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Guest post from Rachel Kapelke-Dale - test prep expert at Magoosh

classroom.jpgIf you're hoping to improve your ACT or SAT score, you're probably in one of two situations. You might have taken a practice test recently and been underwhelmed by your results. On the other hand, maybe you've taken the official test want to get a higher score on a retake (which is totally normal—in fact, most students will do better by taking the ACT twice). In either case, keep in mind five tips as you study to get your score as high as possible.

1. Strike a Balance.

It's really easy to fall into the trap of taking practice tests, doing practice problems, and forgetting the third pillar of ACT prep: lessons. While it's absolutely crucial to take plenty of practice tests and do plenty of problem sets (as we'll see in a minute), unless you're also reviewing lessons that concern the questions you're missing, your progress will be a lot slower. Returning to a solid ACT study guide throughout your practice—not just at the beginning—is necessary for true improvement.

This is true of the SAT, as well. Practice is absolutely vital, but unless you keep working on your mastery of concepts, you won’t see big improvements in your scores. Look over your practice tests regularly and identify which specific areas of either the SAT or the ACT are causing you to get lower scores than you’d like, and ask your teachers in related fields (English, Math, Science) to explain specific concepts to you if you’re still stuck after consulting a study guide.

2. Analyze.

Of course, taking a full-length ACT practice test regularly is also important—but not always for the reasons that you think. ACT practice tests are key to seeing where you are and how close you are to your goal, sure. But they can only tell you that if you make sure that you're taking the exams under test-like conditions. (Why do you think the PreACT isn't offered as a take-home test?) That means: all sections in a row, with the two mandatory breaks (after math and science), timing yourself (and no returning to sections once time's up).

Similarly, if you’re taking the SAT, realize that the same principle applies. Because of this, if you’re taking both tests, it can take a long time to do enough practice tests to make significant progress. It’s better to narrow down your options; talk to your guidance counselor or a wise teacher about which test might be better for you.

3. Track.

If you just take that practice test, look at your score, and toss it aside (hey, we're all human!), you're only getting 10% of the benefit of ACT or SAT practice tests. Max. Here's what you should be doing instead: take the exam. Grade the exam. Go to the test booklet with a notebook and copy down all the questions you answered incorrectly on the left side of the notebook. Copy down the answers and explanations, making sure you understand them, on the right side of the notebook. Congratulations! You've just made an error log.

This is an excellent resource when you’re asking teachers for help, as well. If they can see exactly what you did wrong when answering a problem, they’ll be better able to explain exactly what concept or concepts are tripping you up on particular question sets.

Date your entries, because you will need them later in the process.

4. Review.

Making the error log is a huge step in the right direction. Keep adding to it during your practice sets as well as your tests, and you're creating your very own ACT or SAT study guide. Review your error log periodically (once a week is good), re-doing the questions that you missed and comparing your work to the explanations you've copied out. Here, it's key that you understand how to answer the questions correctly—after all, on test day, it won't matter (at all!) that you know the answer to problem 20 on your second practice test is B. But it will matter that you know how to use special right triangle properties to find angle measurements!

5. Repeat.

At the end of the day, the ideal study schedule looks something like this:

  • Take a diagnostic test.
  • Read a good study guide.
  • Practice problems in your lower-scoring areas.
  • Take another practice test.
  • Create an error log.
  • Review lessons according to your error log.
  • Practice problems in these lower-scoring areas.

Keep in mind that you are not alone during this process, either! Your school counselor and teachers are great resources to turn to for extra help as you study for the ACT and the SAT. Denise Noffze offers several practice test opportunities through the year. Not only do they have expertise in their fields, but in many cases, they’ve seen students through at least several, if not dozens, of admissions cycles and know a lot about how the tests work! If you get stuck at any point in the above process, don’t forget that they’re there for you.

At the end of the day, the above process may not be the most glamorous formula for college-admissions-test prep, and it definitely won't boost your score 20 points overnight—but it is a tried and true method of getting your score up as high as possible in a way that's tailored exactly to your needs.

Author Bio: Rachel Kapelke-Dale is a test prep expert at Magoosh. She has a Bachelor of Arts from Brown University, an MA from the Université de Paris VII, and a PhD from University College London. She has taught test preparation and consulted on admissions practices for over eight years. Find other resources from Magoosh such as an ACT Study Guide, an ACT Practice Test, and a Complete Guide to the PreACT. 

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