary, but to a certain extent, you have to trust yourself. Take the time to understand what your strengths and weaknesses are. Then, work on your weaknesses by using reputable test prep resources.

Key takeaway: there’s no such thing as “cramming” for standardized tests, so don’t try it.

Take the right test

There is a reason that there are two tests. The ACT and SAT are not the same; they emphasize different skills and different subjects. Look at sites like Princeton Review that compare the two tests. Choose the test that makes the most sense for your strengths. Many people believe that because they are strong in science, the ACT is better, but the ACT science section is reading-dominant. These are important facts to know when you are deciding which test to take. If you can absolutely not leave any test question blank, then take the ACT. If you can play the odds and not worry yourself too much, then take the SAT. Colleges now accept both of the tests equally, so make sure to use this to your advantage.

Key takeaway: if you can only take one, take the test that emphasizes your strengths.

Register in advance

Plan to take the test long before the last minute. The ACT and SAT are only offered in intervals, so you cannot register for them at the last minute. At the beginning of your junior year, you should look up the calendar of exams and plan to take these tests with enough cushion to retake them if you need. After all, you will be applying to colleges during the first semester of senior year, so waiting until December of your senior year for retakes could be too late. There are also fee waivers for standardized tests, so consult your guidance counselor. Finally, if you have an extra $50-100, you can buy your test. This means that you will get, along with your score, a copy of your answer sheet and test booklet. With this in hand, you can better prepare for the next time you take the ACT or SAT. This data will allow you to narrow down your strengths and weaknesses in real test taking conditions. It may be worth spending the extra money to learn more about your test taking abilities.

Key takeaway: don't wait until the last minute to take the test.

All of this said, the most important thing to remember is that you are #flawless. You will get through this test. It is not you. You are more than a scantron full of answers. If you're still feeling nervous, remember not to let testing anxiety hurt your scores.

Authored by Kate Hunger

Kate helps students find their best fit school. She writes about the essential, surprising, and sometimes funny questions everyone has while applying to college.