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If you feel stuck with your SAT or ACT test prep, you may feel like swinging over to the other test. However, since the current versions of both tests are more similar than ever, consider these recommendations to improve your mindset and study techniques before making a switch.

[4 minute read]

You can reach new heights in your SAT or ACT test performance by strengthening your core strategies!

Climbing to improve your SAT and ACT scores

Here’s the common question we hear when a student—and parents—are feeling stuck:

Q: My son has taken the SAT three times and hasn’t increased his scores more than 20 points over the last two test dates.  Should he switch to the ACT to see if he fares any better?  Or should he prepare differently for the SAT before taking it again?

A: This may feel tough, but your son can make gains with course adjustments in his SAT prep. If his SAT score isn’t improving, switching to the ACT (very similar since 2016) won’t necessarily help much. The ACT differs mainly in that there is less time per question, covers some more advanced math topics like trigonometry and logarithms, and has an argumentative essay versus the SAT’s analysis essay. When we see students struggle with their pacing in the SAT, they often find the ACT timing to be even more challenging. 

To improve his SAT scores, your son will benefit greatly from establishing and using a clear roadmap forward. In this guide, he will find some of the best free and paid SAT resources, books, and tips for SAT prep. This guide also provides an overview of the ACT.

To achieve his goal score, a student must establish a mindset of success. The first step is to write down specific goals in SMART goal format, the framework we’ve adapted to guide our students to visualize what they will achieve. To write specific score numbers, your son can research the median or average SAT and ACT scores for his schools of interest. Then, he needs to set a goal to attain at least that score—or higher—by a certain date. We recommend he start small and study for 30 minutes each day. Small and manageable amounts are easier and more effective than cramming. Over time, he can build up to more and more study time in one block. He should not study for more than 60 minutes and definitely take five minute breaks away from his study area between sessions.

Accountability will greatly help your son stay on task. Our tutors act as accountability partners as well as coaches and supportive mentors. Additionally, your son can think of a reward for himself upon reaching goals to reinforce the positive feelings of achievement. A reward might be going to the movies with friends or even 30 minutes of screen time watching videos—as long as the reward doesn’t become a distraction in itself!

SAT and ACT score improvement doesn’t come overnight. Estimates vary, but to get a 150-point improvement in his SAT score, we recommend that students study at least 40 hours on their own. Your son should study more frequently and in smaller doses rather than in large, infrequent blocks of time. Also, we advise he focus on his areas of strength to gain a confidence boost and immediate accuracy gains before spending time on the topics he finds more challenging. He can take a proctored, official practice test with us (or at a local library) and meet with us to analyze his benchmark scores. By comparing complete test scores using the official SAT-to-ACT concordance tables, he can determine if he is indeed scoring higher  

Several essential, yet inexpensive tools, such as a calendar and a water bottle to stay hydrated while on-the-go, will help your son improve. Additionally, he can use highly effective study strategies like dividing his studying between subjects and answering “Why do I want to improve my skills?” to boost his efficiency. Key factors like noise, lighting, music and distractions all have significant effects on his environment of studying, so make sure he chooses the right place.  All these recommendations are really about choice management!

Your son will also want to avoid several bad study habits that undermine productivity. For example, the sleep loss from cramming erases the benefit of the studying done while cramming, so it’s a bad idea. Also, excessive caffeine will make your son’s productivity extremely variable, and may contribute to anxiety. Sugary foods and drinks sabotage learning and memory, so replace them with a protein and complex carbohydrate-rich diet. These foods—and water—feed a growing brain and regulate neurotransmitters much better.

Several practices outside of studying will make your son’s study time even more efficient. Exercise will fight depression and anxiety, stimulate the hippocampus for faster learning, build up the immune system so he doesn’t get sick, grow new brain cells, and improve creativity. Meditation also offers well-researched benefits such as growth in the brain areas responsible for regulating worry and anxiety, as well as supporting a strong immune system.

Be sure to remember that SAT and ACT prep is a process and a journey over many months, as we’ve seen with most of our students. The quest of a thousand miles is achieved through many small steps. Switching from one standardized test to another won’t necessarily provide a significant score boost; the only way to achieve that is through consistent, focused practice following a good plan. We wish you and your child all the best on this quest for excellence!