A high scorer’s burden: how to improve your SAT/ACT score from the 90th to 99th percentile

So you’re already a high scorer. Perhaps you took a prep class or two. You read those prep books your parents put in front of you, and you studied your way to the 90+ percentile. Or maybe you got there on luck; you waltzed in and took that diagnostic test cold, surprising even yourself with how well you did. Nice work! Now you have an enviable problem—one that, unless you like the taste of someone else’s spit in your tuna salad, you can’t really complain about at lunch to your lower-scoring friends.

How do you go from ~30 to 36 on the ACT, or from ~1400 to 1600 on the SAT?

It’s not about quantity; it’s about quality…and quantity.

To get that high score higher, you have to know more than just grammar rules and math formulas. You have to really know the test—not just its basic content and pacing (though that’s, of course, important), but also the subtleties: the patterns to how it convolutedly phrases trick questions, the rare concepts it only tests once out of every three administrations, the mistakes it tempts even high scorers to make. This means you should practice from and analyze official tests. A lot of official tests. But keep in mind the following important caveats:

1. Don’t rush through the available tests.

The number of released official tests is limited, but not that limited. The ACT releases a 3 to 4 official tests every year. Although its content has changed slightly over time, even tests from twenty years ago look remarkably similar to today’s ACT. If you're prepping for the SAT, things are a bit more complicated. For the digital SAT that students outside the US take, practice tests are very limited—there are just four in total. (If you're prepping for the digital SAT, click here for more specific advice.) For the paper-based SAT, which US students can still take through the end of 2023, there are fewer available tests than there are for the ACT—the College Board has released (approximately) 2 to 4 official tests each year since the test was redesigned back in 2016—but there are still more available practice tests than most students should need. But there are only enough practice tests if you use each test effectively.

If you take even a cursory look at a test prep message board, you’ll find a panicked student who’s run out of practice tests—let’s call that student Tantalus. Tantalus posts thread after thread with titles that contain an ever-increasing number of panicky exclamation points and erratically capitalized letters (“I’ve run out of OFFICIAL tests! HelP!” and “I’ve done two-dozen practice tests and HAVEN’T improved! Now what!?”). Tantalus’ problem isn’t really that they’ve run out of tests, or that they’ve taken too many. Their problem is they rushed through the tests, only trying to finish as many as possible, not pausing for thoughtful analysis and review of their results. Especially if a student has only been prepping for a few short months, running out of practice tests is a side-effect of inefficient study habits. Don’t be like Tantalus. Before you charge head-on into your next practice test, read through our tips for smarter study habits and practice test do’s and don’ts.

2. Review tests after you’ve taken them.

After you’ve taken a test, aim to get between five and ten minutes of review out of each question you missed or had trouble solving. That means it’s not enough to just review the question until you know how to solve it. You should also identify the source(s) of your initial error(s), and outline concrete steps to avoid similar mistakes in the future. Even after you’ve found one way to solve a question you missed, look for alternative solving strategies. For instance, consider the following question:

a high scorers burden sample problem

You might think to factor the quadratic to identify its roots, or you might apply the quadratic formula and sum the results. While it’s useful to know those approaches, a savvy and experienced test-taker might see a third way to answer this relatively common SAT question type. When a quadratic is written in standard ax2+bx+c form, you can solve directly for the sum of its roots by calculating -b/a, thus eliminating several unneeded steps and arriving at the correct answer, .25, in a single move. Fewer steps mean fewer places you might make a careless error.

Create flashcards or a well-organized spreadsheet to record your analysis of past misses for future review. A tutor can help you identify these sorts of faster, more error-proof approaches to questions. They’ll also teach you how to organize and study your analysis of past misses.

To start working with an expert SAT/ACT tutor who specializes in high scorers, reach out to us here.

3. Then retake old tests.

A few weeks after taking a practice test, return to the questions you missed and passages you had trouble understanding. Redo them. If you still have trouble solving them, review the underlying concepts and solving strategies, then wait a few weeks. Then redo them again. The “standardized” in “standardized test” means predictable. The SAT and ACT are both highly predictable tests, such that nearly every question and concept you’ll see on the day of your actual test has shown up on the test before, just in a slightly different form or with slightly different givens. If you master previous tests, there won’t be any surprises when you take the real thing.

Don't shrug off careless errors.

This is important enough to merit its own section heading. As you review questions you missed, don’t dismiss the source of error as just careless. Both the SAT and ACT are designed to trick you into making small calculation errors, misreading a crucial detail, or solving for x when you’ve been asked for x+2. It’s tempting to shrug off these sorts of mistakes as random aberrations, to say you were “tired” or that you’ll be better focused when it’s the real test and the results “really matter.” But, in truth, if you make this sort of error once, you will probably make it again.

Instead of brushing these errors off, make concrete changes to your approach. Simply saying “I have to be more careful” or “I need to read it better” isn’t concrete. Instead, ask and answer the following:

  • “Is there some given within the question that I could annotate more consistently?”
  • “Does the question have some feature (e.g. variables in the answers) that I should routinely look for to spot opportunities to use solving tricks?”
  • “How could I have double-checked my work to catch the error?”

The difference between a student who scores in the 90th percentile and one who scores in the 99th isn’t necessarily that the higher scorer makes fewer mistakes. Instead the student who scores that 1600 or that 36 walks into the test aware of their own weaknesses as a test taker. They expect to make certain errors. Because of this self-awareness, the high scorer knows when they need to be more skeptical of an easy answer, more thoroughly annotate, or use a solving trick to double-check their work.

Avoid burn-out.

As important as it is to practice (and practice and practice), it’s just as important to know when to stop. As we’ve written in another, related post—it may be clichéd, but it’s true; test prep is a marathon, not a sprint. While it’s good to have ambitious goals, avoid making a study schedule that’s so ambitious it will either burn you out or be so daunting that you give up before you start. Do aspire, but (to turn another cliché) keep your appetite no bigger than your stomach. Plan breaks in your schedule, and set aside time to de-stress and relax.

Need more individualized advice?

The recommendations above are general suggestions. If you have specific questions, reach out to our experts here. We’re happy to help in any way we can.


About ArborBridge

ArborBridge is the global leader in innovative, digital, one-on-one tutoring. With nearly a decade of experience teaching students online, ArborBridge supports students of all kinds: home schoolers, AP students, test preppers, and more. Our tutors specialize in creating personalized plans and in providing compassionate support for students and families.

Jordan Browne

About Jordan Browne

In addition to graduating summa cum laude from Emerson College and holding an M.F.A. from Columbia University, Jordan was a Fulbright scholar to Montenegro, where he taught seven courses for the University of Montenegro. Along with teaching writing, rhetoric, and literature at the college level, Jordan has taught test prep for several years in New York public schools and across three continents. Ever since he was young, he’s been the weird one who actually enjoys standardized tests, and, for several years now, he’s taught students of every skill level and background how to like them too—or, at least, how to get the scores they need.

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