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Executive Functioning Skills for the SAT and ACT

Time to begin studying for those horrors of horrors, the SAT and ACT? What now? Grind through practice tests? Read your Algebra 2 textbook? Do nothing and take the tests blind? None of the above! 

In my previous post, I discussed executive function skills and how to apply those skills to become a master baker. Now, it’s time to take those skills we’ve mastered and apply them to something even more fun: SAT and ACT preparation! 

Before diving in, there is one point that is critical: studying for these tests is a marathon, not a sprint. Most students initially study for these tests as they would a math test: wait until the last minute and cram as much information as possible into their brains. That will simply not make a difference on the SAT and ACT, which test multiple years’ worth of material. Having a targeted study plan and weeks, if not months, of consistent studying is critical, and that’s where executive functioning skills come into play!

Step #1: Take the SAT (PSAT scores will also work) and ACT diagnostic tests. (Sign up for a free ESM SAT or ACT diagnostic here!) After that, you’ll need to decide which test is better for you: see the ESM website for the SAT and the ACT to learn the basics and then discuss with an ESM mentor. 

Step #2: Identify your key weaknesses based on your diagnostic test. Here are a few of the most common weaknesses to be on the lookout for: knowledge of grammar and math concepts, timing issues, test anxiety, tendency to make small mistakes, and general reading comprehension. 

Step #3: Create a targeted study plan dedicated to correcting those weaknesses. The most common mistake made here is attempting to work on all areas at once: instead, prioritize the sections that will lead to the quickest and highest score improvement. For instance, the grammar/writing section (“English” on ACT and “Writing & Language” on SAT) is almost always the best place for students to start, as the grammar rules are easy to learn relatively quickly. Once those are mastered, then you can move on to the more difficult areas.

Step #4: WOOP! Now that we’ve created an amazing study plan, let’s take it through the WOOP process to get it successfully implemented:

Wish: We want a “SMART” goal: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-Bound. Here’s one example: Improve my overall ACT score from 20 to 23 in two months on the February 2021 ACT. Be specific. You also need to think about what your “end goal” is; if you’re not sure how to do that, start with perfecting your list of desired colleges, then find out what accepted students from previous years scored. Your goal is to score at least the median score or greater. 

Outcome: This seems obvious: get into your schools, of course! But the key to this step is to properly “visualize” the outcome. Pick your favorite school, go to the school’s website (Ideally, visit the school), immerse yourself in the school’s atmosphere, and imagine what it would be like to attend that school. This step is key for getting out of the inevitable motivation rut. Visualize!

Obstacles: Where to even begin? School work, sports, video games, annoying family members, social life, sleep: the list could go on indefinitely. Narrow down your list to the top 2 - 3 and plan around those as best as you can. Finals coming up? That means you’ll probably have less time to dedicate to SAT/ACT prep, and so you’ll need to plan around that by either studying more before or after. The key is to plan!

Plan: Time to discuss logistics! First, obtain your study resources: practice tests, study books, Khan Academy, ESM curriculum. Next, set more specific “lower-level” SMART goals: “I will read 2 chapters of my ACT grammar book a day, and complete two practice sets, for two weeks”. Rinse and repeat: practice and repetition are key. Keep in mind the rule of 60, and don’t hesitate to be flexible with your plan if something isn’t working. 

Time to get to work! Once you’ve gotten through your initial phase, it’ll be time to take another practice test as an “interim” test to evaluate your progress thus far. Make sure to specifically look at the goals you’ve set and make sure they’ve been met. If they have, set new ones! If not, evaluate your plan, identify the issue, correct it, and try again. Remember the marathon analogy:  improvement comes over months, not weeks. You will inevitably hit a “wall”: push through it, and you will achieve your goals!