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When Should I Start Studying for the ACT or SAT?

ESM's Adam Allouche, Director of Standardized Testing

One of the most common questions I receive from parents is “when should my son or daughter begin studying for the ACT or SAT?” While there is no definitive answer to this question, my response is usually “the earlier the better.”

Developing standardized testing skills is important for students of all ages, and developing them earlier in their academic careers can not only help maximize success and minimize stress come junior year, but also improve student performance on tests in high school (especially math).  Below are a couple of suggestions on how to begin to prepare younger students for the rigors of the ACT and SAT.  

1. Surprise! It’s reading!

That’s right, add me to the long list of people telling students to read. Reading is the single most important skill that they can improve upon to prepare for standardized tests. For younger students, reading can greatly improve both comprehension and grammar knowledge without them even knowing it. Students that read more will develop a greater ability to find the main idea in reading passages, and will get used to varied and complex sentence structures that are used in grammar passages on both the ACT and SAT. Their ability to intuitively determine whether a sentence “sounds right” grammatically or what needs to be changed to make it grammatically correct will innately improve just by reading!

My Recommendation: Students should read at least one newspaper or scholarly magazine article a day, and should not read about articles in the same field of study on back to back days.  Opinion / editorial pieces are great resources, as they will usually have clear main ideas that the author tries to support. These are the types of passages that will be prominently used in standardized tests (in addition to prose, which students get enough of in English class).  

2.  Algebra is King

One of the biggest misconceptions about the ACT and SAT is that the math sections test advanced material that is hard for students to understand. The reality is that more than 90% of the questions on both tests cover material from Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II, courses that the average high school student will have finished by the end of junior year.  For more advanced students, preparing for the ACT and SAT is more a review of concepts they learned in class two or three years ago than a furthering of what they are currently learning in their Pre-Calculus or Calculus class.

My Recommendation: Implement thirty minutes a week of ACT and SAT practice into a student’s study schedule once they begin to take Algebra I. The earlier students know how concepts they are learning are presented on each of these tests, the better. All ESM mentors are well-versed in both tests, and can help to develop weekly test prep exercises for students based on what they have learned in their math classes. This weekly practice will help keep older concepts fresh in their minds and force students to use different mathematical concepts in one sitting, an ability that is vital to student success on both the ACT and SAT.