Prepare for the SAT and ACT by studying smarter, not harder

Taking practice tests is undoubtedly a vital part of preparing for the SAT and ACT. So, more must be better, right? Not necessarily. Practice is important, but in order to be effective, your practice must be directed. Simply completing SAT after SAT is usually not helpful and may even hurt your preparation process. Here’s why.

  • You need to analyze your results. Students who don’t take the time to consider the mistakes they made in prior exams and study the concepts that they don’t understand are not likely to see significant improvements in between tests. They tend to continue to make the same mistakes on every exam.
  • The number of real tests is limited. Taking your practice tests too close together at the beginning of your preparation process is kind of like replacing your three daily meals with one big breakfast: you’re likely to be very hungry by the end of the day. There are a limited number of released official SAT and ACT exams, and if you burn through the material too quickly, you may be vainly hunting for practice tests later.
  • You may experience burnout. This is especially true if your plan is to take a large number of tests in the week or two before the real exam. Standardized tests are long and require intense concentration. On test day, you want to feel fresh and alert, not physically exhausted and mentally drained. Plan to take your final full practice test one or two weeks before the date of your actual test.

How to work smarter, not harder

You should absolutely, however, complete full practice tests as part of your preparation process. At a minimum, plan to take a practice test every few weeksbut no more than once every other week. For most students, this will come out to about four or five full exams before your actual SAT or ACT. The key is to practice with a purpose, rather than merely to cover material. Here are four steps to follow after each practice exam so that your preparation is purposeful and directed.

  1. Review your mistakes. Look at each question that you missed, and try to solve it now that you have a little more time. If you can’t solve it, make a note so that you can study the concept that it tests and return to the question later.
  2. Analyze your errors. Consider why you answered each question incorrectly. Did you actually mean to choose the correct answer but accidentally mis-bubble? Did you run out of time? Did you misread the question? Or did the question perhaps test a concept that you haven’t yet learned? Discovering why you’re missing questions can help you avoid making careless errors going forward and figure out what to focus on next.
  3. Identify troublesome topics. Look for patterns in the types of questions you’re missing. Are you consistently struggling with quadratics? Do most of your grammar errors involve punctuation? Are you missing the majority of your reading questions in the fiction passage? Make a list of the topics that are giving you the most trouble.
  4. Study and practice. Whether you’re working with a tutor or studying on your own, spend some time covering lessons and drills that specifically relate to the topics on your list. Complete a timed test section after each new lesson so that you can also practice the concept as it will appear in an exam. When you complete individual sections, time yourself carefully, and be sure to complete the entire section in one sitting.

If you’re working with a tutor, your tutor will guide you through these steps. Once you’ve completed the process above, you’re ready to take your next practice test!

Taking practice exams

Maximize the impact of your practice tests by mimicking real test conditions as closely as possible. This involves:

  • taking the test in one sitting. Don’t do one section in the morning and another in the afternoon or on a different day.
  • sticking to the allotted time. While it may be tempting to give yourself an extra three or four minutes, you won’t have that option on the real exam, and you want to get used to working under the pressure of the clock.
  • not eating or drinking during the test. Remember, on test day, you will only be able to snack during the breaks.

Check out our other practice test do's and don'ts here. 

If you carefully follow the plan outlined above, you’ll be working smarter, not harder and should soon see your scores begin to increase.

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.

Lisa Mayo

About Lisa Mayo

Lisa is an authority in the test prep field, with more than 17 years of experience teaching students how to succeed on college admissions exams. Lisa has tutored students preparing for SAT, ACT, PSAT, ISEE, SSAT, GMAT, TOEFL, GRE, LSAT, and AP exams. Her students have attended some of the most prestigious schools in the U.S., including the Ivy League schools. Lisa has also contributed to numerous published works on standardized test preparation.

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